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Thursday 31 July 2014
 
 
 

How to search for High Court criminal trials

The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) have catalogued and indexed all criminal trials held in the High Court of Justiciary between the years 1800-1994. High Court trials are heard before a judge sitting with a jury (15 persons) and are known as Solemn trials. The court sits permanently in Edinburgh and travels on circuit around Scotland. As Scotland's supreme criminal court, cases heard before the High Court tend to be for crimes such as murder, rape, treason and other serious offences. In the 19th century repeat offenders, or persons deemed criminals 'by habit and repute', could be tried there for lesser crimes such as theft, or housebreaking (burglary in England & Wales). During the first half of that century many convictions for such offences ended with a sentence of transportation. For more advice on this, go to our guide on crime and criminals.

Precis reading 'Verdict of Asyse ag[ains]t Mr Andrew Monroe' from High Court of Justiciary book of adjournal 1699-1706, NAS ref. JC3/1 p211

For the most serious criminal cases two groups of records usually survive. Firstly there are the precognitions, written reports of statements given by witnesses and frequently the accused, prepared by the Crown (as prosecutor) which are contained among the records of the Lord Advocate’s Department (NAS refs. AD14 and AD15). Secondly, there are the records of the High Court itself, the primary sources to consult being the minute books, which summarise trial proceedings, and the process or case papers (NAS ref. JC26). Cataloguing of the early 19th century case papers is not yet complete, but staff in the NAS are working to fill the gaps.

This extensive cataloguing work has now made it easy to search for the trials between the years 1800-1930 online. The trial records themselves can be viewed only by visiting the NAS Historical Search Room or West Search Room in Edinburgh.

Find out more about the content of trials in our guide to crime and criminals.

This guide tells you how to:

1. Search the online catalogue for

2. Make sense of the results

3. View the documents

4. Proceed if you don't find the trial you are looking for

Searching the online catalogue

You can search for the records of a trial in the NAS online catalogue, but before doing so you should read the guidance below.

Searching for criminals

When searching for an accused person, it is best to narrow your search to the relevant record group by typing 'AD14', 'AD15'or 'JC26' as a reference in the Reference field of the search page. For example, if you were looking for the trial of John Donaldson, you would enter 'John Donaldson' in the Any Text field, and 'AD14' for 19th century precognitions, 'AD15' for 20th century precognitions, or 'JC26' for the case papers in the Reference field. If the trial date is known, a year date in the Date field may also be added, as shown below:

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample search terms for a High Court criminal trial using the reference JC26



Searching for crimes

If you simply wish to search for a particular type of crime, then you would enter the term 'murder', 'theft' or 'housebreaking' in the Any Text field. Please note that terms such as 'burglary', 'manslaughter', 'assault and battery'or 'arson'will produce no results, as these are not recognised criminal forms of indictment under Scots Law. The Scottish equivalents are 'housebreaking', 'culpable homicide', 'assault to the injury of the person' and 'wilful fire-rising'. Find out the meaning of some Scots legal terms in our guide to legal terms and offences libelled.


Searching for victims

If you simply wish to search for a victim of crime, then you would search under the name of the victim as with the accused person search. Please note that information about victims remains incomplete, but staff in the NAS are working to fill the gaps.


Making sense of the results

A typical example of an online catalogue entry for a High Court criminal trial appears below.

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample results page for a High Court criminal trial using the reference JC26

When you click on the link called Details a more detailed description of the item will appear:

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample details of a High Court criminal trial using the reference JC26

Below is an explanation of each part of the catalogue entry.

CountryCode and RepCode
These are the identifying codes (ARCHON codes) for the National Archives of Scotland. They are not required when ordering documents.

RefNo

This is the reference number of a specific trial or Crown Office precognition to quote when you wish to see the papers in the NAS search rooms.

Title

This gives the name of the accused; the crime(s) with which they were charged; and the place of trial. The information has been obtained from the court minute books and case papers. Where a trial shifts to another court, the details will be recorded within the information about the accused.

Date

This is the date of first appearance of the accused at court. It may vary from the final sentencing date, particularly if the case lasted for several days, or was postponed to a later court sitting.

Accused

This contains details about the accused including forename; surname; alias; crime accused; place of crime (though not in every case); verdict, and any comments on the verdict; court sentence and term, e.g. Transportation – 10 years; previous convictions, where known; and any notes or interesting facts identified, either about the accused (the pannel) or the case, e.g. 'Pannel cannot write' or 'Speaks only Gaelic'.

Victim

This contains details about the victims of the crimes committed, but the information is far from complete and NAS staff are working to fill the gaps. For more serious offences such as murder or culpable homicide, victim details have been abstracted in most cases. For reasons relating to Data Protection or confidentiality, victim details have been deliberately excluded for cases less than 100 years old. The last trial date containing victim information is for the year 1905.

AccessStatus

The access status of the precognitions and trials to the year 1930 is 'open', which means that they are not affected by closure rules relating to Data Protection or confidentiality.

Related Record

This contains references to related record material such as precognitions (in the case of JC26 papers) or case papers (in the case of the precognitions). Precognition information gives much fuller personal information about the accused as shown in the equivalent AD14 entry for 'John Donaldson'. The information may vary depending on the detail given within the original record.

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample search terms for a High Court criminal trial using the reference AD14

Clicking on the 'Details' link will give you this page:

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample details of a High Court criminal trial using the reference AD14

FindingAids
A database, known as the Solemn Database, exists as a separate search tool in the West Search Room. All the data within it are included in the online catalogue on this website. For more information about images of trial documents linked to this database see the paragraph on Viewing the documents, which is below.


Viewing the documents

All AD14, AD15 precognitions and JC26 trial papers may be seen in the West Search Room.

Some trial minute books for the 19th century have been digitised, and these images may be seen without charge using our Solemn Database. The database permits structured searches to be undertaken using additional search terms, and provides a direct link to images of those volumes which have been digitised. They are linked to the Virtual Volumes resource in the West Search Room, but are not available online. For more information about the precognitions, trial papers and minute book images, and ordering copies contact the West Search Room. If you intend to visit in person, read advice about obtaining a reader's ticket and visiting the NAS search rooms.

If you don't find the trial you are looking for

Many precognitions and trial papers did not survive, therefore searching under the above parameters may fail to glean any results. This could be either because the papers have not survived, or the case papers (JC26) have yet to be catalogued or indexed. Years which are currently catalogued in full are 1800, 1833-37, 1840-1930.

However, all trials from 1800 have been indexed using the minute books. As part of a cross-check, it is therefore worthwhile searching under the name of the accused and the minute book series reference. The minute book series references are JC8, JC9, JC11, JC12 and JC13. Any trial, which has neither surviving precognition nor case papers will be linked to its relevant minute book entry to ensure that the details of the case are not lost to researchers. Search by entering the name of the accused in the 'Any Text' field, and the series reference of the minute book in the 'RefNo' field, e.g. 'JC8'.

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample details of a High Court criminal trial using a minute book reference such as JC8

Clicking on the 'Search' button should show this page:

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample results page for a High Court criminal trial using a minute book reference such as JC8

When you click on the 'Details' link for JC8/20 you will see this page:

Screenshot of the NAS catalogue showing sample details of a High Court criminal trial using a minute book reference such as JC8

Such searching will frequently identify individuals who 'Failed to appear for Assize', i.e. jurors who failed to attend for jury selection, and who were fined by the court for their non-attendance. Some Scots legal terms such as 'assize' are explained in our guide to legal terms and offences libelled.

If you still cannot find your trial, it may be that it was brought before an inferior court, in particular the sheriff courts, whose criminal records have not been catalogued in detail. For more advice on this go to our guide on crime and criminals.

 

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Crown Copyright 2006

 


  
 
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