Who qualified for poor relief?
Normally people receiving poor relief were unable to support themselves,
either through age or incapacity. They included orphans, the sick
or disabled and the insane. The 'sturdy beggar' or the able-bodied
poor, were not generally entitled to support and were indeed legislated
against, although in practice many did receive some degree of assistance.
Poor relief before 1845
The first acts of parliament to deal with the relief of the poor were
passed in 1424. Most of these and subsequent acts in the 15th and
16th centuries were aimed at dealing with the problem of 'sturdy beggars'.
Few records detailing individuals survive from this period. After
the Reformation the responsibility for the poor fell on the parish,
jointly through the heritors (local landowners) (NAS ref. HR) and
the kirk sessions (NAS ref. CH2). The heritors often made voluntary
contributions to the poor fund in preference to being assessed (a
tax on the owners of land or property). The kirk sessions raised income
for the poor from fines, payments for carrying out marriages, baptisms
and funerals and church collections.
Lists of distributions to the poor in cash and in kind will appear
in records of the heritors and kirk sessions. Sometimes poor relief
records were kept in a separate volume for that particular parish.
In the majority of cases, however, you should look for minutes or
accounts and then simply trawl through the entries to see if there
are any relating to poor relief. Unfortunately there is usually
no quick way of searching through these records since poor relief
was almost always recorded in amongst all the other financial business
of the parish.
Poor relief after 1845
Following the Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act of 1845 parochial
boards were set up in each parish to administer poor relief. The type
of record you should look for changes gradually from those of the
heritors and kirk session to those of the parochial board and, after
1894, the parish council. It can still be worth checking the heritors'
and kirk session records for mentions of payments to paupers for up
to 40 years after the establishment of parochial boards.
The records of the parochial boards can sometimes be found in the
heritors' records, but more frequently they are found in the county,
district and burgh records. Each parochial board had to keep a roll
of the poor to whom it gave relief and these can contain a considerable
amount of detail about each pauper - name, age, country and place
of birth, marital status and details of spouse and children. The
records may also include applications for those who were not successful
in receiving relief. The NAS holds parochial board records for some
parishes in East Lothian (NAS ref. CO7/7, DC5/4-5 and DC7/4),
Midlothian (NAS ref. CO2/77-91) and Wigtownshire (NAS ref. CO4/30-47).
For information on records for all other areas of Scotland you should
contact the relevant local archive. A list of Scottish archives
is available on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website. The
SCAN website Knowledge Base also contains information on poor relief
Appeals made to the Sheriff Courts will be found among the ordinary
business of the court although a few sheriff courts also kept separate
Other useful sources
Where the parish system of providing poor relief was found to be inadequate,
private charities filled some of the gaps. The records of the following
institutions in the the NAS contain details of individuals:
- The King James VI Hospital, Perth (NAS ref. GD79), a very old
religious foundation though most of the papers naming individual
paupers date from the 18th and 19th centuries.
- The Dean Orphanage, Edinburgh (NAS ref. GD417) opened in 1733.
Some of the records are closed for 100 years.
- Dr Guthrie's Schools, Edinburgh (NAS ref. GD425), part of the
'ragged and industrial school' movement, opened in 1847. Some
of the records are closed for 100 years.
- George Heriot's School, Edinburgh (NAS ref. GD421) founded as
a charity school in 1659 for orphans or other poor children of
burgesses and freemen.
- Trinity House, Leith, founded for the relief of poor, aged and
infirm seafarers (NAS ref. GD226) includes lists of those receiving
pensions from the mid 17th century.
Many crafts and trades contributed to a fund to help poor, sick
or disabled members, or to pay for their funerals. Their minute
books include donations to poor members. For records in the NAS
check our guide to crafts
Destitution Boards were set up after 1846 to cope with the widespread
poverty in the Highlands following the failure of the potato crop.
Between 1847 and 1852 the boards distributed meal in return for
work for example men at roadbuilding or women at knitting. The registers
in the series of Highland Destitution papers (NAS ref. HD) record
names and sometimes ages of family members receiving help.
Two NAS publications also give additional information on sources for
the study of poor relief in Scotland:
your Scottish Ancestors' (Edinburgh 2003)
'Poor Relief in Scotland', 'History At Source' series, (1995).
The Scottish Records Association Journal 'Scottish Archives' volume
8 (2002), contains an article 'Records in The National Archives
of Scotland relating to Poor Relief' 1845-1930 by K M Forbes and
R H J Urquhart.
The National Archives of Scotland
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