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Monday 20 October 2014
 
 
 

Sheriff court records

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) receives regular deposits of records from the Scottish sheriff courts, the earliest of which is from Cupar Sheriff Court written in 1515.

Early development

The sheriff was a royal official appointed to help the king establish control in the localities. The first mention of a sheriff in Scotland occurs in the reign of David I (1124-53). Sheriffs performed a wide variety of duties, administrative, financial, military as well as judicial. Judicially, the sheriffs dealt with both civil and criminal cases and appeals as well as first-time cases. Unfortunately, the Crown's practice of appointing powerful barons to the office meant the barons used the office to profit themselves, not the king. Increasingly the office became hereditary. A further problem was the development of a competing system of courts, principally the courts of regality or 'little kingdoms' in which Scottish lords could try any crime except treason and in whose running the sheriffs played no part.
Image from a register of inventories amongst the records of Cupar Sheriff Court, NAS ref. SC20/50/58 p1.

The sixteenth century to the Act of Union

The period is characterised by the frustrated attempts of the Crown to remedy the abuses and inefficiencies of the sheriffs. An act of 1506 declared that the king had the power to create sheriffdoms as he saw fit. A further act of 1540 attempted with some success to professionalise the workings of the court by ordering that the sheriffs follow the procedure of the Court of Session. In 1587 and intermittently throughout the following century, the Crown tried to use justices of the peace to bring law and order to the localities. Unfortunately, the relative weakness of the Crown in Scotland allied to the intense conservatism of the Scottish legal system meant that most of these reforms lacked teeth. The granting of heritable sheriffdoms actually increased during the reign of Charles II (1660-85) in gratitude for his restoration to the throne.

The Act of Union to 1975

By 1700 sheriffs heard most of the civil and criminal cases in Scotland, yet 21 out of 33 sheriffdoms were held on a hereditary basis. The government lacked the will to intervene until the Jacobite rising of 1745-6, which prompted it, from 1748, to abolish most hereditary offices and heritable (i.e. non-royal) jurisdictions. Salaried sheriff deputes who were qualified advocates (i.e. members of the Scottish Bar) were now placed in charge of sheriff courts, aided by their own deputies, the sheriffs-substitute. Neither office was new but they came to form the backbone of the county judicial system. Although the criminal powers of sheriffs were reduced during the nineteenth century, particularly in some types of capital cases, the growth of the Scottish population, allied to growing pressures on the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court, led to new legal and administrative responsibilities being given to sheriffs. Jurisdiction in small debt cases, testamentary matters, maritime cases and bankruptcies were all added to the sheriffs' workload during the nineteenth century. The deputes and substitutes were the forerunners of the modern sheriffs and sheriffs principal who currently preside over 6 sheriffdoms and 49 sheriff court districts. Sheriffs have continued to acquire new functions during the twentieth century, most notably in recent times in the field of divorce.

For information on the modern Sheriff Courts visit the Scottish Court Service website (link available under Other Websites on left hand side of this page).

The records

Sheriff courts in Scotland are second only in importance to the supreme civil and criminal courts. Their records, dating from the 16th century, contain an enormous range of civil, criminal and administrative material (material that is often overlooked). A summary of the main records is listed below.

Court books, registers and processes
Brief details of cases coming before the court as well as records of administrative matters. Processes later than 1860 are weeded in terms of a statutory instrument.

Workmen's compensation

The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1897 (c.37) awarded compensation to employees injured in the course of employment. The system was ended by the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946 (c.67).

Fatal accident inquiries
In Scotland Fatal Accident Inquiries have been held since 1895 into fatal accidents in the workplace and cases of sudden death where public interest was involved, but not into deaths by suicide. Not all records of sheriff court fatal accident inquiries have survived. The records of each inquiry are gradually being individually listed as part of a recataloguing programme.

Sequestration records
Sheriff courts were given jurisdiction along with the Court of Session in bankruptcy procedure (sequestration) by the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act, 1839 (c.41).

Criminal records
Records of criminal cases are in the main series of registers and processes until the end of the 19th century. The records also contain the registers of Juvenile Courts set up by the 1908 Children Act (c.67).

Registers of deeds and protests

These contain legal documents registered for preservation and execution. In older courts they generally start in the seventeenth century.

Commissary records
From the 1820s wills and related papers were registered at the sheriff courts. The registers contain wills, inventories of the deceased's goods and the court's confirmation of the executors.

Services of heirs
Sheriff courts held inquests to determine claimants' rights to heritable property and the decisions were sent to chancery. Some records of these inquests survive showing the relationship between claimant and deceased.

Register of improvements to entailed estates
Under the Montgomery Act of 1770 (c.51), owners of entailed estates were allowed to charge their estates with three-quarters of the cost of improvements made. Intimation of intended improvements and a record of expenditure on them had to be registered in the sheriff court.

Fiars courts

Fiars were the official prices of grain fixed by the sheriffs. The records begin in the 17th century and include lists of jurors, notes of their evidence and the prices struck. Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland, 1550-1780 by A J S Gibson and T C Smout (1994).

Corn law returns
Between 1773 and 1821 sheriffs were required to convene a number of local people periodically to decide grain prices in the county. The records give names of jurors and prices returned.

Private legislation papers: public utilities
Under the Commissioners' Clauses Act, 1847 (c.16), commissioners of public undertakings were required to lodge a copy of their annual accounts with the sheriff court. Such records as survive usually result from applications by local authorities relating to railways, water and electricity supplies.

Freeholders' records
Details of freeholders, men who owned land or other heritable property and were entitled to vote before the 1832 Reform Act, are kept and for some courts survive from the 17th century.

Post 1832 electoral records
Electoral registers for the following:

NAS Reference County Dates
SC14/64 Caithness 1832-60
SC64/63 Clackmannan and Kinross 1832-62
SC24/21 Cromarty 1832-3
SC29/71 Inverness 1832-72
SC16/68 Kirkcudbright 1832-62
SC41/99 Linlithgow 1837
SC31/60 Nairn 1847-73
SC42/44 Peebles 1832-61
SC62/73 Roxburgh 1832-46
SC63/61 Selkirk 1832-61
SC67/61 Stirling 1832-62
SC19/64 Wigtown 1832-61

Other rolls are in burgh records.

Commissioners of supply
Set up in 1667 to collect the cess (land tax) although they also dealt with roads and bridges. Abolished in 1930, they effectively ceased with the reform of local government and the establishment of county councils in 1889.

Lieutenancy and militia records
Under the Militia Acts of 1797 (c.103) and 1802 (c.91), the lords lieutenants were responsible for raising local militia. Sheriff court records may contain minutes of lieutenancy meetings, muster rolls and returns of militia.

Records of heritable jurisdictions
Under the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1746 (c.43), most courts of heritable jurisdiction such as regality courts were abolished and their jurisdiction and records transferred to sheriff courts. Records of several regality courts and some bailie courts survive in the sheriff court series. The catalogue of the local court series (RH11) contains an appendix of such material in other record groups and is available in the Historical Search Room.

Plans (NRS ref. RHP)
Information on plans from sheriff court records and other collections can be found in the guide to topographical, architectural and engineering plans.

Not all sheriff court records are preserved, as current legislation allows for the weeding (i.e. selective destruction) of some types of records. However, NRS does try to keep a record in some form of each case heard in sheriff courts. With the exception of a few minor administrative papers, the records of Linlithgow Sheriff Court (NRS ref. SC41) are preserved as a specimen whole as are to a lesser degree the records of the island courts (Kirkwall - NRS ref. SC11; Lerwick - NRS ref. SC12; Lochmaddy - NRS ref. SC30; Portree - NRS ref. SC32; and Stornoway - NRS ref. SC33). The records for Orkney and Shetland are held by the archive services there. Note that most records are transferred to the NRS after 25 years and are otherwise held by the sheriff court.

County Sheriff court NAS references Notes
Aberdeen Aberdeen SC1  
  Peterhead SC4  
Angus(Forfar) Arbroath SC43  
  Dundee SC45  
  Forfar SC47  
Argyll Campbeltown SC50  
  Dunoon SC51  
  Fort William (Argyll) SC52 closed 1938
  Inveraray SC54 closed 1903
  Oban SC57  
  Tobermory SC59 closed 1905
Ayr Ayr SC6  
  Kilmarnock SC7  
Banff Banff SC2  
Berwick Duns SC60  
Bute Rothesay SC8  
Caithness Wick SC14  
Clackmannan Alloa SC64  
Dumfries Dumfries SC15  
Dunbarton Dumbarton SC65  
East Lothian (Haddington) Haddington SC40  
Edinburgh City Edinburgh SC39  
  Leith SC69 closed 1920
Fife Cupar SC20  
  Dunfermline SC21  
  Kirkcaldy SC23  
Glasgow City Glasgow SC36  
  Paisley SC58  
Inverness Fort William (Inverness-shire) SC28  
  Inverness SC29  
  Lochmaddy SC30  
  Portree SC32  
Kincardine Stonehaven SC5  
Kinross Kinross SC22 closed 1975
Kirkcudbright Dumfries (Kirkcudbright) SC17 closed 1941
  Kirkcudbright SC16 1623-1961
Lanark Airdrie SC35  
  Glasgow SC36  
  Hamilton SC37  
  Lanark SC38  
Midlothian (Edinburgh) Edinburgh SC39  
Moray (Elgin) Elgin SC26  
Nairn Nairn SC31 closed 1977
Orkney Kirkwall SC11 held in Kirkwall
  Orkney & Shetland SC10 17th century only
Peebles Peebles SC42  
Perth Dunblane SC44 closed 1975
  Perth SC49  
Renfrew Greenock SC53  
  Paisley SC58  
Ross and Cromarty Cromarty SC24 closed 1934
  Dingwall SC25  
  Stornoway SC33  
  Tain SC34  
Roxburgh Hawick SC61  
  Jedburgh SC62  
Selkirk Selkirk SC63  
Shetland Lerwick SC12 held in Lerwick
  Orkney & Shetland SC10 17th century only
Stirling Falkirk SC66  
  Stirling SC67  
Sutherland Dornoch SC9  
West Lothian (Linlithgow) Linlithgow SC41  
Wigtown Stranraer SC18  
  Wigtown SC19 closed 1975

Using the records of sheriff courts

With the exception of adoption records and material relating to criminal trials, which are closed for 100 years, all sheriff court papers are open to the public.
Certain series are searchable, such as the registers of testaments up to 1901, which have been digitally imaged and are available through the ScotlandsPeople website as well as in the NRS search rooms. (There is a guide to wills and testaments which gives more information on using the records). Post-1860 civil actions are gradually being individually listed as part of a recataloguing programme. Searching other court records can be frustrating because most remain unindexed.

There can be large gaps within individual series, particularly for earlier periods. Additionally, sometimes a particular type of record (such as the ejection of tenants from estates) is logged in a special register at a later date, but lumped in with other types of records for earlier years. There can also be a degree of overlap with Court of Session cases, for example in the records of people appointed to handle the affairs of lunatics and minors.

Some sheriff courts have now closed and their functions were absorbed by neighbouring courts. If no trace of a case is initially found, bear in mind that the jurisdictions of sheriff courts varied at different periods, eg the overlap of the boundaries of the Argyll and Inverness-shire sheriff courts at Fort William (NRS ref. SC28 and SC52).

Further reading

Isabel A Milne, 'The sheriff court: Before the sixteenth century' and C A Malcolm, 'The sheriff court: Sixteenth century and later' in 'An Introduction to Scottish Legal History' (Stair Society, 1958)

Richard Muir, 'The Development of Sheriffdoms' in Peter McNeill and Ranald Nicholson (eds), 'An Historical Atlas of Scotland c.400 - c.1600' (Atlas Committee of Scottish Medievalists, 1975)

Sheriff David B Smith, 'The sheriff court' in Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia, 6, (The Law Society of Scotland, 1988)

Ann E Whetstone, 'Scottish county government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' (Edinburgh, 1981)


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