National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Chancery Records

Chancery Records

The Chancery was the office which, from the 12th century onwards, issued the official written acts in the king's name - charters and other grants, letters patent conferring offices, titles, legitimations and remissions and brieves (brief warrants) initiating judicial or administrative processes.

The charters bore the King's great seal as evidence of royal authority. At the head of the Chancery was the Chancellor who had custody of the King's Great Seal.

Later he was also responsible for documents passed under the authorisation of the 'quarter seal' (actually the top half of the great seal) and the Prince's seal.

Before their final authorisation, charters had to go through various stages known as 'passing the seals'. Charters were initiated by a 'signature', a warrant for the drawing up of the charter under the royal sign manual and written in the vernacular. The Signet Office issued a further precept, in Latin, ordering the Keeper of the Privy Seal to issue yet another precept under his seal to authorise the issue of the charter under the Great Seal. Although from the late 17th century some grants could pass directly from the signature to the Great Seal, most had to go through the whole procedure with fees payable at each stage. This very expensive and cumbersome process continued until 1847.

The Treaty of Union provided that there should be one great seal for the whole United Kingdom but that a new seal should continue to be used in Scotland for 'private rights'. Today the First Minister is keeper, and the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland is deputy keeper having custody of the 'great seal', the quarter seal, prince's seal and cachet (a stamp bearing a facsimile of the royal sign manual).

Great Seal Registers

Charters issued under the Great Seal consisted mainly of royal grants of lands and confirmations. The registers also contain patents of nobility, commissions to major offices, letters of remission (or pardons), naturalisation and legitimation, and charters of incorporation, patents (until 1853) and licences to print money. Registration was supposed to be compulsory but by no means all charters were actually recorded.

Although the first crown charters were issued in the 11th century, many of the early charters and charter rolls have been lost. The earliest surviving roll is from the reign of Robert I, 1315-21 but there are many gaps until 1424 when the registers in volume form begin. Apart from the Commonwealth period, the charters are in Latin until 1847.

It is rarely necessary to consult the original registers in National Reords of Scotland (NRS) as the records of charters under the Great Seal are published from 1306 to 1668 in the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland (Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum or RMS for short). These are fully indexed. The indexes are in Latin until 1651.

Great Seal Registers
NRS Reference Description Date Index
C1-3 Registrum Magni Sigilli (Great Seal Register) 1315-current  
C4 Register of Confirmations and Resignations 1858-1868 C6/7 and in each volume
C5 Register of Crown Writs 1869-1874 C6/7 and in each volume
Indexes 1582-1919 Superseded by RMS and typescript indexes except for the paper register between 1596 and 1608 and patents for inventions
C7 Great Seal Warrants (1st series) 1663-1794, 1807-current MS Inventory lists contents of each bundle.
C10 Draft Great Seal Warrants 1732-1886  
C11 Draft Great Seal Warrants (Paper Register) 1738-1902  
C13 Warrants of Crown Writs 1869-74  

These indexes are all available in the Historical Search Room at General Register House.

Register of the Great Seal of Scotland

1306-1668 (11 volumes). Index of persons, places and offices in each volume. Published (NRS reference C1-3, C16)

Charters in the Register of the Great Seal

(NRS reference C2)

1668-1701 Typescript
1701-1750 Typescript
1750-1800 Typescript
1800-1919 Typescript

Charters in the Paper Register

(NRS reference C3)

1668-1852 Typescript

Charters in the Principality Register

(NRS reference C4, C5, C16, C17)

1716-1913 Typescript


(NRS reference C3, C16, C38)

1668-1955 Typescript


(NRS reference C2, C3, C7, C19, PS2, SP4)

1668-1906 (2 volumes) Typescript


The institution of baronetcies in England by King James VI dates from 1611. In 1625, King Charles I instituted Scottish baronetcies of Nova Scotia in an attempt to encourage settlement in that colony. Since the Union of 1707, all baronetcies are of the United Kingdom.

Patents to baronets of Nova Scotia (NRS reference C2 and PS5/1)

1625-1701 typescript

Quarter Seal records, 1652-current

(NRS reference C14-C15)

The Quarter Seal was used from the reign of James I for precepts (orders) to crown officers to give 'sasine' of lands following on from retours (abolished in 1847) and to grant gifts of landed property fallen to the crown as the last heir (ultimus haeres).

Quarter Seal Record, 1751-61, 1831-current

(NRS reference C14)

List of contents in each volume from 1831.

Quarter Seal Warrants, 1652-58, 1662-current

(NRS reference C15).

Incomplete before 1775.

Prince's seal, 1620-1874

(NRS reference C16-C18)

The Prince's Seal was used for grants of land in the principality or stewartry of Scotland lying mainly in Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and the Lothians. The warrants are arranged to correspond with the registers. After 1800 only one specimen draft warrant for each year has been retained.

Prince's Seal records
NRS reference Description Date
C16 Prince's Seal Registers 1620-1819 with gaps
C17 Prince's Seal Warrants 1717-1874 with gaps
C18 Draft Prince's Seal Warrants 1739-1819 with gaps


Charters in the Principality Register

(NRS reference C4, C5, C16, C17)
1716-1913 Typescript

Patents for inventions, 1765 - 1875

After 1707, English patent law was applied to Scotland but it was still necessary to obtain a separate grant to protect the invention in Scotland. Applications were made through the Home Office in London, but the 'charters of gift', the Scottish term for patents, were recorded in the Register of the Great Seal. A separate record was only established after 1813. Chancery retained the original specifications, including drawings, which were not reproduced in the registers. In 1852 the Patent Law Amendment Act (c.83) provided that letters patent should apply to the whole United Kingdom but a separate record was maintained for Scottish grants which were pending before the act. Between 1852 and 1883 certified copies of letters patent and specifications were transmitted to the Scottish Chancery Office. In 1911 the Secretary for Scotland authorised the destruction of all the certified copies.

Patents for Inventions
NRS reference Description Date
C19 Record of Specifications 1813-1868
C20 Original Specifications 1765-1858
C21 Patents (Various) 1857-187

Indexes to Patents and Specifications (NRS reference C3, C7, C9, C19, C20)

Indexes to Patents and Specificatins
Description Format Date
Persons and Subjects Typescript 1712-1812
Persons Negative photostat of manuscript 1813-1848
Subjects Negative photostat of manuscript 1813-1848
Persons and Subjects Negative photostat of manuscript 1849-1855

B Woodcroft, 'Alphabetical Index of Patentees of Inventions, 1617-1852' (Commissioners of Patents, 1854) relates to English patents only but may be useful in tracing a corresponding Scottish patent.

Registers of Retours and Service of Heirs

Retours, or services of heirs, were sent to Chancery to show that, as a result of an inquest, the heir was legally recognised as rightful inheritor to lands owned by his deceased ancestor. For further information on these records, read our guide on inheriting land and buildings.

Registers of Retours and Services of Heirs
NRS Reference Description Dates
C22-27 Registers of Retours and Papers 1530-1912
C28-30 Service of Heirs from 1847
Services of Heirs before 1700 (NRS reference C22)

'Inquisitionum Retornatarum Abbreviatio, 1425-1700'. Published in 3 volumes.
Index of persons and places arranged by county in volume 3. Printed.
These have been published on CD-ROM by the Scottish Genealogical Society.

Services of Heirs after 1700 (NRS reference C22 and C28)

Each volume contains two indexes: one by the name of the heir, the other by name of the ancestor.

Indexes to Services of Heirs from 1700
Series Volume number Date Format
1st 1 1700 -1749 Printed
1st 2 1750 -1799 Printed
1st 3 1800 -1829 Printed
1st 4 1830 -1859 Printed
2nd 1 1860 -1869 Printed
2nd 2 1870 -1879 Printed
2nd 3 1880 -1889 Printed
2nd 4 1890 -1899 Printed
2nd 5 (see below) 1900 -1909 Printed
2nd 6 1910 -1919 Printed
2nd 7 1920 -1929 Printed
2nd 8 1930 -1939 Printed
2nd 9 1940 -1949 Printed
2nd 10 1950 -1959 Printed
2nd 11 1960 -1969 Printed
2nd 12 1970 -1979 Printed

Volume 5 includes additional indexes for 1700 -1796 (NRS reference C25/10 -11) and 1792 -1846 (NRS reference C22/175 -176)

Tutories and curatories in the record of retours

The retour procedure was also used to appoint a tutor to administer the affairs of a fatherless child.

1701 -1897 Typescript (NRS reference C22)

Deeds, 1834-current

(NRS reference C31-34)

Conveyances, leases and other deeds concerning crown property in Scotland.

Responde books , 1545-61, 1573-1847

(NRS reference C35)
Record of the 'casualties' payable to the crown on an heir being given sasine of his lands. Early records are printed in the Exchequer Rolls.

Records of Sheriffs' Commissions, 1748, 1829-current

(NRS reference C38)
Index 1668-1955.

Further reading

'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland' (Stationery Office, 1996) pp82-94.

'Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia, The Laws of Scotland, vol 7' (1995), pp586-92.