National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Crime and Criminals

Crime and Criminals

Detail from register of Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, with photographs of male criminal prisoners, September-October 1882 (Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/70/97/1)We hold many records relating to crime and criminals. Ironically, you are more likely to find information about someone who committed a crime than about a respectable, law-abiding citizen. Information about crime and criminals can be found in the records of criminal courts, criminal investigations and prisons.

Many of these records are out-stored and we require 24 hours' notice before they can be produced.  We recommend that you contact the Historical Search Room to check the location of records before visiting.  Many of the records are un-indexed and we do not make speculative searches through un-indexed records for enquirers.

For a selection of images relating to crime and criminals from our collections, visit our image gallery.

This guide covers the court records:

As well as those about different types of criminals and prisoners

High Court of Justiciary (reference JC)

Image of French passport issued to Thomas Muir, political writer and radical,1793 (Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, JC26/276/14)The principal source for information on crime and criminals is the records of the High Court of Justiciary, Scotland's supreme criminal court. The court has exclusive jurisdiction over serious crimes, in particular murder, rape, treason, heresy, counterfeiting and crimes of a sexual nature. It sits permanently in Edinburgh, and travels on circuit throughout Scotland. The court also acts as a court of appeal from criminal proceedings in the sheriff (or inferior) courts.

Prisoners who were sentenced to be transported were always tried in the High Court.

We normally receive records from the High Court when they are more than 10 years old.   Please note that the following High Court records are closed to the public for 100 years and cannot be accessed without the permission of the court:

  • Records of criminal trials (JC26)
  • Records of criminal appeals (JC31, JC34 and JC67)
  • Minute books (JC5, JC9, JC11, JC12 and JC13)
  • Books of Adjournal (JC15 and JC72)
  • Judicial opinions (JC70)
  • Punishment part hearings (JC74)

The main record of a High Court trial is the bundle of case papers known as the 'process' or 'small papers', (also 'case papers' or 'sitting papers') (JC26). They usually include a copy of the indictment, which sets out the charges against the accused, depositions, confessions and other information on the accused and the crime, together with information about witnesses and jurors. You may also find statements by the accused and other papers produced as evidence, but case papers do not include transcripts of trials.

Finding records of individual trials depends on the date.  We are adding all case papers from 1800 onwards to our catalogue. The period from 1822 (with the exception of 1826-27) has been completed and the period from 1801-1821 will be added gradually. Case papers not catalogued in this way are stored according to the year and location of the trial, and it is necessary to search through them to find individual records. For some cases more than 100 years old it is possible to identify records by searching our catalogue under the name of the victim of the crime.

Further trial records are found in the High Court's minute books, which provide summaries of proceedings in court. There are minute books for Edinburgh cases since 1576 (JC6-JC9), and for circuit cases since 1655 (JC10-JC14). Additionally, there are the books of adjournal, which contain copies of indictments with brief summaries of trial proceedings. There are books of adjournal for Edinburgh cases since 1576 (JC2-JC5), and for circuit cases since 1890 (JC15). There is also a small series of selected trial transcripts from 1888 onwards (JC36), details of which will shortly be added to our electronic catalogue.

Some trials have been printed in:

  • 'Pitcairn's criminal trials in Scotland, 1498-1624' (Bannatyne Club, 1829-31)
  • 'Selected justiciary cases, 1624-1650' (Stair Society, 1953, 1972 and 1974)
  • 'The Records of the Proceedings of the Justiciary Court, Edinburgh, 1661-1678' (Scottish History Society, 1905).

Some of the more sensational trials are covered in William Roughhead's series of 'Notable Scottish trials'.

The following finding aids are available in the Historical Search Room

  • typescript trial indexes for 1611-31 and 1699-1720
  • Diet Books (JC60): manuscript lists of trials at the High Court in Edinburgh 1537-1828
  • ‘Solemn Database’ containing full details for 19th century cases
Lord Advocate's Department (reference AD)

The main records from the Lord Advocate's Department are the precognitions (AD14-AD15). Precognitions are the documents containing the written statements of the witnesses and accused about a crime, and they are put together before a trial to prepare the case against the accused. As precognitions provide a snapshot of the local community they are a wonderfully rich source of information about individuals, economic conditions, contemporary attitudes and even language.  The precognitions relate to serious crimes tried at the High Court in the 19th and 20th centuries, though few survive before 1812. They can be identified by searching on our catalogue under the name of the accused.  Precognitions less than 75 years old are closed to public access.

If a precognition is available there will usually be a record of a trial at the High Court too, although cases do not always come to a trial. Similarly as records do not always survive, beware the temptation of concluding that there was no trial if you cannot find a precognition.

Privy Council (reference PC)

Many criminal cases were dealt with by the Privy Council before its abolition in 1708.  Most men and women who appeared before the Council were of some social standing, rather than ordinary criminals, but the Council also heard cases of people accused of witchcraft and seditious practices. 'The Register of the Privy Council' for 1545-1691 is published in 35 volumes. The published volumes are fully indexed and available for consultation in the Historical Search Room, as well as in good reference libraries. The unpublished Privy Council records from 1692-1708 (PC) are not indexed, and can be consulted at General Register House.

Sheriff courts (reference SC) 
Historical sheriff court records

The local sheriff courts deal with both criminal and civil cases. Sheriff courts trials are for lesser crimes, commonly theft and assault, and we receive the records once they are more than 25 years old. The exceptions are Kirkwall and Lerwick Sheriff Courts, whose records are held at Orkney and Shetland Archives respectively.

Our catalogue lists the records we hold for each sheriff court, although criminal trials are not indexed and it is necessary to search through records to find individual cases. From the 19th century onwards most of the courts kept criminal records separately from civil case records, but in the earlier period you will often find these records mixed together.

There are different types of sheriff court trials. More serious cases are heard before a sheriff and jury, and are known as 'solemn' trials; depending on the court, records can be called a number of different things, including:

  • criminal court books
  • criminal records
  • criminal registers
  • jury trials
  • libels
  • indictments

Less serious cases are heard before the sheriff alone, and are called summary trials. Records of these are normally called 'criminal and quasi-criminal roll books' or 'records of summary trials'. For most of the 20th century there were also separate trials for juveniles.

Recent sheriff court records

If you are looking for information about your own conviction bear in mind that the we only receive trial records from sheriff courts once they are more than 25 years old.  Before this date they are found at the court where the trial took place. However, in the modern period the main record of summary cases is destroyed after 10 years, when the conviction is considered 'spent', and there may only be a brief record in a criminal and quasi-criminal roll book or in summary court sheets. Contact details for all of the sheriff courts can be found on the Scottish Courts website.

If you require evidence of your conviction you can contact Disclosure Scotland, who will produce a 'basic disclosure' showing all unspent convictions on payment of a fee. If you need to show both spent and unspent convictions you should contact your local police force and make a 'subject access' request for this information under the Data Protection Act 1998.  You can find contact details on the Police Scotland website.

Admiralty Court (reference AC) 

The Admiralty Court  dealt with crimes committed on the high seas or in harbours, including smuggling, piracy and trading with the enemy. The records of the court cover the period from 1557 to 1830, when the court was abolished. They include criminal trial reports for the period 1705-1830 (AC16). The earliest surviving court records were published in 'Acta Curiae Admirallatus Scotiae, 1557-1561/2' (Stair Society, 1937).

Burgh courts (reference B)

Minor offences within royal burghs were tried by the burgh courts.  Our catalogue lists the surviving burgh court records and shows whether they are held by us or by local archives. Burgh records are not indexed.

Justices of the Peace courts (reference JP)

The Justices of the Peace courts also dealt with minor offences.  We hold some of these records and others are held locally. They are listed on our catalogue and their location shown. The Justices of the Peace records we hold are not indexed.

Franchise courts

Franchise courts were local courts where a person, usually the local landowner, held a franchise from the crown to administer justice in his area. The courts had both criminal and civil jurisdiction. There were four different types of court:

  • regality courts
  • barony courts
  • stewartry courts
  • bailiery courts

With the exception of the barony courts, they were abolished in 1747, after which the barony courts quickly declined. The records are mainly in a separate series (our reference RH11) some of which have been digitised and are available on Virtual Volumes in our search rooms. Others may be found among private collections, and in sheriff court (SC) and burgh (B) records.  Selections of franchise court records have been published by the Stair Society and the Scottish History Society.

Transportation

Information on prisoners sentenced to be transported can be found in the registers for the local prisons (see below) serving the courts where they were sentenced. However, because prisoners were shipped from England there is often further information in the Home Office records at The National Archives.

We hold microfilm copies of the transportation registers, 1787-1870 (our reference RH4/160/1-7). The registers are arranged chronologically by the date of departure of each ship.  They record the name of the convict and where, when and for how many years he or she was sentenced. The State Library of Queensland has compiled a British Transportation Registers Database of 123,000 of the estimated 160,000 convicts transported to Australia during the period 1787 to 1867.

A small series of transportation papers (JC41) can be found in High Court records for the period 1653-1853. The early period mainly consists of certificates of transportation for convicts to America in the 1770s; the latter papers date from 1837-1853, and consist of lists of convicts and extract sentences of transportation.

The criminal trials for individuals sentenced to transportation can be found in the papers of the High Court of Justiciary (above).

Witchcraft

Witchcraft was a criminal offence between 1563 and 1736.  Witchcraft trials are found in the records of the High Court of Justiciary (JC), the Privy Council (PC) and local kirk sessions (CH).  In addition to the main series of High Court papers, JC40 contains a number of indictments, summons and verdicts in witchcraft cases , c.1572 -1709.

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is a database of Scottish witchcraft cases maintained by Edinburgh University.  It has superseded the best source available in print 'A sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft', compiled by Christina Larner and others (Glasgow, 1977).

Covenanters

The publication 'Registers of the Privy Council' contain names of covenanters and others banished to the North American colonies in the 17th century, in particular the third series, volumes VI-X, 1678-1685.

Details of proceedings against covenanters also appear in the records of the High Court of Justiciary (JC).  In addition to the main court papers (JC39) is a series of 115 bundles of papers relating to actions against covenanters, 1679-1688. These contain lists of the accused and depositions of prisoners and witnesses.

Jacobites

Image of detail from a list of noblemen, gentlemen and others who were judged guilty of High Treason during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, gathered in preparation for the forfeiting of their land and estates by the Crown, 1747-1763 (Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, E706/2/5)The trials of Jacobites captured after the 1715 and 1745 rebellions took place in England and the records are held by The National Archives. However, the High Court of Justiciary records include material on Jacobite treason trials, 1748-9 (JC7). Useful printed works include:

  • 'A list of persons concerned in the Rebellion' (Scottish History Society, 1890);
  • David Dobson, 'Directory of Scots banished to the American plantations' (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1983);
  • 'The prisoners of the '45', edited by B G Seton and J G Arnot (Scottish History Society, 1928-1929)
  • T B Howell, 'A complete collection of state trials' (London, 1816) vols. XV and XVIII.
Criminals and prisoners

Photograph of Peter - alias John Porter, a prisoner in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, 23 March 1883 (Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, HH21/70/97/11/D)We hold the prison records from the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and earlier bodies which had responsibility for prisons, including the Prison Commission for Scotland and the Scottish Office Home and Health Department. The main records are the prison registers (HH21), which generally note particulars of the trial and sentence for each inmate as well as personal details such as place of birth, occupation, age, height, and religion. A small number of prison registers contain photographs of prisoners. These have been digitised and are available on Virtual Volumes in our search rooms.

Few prison registers are indexed but basic details are found on our catalogue. A list of prison registers is given below. Note that the dates given are covering dates, there may be some gaps in the records, and recent records remain exempt from release under Freedom of Information legislation.

  • Aberdeen 1809-1960 HH21/66/1-25, HH21/67/1-2, HH21/68/1-2
  • Airdrie 1848-1882 HH21/46/1-6
  • Ayr 1841-1927 HH21/27/1-31
  • Banff 1848-1878 HH21/1/1
  • Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow 1882-1960 HH21/70/1-157
  • Beith 1843-1849 HH21/28/1
  • Campbeltown 1840-1882 HH21/29/1
  • Cromarty 1841-1872 HH21/2/1
  • Cumnock 1849-1853 HH21/30/1
  • Dumbarton 1828-1883 HH21/31/1-4
  • Dumfries 1841-1964 HH21/49/1-14, HH21/50/1, HH21/51/1-6, HH21/52/1-5, HH21/62/1-5
  • Dunbar 1844-1878 HH21/3/1-2
  • Duns 1840-1848 HH21/4/1
  • Edinburgh (Calton)  1841-1874 HH21/5/1-17
  • Edinburgh (Calton) Bridewell 1798-1840 HH21/6/1-15
  • Edinburgh (Calton) Jail 1817-1821 HH21/6/14-15
  • Edinburgh (Calton) Prison 1856-1870 HH21/25/1
  • Edinburgh (Saughton)  1922-1996 HH21/71/1-68
  • Edinburgh Court Buildings Prison 1858-1862 HH21/7/1
  • Edinburgh Lock-up House  1826-185 HH21/8/1-2
  • Edinburgh Police  1841-1842 HH21/9/1
  • Edinburgh Tolbooth  1816-1817 HH21/6/13
  • Fort William  1849-1880 HH21/11/1
  • Glasgow (Duke Street) 1845-1955 HH21/32/2-166
  • Greenlaw 1848-1862 HH21/12/1
  • Greenock 1828-1961 HH21/33/1-27
  • Haddington 1848-1861 HH21/13/1
  • Hamilton 1828-1882 HH21/34/1-8
  • Hawick 1844-1862 HH21/14/1-2
  • Helensburgh 1865-1878 HH21/15/1
  • Inveraray 1828-1847 HH21/35/1-3
  • Inverness 1923-1967 HH21/63/1, HH21/64/1-3, HH21/65/1
  • Jedburgh 1843-1869 HH21/16/1-2
  • Kelso 1844-1863 HH21/17/1-2
  • Kilmarnock 1848-1880 HH21/36/1-3
  • Kirkcudbright 1841-1883 HH21/53/1-4, HH21/54/1, HH21/55/1
  • Lanark 1848-1881 HH21/37/1
  • Largs 1843-1853 HH21/38/1-2
  • Leith Police 1840-1848 HH21/10/1-2
  • Lerwick 1837-1878 HH21/69/1
  • Linlithgow 1844-1881 HH21/18/1-2
  • Maxwelltown 1840-1894 HH21/56/1-3
  • Musselburgh 1852-1861 HH21/19/1
  • Paisley 1841-1883 HH21/32/1, HH21/39/1-9 
  • Peebles 1848-1862 HH21/20/1
  • Perth (General) Prison 1846-1913 HH21/47/1-8, HH21/48/1-5
  • Perth 1902-1961 HH21/47/9-25, HH21/48/5-6 
  • Peterhead 1919-1945 HH21/26/1
  • Pollokshaws 1848-1870 HH21/40/1
  • Port Glasgow  1840-1846 HH21/41/1
  • Rothesay 1877-1882 HH21/42/1
  • Saltcoats 1844-1853 HH21/43/1-2
  • Selkirk 1853-1878 HH21/21/1
  • Stewarton 1848-1852 HH21/44/1
  • Stonehaven 1848-1877 HH21/22/1
  • Stranraer 1841-1881 HH21/27/1-2
  • Tobermory 1872-1882 HH21/45/1
  • Wick 1848-1875 HH21/23/1
  • Wigtown 1840-1878 HH21/24/1, HH21/60/1-3, HH21/61/1

There are warding and liberation books from the Edinburgh Tolbooth for the period 1657-1816 (HH11).  Selected entries have been published in the 'Book of the Old Edinburgh Club', edited by J Fairley (volumes 4- 6, 8, 9, 11 and 12).

Administrative records for Scottish prisons (HH12) occasionally contain references to individual prisoners, and there are also a small number of prisoner files (HH15), details of which are found on the catalogue.

Other prison registers are found in sheriff court records:

  • Angus 1805-27 SC47/55/2
  • Ayr 1860-3 SC6/57/1
  • Fort William  1893-1936 SC28/32/1
  • Jedburgh 1839-93 SC62/72/1
  • Kirkcudbright 1791-1811 SC16/28/2
  • Selkirk 1828-40 SC63/63/3
  • Stirling 1822-9 SC67/47/5-6

Please note that we do not make speculative searches through prison records for an individual even for a given census year.

Further reading

'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland' (Edinburgh, 1996)

Clarke, Tristram, 'Tracing your Scottish ancestors: the official guide’ (details of current edition are available on our Shop page)

Rayner, P, Lenman B and Parker G, 'Handlist of records for the study of crime in early modern Scotland (to 1747)' (List and Index Society, special series, volume 16, 1982).