Until the middle of the 19th century most Scots lived in the countryside, rather than in towns. If your ancestors worked the land, owned or rented property, then the surviving records of landed estates may provide useful sources.
This guide covers:
- Locating landowners
- Estate records: rentals (Rent Rolls), leases (tacks), household accounts and estate buildings
To find out where surviving records for a particular area are held you need to find out the name of the landowner of the day and then checking the indexes and catalogues in different archives.
If you know the name of the local landowner you can consult:
- Our catalogue (most of the estate records we hold are part of the Gifts and Deposits series (reference GD)
- Scottish Archive Network catalogue
- National Register of Archives (now available through The National Archives' Discovery catalogue)
If you don't know the identity of the landowner there are several publications which can help.
- 'Ordnance Survey Gazetteer', six volumes, by Francis H. Groome (Edinburgh, 1883)
- The Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1791-1799, 1845 and 1987)
- 'A Directory of Landownership in Scotland c 1770' edited by Loretta R. Timperley, (Scottish Record Society, 1976).
The Register of Sasines (reference RS) and Valuation Rolls (reference VR) may also help you to identify particular landowners although this approach may be time-consuming. Further information can be found in our guides to sasines and valuation rolls.
The most useful records from different estates follow certain patterns but the wide geographical and chronological coverage makes generalisation difficult.
- For the history of landowning families you will need to examine the correspondence, legal documents concerning ownership, succession, marriages and genealogical information.
- Those who rented and worked the land are mainly to be found in the rentals (rent rolls) of estates, and the records of leases, known as tacks, and in miscellaneous records kept by the factor, the proprietor's estate manager and agent.
The estate records may also provide evidence for parts of an estate feued, that is, sold off to form separate properties, for example, in the creation or expansion of villages and towns.
You will also find records of agriculture, forestry and fishing, as well as industrial activities such as coal mining.
Rentals often consist of summary accounts of the annual income of the estate without mentioning individuals. More helpful are those which contain information such as:
- the names of the tenants
- the name, acreage and value of the land leased
- the year in which the lease began and its duration
- payments made in cash, kind or labour.
Sometimes there are notes on the buildings leased and remarks about the tenant's behaviour or character by the estate factor. Where individuals are mentioned, rentals only give the name of the head of the house. They do not list wives, children or other dependants.
Leases may provide more information than rentals and they are often catalogued as a separate series. It is also worth exploring the factor's correspondence, which usually contains at least some letters from (or about) prospective tenants.
Correspondence with existing tenants often concerns requests for the reduction of rent, and a myriad of other grievances that throw light on their personal circumstances.
As servants were not the factor's responsibility, correspondence concerning individual maids and footmen is much less common, and usually survives only in family letters. Household accounts can sometimes provide evidence of their names and occupations.
The owners of landed estates often built farmhouses, steadings, cottages, mills and even inns on their property. Many have often been sold to private owners when estates were broken up in the twentieth century. The history of these buildings can be difficult to trace because the main evidence about their construction may only survive in the records of the factor's correspondence and estate accounts.
Building accounts (sometimes including the names of labourers and other workmen) for some estates are also found in the registers of improvements to entailed estates in the sheriff court records, c.1770-c.1880 (reference SC).