An instrument of sasine (pronounced 'say-zin') is a legal document that records the transfer of ownership (usually a sale or an inheritance) of a piece of land or of a building. It will normally detail the names of the new and previous owners and will give a basic description of the property transferred. There will usually be an indication of the price paid for the property. Sasines can also give you information about family history, particularly where an individual is passing land to another family member, or where the family designation is revealed (for example 'John Campbell of X'). Sometimes information given in one sasine will give you clues as to earlier titles in the chain and so lead you back to the earlier history of the ownership of a building or piece of land.
How many people had sasines?
Very few. This record is essentially about the 'haves' of Scottish society rather than the 'have nots'. Until the 20th century, when owner-occupation became more common, only a tiny proportion of Scots owned the house they lived in or the land that they farmed. Most rented their property and will not appear in registers of sasines.
Dates covered by the sasine register
There were several attempts to start a national register of sasines in Scotland. One early attempt, The Secretary's Register, started in 1599 and ended in 1609. It is very incomplete. The full register really begins from 1617 and it runs until the present day. Since 6 April 1981 it is being gradually replaced, county by county, by the system of Registration of Title (ROT) but the sasine register still remains one of the oldest continuing records of land transactions in Europe.
The new ROT system is managed by The Registers of Scotland, Meadowbank House, 153 London Road, Edinburgh, EH8 7AU.
Organisation of the register
Despite speaking of a 'register' there are in fact several different series of registers.
- 1599 - 1609: the incomplete Secretary's Register, divided into counties.
- From 1617: a particular register of sasines for individual counties and a general register of sasines which covered all of Scotland, except the three Lothian counties. The general register was also used to record details of properties that were spread over more than one county.
- 1869 onwards: The system was restructured in 1869, to establish one general register arranged in county divisions.
All these registers are in National Records of Scotland (NRS) under the catalogue reference RS.
The 66 royal burghs maintained their own burgh registers of sasines. With the exception of the Glasgow burgh register, and the Aberdeen and Dundee pre-1809 registers, these records are held in NRS under the catalogue reference B.
The completeness of the register
The register was intended from the outset to cover all land transactions in Scotland. It was (and still is) a legal requirement to record a sasine or an equivalent title deed within a few days of its being made up. In practice, the registers are fairly complete from 1617 and are generally regarded as fully comprehensive from about 1660 onwards. There is only one significant qualification to this. Once made out, a sasine had to be recorded. It might happen, however, that an individual inherited a property where he was already resident. Most commonly this would happen where an eldest son inherited property on his father's decease. If his possession was undisputed, he might not go to the expense of having a sasine executed for some considerable time. Only later would he do this, if his possession was disputed, or if he had to produce a full set of titles before he could sell the property to a third party.
Documents other than sasines in the register
One of the ideas behind establishing the register was to prevent the repeated use of a piece of property as fraudulent collateral for securing loans. Consequently all deeds that secured debts on land (e.g. mortgages) had to be recorded. This means that you can sometimes learn a lot about the financial dealings of merchants, businessmen and land owners. Such investigations require time and patience, however.
Public access to the register
The register has always been a public record, open to inspection by anyone. This was again an aspect of its function of stopping fraud. The NRS does not charge fees if you are looking at the register for family history or other historical purposes. If your interest centres on a legal matter (e.g. you are in dispute with a neighbour about the line of a boundary wall or the division of costs for a common repair) then you will have to pay legal search fees to examine the record.
Understanding a sasine
The basic structure of a sasine is straightforward. It will begin with the date, and thereafter sets out the principal parties (usually with the grantee/buyer named first), the type of transaction, including the land involved, the precise time that it took place, and the names of the witnesses. Sasines before the early 20th century are normally handwritten, however. While Victorian copperplate handwriting is simple to read, the handwriting of the 17th and early 18th centuries can be much more difficult. Practice, as always, makes it easier. Nor does it help that for many years the clerks paid for the blank sasine volumes out of their wages and so had a vested interest in cramming as much handwriting onto each page as possible. A more serious obstacle is that many sasines, even down to the late 18th century, are in Latin. Again these follow a standard form. A Latin dictionary together with the styles and translations of sasines given in Peter Gouldesborough, 'A Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents' (Stair Society, Edinburgh, 1985) pp. 108-111, will allow most readers to understand what is going on.
Sasines for urban property
The 66 royal burghs generally kept their own individual registers of sasines. These are all now in the NRS, under the catalogue reference B. The only exceptions are the Glasgow registers and the Aberdeen and Dundee pre-1809 registers. These three groups are now kept in the city archives of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, respectively.
Burgh registers begin at different times, starting from the early 17th century. They were all gradually closed down at different times in the 20th century, and their business merged into the main series of registers held in the NRS under the catalogue reference RS. Sasines recording property transfers in the other, lesser burghs were generally recorded in the particular register of sasines for the surrounding county. It is important to remember that the sasine registers for the royal burghs cover only the small area of the original core medieval burgh, sometimes known as 'the royalty'. For instance, properties on Princes Street, although now Edinburgh's main thoroughfare, will not be found in the burgh register of sasines; they were recorded with other Midlothian sasines.
Searching the sasines: an introduction
The register of sasines is comprehensive and consequently it is theoretically possible to trace the progression of ownership of every property in Scotland from 1617 to the present day. This is a fairly mechanical process but it is not always quick. There are a variety (and sometimes a lack) of indexes and you should be prepared to invest time and patience in any search.
Before plunging into the various catalogues and indexes described here, it is worth considering spending some money on a short cut. Since 1876 the government has maintained a series of search sheets for property in Scotland. These identify the volume and page numbers of all the sasines and deeds for a given building or piece of land and can be used as a starting point for searching back in time. Copies of the search sheets for particular properties can be purchased from: The Registers of Scotland, Meadowbank House, 153 London Road, Edinburgh, EH8 7AU.
Searching the general and particular registers before 1781
Before 1781, the indexes to the sasines are incomplete. The General Register of Sasines is indexed from 1617 to 1735. The following is a guide to indexes to the particular registers of sasines.
|County||Particular Register of Sasines (with references)||Indexes|
Aberdeen till 1660 (RS4-5)
Aberdeen and Kincardine from 1661 (RS8)
|Angus (Forfar)||Forfar (RS33-35)||1620-1700 1701-1780|
|Argyll||Argyll etc (RS9-10)||1617-1780|
|Ayr||Ayr etc (RS11-14)||1599-1660|
|Berwick||Berwick etc||(RS18-19) 1617-1780|
|Bute||Argyll etc (RS9-10)||1606-1780|
|Caithness||Inverness till 1644 (RS36-37)||1606-1780|
|Clackmannan||Stirling etc (RS53-37)||None|
|Dumfries||Dumfries etc (RS22-23)||1617-1780|
|Dunbarton||Argyll etc (RS9-10)||1617-1780|
|East Lothian (Haddington)||Edinburgh etc (RS24-27)||1599-1700 1741-1780|
|Edinburgh City||Edinburgh etc (RS24-27)||1599-1700 1741-1780|
Fife and Kinross till 1685
Fife from 1685 (RS30-32)
|Glasgow City||Renfrew and Glasgow (RS53-54)||None|
|Inverness||Inverness etc (RS36-38||1606-1780|
Kincardine till 1657
Aberdeen and Kincardine from 1661 (RS6-8)
Fife and Kinross till 1685
Kinross from 1688 (RS30-31, 39)
|Kirkcudbright||Dumfries etc (RS22-23)||1617-1780|
|Midlothian (Edinburgh)||Edinburgh etc (RS24-27)||1599-1700 1741-1780|
|Moray (Elgin)||Elgin and Nairn (RS28-29)||1617-1780|
|Nairn||Elgin and Nairn (RS28-29)||1617-1780|
|Orkney||Orkney and Shetland (RS43-47)||1617-1660|
|Peebles||Roxburgh etc (RS55-57)||None|
Stirling etc (RS58-59)
|Renfrew||Renfrew and Glasgow (RS53-54)||None|
|Ross and Cromarty||Inverness etc (RS36-38)||1606-1780|
|Roxburgh||Roxburgh etc (RS55-57)||None|
|Selkirk||Roxburgh etc (RS55-57)||None|
|Shetland||Orkney and Shetland (RS43-47)||1617-1660|
|Stirling||Stirling etc (RS58-59)||None|
|Sutherland||Inverness etc (RS36-38)||1606-1780|
|West Lothian||Edinburgh etc (RS24-27)||1599-1700|
Many of these indexes are published and can be found in good reference libraries.
If there is no index for the period or area in which you are interested, you will need to use the minute books as a substitute. These are notebooks that were compiled on a daily basis by the clerks writing the sasines into the register. They are in strict chronological order and give a quick summary of each document and are much faster to search than the full record. When you have found the minute for a particular sasine, this will provide the date of registration that will allow you to find the full document in the main register.
Searching the general and particular registers after 1781
From 1781 to the present day, the sasines are searchable electronically. The index is compiled from pre-existing printed abridgements for every recorded transaction in the register. The paper volumes have been withdrawn and are no longer on open access. An abridgement is a concise summary of each recorded transaction and for many purposes it will provide all the information required. These abridgements are arranged in county volumes and cover both the general and the particular registers and the electronic index reflects this. The index leads you to the appropriate abridgement, and the abridgement in turn leads you to the original sasine record. The paper sasine registers have been digitally imaged and the images are available in the NRS search rooms.
Some Scottish local authority archives have sets of abridgements relating to their own areas. A directory of Scottish archives can be found on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website.
Searching the royal burgh sasine registers
There are almost no published or printed indexes for burgh registers until the 20th century when they were amalgamated with the main county registers. A directory of Scottish archives can be found on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website.
Will the sasine register for a particular year show all the owners in that year?
No. The most common misconception about the register of sasines is that it can tell you who owned a particular property in a given year. The register is a record of property transfers rather than an ownership of every property at any given time. For example, if someone owned land in 1750 but actually bought or inherited it earlier, this will not appear in the register for 1750. It will appear in the register for the year in which they acquired it.
Sasines are about owners and have little or nothing to say about cottars or tenants. Only after 1858 was it permissible, but not compulsory, to register long leases on properties. Consequently the register is of little use for identifying tenants.
Information about sizes and boundaries of properties
One of the prime functions of a sasine is to describe the property involved in a transaction. Acreages of properties are only rarely given before the appearance of Ordnance Survey maps from the mid-19th century. In the majority of cases, boundaries to properties are described in terms of the adjacent lands or in terms of geographical features (for example 'the lands of Y bounded by the river X on the east side, running north east up to the boundaries of the meadows of Z on the north side,' and so on).
As the 19th century wore on, more and more sasines refer to maps illustrating the property concerned. Some of these have been purposely preserved in the legal series of preservation writs held by NRS (reference RD16). Others can sometimes be found in local lawyers' offices, in other archives, and even in the NRS's own plans series (reference RHP). All too often, however, plans described in sasines no longer exist. They were routinely returned to the owner or the lawyers involved and subsequently lost. It is only with the development of photocopy technology in the early 1930s that plans of properties start to be recorded regularly in the registers with the associated sasines. There is a series of farm boundary plans compiled by the government during the late 1940s and early 1950s. These are preserved in the NRS plans series (reference RHP).
Other records showing Scottish landownership
Other records can sometimes give snapshots of who owned what at a given time. There were several poll and hearth taxes levied at the end of the 17th century. Similarly, Loretta Timperley used the surviving land tax records in the NRS to publish 'A Directory of Scottish Landownership in 1770' (Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh, 1976). This shows all the named landowners for that year together with the names and values of their properties, insofar as these can be gleaned from the record. This publication will be available in good reference libraries and it gives an accurate sense of the type of information available from the original record.
The annual valuation rolls from 1855 also list owners and occupiers (reference VR). The records of the Inland Revenue Valuation Office provide an overview of landownership in 1911-1912. Their staff surveyed every property in Scotland, recording the names of owners, tenants and occupiers, charges on the land, valuations and other particulars. Each property's boundaries and assessment number were marked on specially printed Ordnance Survey maps. The field books and maps resulting from this work are held by the NRS (reference IRS51-88 and IRS101-133).