National Records of Scotland

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Exchequer Records

Exchequer Records

The exchequer, one of the earliest government departments, developed out of the king's chamber, the branch of the royal household which oversaw the royal finances. The chief financial officer was the king's great chamberlain. It was not a permanent body, meeting only to audit the accounts of the sheriffs and other collectors of royal revenues.

James I reformed the exchequer in the 1420s. Its functions were divided between the Comptroller (or Receiver General) and the Treasurer. The Comptroller handled the revenue from crown lands, burghs and customs which was spent on the royal household. The Treasurer received the feudal services and casualties (occasional payments to a superior of lands), the proceeds of taxation and the lucrative profits of justice. From these revenues he met the king's personal expenses (including military and naval expenses, liveries, stables, repair of palaces, alms). The first recorded mention of whisky can be found in an early exchequer roll of 1494.

James VI to the Union

In 1584 the exchequer was made a separate court of law. It settled permanently in Edinburgh and was staffed by judges from the Court of Session. James VI's reign also saw growth in its administrative functions. Faced with declining crown lands and revenues, the monarchy exploited customs and imposed import duties for the first time in 1597. Taxation became more frequent. In the reign of Charles I new taxes were imposed on a variety of consumer goods and investments and the land tax was increased.

During the 1640s and 1650s Scotland was heavily taxed to pay for the covenanting armies and the English occupation. The exchequer reverted to the management of the crown's traditional sources of revenue while taxation, excise and customs came under parliamentary control under the general direction of the Committee of Estates. During the period of the English occupation (1552-1660) management of Scottish revenues was placed under a new Court of Exchequer staffed by English judges. With Charles II's return in 1660 the exchequer was restored to its pre 1638 form.

Pre-Union Exchequer records, 1263-1707

The exchequer records provide the largest body of evidence for the pre-union administration of Scotland and are a rich source for all aspects of royal administration. Very few survive from before the reign of Robert I [1306-29]. Listed below are the major series of exchequer records. The majority of the records, apart from those which have been published, are unindexed. The administrative history of the pre-union exchequer and a detailed guide to its records is given in 'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland' (Stationery Office, 1996).

Pre-Union Exchequer Records in National Records of Scotland (NRS)
NRS reference Description Dates Notes
E1-20 Administrative and judicial records 1584-1708 Including registers of 'signatures' (document authorising the making of a royal grant) and 'resignations'.
E38-44 Rolls and accounts of royal revenue 1263-1708 The accounts and rentals of the officials responsible for the collection of the royal revenue - the sheriffs, custumars and magistrates of the royal burghs and the chamberlains. The income consisted largely of revenues received in kind (mainly crops and food) rather than in money.
E21-37 Treasury and comptrollery accounts 1473-1708 Expenditure on the royal household, wardrobe, castles and palaces. The accounts provide a vivid insight into the day-to-day life of the kings and queens of Scotland. The series also contains inventories of the royal furnishings including jewels and clothes owned by Mary Queen of Scots, published in 'The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473-1580' and 'Accounts of the Masters of Works for building and repairing royal palaces and castles, 1529-1649'.
E45-56 Revenue from church benefices (church livings) and bishoprics 1561-1718 Revenues from church lands after the reformation and the records of 'bishops' rents' falling to the crown after the abolition of episcopacy in the late 17th century.
E57-8 Fines and forfeited estates 1663-1707 Forfeited estates papers, 1687-1707, including fines and forfeitures, 1666-1693. Imposed for 'ecclesiastical disorders' or the rebellions against Charles II and James VII and estates of leading Jacobites taken into the management of the crown.
E59-70 Taxation records 1574-1703 Including hearth and poll tax records. Further information is available in our guide to taxation records.
E71-80 Customs and excise records 1498-1710 Including customs books, 1498-1696 and accounts, 1605-1707 and excise accounts and papers, 1644-1710 with details of goods exported and imported to and from overseas. Further information is available in our guide to customs and excise records.
E90-100 Army and Navy accounts and papers 1557- 1755 Including army muster rolls, 1641-1707. Further information is available in our guide to military records.
E101-5 Royal mint papers 1555-1809  
E106 Valuation rolls 1643-1853 Further information is available in our guide to valuation rolls.
Pre-Union Exchequer publications
  • 'The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1326-1600', 23 vols. (1878-1908)
  • 'The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473-1580', 13 vols (1877-1978)
  • 'Accounts of the Masters of Works for building and repairing royal palaces and castles, 1529-1649', 2 vols (1957, 1982).
  • 'Accounts of the Collectors of Thirds of Benefices, Scottish History Society, (1949)
  • James Kirk, 'The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices', (1995)
  • J Grant, 'The Old Scots Navy', Navy Records Society, (1914)
  • C Dalton, 'The Scots Army', 1660-1688 (Edinburgh, 1909)
  • R W Cochran Patrick, 'Records of the Coinage of Scotland' (1876)

The post-Union Exchequer

Under the Exchequer Court (Scotland) Act of 1707 the Scottish exchequer was reorganised on English lines under the Barons of Exchequer. The Treasury was abolished in 1708. The barons acted in both a judicial capacity, dealing with revenue cases, debts to the crown, seizure of smuggled goods and prosecutions for illicit brewing and distilling, and in an administrative capacity, mainly auditing accounts.

The separate Scottish Customs Board established at the union was abolished in 1823 and from the 1830s the powers of the barons were gradually reduced. The auditing of customs and excise accounts was transferred to Westminster. Under the Public Revenues (Scotland) Act of 1833, most of the remaining administrative functions reverted to the United Kingdom Treasury. In 1856 with the abolition of the exchequer, its judicial functions went to the Court of Session. The Exchequer Office (Scotland) continued until its final abolition in 1981 when its remaining functions were transferred to the Crown Office.

Because of its central place in the administration, the exchequer generated more records than any other Scottish government body in the century and a half after the Union. Many records were lost in a fire in 1811 but losses were partly made up by the number of duplicate or overlapping series. Most of the following records are un-indexed.

Post-Union Exchequer records in National Records of Scotland (NRS)
NRS reference Description Dates Notes
E201-11 Revenue accounts 1699-1835 Including crown rents, customs, salt duty, excise and taxes.
E223-9 Civil establishment records from 1708 Listing salaries to central government officials. Indexed.
E326-8 Taxation records 1748-1812 Including window tax. For more inforation, see our guide on taxation records.
E330 Roads accounts 1812-1847  
E331 Crinan Canal papers 1802-1844  
E342, E886 Historic buildings 1711-1873  
E351-383 Court records 1708-1856 Including minutes, decrees and processes including revenue cases but primarily disputes over taxes.
E501-516 Customs records 1742-1830 Including customs collectors' accounts detailing imports and exports, payments of whale and herring bounties and information on customs officers.
E581 Distillery vouchers 1825-1832 Including names of proprietors and owners of distilleries (but not workers) granted an allowance of 1 shilling for every gallon of whisky produced from malt.
E600-687, E701-788 Forfeited estate papers 1716-1824 The records of the management of the major Jacobite estates forfeited after the risings of 1715 and 1745, showing attempts to improve agriculture, industry and communications in the Highland. They include rentals (rent rolls) and accounts and a series of estate plans.
E851-870 Ultimus Haeres records  from 1709 Records of the crown as the 'last heir' of those dying without a known heir. The modern records are closed for 30 years.
Post-Union exchequer publications
  • 'Records of the Forfeited Estates Commission' (Public Record Office Handbook No 12, 1968)
  • 'A Selection of Scottish Forfeited Estates Papers' (Scottish History Society, 1909)
  • A M Smith, 'Jacobite Estates of the Forty-five' (1982)
  • V Wills, 'Reports on the Annexed Estates, 1755-6' (1973)
  • 'Statistics of the Annexed Estates' (1973)
  • I H Adams, 'Descriptive List of Plans in the Scottish Record Office, vol.3' (1974)