National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Poor Relief Records

Poor Relief Records

Who qualified for poor relief?

Normally people receiving poor relief were unable to support themselves, either through age or incapacity. They included orphans, the sick or disabled and the insane. The 'sturdy beggar' or the able-bodied poor, were not generally entitled to support and were indeed legislated against, although in practice many did receive some degree of assistance.

Old Poor Law (1574-1845)

The first acts of parliament to deal with the relief of the poor were passed in 1424. Most of these and subsequent acts in the 15th and 16th centuries were aimed at dealing with the problem of 'sturdy beggars'. Few records detailing individuals survive from this period. After the Reformation the responsibility for the poor fell on the parish, jointly through the heritors (local landowners) (NRS reference HR) and the kirk sessions (NRS reference CH2). The heritors often made voluntary contributions to the poor fund in preference to being assessed (a tax on the owners of land or property).

Kirk sessions were church courts, responsible for moral discipline in each parish, but they were frequently the primary source of support for the poor. They (either solely or in conjunction with the heritors) operated a 'poors fund'. Income was raised from church collections, fines on offenders and fees for carrying out sacraments and services, like the use of mortcloths at funerals. Some parish poors funds were endowed by mortifications (bequests by wealthy parishioners or former parishioners).

Heritors' records seldom survive before the late-18th century but their minutes, accounts and other papers can include lists of poor, assessment rolls and discussion of poor relief and related problems (such as crop failures and hardship caused by trade depressions). Kirk session minute books and accounts will typically include weekly or monthly lists of paupers (residents and often unnamed vagrant poor) and sources of poors fund income.

When looking for poor relief records prior to 1845, look in the kirk session and heritors' records for a particular parish. In the majority of cases, however, you should look for minutes or accounts and then simply trawl through the entries to see if there are any relating to poor relief. Unfortunately there is usually no quick way of searching through these records since poor relief was almost always recorded in amongst all the other financial business of the parish. On our online catalogue enter the parish name in the search box and then the reference (HR or CH2) in the reference box and click 'starts with'.

New Poor Law (1845-1929)

Following the Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act of 1845 parochial boards were set up in each parish to administer poor relief. To begin with record keeping did not change much and there was quite a lot of overlap between the records of parochial boards, heritors and kirk sessions (as representatives of heritors and kirk sessions were on each parochial board and session clerks often acted as clerks to parochial boards and heritors' meetings). Records of parochial boards (and their successors in 1894, parish councils) are generally found in local authority archives but we hold parochial board/parish council records for some parishes in Midlothian (CO2/77-91) and Wigtownshire (CO4/30-47). In 1865 standardised poor relief registers were introduced in parochial boards throughout Scotland. However, it can still be worth checking the heritors' and kirk session records for evidence of poor relief up to around 1929 (when heritors were abolished), for example payment of school fees of poor children and the supply of winter fuel.

Each parochial board had to keep a roll of the poor to whom it gave relief and these can contain a considerable amount of detail about each pauper - name, age, country and place of birth, marital status and details of spouse and children. The records may also include applications for those who were not successful in receiving relief. We hold parochial board records for some parishes in East Lothian (NRS reference CO7/7, DC5/4-5 and DC7/4), Midlothian (NRS reference CO2/77-91) and Wigtownshire (NRS reference CO4/30-47). For information on records for all other areas of Scotland you should contact the relevant local archive. A list of Scottish archives is available on the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) website. The SCAN website Knowledge Base also contains information on poor relief registers.

The records of the Board of Supervision for Relief of the Poor, set up in 1845 (HH23-27), and the Local Government Board for Scotland, which replaced it in 1894 (HH2, HH10), contain details on policy and supervision of parishes and poorhouses, correspondence regarding some claimants' appeals and statistics. In the Register House Plans series (RHP) you can find portfolios of architectural drawings for about 40 of Scotland's poorhouses, assembled by the Local Government Board and its successor, the Scottish Home and Health Department.

Sheriff courts and Court of Session

Appeals by unsuccessful claimants were made to sheriff courts and some went on to the Court of Session. Mentions of these will be found in sheriff court records among the ordinary business of each court. A few sheriff courts (Ayr, Banff, Elgin and Hamilton) kept separate records of poor relief appeals for a time.

  • Ayr Sheriff Court, 1846-1933 (SC6/82)
  • Banff Sheriff Court, 1890-1910 (SC2/7)
  • Elgin Sheriff Court, 1846-1851 (SC2/66/1)
  • Hamilton Sheriff Court,1848-1865 (SC37/18/8)

Anyone looking at poor relief business in sheriff courts and the Court of Session should start by consulting A M Caird, 'Poor Law Manual for Scotland' (Edinburgh, 6 editions, 1845-1851), which provides a digest of poor relief cases in sheriff courts and the Court of Session. The 'Poor Law Magazine' from the 1850s onwards continued Caird's work. Not every sheriff court case is covered by Caird or the Poor Law Magazine.

Hospitals, charities etc

Where the parish system of providing poor relief was found to be inadequate, private charities filled some of the gaps. The records of the following institutions in NRS contain details of individuals:

  • The King James VI Hospital, Perth (GD79), a very old religious foundation though most of the papers naming individual paupers date from the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • The Dean Orphanage, Edinburgh (GD417) opened in 1733.
  • Dr Guthrie's Schools, Edinburgh (GD425), part of the 'ragged and industrial school' movement, opened in 1847.
  • George Heriot's School, Edinburgh (GD421) founded as a charity school in 1659 for orphans or other poor children of burgesses and freemen.
  • Trinity House, Leith, founded for the relief of poor, aged and infirm seafarers (GD226) includes lists of those receiving pensions from the mid-17th century.
  • Many crafts and trades contributed to a fund to help poor, sick or disabled members, or to pay for their funerals. Their minute books include donations to poor members.

Destitution boards

Destitution boards were set up after 1846 to cope with the widespread poverty in the Highlands, following the failure of the potato crop. Between 1847 and 1852 the boards distributed meal in return for work, for example road building, fence repair and knitting. Records of the Highland Destitution Board (HD) contain registers with the names and sometimes ages of family members receiving help in the Highlands and Islands.

Further reading

K M Forbes and R H J Urquhart 'Records in The National Archives of Scotland relating to Poor Relief 1845-1930', 'Scottish Archives', volume 8 (2002).

Tristram Clarke, editor, 'Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: the Official Guide', revised sixth edition (2012)

'Poor Relief in Scotland', 'History At Source' series, (1995).