National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Privy Council Records

Privy Council Records

Early history

The Privy Council, like Parliament, was a development of the King's Council. The King's Council, or 'curia regis', was the court of the monarch surrounded by his royal officers and others upon whom he relied for advice. It is known to have existed in the thirteenth century, if not earlier, but has left little trace of its activities. By the later fifteenth century the council had advisory, executive and judicial functions though surviving records are mainly confined to the last. It is at this period that the 'secret' or privy council makes its formal appearance when, in February 1490, Parliament elected 2 bishops, an abbot or prior, 6 barons and 8 royal officers to form the king's council 'for the ostensioun and forthputting of the King's authorite in the administracioun of justice'. 

The Lords of Secret Council, as they were known, were part of the general body of Lords of Council, like the Lords of Session and Lords Auditors of Exchequer. Their business was recorded in an undifferentiated register, still largely concerned with judicial business. After 1532 much of this judicial business was transferred to the newly founded College of Justice, the later Court of Session. The council met regularly and was particularly active during periods of a monarch's minority. A separate privy council register only appears in 1545 and probably marks the point at which the secret council split off from its parent body.

From Union of the Crowns to Union of Parliaments

After 1603 James VI was able to boast to the English Parliament that he governed Scotland 'with my pen'. The council received his written instructions and executed his will. This style of government, continued by his grandsons Charles II and James VII, was disrupted during the reign of Charles I, the Covenanters and the Cromwellian occupation. There are gaps in the register during the upheavals of 1638-41 when the council was largely displaced by an alternative administration set up by the Covenanters and during the Cromwellian period, the council ceased to act at all.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II nominated his own privy councillors and set up a council in London through which he directed affairs in Edinburgh, a situation that continued after the Revolution of 1688-9. The council survived the Act of Union but for one year only. It was abolished on 1 May 1708.

In the range of its functions the council was often more important than Parliament in the running of Scotland. The registers include a wide range of material on the political, administrative, economic and social affairs of Scotland. The council supervised the administration of the law, regulated trade and shipping, took emergency measures against the plague, granted licences to travel, administered oaths of allegiance, banished beggars and gypsies, dealt with witches, recusants, Covenanters and Jacobites and tackled the problem of lawlessness in the Highlands and the Borders.

The Records

The Register of the Privy Council has been published for the period 1545 to 1691 in three series (1877-1970). The three series cover almost all extant privy council classes.

Privy Council Records
NRS Reference Description Dates Notes
PC1 Registers of acts 1545-1707

The business of the council was recorded in two registers: those dealing with the public or state business - acta (acts) and those dealing with private litigation - decreta (decreets).
Printed Register of the Privy Council (to 1691). The acta are generally printed in full while the decreta are only calendared.

PC2 Registers of decreets 1610-1705 with gaps
PC3 Sederunt books 1598-1643 Record of councillors present at each sederunt (sitting), with occasional minutes of proceedings, including admission of new councillors. PC6/1 includes sederunts for 1576/8. Printed Register of the Privy Council (matter not in PC1 and PC2)
PC4 Minute books 1604-1631, 1696-1707 The first volume contains monthly lists of processes before the council, 1604-31, and an inventory of council registers, 1667.
PC5 Registers of royal and other letters 1553-1633 with gaps Two volumes covering 1553-72 (PC5/1-2) are not council records and belong properly to the state paper series (SP1). The council's own register commences in 1604, shortly after, and probably in consequence of, James VI's removal to England. Printed Register of the Privy Council.
PC6 Register of acts of caution 1576-1664 with gaps Parties were required to find caution (security) for various reasons, including compearance before the council and payment of fines. Until 1576 acts of caution were recorded in the 'acta' (PC1). Original bonds are preserved with the privy council papers (PC10-12). Calendared Register of the Privy Council (from 1591).
PC7 Register of Commissions 1607-1630 Commissions, in particular special commissions of justiciary; also licences to go abroad and for other purposes. The register for 1630-42 is in the National Library of Scotland (Adv. MS. 31.2.10). Calendared Register of the Privy Council.
PC8 Miscellaneous volumes 1587-1691 These are mainly concerned with the enforcement of law and order, particularly in the Highlands, Islands and Borders and include the volumes listed below
PC 8/1-3 Acts relating to Highlands, Islands and Borders 1587-1602, 1608-23 Mainly Western and Northern Isles and acts of caution only for 1635-6
PC 8/7 Register of commissioners for pacification of Highlands 1682-6  
PC 8/4 Acts of privy council anent the Borders 1602-43  
PC8/5 Court book of commissioners for Middle Shire 1622-3  
PC 8/6 Register of committee of the West 1678  
PC 8/8 Register of commission for southern shires 1684  
PC8/9-10 Register of fines 1603-31 Fines for assault, bearing of firearms, breach of the peace, etc
PC8/11 Account book of fines for resetting the clan Gregor 1612-24  
PC8/12 Register of justices of the peace 1611-39  
PC8/13 Register of the commission for grievances 1623-6 Particularly relating to monopolies and grants of patents for industrial processes
PC8/14 Depositions anent accounts due by forces to presbytery of Garioch 1691  
PC9 Inventories 1611-1703 Four volumes including missive letters 1611-23; bonds 1685-96; royal letters, proclamations, bonds etc 1689-1701 and oaths of allegiance etc 1693-1703. Printed in RPC (1690-1 only).
PC10-12 Privy council papers 1544 - 1708 Warrants of the acts and decreets, royal letters, bonds and miscellaneous papers, arranged and bound (to 1689 only) in 3 series corresponding to the volumes in which they are printed or calendared. Papers omitted from the arrangement are in PC15. Printed or calendared Register of the Privy Council (to 1691).
PC13 Proclamations 1661-1706 The texts of proclamations were normally engrossed in the register (PC1). Calendared Register of the Privy Council (1690-1 only).
PC14 Oaths of allegiance 1661-1707 Oaths of allegiance, acknowledgements of royal prerogative, tests, assurances and associations are arranged according to a contemporary inventory (PC9/4). Calendared Register of the Privy Council (1690-1 only).
PC15 Supplementary Privy Council papers 1545-1691 Two boxes. Documents found after the main series of privy council papers (PC10-12) were arranged and some previously classified as state papers. A number relate to Adam Meldrum of Urquhart's proceedings under commissions to repress disorders and conventicles in southern Scotland, 1680-3 (PC15/16-18).

Using the records

The records of the Privy Council are available at the Historical Search Room in General Register House. Those for 1545-1691 have been published and some volumes are available for purchase.

Further reading

'Guide to the National Archives of Scotland', (Stationery Office, 1996) pages 19-27.

'Acts of the Lords of Council in Public Affairs, 1501-54', edited by R K Hannay (1932)

'The Sources and Literature of Scots Law' (Stair Society, 1936), chapter 7.

'Register of the Privy Council of Scotland [1545-1691]', edited by JH Burton and others, 16 volumes (Edinburgh, 1877-1970).