National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Sheriff Court Records

Sheriff Court Records

National Records of Scotland (NRS) receives regular deposits of records from the Scottish sheriff courts, the earliest of which is from Cupar Sheriff Court written in 1515.

Early development

The sheriff was a royal official appointed to help the king establish control in the localities. The first mention of a sheriff in Scotland occurs in the reign of David I (1124-53). Sheriffs performed a wide variety of duties, administrative, financial, military as well as judicial. Judicially, the sheriffs dealt with both civil and criminal cases and appeals as well as first-time cases. Unfortunately, the Crown's practice of appointing powerful barons to the office meant the barons used the office to profit themselves, not the king. Increasingly the office became hereditary. A further problem was the development of a competing system of courts, principally the courts of regality or 'little kingdoms' in which Scottish lords could try any crime except treason and in whose running the sheriffs played no part.

The sixteenth century to the Act of Union

The period is characterised by the frustrated attempts of the Crown to remedy the abuses and inefficiencies of the sheriffs. An act of 1506 declared that the king had the power to create sheriffdoms as he saw fit. A further act of 1540 attempted with some success to professionalise the workings of the court by ordering that the sheriffs follow the procedure of the Court of Session. In 1587 and intermittently throughout the following century, the Crown tried to use justices of the peace to bring law and order to the localities. Unfortunately, the relative weakness of the Crown in Scotland allied to the intense conservatism of the Scottish legal system meant that most of these reforms lacked teeth. The granting of heritable sheriffdoms actually increased during the reign of Charles II (1660-85) in gratitude for his restoration to the throne.

The Act of Union to 1975

By 1700 sheriffs heard most of the civil and criminal cases in Scotland, yet 21 out of 33 sheriffdoms were held on a hereditary basis. The government lacked the will to intervene until the Jacobite rising of 1745-6, which prompted it, from 1748, to abolish most hereditary offices and heritable (non-royal) jurisdictions. Salaried sheriff deputes who were qualified advocates (members of the Scottish Bar) were now placed in charge of sheriff courts, aided by their own deputies, the sheriffs-substitute. Neither office was new but they came to form the backbone of the county judicial system. Although the criminal powers of sheriffs were reduced during the nineteenth century, particularly in some types of capital cases, the growth of the Scottish population, allied to growing pressures on the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court, led to new legal and administrative responsibilities being given to sheriffs. Jurisdiction in small debt cases, testamentary matters, maritime cases and bankruptcies were all added to the sheriffs' workload during the nineteenth century. The deputes and substitutes were the forerunners of the modern sheriffs and sheriffs principal who currently preside over 6 sheriffdoms and 49 sheriff court districts. Sheriffs have continued to acquire new functions during the twentieth century, most notably in recent times in the field of divorce.

For information on the modern sheriff courts visit the Scottish Court Service website.

The records

Sheriff courts in Scotland are second only in importance to the supreme civil and criminal courts. Their records, dating from the 16th century, contain an enormous range of civil, criminal and administrative material (material that is often overlooked). A summary of the main records is listed below.

Court books, registers and processes

Brief details of cases coming before the court as well as records of administrative matters. Processes later than 1860 are weeded in terms of a statutory instrument.

Workmen's compensation

The Workmen's Compensation Act, 1897 (c.37) awarded compensation to employees injured in the course of employment. The system was ended by the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act, 1946 (c.67).

Fatal accident inquiries

In Scotland Fatal Accident Inquiries have been held since 1895 into fatal accidents in the workplace and cases of sudden death where public interest was involved, but not into deaths by suicide. Not all records of sheriff court fatal accident inquiries have survived. The records of each inquiry are gradually being individually listed as part of a recataloguing programme. For more information see our guide on Fatal Accident Inquiry records.

Sequestration records

Sheriff courts were given jurisdiction along with the Court of Session in bankruptcy procedure (sequestration) by the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act, 1839 (c.41). For more information see our guide on Court of Session sequestrations.

Criminal records

Records of criminal cases are in the main series of registers and processes until the end of the 19th century. The records also contain the registers of Juvenile Courts set up by the 1908 Children Act (c.67).

Registers of deeds and protests

These contain legal documents registered for preservation and execution. In older courts they generally start in the seventeenth century. For more information see our guide on deeds.

Commissary records

From the 1820s wills and related papers were registered at the sheriff courts. The registers contain wills, inventories of the deceased's goods and the court's confirmation of the executors. For more information see our guide on wills and testaments.

Services of heirs

Sheriff courts held inquests to determine claimants' rights to heritable property and the decisions were sent to chancery. Some records of these inquests survive showing the relationship between claimant and deceased.

Register of improvements to entailed estates

Under the Montgomery Act of 1770 (c.51), owners of entailed estates were allowed to charge their estates with three-quarters of the cost of improvements made. Intimation of intended improvements and a record of expenditure on them had to be registered in the sheriff court.

Fiars courts

Fiars were the official prices of grain fixed by the sheriffs. The records begin in the 17th century and include lists of jurors, notes of their evidence and the prices struck. For more information see 'Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland, 1550-1780' by A J S Gibson and T C Smout (1994).

Corn law returns

Between 1773 and 1821 sheriffs were required to convene a number of local people periodically to decide grain prices in the county. The records give names of jurors and prices returned.

Private legislation papers: public utilities

Under the Commissioners' Clauses Act, 1847 (c.16), commissioners of public undertakings were required to lodge a copy of their annual accounts with the sheriff court. Such records as survive usually result from applications by local authorities relating to railways, water and electricity supplies.

Freeholders' records

Details of freeholders, men who owned land or other heritable property and were entitled to vote before the 1832 Reform Act, are kept and for some courts survive from the 17th century.

Post 1832 electoral records

Electoral registers for the following:

  • Caithness 1832-60 (SC14/64)
  • Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire 1832-62 (SC64/63)
  • Cromartyshire 1832-3 (SC24/21)
  • Inverness-shire 1832-72 (SC29/71)
  • Kirkcudbrightshire 1832-62 (SC16/68)
  • Linlithgowshire 1837(SC41/99)
  • Nairnshire 1847-73 (SC31/60)
  • Peeblesshire 1832-61(SC42/44)
  • Roxburghshire 1832-46 (SC62/73)
  • Selkirkshire 1832-61(SC63/61)
  • Stirlingshire 1832-62 (SC67/61)
  • Wigtownshire 1832-61 (SC19/64)

Other rolls are in burgh records.

Commissioners of supply

Set up in 1667 to collect the cess (land tax) although they also dealt with roads and bridges. Abolished in 1930, they effectively ceased with the reform of local government and the establishment of county councils in 1889.

Lieutenancy and militia records

Under the Militia Acts of 1797 (c.103) and 1802 (c.91), the lords lieutenants were responsible for raising local militia. Sheriff court records may contain minutes of lieutenancy meetings, muster rolls and returns of militia.

Records of heritable jurisdictions

Under the Heritable Jurisdictions Act of 1746 (c.43), most courts of heritable jurisdiction such as regality courts were abolished and their jurisdiction and records transferred to sheriff courts. Records of several regality courts and some bailie courts survive in the sheriff court series. The catalogue of the local court series (RH11) contains an appendix of such material in other record groups and is available in the Historical Search Room.

Plans (NRS refrence RHP)

Information on plans from sheriff court records and other collections can be found in the guide to topographical, architectural and engineering plans.

Not all sheriff court records are preserved, as current legislation allows for the weeding (selective destruction) of some types of records. However, NRS does keep a record in some form of each case heard in sheriff courts. The records for Orkney and Shetland are held by the archive services there. Note that most records are transferred to the NRS after 25 years and are otherwise held by the sheriff court.

Sheriff Court Records by county

  • Aberdeenshire - Aberdeen SC1 and Peterhead SC4
  • Angus (Forfarshire ) - Arbroath SC43, Dundee SC45 and Forfar SC47
  • Argyll - Campbeltown SC50, Dunoon SC51, Fort William (Argyll) SC52 (closed 1938), Inveraray SC54 (closed 1903), Oban SC57 and Tobermory SC59 (closed 1905)
  • Ayrshire - Ayr SC6 and Kilmarnock SC7
  • Banffshire - Banff SC2
  • Berwickshire - Duns SC60
  • Buteshire - Rothesay SC8
  • Caithness - Wick SC14
  • Clackmannanshire - Alloa SC64
  • Dumfriesshire - Dumfries SC15
  • Dunbartonshire - Dumbarton SC65
  • East Lothian (Haddingtonshire) - Haddington SC40
  • Edinburgh City - Edinburgh SC39 and Leith SC69 (closed 1920)
  • Fife - Cupar SC20, Dunfermline SC21 and Kirkcaldy SC23
  • Glasgow City - Glasgow SC36 and Paisley SC58
  • Inverness-shire - Fort William (Inverness-shire) SC28, Inverness SC29, Lochmaddy SC30 and Portree SC32
  • Kincardineshire - Stonehaven SC5
  • Kinross-shire - Kinross SC22 (closed 1975)
  • Kirkcudbrightshire - Dumfries (Kirkcudbright) SC17 (closed 1941) and Kirkcudbright SC16 (1623-1961)
  • Lanarkshire - Airdrie SC35, Glasgow SC36, Hamilton SC37 and Lanark SC38
  • Midlothian (Edinburghshire) - Edinburgh SC39
  • Moray (Elginshire) - Elgin SC26
  • Nairnshire - Nairn SC31 (closed 1977)
  • Orkney - Kirkwall SC11 (held in Kirkwall) and Orkney & Shetland SC10 (17th century only)
  • Peebleshire - Peebles SC42
  • Perthshire - Dunblane SC44 (closed 1975) and Perth SC49
  • Renfrewshire - Greenock SC53 and Paisley SC58&
  • Ross and Cromarty -Cromarty SC24 (closed 1934), Dingwall SC25, Stornoway SC33 and Tain SC34
  • Roxburghshire - Hawick SC61 and Jedburgh SC62
  • Selkirkshire - Selkirk SC63
  • Shetland - Lerwick SC12 (held in Lerwick) and Orkney & Shetland SC10 (17th century only)
  • Stirlingshire - Falkirk SC66 and Stirling SC67
  • Sutherland - Dornoch SC9
  • West Lothian (Linlithgowshire) - Linlithgow SC41
  • Wigtownshire - Stranraer SC18 and Wigtown SC19 (closed 1975)

Using the records of sheriff courts

Adoption records, consistorial (family) actions, and materials relating to criminal trials are closed for 100 years for data protection reasons. Other sheriff court papers are open to the public.

Certain series are searchable, such as the registers of testaments up to 1925, which have been digitally imaged and are available through the ScotlandsPeople website as well as in the NRS search rooms. (There is a guide to wills and testaments which gives more information on using the records). Post-1860 civil actions are gradually being individually listed as part of a recataloguing programme. Searching other court records can be frustrating because most remain unindexed.

There can be large gaps within individual series, particularly for earlier periods. Additionally, sometimes a particular type of record (such as the ejection of tenants from estates) is logged in a special register at a later date, but lumped in with other types of records for earlier years. There can also be a degree of overlap with Court of Session cases, for example in the records of people appointed to handle the affairs of lunatics and minors.

Some sheriff courts have now closed and their functions were absorbed by neighbouring courts. If no trace of a case is initially found, bear in mind that the jurisdictions of sheriff courts varied at different periods, eg the overlap of the boundaries of the Argyll and Inverness-shire sheriff courts at Fort William (NRS reference SC28 and SC52).

Further reading

  • Isabel A Milne, 'The sheriff court: Before the sixteenth century' and C A Malcolm, 'The sheriff court: Sixteenth century and later' in 'An Introduction to Scottish Legal History' (Stair Society, 1958)
  • Richard Muir, 'The Development of Sheriffdoms' in Peter McNeill and Ranald Nicholson (editors), 'An Historical Atlas of Scotland c.400 - c.1600' (Atlas Committee of Scottish Medievalists, 1975)
  • Sheriff David B Smith, 'The sheriff court' in Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia, 6, (The Law Society of Scotland, 1988)
  • Ann E Whetstone, 'Scottish county government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries' (Edinburgh, 1981)