Scotland Court Records
Court records are a very useful but complex source of information. There are many different courts and courts within courts.
Your ancestors could have been litigants in cases that were brought before any of the courts described below. However, if your ancestors were involved in a court case, it was most likely in the Court of Session (described under "National Courts") or the sheriff courts (described under "Local Courts").
Types of Courts
Court of Session. The highest civil court in Scotland is the Court of Session. Its records, dating from 1478, are vast and complex and include:
- Registers of Acts and Decreets (the judgments)
- Minute books of the same
- Extracted and unextracted processes (filed claims that may or may not have gone to trial)
- Productions (recorded evidence)
Checking the minute books is one way to find information in national court records. There are two types of minute books:
- The general minute books list all cases that came before the court.
- Particular minute books list cases before a particular office within the court.
The minute books are arranged chronologically and list each legal action by the surnames of the opposing parties.
- They give enough details about a case to let you know whether it is of interest to you.
- The minute books are in manuscript form before 1782 and printed form after that date.
- The printed minute books are indexed and have been published annually.
Privy Council. Until 1707, the Privy Council dealt with high-profile cases sent from the Court of Session. Since 1707, the Privy Council has served only as administrator of the Court of Session.
Admiralty Court. The Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over all maritime and seafaring cases, both civil and criminal, until 1830, when its civil jurisdiction was transferred to the Court of Session.
Court of the Exchequer. Between 1708 and 1856 the Court of Exchequer dealt with revenue cases, including debts to the crown. After 1856, its jurisdiction was transferred to the Court of Session.
Sheriff Courts. Each county in Scotland falls under the jurisdiction of at least one sheriff court.
- A sheriff court may have jurisdiction over all or part of a county.
- Sheriff courts deal with local civil and criminal matters.
- Since 1823 they have also dealt with executory matters.
- Each sheriff court keeps its own records and maintains a repertory, or inventory, of records, and minute books.
Commissary Courts. Commissary courts dealt with executory and civil matters until 1823. Most of the civil matters concerned debt.
Burgh Courts. Burgh courts tried minor offences within the royal burghs.
Justice of the Peace Courts. Justice of peace courts had both civil and criminal jurisdiction but were not used as often as the sheriff courts or the justiciary courts. Surviving records are sparse.
Franchise Courts.Franchise courts, which include regality, barony, stewartry, and bailiary courts.
- Were those granted by the crown to specific landowners who could hold court in their own lands
- Administer justice over their own tenants
- Most were abolished in 1747.
- Surviving records are unindexed and difficult to use.
The Stair Society has published justiciary court records for Argyll and the Isles for 1664 to 1742, and barony and regality court records for Falkirk and Callendar for 1638 to 1656. (941 B4st vols. 12, 25, and 38.) The first two volumes are also on microfilm 0990279 item 3.
Criminal cases are tried by either the High Court of Justiciary and its circuit courts (with records dating from 1488) or by one of the local courts, depending on the nature of the case (see the previous section, "Local Courts," for information about these courts).
An important type of criminal record is precognitions, which are the statements of evidence from witnesses. Precognitions for more serious crimes are preserved among the Lord Advocate’s records, but few survive before 1812. They are indexed to 1900.
The High Court and circuit courts also have minute books, which report details of the trials. Records of criminals who were transported are among the justiciary court records.
Divorce has been possible in Scotland since 1560. Until 1830, divorce fell under the jurisdiction of the Commissary Court of Edinburgh. You can find an indexed catalog of divorce cases in:
Scottish Record Society. Commissariat of Edinburgh: Consistorial Processes and Decreets, 1658-1800. Edinburgh, Scotland: J. Skinner, 1909. (FHL book 941 B4sr vol. 34.)
The actual records are at the Scottish Record Office at http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/ in Edinburgh. Indexes for 1800 to 1830 are also available at that office.
Since 1830, the Court of Session has had jurisdiction over divorce. These records are available at the Scottish Record Office and are open to the public to 1912. There are minute books and indexes to the records.
The Family History Library does not have divorce records for Scotland.
Finding Court Records
The Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh has most of Scotland’s court records. Many of the records are indexed or otherwise inventoried. The records, indexes, inventories, and minute books are open to the public up to about 1912.
The Family History Library has copies of published and microfilmed minute books, repertories, and so forth. These include such records for the Court of Session (for 1805 to 1955) and some of the sheriff and burgh courts.
To find court records look in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
SCOTLAND - COURT RECORDS
SCOTLAND - COURT RECORDS - INDEXES
SCOTLAND [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS
SCOTLAND [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS - INDEXES
For More Information
For more information about Scottish court records and their use, see:
Sinclair, Cecil. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestry Research in the Scottish Record Office. Edinburgh, Scotland: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1990. (FHL book 941 D27s.)
Moody, David. Scottish Local History: An Introductory Guide, 1986. London, England: B. T. Batsford. (FHL book 941 D27m.)