Scotland Probate Records
Probate records are court records dealing with the distribution of a person’s estate after death. Information recorded may include the death date, names of heirs and guardian, relationships, residences, inventories of the estate (including household goods), and names of witnesses.
These records are very helpful because probate actions were recorded long before birth, marriage, and death registration.
Probate records were not created for every person who died. They were made primarily by the middle and upper classes, most of whom were nobility, gentry, merchants, or tradesmen. However, probate records are a very valuable source not to be overlooked.
General Historical Background
In Scotland before 1868, it was not possible to leave land to a person by using a will. It was only possible to give other types of property, known as moveable property, by means of a testament. There are two types of testaments:
- If a person died leaving a testament that named an executor, the document confirming that executorship and the attached testament is called a testament-testamentar.
- If a person died without leaving a testament and the court appointed an executor to administer the estate, then the confirming document is called a testament- dative.
To inherit unmovable property such as land, heirs had to prove in court their right to inherit. The records granting these rights are called services of heirs. Records of actual transfers of land are called sasines. You will find more information about these records in the "Land and Property" section of this outline.
Determining the Court
Before the Scottish Reformation and the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in 1592, confirmation of testaments was the prerogative of Episcopal (bishop’s) courts. Their subordinates, called official or commissariat courts actually carried out the probate function.
After the reformation in 1560, fifteen commissariats were established by royal authority. The principal commissariat court was in Edinburgh, and it had both local and general jurisdiction. The territorial extent of the commissariat courts paid little attention to county boundaries.
To help you determine which commissariat court had jurisdiction over which parishes and counties, see the following guides:
Testaments and Commissariat Records of Scotland. Salt Lake City, Utah: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1972. (FHL book 941 P2gs; fiche 6054479.)
Cecil Sinclair. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestry Research in the Scottish Record Office. Edinburgh, Scotland: Her Magesty’s Stationery Office, 1990. (FHL book 941 D27s).
After 1823, testaments were proven by commissariat departments within the sheriff courts. The boundaries of these courts’ jurisdictions are the same as the county boundaries, but the names of the courts are not necessarily the same as the names of the counties.
To determine a court after 1823 you need only know in which county your ancestor lived. You can then use the records of the sheriff court for that county. Lists of the counties and their sheriff courts are found in the guides mentioned previously.
In 1876 the commissariats were absorbed by the sheriff courts, which now handle executory matters.
Finding Probate Records
The original records of the commissariat and sheriff courts are housed at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh (see the "Archives and Libraries" section for the address).
The Family History Library has microfilm copies of the commissariat court records to 1823 and some sheriff court records. To find these records, look in the Locality Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
Scotland -- Probate records
Scotland, [County] -- Probate records
You may also access probate records online through the ScotlandsPeople web site (see Indexes below). You must register to use the website. Once you have found a probate of interest in the index, you may pay to view a copy of the probate records if you wish, then you can print it on your computer.
Indexes to Probate Records
To find a probate record of interest, you should first search an index. Scottish probate records, for 1513-1901, are indexed online on the ScotlandsPeople website. It is free to search the index.
Other printed and microfilmed indexes are available at the Family History Library. To find them listed in the library's catalog, do a Place search for:
Scotland -- Probate records--Indexes
Scotland, [County] -- Probate records--Indexes
Difficulties in Finding a Probate Record
If you have difficulty locating a probate record, keep these points in mind:
- Only a small percentage of the population of Scotland left testaments.
- A person’s pre-1823 testament could have been proved in the Commissary Court of Edinburgh even though he or she lived elsewhere in the country.
- A person’s post-1823 testament could have been proved in the Sheriff Court of Edinburgh even though he or she lived elsewhere in the country.
- A person who died outside of Scotland but who owned property within Scotland would have his or her testament proved in an Edinburgh court or the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
- Testaments for women may be under their maiden name.
Learn More About Probate Records
To read more about Scottish probate records, go to the appropriate pages on these websites:
Return to the Scotland Portal page.