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Genealogy Section







 Interpreting Scottish Records

by Diane Baptie, Professional Genealogist and Historical Researcher

Almost all Scottish records which have survived are legal. It follows therefore that their wording is very important, so as to ensure that there are no loopholes and that they cannot be misinterpreted.

Even a baptism recorded in a parish register is a legal document. It is dated, gives the names of the parties involved, states whether the child being baptised is 'lawful' or not and is often witnessed.

What to look out for in a legal document:

  1. The title. What is the document called? A Will or a Marriage Contract are self-explanatory, but what about a Factory, an Indenture or an Interdiction?

  2. Be aware of the fact that documents were seldom recorded on the day they were drawn up. Registration took place days, weeks, months and very often years later. The date at the beginning of the document is the date of recording. Look at the end of the document to find out where and when it was actually made.

  3. Note the names of the main parties involved. Is any additional information given about them, such as an occupation, place of residence, relationship to someone else?

  4. Look at the names of the witnesses at the end. They can often be relatives.

Movable and Immovable Property:

Most people are interested in whether their forebears left a will or owned property.

Testaments, Wills and Inventories (Movable Property)

Testamentary documents can also be called Deeds of Settlement, Trust Dispositions, Mutual Dispositions and Bonds of Provision, for example. These types of documents are generally found in the Registers of Deeds of the Commissary Courts; Sheriff Courts and Books of Council and Session (all held at the National Archives of Scotland).

Before 1823:

Before 1823, Testaments were recorded in the Commissary Courts. Here Testament does not mean Will. If there is a will, it is called a Testament Testamentar. If not, it is called a Testament Dative and will only consist of an Inventory.

Up until the middle of the 19th century, only movable goods, i.e. possessions and money could be bequeathed (see Sasines below).

The widow is called the 'relict'.

If the deceased left children, they will be named in order of birth.

If he or she had children by more than one wife, this is usually indicated.

After 1823:

After 1823, Wills and Inventories were recorded either separately or together in Registers of the Sheriff Courts of each county.

All Testaments, Wills and Inventories and their relevant Indexes, apart from those of Orkney and Shetland Sheriff Courts (held at the Archives at Kirkwall and Lerwick respectively) are housed in the National Archives of Scotland. The Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) has recently begun a million pound programme to create a single index of Scottish wills up to 1876 which will ultimately appear on the Internet.

Property Records - Sasines (Immovable Property)

Land-holding in Scotland was and still is feudal, i.e. there was an overlord or superior and his vassal. Each time land changed hands, permission had to be obtained from the superior in the form of a 'precept' (letter). The letter was then shown to the 'bailie' (official) of the particular lands who then gave title to the new owner. This took place on the actual property, where the new owner was given a handful of earth and stone or if in a burgh, took hold of the handle of the door and thereby became 'infeft' or 'seised' in the property. An Instrument of Sasine was then recorded in the Register of the county in which the land lay.

Sasines Registers begin in 1617. There is a Particular Register for each county and a General Register for the whole country.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, land could not be bequeathed, but descended according to fixed rules. The eldest son inherited, whom failing his eldest son and so on. If there were no male heirs, then a female could inherit.

It must be remembered that land belonged to a very small proportion of the population - the landowners. There are two little words which make it easy to tell whether someone owned land or not. They are 'of' and 'in'. A landowner was always recorded as 'of' a particular property. Someone who lived on that land, but did not own it, was always designed as 'in' that particular property.

While a landowner was alive, his heir was known as 'younger of' or 'fiar of' the land - 'fiar' meaning that he was due to inherit the property in 'fee' (forever). The widow would get the 'liferent' (use of the property for life).

Indexes to the Sasines prior to 1781 vary. After 1781, there are Abridgements with Person and Places Indexes which make for a much shorter search.

Royal Burghs, such as Edinburgh and Stirling, among many others, had to right to keep their own Registers of Sasines in which property transactions within the boundaries of the burgh were recorded.

There are other sources of Property, such as Valuation Rolls from 1855, Services of Heirs (for land held directly from the Crown); the Register of the Great Seal and the Privy Seal (charters); Notarial Protocol Books which predate the Registers of Sasines, to name the main ones.

All the above records, apart from a few of the Burgh Sasines are housed at the National Archives of Scotland.

Landowners' Papers (Gift Deposits)

Many land-owning families have deposited their family papers in the National Archives of Scotland, National Library of Scotland or Local Archives. A useful source for finding out whether and where papers have been deposited is through the National Archives 

While the papers deal mainly with the affairs of the family, they can also be useful for finding people who were 'in' a particular place. This information can be found in Rentals which list the tenants who leased land from the landowner and Tacks which record those leases.

Some other hints:

  • In Scottish records, a woman always retains her maiden surname.

  • 'Mr' or 'Master' indicates that the person was a graduate of a University.

  • Brother or sister 'german' means a true brother or sister, i.e. from the same seed.

  • Brother or sister 'consanguine' means a half brother or sister, i.e. from the same blood.

  • A 'natural' child is a child born out of wedlock.

  • Only son or daughter 'in life' means that all the other children of the family have died.


Always try to seek out original sources. There is nothing more thrilling than finding an original document with your forebear's name on it. Don't rely solely on printed sources, especially if no original sources are given. Many authors are lazy and just copy from one another. Quite often, they copy incorrectly. It should also be realised that there is a lot of unindexed material and so much is still hidden.


Diane Baptie is a Scottish genealogical and historical researcher. Please contact her by email or visit her web page for additional information about her services.






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