Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksThe Scottish Courts : Maze of Records

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

While the predominant U.S. records for genealogical research were created at, and can generally be found in, one location, the County Courthouse, Scottish genealogical resources do not necessarily have the benefit of a ‘one-stop shop.’ The equivalent of a County Courthouse does not exist in Scotland, or England, which instead have many various levels of local courts, formerly or currently in existence, where various records may be found. Additionally, the Scottish Court system operates differently and independently from the court system of England and other parts of the United Kingdom.

In Scotland, for the most part, the buildings that house courts of law are simply called “courts” or “court buildings”. But that isn’t necessarily always the case, depending upon the type of court, its specialty function, and/or if in fact it has a formal designation.

Like in the U.S., there is also a distinction between Criminal Courts, courts related to criminal activity, and Civil Courts, courts related to daily legal requirements of property, person, various activities etc., ie. lawsuits, business, land, probate (called confirmation in Scottish courts) and more.

As always, it is incumbent upon the researcher to know the county of residence of an ancestor, learn about the ever-fluctuating jurisdictional lines and sub-levels of jurisdictions within that county, the different types of courts, the types of records generated, whether those records still exist, and where they might be accessible today.

While in modern times, the Scottish court system has mostly been somewhat simplified at the local level, the changing dynamics of Scottish history, and its separate yet intertwined relationship with England, can make identifying and locating genealogical resources of Scotland extremely complex. There are many different courts, and courts within courts. Therefore, a specific court must be identified according to the period of historical time, the various levels of jurisdictions for that time, the relevancy of the type of record required or desired, and much more.

Just to be clear, most historic records might be centralized for access, such as at a National Archives, in the case of Scotland called ‘National Records of Scotland’; resulting from the 2011 merger of the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS). However, in any aspect of genealogy, in order to understand how the records are organized and then locate them at the resource facility, it is still necessary to know the locality, the courts system for that locality, the various sub-levels of jurisdiction, and what records are associated with the specified courts and/or jurisdiction.

Because of this varied and unique circumstance of the Scottish Courts, and the types of records generated accordingly, it will be more beneficial, in future articles, to discuss in detail the specific types of Scottish resources that most benefit genealogists, and there identify the proper associated court or courts, and where those records may be located today.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.