Scotland Poor Law

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

The care of the poor has been a concern to government, community, and religious leaders since the beginning of time. In Scotland, though the government passed an act addressing the relief of the poor as early as 1424, it was the church and community leaders who cared for the poor within their parish or community. Further government legislation was passed at times to provide more direction, but it was not until 1845 that a major change was made to the system. The majority of poor law records are not available online. Instead, they must be accessed at the National Records of Scotland or the various local archives around Scotland. However, some local authorities provide online indexes to their poor relief records, while others, such as North Lanarkshire's, are partly available via Ancestry or other subscription websites.

Care of the Poor Before 1845[edit | edit source]

In 1579, a statute was passed that stated that all parishes were responsible for their own poor and only certain categories of poor were entitled to poor relief, mainly the aged and the sick. Also, the parish responsible for taking care of the poor was the parish where they had lived for seven years or the parish of their birth.

The parish authorities responsible for the poor were the kirk sessions (parish court) and the heritors (landowners of the parish). The kirk session was responsible for maintaining good order among the congregation (including administering discipline) and implementing the acts of the Church. Heritors were responsible for the maintenance of the parish church, the dwelling house and support of the minister, and the school.[1] Both the kirk session and the heritors of each parish were responsible for poor relief in the parish. Support usually involved a weekly or monthly cash handout or fuel, medicine, or the payment of school fees. Because the overlapping responsibilities of the kirk sessions and heritors, the poor were mentioned in the records created by both entities. [2][3]

Kirk session minutes usually survive to the 1600s. These minutes frequently list disbursements to the poor, such as the names of paupers and the amount of money each received. Most are held at the National Records of Scotland, but some can be found in local archives.[4] Heritor records vary in the type of information they contain, but almost every family in the parish shows up in them at one time or another. Because the parish received its funds by assessing (taxing) the heritors, these records also contain assessment rolls that list the land owners and the value of their property. You will also find lists of inhabitants and poor persons. Heritor records are held at the National Records of Scotland. It is advisable to look at the records of both the kirk sessions and heritors when researching poor relief. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide and The Poor Law in Scotland Before 1845 research guide.

This system worked relatively well in rural areas, but was not equipped to deal with large, urban areas. In 1843, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to develop a new way to take care of the poor.

Poor Law After 1845[edit | edit source]

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1845 changed how poor relief was distributed. It established parochial boards for all parishes. The parochial boards were responsible for distributing poor relief to the poor of their parish ("outdoor relief") and building poorhouses for paupers to reside ("indoor relief").

Online Resources[edit | edit source]

Parochial Boards[edit | edit source]

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1845 created parochial boards in each parish that would administer poor relief. These boards created many records that listed biographical information about the poor of the parish. The records are very beneficial in genealogical research. There was some overlap between the records of the parochial boards, heritors, and kirk sessions up to 1870, so it would be beneficial to look at all of these records to find information about those receiving poor relief in Scotland. The National Records of Scotland hold some of these, but the majority of these records can be found in local archives. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide and the Poor Relief Registers research guide.

General Registers of Poor[edit | edit source]

Beginning in 1845, each parochial board was required to keep a roll of the poor in the parish who received support (called "Registers of Poor"). Paupers could only be admitted to the poor roll by order of the parochial board. The roll was revised annually. The registers contained basic information about each pauper, including name, residence, marital status, age, birthplace, occupation, if disabled (and how), financial circumstances, and the decision of the parochial board on how to deal with them.[5]

In 1865, General Registers of Poor were instituted. As before, parochial boards were still required to keep a roll of all the poor in their parish who received support, but now more information was kept about those paupers. One of the biggest changes from the old registers is that any mention of the same individual pauper would be kept on the same form (instead of on multiple papers). These forms would contain short biographies of the paupers kept over (sometimes) decades. Information about those who applied for relief but were not successful may also be included. These records contain information such as:

  • name
  • age
  • birthplace
  • marital status
  • residence
  • occupation
  • family members names, ages, birth places, and residences
  • amount of relief given
  • physical and financial condition
  • religious denomination
  • names, ages, and earnings of husband or children and (possibly) other relatives

Besides this information, general registers may also contain medical information, family correspondence, news clippings, and even photographs. These registers lasted until the end of the poor law in 1948.[6] Information about an illegitimate birth may be mentioned in the "Change of Circumstance" column.

Registers and general registers of the poor are generally found in local archives. For a list of local archives with contact information, go to and click on the Directory. The National Records of Scotland hold some of the general registers for East Lothian, Midlothian, and Wigtownshire. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide and the Poor Relief Registers research guide.

Children's Separate Registers[edit | edit source]

In 1865, Children's Separate Registers were introduced. These were kept for children who had been separated from their parents, usually by being orphaned, deserted, or being boarded out from large towns to rural areas. These contained the same information and can be found in the same locations as General Registers (discussed above).[7]

Applications for Relief[edit | edit source]

Applications for poor relief were kept as a different record. Between 1845 and 1865, they contained the same information as registers of the poor. After 1865, they are considerably less detailed then the new general registers. However, these applications contain more names of paupers than those on the registers, as not every pauper was given poor relief. These applications survive better than the registers.[8]

The records of the parochial boards are mostly found in regional archives and libraries. For a list of archives with contact information, go to and click on the Directory. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide and the Poor Relief Registers research guide. To find out more about the records of the parochial board, read:

  • Withers, Charles W.J. "Poor Relief in Scotland and the General Register of Poor." The Local Historian. 17 no. 1 (Feb. 1986): 19-28. (Family History Library book 942 B2ah.)

Poorhouses[edit | edit source]

Poorhouses were built and run by the parochial boards of each parish. Poorhouses were for paupers who did not receive "outdoor relief" (usually small weekly sums of money). The regime, diet, and living conditions of poorhouses were severe, so as to discourage applications from those who could rely on family support. Poorhouses provided medical and nursing care for the elderly and sick at a time when private medical treatment would have been too expensive for the poor.

The records kept by poorhouses included: a register of inmates with details (including inmates' religious persuasion), a journal (which was an official log book), and a report book of offences against the rules and the punishments imposed. For many poorhouses, only the minute books of the managing committee remain. These are usually held by the local archives. A few poorhouses still have a substantial amount of records, including the register of inmates. These are also held by the local archives. If the poorhouse became a hospital, the original records are likely preserved and held by the health board archive.[9] For more information about poorhouses, visit the Scottish Poorhouses research guide.

Other Records[edit | edit source]

Sheriff Courts[edit | edit source]

Applicants who were denied relief by the parish could take their case to the sheriff courts, so you may find information on your ancestor in the records of the sheriff’s court. Some of these records are at the National Records of Scotland. Some could still be with the sheriff’s court or in the regional archives or local libraries. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide.

Hospitals and Charities[edit | edit source]

Hospitals and charities were created after the parish system of providing poor relief was found to be inadequate. Records may list the names of paupers, names of those receiving poor relief or pensions, and minute books listing donations to the poor. Some of these records can be found at the National Records of Scotland. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide.

Courtesy of the Historic Hospital Admission Records Department (HHARP): Database of admission records for the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow: 1883-1903. This database also includes admmissions for three London hospitals: The Hospital for Sick children at Great Ormond Street, the Evelina Hospital and the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Disease: 1852-1914.

Destitution Boards[edit | edit source]

Destitution boards were created after 1846 to deal with the widespread poverty in the Highlands. Between 1847 and 1852, the board distributed meals in return for work. The records of the Destitution Board contain registers with the names and ages of those receiving poor relief in the Highlands. For more information, visit the Poor Relief Records research guide.

Family History Library[edit | edit source]

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has very few poor law records. One notable collection is for Glasgow. To see if the Library has records for the city or parish you are interested in, look in the FamilySearch Catalog under:


Websites[edit | edit source]

This is a great website where you can learn about poorhouses (called "workhouses" in England), what they are, how they came to be, what children did, the diets and schedule of an inmate. It also gives information about the poor law. To learn more about the poor law in Scotland, click on "Poor Laws" and then "Scotland." To learn more about the poorhouses and almshouses of Scotland, click on "Workhouse Locations" and click on either "Scottish Poorhouses" or "Scottish Almshouses". "Scottish Poorhouses" will give the history of poorhouses and list the poorhouses in Scotland by county. "Scottish Almshouses" will give the history of almshouses and list the almshouses in Scotland by county. Every poorhouse and almshouse links to a new page with information about that particular place, pictures, maps, and where to find the records. Remember that some poorhouses may involve one or more areas and so it would do good to have an old map of the area and time period to know where to look.
The Scottish Archives Network is a free website that provides information and help in doing research in Scotland. The website provides a list of all the local Scottish archives with links to those archives. This list can be found at The Directory. It also has a Knowledge Base with research guides about various record types and topics, including Poor Relief. The website has a Virtual Vault: Poor Relief Records with information and sample images of various poor relief records.
The National Records of Scotland is the largest archive of Scottish records. Not only does it house these records, but it contains many research guides to help users know more about the records and how to access them. The Poor Relief Records research guide explains the history of the poor law and the poor law records the NRS has.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Scottish Archive Network, "Heritors' minutes,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  2. Scottish Archive Network, "The Poor Law in Scotland Before 1845,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  3. Scottish Archive Network, "Kirk session records,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  4. Scottish Archive Network, "Kirk session records,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  5. Scottish Archive Network, "Registers of Poor,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  6. Scottish Archive Network, "General Registers of the Poor,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  7. Scottish Archive Network, "Children's Separate Registers,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  8. Scottish Archive Network, "Applications of Relief,", accessed 3 August 2018.
  9. Scottish Archive Network, "Scottish Poorhouses,", accessed 3 August 2018.