Scotland Historical Geography

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Learning about the places where your ancestors lived helps you understand the records about them. Local histories and gazetteers contain information about:

  • Place names
  • Spellings
  • Other pertinent information
  • Changes in the land and community in which people lived.

Unlike place names in other European countries, many place names in Scotland have not changed for hundreds of years.

Geographically, Scotland is divided into several regions, which include:

  • The borderlands with England
  • The lowlands
  • The highlands
  • The islands (to the west and north of Scotland).

These regions were historically divided into thirty-four counties (see below). In addition, there are seven cities--Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Stirling and Perth--which received their status from the government by letters patent.

Books[edit | edit source]

The following books explain more about Scottish historical geography. You can find these and similar materials at the Family History Library and many other research libraries.

McNeill, Peter, and Ranald Nicholson, eds. 'An Historical Atlas of Scotland, c. 400-c. 1600'. St. Andrews, Scotland: Atlas Committee of the Conference of Scottish Medievalists, 1975. (Family History Library book 941 E3ha.) This book contains many maps to illustrate population movements, settlement patterns, battles, and other important events in Scotland.

Whittington, G., and I.D. Whittington, eds. 'An Historical Geography of Scotland'. London, England: New York: Academic Press, 1983. (Family History Librarybook 941 E3sg.) This is a good overall review of Scotland’s historical geography.

Gilbert, Martin. 'British History Atlas'. New York: Macmillan Co., 1968. (Family History Library book 942 E3bri.)This national historical atlas contains maps to illustrate population movements, railways, battles, plagues, and more.

You can find other sources in the Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:



Maps are also very valuable for determining historical geography.  See Scotland Maps for more information.

County Changes Made in 1974[edit | edit source]

In 1974 the British government reorganized the counties of Scotland. Twelve areas, called regions, were created from the original thirty-four counties. See Scotland Counties for the changes.

These changes should not seriously affect genealogical research, but be aware of the following issues:

  • Current maps show the new boundaries.
  • Current addresses are located in the new counties. The addresses in this outline use the current county structure.

If you are looking for a parish, city, or regional office that houses records, you will need to know the current address and the areas covered by the repository.

You should begin with the pre-1974 county name when you start your genealogical research. Below is a list of the new counties with an indication of the old counties they cover.

New Region (County) Old Counties
Borders Berwick,Peebles,Roxburgh,Selkirk, and a small part of Midlothian
Central Clackmannan, parts of Perth and WestLothian, and most of Stirling
Dumfries and Galloway Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Wigtown
Fife Fife
Grampian Aberdeen, Kincardine, Banff, and most of Moray
Highland Caithness, Nairn, and Sutherland and most of Argyll, Inverness, Moray, and Ross and Cromarty
Lothian East Lothian and most of Midlothian and West Lothian
Strathclyde Bute, Dunbarton, Lanark, Renfrew, Ayr, and parts of Argyll and Stirling
Tayside Angus, Kinross, and part of Perth
Island Areas          Old County
Orkney Orkney
Shetland of Zetland (or Shetland)
Western Isles Island areas of Inverness and Ross & Cromarty