Scotland Poorhouses, Poor Law, Etc

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Poorhouses, Poor Law, Etc


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 Care of the Poor Before 1845

Heritors were the landowners of a parish. They were responsible for maintaining the church, the dwelling house of the minister, and the school. Until 1845, they were also responsible for caring for the poor in the parish. The heritors worked with the Kirk Session (parish court), but the heritors were more involved with the disbursement of parish funds.

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 at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) in Edinburgh. You can find a list of them in the NAS (formerly Scottish Record Office) Finding Aids included in:

  • Index to National Inventory of Documentary Sources. London, England: Chadwyck-Healey, 1986-. (Family History Library fiche 6341118.)

The Family History Library does not have heritor records on microfilm.

Poor Law After 1845

In 1845, a new law set up parochial boards to oversee the care of the poor. One of the main records created by the parochial boards is the "General Register of Poor Belonging to [Parish]." These registers contain information such as:

  • name
  • age
  • birth place
  • marital status
  • residence
  • occupation
  • family members names, ages, birth places, and residences
  • amount of relief given 
  • physical and financial condition

The column "Change of Circumstance" often contains information such an illegitimate birth. They generally survive best for rural parishes than urban parishes.

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.

Another valuable collection of records of the parochial boards are the original applications for relief. They give the same type of information as the General Register, and they may survive better. 

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.  You may also find some records of the parochial boards among the heritors’ records at the National Archives of Scotland.

The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has very few of these records, but 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

library catalog under:


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.)

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 Archives of Scotland. Some could still be with the sheriff’s court or in the regional archives or local libraries.

For more information or other records on the poor, look in the Family as there is vSearch Catalog under:

M Corry: A great resource for locating information about poor or medically impaired ancestors.

If you are having difficulty locating an ancestor in a census, go to the Poor House Records as there is valuable information in this area.  Example: Learning more of an ancestor blind since birth at the Poor Law Records in Glasgow.

Scottish Poor Law Websites

The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution

This is a great web site where you can learn about workhouses, what they are, how they came to be, what children did, the diets and schedule of an inmate. You may also be able to find an ancestor in a workhouse.

You need to go to Workhouse locations and you will see Scottish Poorhouses and Scottish Almshouses. These are searchable by places in Scotland. If there is a line under the place name then you can click on that place name and see what is available and for what years.

Remember that some workhouses 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. This website teaches you so much about the poorlaw and what it is, the history, timelines, rules and also interactive maps.

The interactive maps are available for the whole country. You click on the county you are interested in and it will show you what is available for that county. Remember to check neighboring counties for your people since they could have crossed county lines.

Scottish Archives Network

Virtual Vault Poor Relief Records

This is a free website that has digitized records to search. It can take you to the past and show you and teach you about the past to help with the present. There are teaching guides you can use to learn about what society might have been like. Each guide asks questions and you can interact and answer the questions. Some of these records are also on the National Archives of Scotland at