Scotland Poor Law Records and Genealogy Research
As the saying goes the poor have always been with us, and Scotland has been no exception. If your ancestors from there weren’t among the rich, there’s a possibility they might have been affected by the Poor Law, which could mean they received money, or possibly peat (for fuel) or food.
There’s effectively a dividing line at 1845 for the Poor Law, after which poor relief became the responsibility of parochial boards set up for the purpose. Before that, it was in the hands of the church, which meant a mix of the kirk session and the heritors (who were responsible for the church building itself, but whose responsibilities often extended further).
Scottish Poor Relief Records from Before 1845Kirk session records and poor rolls are the main sources for finding names of those receiving poor relief before 1845. Oddly, although parishes were free to levy a poor rate, less than 20% did, relying on other income to take care of the poor within their parish – which stands as a statement on the rural make up of Scottish society before the middle of the 1800s.
It’s possible to find kirk session records dating back to the 1600s, but from the 1700s onwards, many more still exist (the same is true for heritors’ minutes). The place to begin looking is in the National Archives of Scotland . That said, some are in the possession of local archives or even the kirk itself, but the National Archives should be able to advise you as to what exists and where it’s kept. Be aware that these records aren’t indexed.
Scottish Parochial Board Records After 1845Following the establishment of the 1845 Poor Law (Scotland) Act, parochial boards were set up to deal with poor relief (these became the forerunners of parish councils). Some paupers qualified for weekly handouts of money, called “outdoor relief,” but the majority entered the poorhouse – often boards would come together to build poorhouses for paupers from several parishes. It was only after 1921 that the unemployed became eligible for poor relief.
Each parish kept its own general poor register, listing all those who received relief of any kind. Although some are now in the National Archives, the majority that have survived in are the archives of local authorities. However, up to around 1870 you’ll find a definite overlap between the kirk session records and the poor registers, meaning you need to check both to be thorough.
If the register hasn’t survived in a parish it might still be worthwhile investigating the minutes of the parochial board. There may be some mention of those applying for relief, although it will be scanty at best. But even in the registers you won’t find much useful detail. Still, to be able to trace an ancestor this way establishes him in a particular time and place, and gives an indication of his lack of income at the time.
Nor will you find much joy in the records of the poorhouses themselves, even if they survive, which most haven’t. The best you can expect to find is a register of admissions, with no real personal details, save the parish of the person admitted – which can at least point you in the right direction in your search.