Sunday, 15 July 2012

Records of the Scottish Poor

Back in 2004, I remember reading the article Scottish Poor Law Records: An Invaluable Aid to the Genealogist by David W. Webster in the 8th edition of The Family and Local History Handbook.
The article discusses the value of Scottish Poor Relief records and the extent of surviving records, mentioning records for Glasgow, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, Dunbartonshire and Paisley.  Webster wrote that, “elsewhere little appears to be widely known about extant poor relief records”.
Since that article was published, a lot has changed in the world of Scottish genealogy.  One of these changes has been that the holdings of local archives are now much easier to identify as many archives have added descriptions of their collections to the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) catalogue, have their own online catalogues or have created finding aids and guides to their records (some designed specifically for family historians).
This means that is now fairly easy to locate surviving poor relief records from all over Scotland.  However (as far as I know!), no attempt has been made to bring together a list of the records held by different archives, so that it is necessary to consult a range of different catalogues and finding aids to determine what exists for any particular area.
And so I decided to create a list of ‘Records of the Scottish Poor’ covering the whole of Scotland.  This list is available as a PDF file on my website at  Like my previous list ‘Scottish Censuses, Population Listings & Communion Rolls (mainly pre-1841)’ (also available on my website), this grew out of a desire to have something I could quickly refer to when carrying out research for clients.  Also like my previous list, whilst I began with a clear idea of the types of records I would and wouldn’t include, this quickly expanded as I came across a whole host of records that sounded interesting, might be useful and should probably be included.
The current list is very much a work in progress and I hope to update it periodically.  Broadly speaking, I have included all registers of poor and volumes of poor relief applications that I could identify, and anything that seems to be a list of those in receipt of poor relief.  On the whole I haven’t included minute books, except where these are noted as containing lists of names or have been indexed.
I have relied heavily on online catalogues and a few reference books, and in some cases these only give very general details.  For example, for the counties of Inverness, Orkney, Ross & Cromarty, Shetland and Sutherland, I found that poor relief records survive for certain parishes for specific date ranges and that among these records are general registers of the poor, applications for relief and children’s registers, but have not established exactly what survives for each individual parish. 
I have included some records of poorhouses, hospitals and asylums, industrial schools, children’s homes and charitable organisations (mainly admissions registers and lists of names), although this is by no means comprehensive.  As a number of poorhouses later became hospitals, their records may be found in NHS archives.  In addition, many hospitals and asylums distinguished between regular and pauper patients, so that there is a certain amount of overlap between medical records and records of the poor.
As with most records, survival of records of poor relief is pretty patchy, with some counties having vast collections and others practically nothing at all.  As well as the well-known Glasgow poor law archives, Aberdeenshire, Angus, Banffshire, Dumfriesshire, Kincardineshire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Moray and Wigtownshire all have pretty good collections.
Conversely, very little survives for Fife, and I have been able to identify few records for the counties of Kinross or Nairn.  Whilst most Edinburgh poor relief records were destroyed, there are some records for the 1830s-1840s, as well as lists of poor for 1840-1884 which I blogged about previously here.
Taken as a whole, a remarkable number of records of the Scottish poor do survive - my list is so far up to 40 pages!  I was particularly interested to discover how much 20th century material there is, with the poor relief registers of some areas continuing up to the 1940s or even later.  Whilst this might seem somewhat academic as most records are subject to 75-year or 100-year closure periods, it does mean that some interesting discoveries await the family historians of the future.
In the above-mentioned article on Scottish Poor Law Records, David W. Webster wrote, “the potential value of the Scottish Poor Law records to genealogists is such that it is surely worthwhile considering a project covering all of Scotland to locate and computer index such records”.  

Whilst it is not yet clear what form it will take, the fact that the records for Aberdeenshire, Banffshire, Kincardineshire and Moray are currently being digitised in a project involving the National Records of Scotland, the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society and FamilySearch, suggests that such a project may finally be becoming a reality.
In the meantime, I hope that my list will enable other researchers to discover what records exist for the areas where their ancestors lived and where these records may be found.  If anyone has any additions or amendments to the information contained in the list I would be very grateful if you would let me know.  My contact details are listed below.
Happy hunting!

Kirsty F. Wilkinson

My Ain Folk