Learning Zone - Poor Relief Records in Scotland

Quick Facts

Poor Law in Scotland From 1845

Poor Relief Registers/General Registers of Poor

Poor Relief Applications

Poor Law in Scotland before 1845


Many of our ancestors were on very low wages, living day-to-day with nothing left over to save for hard times or their retirement. There were many causes of poverty and sometimes we may notice our ancestor described as a ‘pauper’ in a census return or other record. We may also discover that our ancestor died in a poorhouse or they may even have been born there. In this section of the Scottish Genealogy Learning Zone, we will look at the basic facts around poor relief records, who hold the records now and how we can access them.

Quick Facts

From 1579 to 1845, the Kirk Sessions and the heritors of each parish were responsible for assisting the poor in each parish. We most often find these records within the Kirk Session records which are held by the National Records of Scotland. Some are also found within the Heritors Records. Again, most of these are held by the National Records of Scotland.

The Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 established parochial boards in rural parishes and in the towns, and a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. This system was in place until 1930 and the records are generally held by local authorities, but some are held by the National Records of Scotland. It should be noted that although the Poor Law (Scotland) Act was passed in 1845, not all areas switched to the new system right away.

The term ‘poorhouse’, rather than ‘workhouse’, is used in Scotland to refer to a place of accommodation for the destitute poor. The reason for this is that unlike in England and Wales, residents were not usually required to ‘work’. Poorhouses (or almshouses) have existed in Scotland for centuries, but it wasn’t until the Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 that they began to spring up all over Scotland, with over 70 being constructed throughout Scotland between 1845 and 1930.

Following the Poor Law Act in 1845, the poorhouses that were built often served a number of parishes (‘poor law unions’) and such institutions were called 'combination’ poorhouses. A person sent to a Poorhouse was said to be receiving ‘Indoor Relief’. A person who remained at home but was given money, food or clothing etc. was said to be receiving ‘Outdoor Relief’.

Poor Law in Scotland From 1845

The Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 established parochial boards in rural parishes and in the towns, and a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. It should be remembered however that this system was not universal until the 1860s. In 1894 the parochial boards were replaced by elected parish councils, but the system remained much the same. The records created by these bodies can be very useful when you are tracing your family history. Not only can these records tell you about the individual, but on many occasions they will also tell you about their wider family.

Able-bodied people were expected to work, and adult children were expected to care for aged parents. Mothers of illegitimate children were more likely to be sent to the poorhouse than given outdoor relief (particularly in cities) and the fathers of illegitimate children were expected to pay maintenance, not the parish. If you have an illegitimate ancestor you may find our section, ‘Finding Paternity Cases in Sheriff Court Records’ useful.

To determine if a person qualified for poor relief, a lot of questions were asked by the authorities and information was gathered. This information can be very useful to us if we are tracing our Scottish ancestry because they may record ages, places of birth and background information about the family.

The records created generally fall into four categories:

Poor Relief Registers/General Registers of Poor
Poor Relief Applications
Parochial Board/Parish Council Minute Books
Board of Supervision/Local Government Board Records

Poor Relief Registers/General Registers of Poor

Each parochial board had to keep a roll or register of the people receiving poor relief. We often see these people referred to as ‘paupers’. Following the 1845 Poor Law Act, standardised Poor Relief Registers were introduced which bring some uniformity. The format of these registers were altered in 1865, but all of them are very useful to the family historian.

Sadly not all of these records have survived. When they do survive, many are still held by the local authority. At the end of this article we have listed some of the records known to have survived and where they can be accessed.

We have indexed most of the surviving Poor Relief Registers for Wigtownshire, as well as registers from Drumelzier and Castleton in the Scottish Borders. You can search these records here.

The following is a list of the headings found in many poor relief registers.

Date of Minute of Parochial Board or Committee Admitting Liability and Authorizing Relief
Amount and Description of Relief Authorised
County and Place of Birth, and, if in Scotland, Parish of Birth
Religious Denomination, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic
Condition - If Adult, weather Married or Single, Widow or Widower
If Child, whether Orphan, Deserted or separated from Parent
Trade or Occupation
Wholly or Partially Disabled
Description of Disablement
Wholly or Partially Destitute
Earnings, Means, and Resources besides Parochial Relief
Nature of Settlement
Name and Age of Wife, Child, or Children living in Family
Name, Age and Weekly Earnings of Husband, Wife, Child or Children not living in Family and their Circumstances
Other Information not stated above
Dates - Change of Circumstances and Subsequent Proceedings

With so much detail, it is quite easy to confirm you have found the correct family. The ‘Name’ refers to the name of the applicant, often the head of the household. Although the rest of the form may name children, these are not always indexed. This means it can be useful to search under surname and parish only to see if there is a record for any member of the family.

The ‘Date of Minute of Parochial Board or Committee Admitting Liability and Authorising Relief’ can enable you to find the corresponding minutes which can contain more information. It is also the date used in conjunction with the age to calculate an estimated year of birth in many indexes.

‘Amount and Description of Relied Authorized’ is the next part of the register. Here we are usually told how much an individual or family received. This can be a weekly or quarterly sum of money but we may also see a yearly fee paid to an asylum.

The form goes on to record ‘Description of Disablement’ and ‘Wholly or Partially Destitute’. When we see the word ‘disabled’ or ‘disablement’ we may think of a physical condition limiting a person’s physical ability to work. In these records however we see the reason why a person is not able to work and this is not limited to physical ability, for example ‘children’ is often listed as the ‘Description of Disablement’!

The more people a parish had to support financially, the higher the rates in the area would be. The parish responsible to provide support was the parish of birth (or husband’s parish of birth) or the last parish where the person had spent more than seven years. In the ‘Nature of Settlement’ field, we most commonly may see ‘birth’ (or husband’s birth) or ‘residence’ (or husband’s residence). If we see ‘birth’ this means that the person was born in this parish, even though they may not still be living there at the date of the entry in the register. ‘Residence’ generally indicates that they have lived there for more than 7 years.

The ‘Nature of Settlement’ can be very useful but it can also explain why some records are hard to trace. For example, we may be searching in the parish where the family lived but we should actually be searching in the parish where the husband was born.

The sections relating to children, those living at home and those not living in the family home can be some of the most useful. Here we not only get an indication of the financial situation in the family, but we may get some real surprises. For example, children who have emigrated to Australia, Canada or America may be listed. We may discover who a daughter married and where they are living; very useful!

The bottom half of the page is chronological, being filled in after the top of the page. We see, ‘Dates - Change of Circumstances and Subsequent Proceedings’. This varies from person to person. From being admitted onto the roll some people's circumstances changed very little, others changed a great deal.

A person may have been added to the poor roll when they were ill, and if they recovered they may have been removed. A widow may be added to the roll as she had young children to care for, but as they became old enough to work her circumstances changed. We may then see that she is offered ‘indoor relief’, that is the poorhouse, rather than outdoor relief. Some people were on and off the roll and this is recorded. Often the last entry records that the person had died. These entries can span many years, it is not unusual for entries to be made over a 30 year period, chronicling a person’s life as they endured various hardships and changes in circumstances.

Poor Relief Applications

Poor relief registers are wonderful and packed with detail but where the applications survive, they are another level entirely! Sometimes pages of detailed family information were recorded as the authorities tried to discover if a person was eligible for assistance. Glasgow and the surrounding area has by far the largest collection of surviving Poor Relief Applications in Scotland.

Glasgow City Archives hold registers for the following areas:

Glasgow 1851-1948
Barony 1861-1898 (part of Glasgow from 1899)
Govan 1876-1930 (part of Glasgow from 1930)
Bute, West Dunbartonshire, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire (not Paisley), often dating from 1845

You can view the records of poor law applications for East Dunbartonshire in East Dunbartonshire Archives; North Lanarkshire in North Lanarkshire Archives; and Paisley in Renfrewshire Libraries. Many of the records for North Lanarkshire have been digitised and are available on Ancestry.com.

Poor Law in Scotland before 1845

Until 1845, the Church of Scotland funded and administered poor relief on a local basis by parish. The money predominantly came from collections, seat letting, fines and other income received by the church. Although the parish was permitted to levy a poor rate on the ‘heritors’ (major landowners in the parish) this was rarely done.

In general, it was expected that able-bodied people would work and poor relief was reserved for those unable to work. Those who were unable to work were first of all assisted by their family and poor relief would supplement that assistance.

The more people there were receiving money from the parish, the more income the parish would need to generate. Therefore the number in receipt of assistance and the amount of help was kept as low as possible.

When we consult the records we find a variety of entries. Some people received a weekly allowance. Some parishioners were granted other aid, such as wine when they were ill, or help with funeral expenses for a family member. Sometimes we see school fees being paid for the children in the family. These records can be useful and interesting when you are researching your family history. For example, it can be a challenge to locate pre-1855 deaths in Scotland but these records may indicate when a person died or when a woman became a widow, narrowing down the date of death for your ancestor.

The majority of the pre-1845 Poor Relief records are contained within the Kirk Session records. These are under ‘CH2’ in the National Records of Scotland catalogue available here, and many have now also been released on the ScotlandsPeople website. To find out more about Kirk Session records, see our Learning Zone article.

Within the Kirk Session records we may find ‘Poor Relief Minutes’ or ‘Record of Distribution to the Poor’. More commonly, though, we simply find the records of poor relief within the accounts for the parish in general. Find the parish that you are interested in and see what survives using the online catalogue.

Some pre-1845 Poor Relief records are also found within the heritors records. Again the catalogue of the National Records of Scotland will be very useful to you. Records of heritors are catalogued under the reference HR and then arranged by parish. As with the Kirk Session records, not all records containing Poor Relief records are catalogued using the word ‘poor’. It is generally best to consult the catalogue looking at all material for the parish and time period of interest.


Scottish Indexes

We have indexed many poor relief records already and we will be adding to this collection over time. You can search using our global search or our dedicated Poor Relief Register Search.

Drumelzier Register of the Poor 1845-1864

Castleton Register of the Poor 1846-1864

Glasserton General Register of the Poor 1865-1930
Inch General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Kirkcolm General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Kirkcowan General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Kirkinner General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Kirkmaiden General Registers of the Poor 1879-1930
Leswalt General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Mochrum General Registers of the Poor 1867-1930
New Luce General Register of the Poor 1926-1930
Old Luce General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Penninghame General Registers of the Poor 1876-1930
Portpatrick General Register of the Poor 1891-1930
Sorbie General Registers of the Poor 1878-1930
Stoneykirk General Registers of the Poor 1865-1930
Stranraer General Registers of the Poor 1865-1902
Whithorn General Register of the Poor 1909-1930


The volunteers at the Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Family History Society have produced an index to surviving Aberdeen Poor Law records 1845-1900 which you can search here on their website. At the time of writing (May 2021) there is a plan to add images to the website but this is still in the development stages. Please see the Aberdeen City Council website for more information.

Also available from the Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Family History Society is an index and transcription of St Nicholas Poorhouse 1779-1788.

North Lanarkshire Archives

An index and images to Poor Law Applications and Registers for North Lanarkshire 1849-1917 is available on Ancestry. The original records are held by North Lanarkshire Archives.

John Gray Centre

The John Gray Centre in Haddington is the home of East Lothian Council Archives and Local History Services. They have a free PDF index to some of the records they hold which you can access here. If you find an entry you need you can order a copy through the John Gray Centre.

The records they hold are as follows:

Aberlady 1868-1930
Athelstaneford 1842-1927
Bolton 1846-1930
Dirleton 1870-1890
Dunbar 1889-1930
Garvald 1845-1930
Gladsmuir 1846-1930
Haddington 1849-1930
Humbie 1802-1930
Innerwick 1867-1930
Morham 1849-1917
North Berwick 1845-1954
Oldhamstocks 1845-1930
Ormiston 1866-1930
Pencaitland 1845-1930
Prestonkirk 1845-1930
Prestonpans 1846-1967
Saltoun 1893-1930
Spott 1845-1930
Stenton 1845-1930
Tranent 1848-1930
Whitekirk 1845-1930
Whittinghame 1847-1930
Yester 1845-1930


An index to Dumfries Poor Board Minutes 1871-1885 is available on the Dumfries and Galloway council website.


A PDF index to Paisley Poor Law records is available on the Renfrewshire Libraries website here.


The Glasgow Family History Society, in association with the Glasgow City Archives, have indexed and published the Police Return of 1,038 destitute persons within the City of Glasgow by H Miller, City Marshal and Superintendent of Police, March 1841 which is available as a PDF here.


Many Kirk Session records can now be searched on scotlandspeople.gov.uk. See our Learning Zone section ‘Kirk Session Records’ for a guide to Kirk Session records including a video presentation.

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