Scottish Counties and Parishes:
their history and boundaries on maps

This guide provides information on local government units in Scotland, particularly parishes and counties, focusing on their boundaries and changes over time. Much of the development of these units in the last two centuries is tied up with the growth of local government administration, and the main changes in legislation affecting these units are presented in this context. Some of the most useful cartographic and non-cartographic sources of information are listed for further reference, with links to their availability online.

In this section

  1. Local government units and their histories
  2. Legislation affecting local government units in the 19th and 20th centuries
  3. Information sources

1. Local government units and their histories

'The administrative divisions of Scotland, both civil and ecclesiastical, are far from forming a simple and well-ordered system. They have come to be what they are through the action of very various and discordant influences, the origin and operation of which are frequently lost beyond the reach even of antiquarian research'.
H.A. Webster, XV. 'Administration', in Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, Vol. VI, General Survey p. 100. Edited by Francis H. Groome. (Edinburgh: Thomas Jack Grange, 1884).

1.1 History of parishes

Parishes in Scotland have a long history and have been adapted for many different functions over time. It has been suggested that some parishes may have an Iron Age origin, but the main genesis of the parish structure probably took place in Anglo-Saxon times and was consolidated by the Normans. The word parish derives from the Greek para, 'beside', and oikos, 'a dwelling', and was applied by the Normans to ecclesiastical districts having a minster type of church. In the reign of David I (1124-53), the erection of parochial churches was made an act of deliberate policy, as was the compulsory exaction of teind (tithe) from the lands served by a church. In more southern areas of Scotland, and up the east coast, the connection between Norman land ownership and parishes was often quite strong (with parochial lands granted to feudal Norman lords), but in other areas, older boundaries influenced the pattern. The Origines Parochiales Scotiae : the antiquities ecclesiastical and territorial of the parishes of Scotland. 3 vols. (Edinburgh : Bannatyne Club, 1850-1855) provides a detailed account, comprehensively referenced, of the early history of parishes, their land owners, extent, and ecclesiastical buildings and taxations, with maps at the end of each volume. However, only the Western and Northern dioceses were covered by the Origines Parochiales Scotiae.

Although the boundary structure probably did not change substantially from the end of the 12th century until the Reformation, the revenues from the teinds were increasingly appropriated by religious houses, such that by the 16th century, 86% of the 1028 parishes in Scotland had their revenues annexed. Following the Reformation, the parish was freed from episcopal control and began to gather civil, in addition to ecclesiastical functions. These civil functions included responsibility for poor relief, the management of schools, compiling registers of births, marriages, and deaths, and maintaining roads. This growth in administrative duties also took place at the shire or county level, with the appointment of sheriffs, Justices of the Peace, lieutenants, and Commissioners of Supply, who formed the basis of local government until the late 19th century.

In terms of parishes and their boundaries, there were considerable changes following the Reformation. Although the overall number of parishes fell by only 44 between 1652 (980 parishes) and 1799 (936 parishes), this masks the fact that there were a greater number of parishes that were amalgamated and suppressed, and new parishes created. There were also frequent boundary disputes which appeared before the Court of Session, often in connection with the enclosure of areas of common land. In the 19th century these changes accelerated as parliamentary churches were established from 1843 to supply certain areas in the Highlands and Islands, and the Endowment Scheme from 1844 for the creation of new 'quoad sacra' parishes (primarily in areas of new urban growth). The dramatic expansion of local government in the 19th century had important effects on parishes, and the most significant of these local government acts are discussed in Section 2: Legislation.

Civil and Ecclesiastical Parishes

Historically, the civil and ecclesiastical functions of parishes were always combined, but in the 19th century these functions were often dealt with by separate types of parish unit. The civil parish, or 'quoad civilia' parish was defined as "an area for which a separate poor rate is or can be made" (Interpretation Act, 1889), and was shown on Ordnance Survey maps. Their important local government role was confirmed by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894 and they were not abolished as local government units until 1975. Very often these parishes had existed from the Reformation or earlier, and they therefore had ecclesiastical as well as civil functions, sometimes being called 'quoad omnia' parishes as a result. In the 19th century, and particularly from the 1840s, many new parishes were created with solely ecclesiastical functions ('quoad sacra' parishes) although these had no local government functions or boundaries shown on Ordnance Survey maps. However, before the growth of civil functions for parishes in the 19th century, many parishes were primarily ecclesiastical, or 'quoad sacra' parishes.

1.2 History of Burghs

In terms of local government administration, burghs were of greater importance than parishes for Scottish towns and larger urban areas. Prior to 1929 there were four different types of burgh in Scotland:

There were 203 burghs in Scotland in 1896.

The expansion of the areas within burghs, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, sometimes had important effects on the boundaries of neighbouring parishes and counties. Each burgh tends to have its own history of expansion, and therefore it is difficult to generalise. In 1832 the Parliamentary Report upon the Boundaries of the several Cities, Burghs, and Towns in Scotland in respect to the election of member to serve in Parliament, produced maps at 1:10,560 scale and written descriptions of parliamentary boundaries for 75 burghs. For many burghs that did not undergo much 19th century expansion, parliamentary and municipal boundaries were the same for much of the 19th century. Some of the larger towns in Scotland have regular Post Office Directory maps within our Town Plans / Views listing. The expansion of Glasgow is well described and illustrated in the Third Statistical Account for the city. Edinburgh is well covered by the range of Post Office Directory plans, and sometimes by specific plans - for example, the 1856 extension to municipal boundaries by:

Plan of Edinburgh, Leith & suburbs, showing the division of the city into thirteen wards in terms of the Edinburgh Municipality Extension Act, 1856. (Edinburgh : W & A.K. Johnston, 1856)

Burghs were altered particularly by the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1929, and also the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1947, before being abolished by the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1973.

1.3 History of Counties

The main period of formation of the pre-1975 counties, between the 12th and the 17th centuries, falls before detailed maps of Scotland showing boundaries, so textual sources often have a greater value in tracing their genesis.

The county or 'comitatus' became properly established in England and Wales after the Norman conquest, and spread into Scotland in the reign of David I (1124-53). In several cases these inherited earlier thanages, although some were based on grants of new land, and all were initially concentrated in the south and east of Scotland. Many of the familiar counties of Scotland which lasted until 1975 can be dated from the reign of David I, although only about half a dozen of them had been created before David I's death. Their number and geographical extent grew in the 13th century, when there is the first evidence of a sheriff court, and from the 1490s, following the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles. This process is illustrated in Bartholomew's Historical Maps of Scotland (1912).

The growing significance and range of functions administered at the shire level was partly indicated by the introduction of Justices of the Peace from the late 16th century in Scotland. Initially their role overlapped with that of nobles and barons. In the 1640s, the demands of putting the country on a war footing gave a new cohesion to the shire, and fostered the emergence of a "county community". The role of county officials such as Justices of the Peace and Commissioners of Supply expanded further in the Restoration period, extending towards the more northern and western fringes of Scotland.

In terms of mapping, the earliest detailed maps of Scottish regions dating from the late 16th century by Pont and Blaeu tend to show earldoms and lordships, rather than counties, and they do not show parishes. For example, in the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland (1654), the three bailieries of Cunningham, Kyle and Carrick are shown rather than Ayr, Lauderdale rather than Berwickshire, and Annandale and Nithsdale rather than Dumfries-shire, etc. These partly reflected the historical units of importance rather than contemporary practice, but it is not until H. Moll's Atlas of Scotland (1725) that the pre-1975 county structure really appears on maps, with the counties of Perthshire, Argyllshire and Inverness-shire rather than the traditional provinces (Badenoch, Lochaber, Lorn, Kintyre, etc.) shown on the Pont/Blaeu mapping of the 17th century.

The formalisation of the county structure was much more obviously reflected on county maps of the later 18th and early 19th centuries. The more settled parts of Scotland often had more than one detailed county map, showing parishes as well as the county boundary. Many of the best county maps of Scotland were gathered together by John Thomson in his Atlas of Scotland (1832).

County name-changes in the 1920-30s

During the 1920s, a number of Scottish counties changed their official name. The official timing of these changes was sometimes quite specific, but the usage and recording of the names themselves changed over a much longer time period, and in many cases earlier and later forms of names were used synonymously. The main nam changes relate to:

The transition period in county names based on official sources was a long one, with both names used interchangeably for several centuries. In terms of maps, we can find 1680s maps with titles of East, Mid and West Lothian by John Adair, Angus by Robert Edward, and maps of Moray in the 1650s. Although many 18th and 19th century maps tended to use the former names (Edinburghshire, Haddingtonshire, etc.) we also find many maps and atlases using the latter.

The following general sources all provide information on these name changes:

1.4 Counties of the City

(Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow) were independent local government areas in Scotland with many administrative powers of county councils. They were created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1894 and abolished in 1975.

1.5 Scottish-English Border

James Logan Mack's The Border Line : from the Solway Firth to the North Sea along the Marches of Scotland and England. (Edinburgh : Oliver and Boyd, 1924), is a comprehensive history of the development of the Scottish-English border and a detailed description of its present position and features of historic interest. The work is well illustrated (116 photographs) and includes information on early Border surveys (such as Bowes' Survey of 1522, and Johnson and Goodwin's survey of 1604) and maps showing the Border line.

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