Poor Relief Records in Scotland

A page from a Scottish poor relief record

As part of my series about researching family history, I last wrote about Irregular Marriages in Scotland.  This month, I am writing about poor relief in Scotland.  If your ancestor was a pauper, then it is likely that they received poor relief and their information will be in a record.

What is poor relief?

Poor relief was a way to provide support to people who were not beggars or vagabonds and who needed help in some form due to no fault of their own.  This could include money, food, clothing, coal, education for a child, habitation or medical help.

What defined a poor person in Scotland?

Until 1845, the poor were the joint financial responsibility of the church and the heritors (landowners).  In Scotland, there were two different types of poor people:

  1. the deserving poor – they were the elderly, sick or orphaned who were incapable of supporting themselves.  Also included in this category were poor people who were in distress as a result of a disaster, such as an accident or crop failure.
  2. the underserving poor – they were the idle vagrants and beggars who were able bodied and capable of looking after themselves.

About poor relief records in Scotland

Before 1845, some parishes kept poor roll books which would be an asset to any researcher.  Otherwise, recording the financial support for the poor are often found in the kirk session or heritors’ minutes, or in the parish’s cash books.  This can be a challenging task of looking through minute books to locate evidence but very worthwhile if you can identify your ancestor.  Here is a page from the Latheron parish kirk session minutes identifying individuals for poor relief in 1841 .

Names of individuals who received poor relief in 1841
Names of individuals who received poor relief from the parish of Latheron in 1841 (c) ScotlandsPeople Latheron kirk session minutes CH2/530/6/6

After 1845, there were clear guidelines towards the welfare of the poor who could apply for voluntary relief either on a permanent or temporary basis.  Only the deserving poor could apply and the not the able-bodied people.  Every Inspector of the Poor had to keep a roll or record of poor people.  The poor records have an enormous impact to anyone interested in family or local history.  They can help build a detailed picture of an individual or social situation highlighting how people lived under poor conditions.

A poor relief record about a family who received financial support in 1876
In this example, Alison Davison, nee Daniel, was seeking relief for herself and 4 children because her husband was in prison for illegal fishing and assault. Her financial support stopped when her husband was released and working. (Borders Poor Law Records LIB 0542)

There is a lot information that you can find in these records.  For example:

  • names of family members
  • ages
  • occupations
  • residences
  • place of birth
  • circumstances

and a lot more making family history research come to life.  Consequently, poor relief records give a better understanding of how your ancestors lived.

Where to find poor relief records?

You can view the North Lanarkshire poor law applications on Ancestry.  The Mitchell Library has one of the largest collections of poor relief records so it is worth getting in touch with them.  The National Records of Scotland holds records for East Lothian, Midlothian and Wigtownshire.  Many of the local archives, such as Stirling, have the poor relief records for their own region so contact the local archivist.  Otherwise, get in touch with me and I can help you.

History of Scottish poor law  

In the early 1800s, changes started to take place in the social structure of society.  Rural parishes managed their affairs reasonably well in providing relief to the poor.  However, the larger cities could not cope with this system of helping out the poor.  The industrial revolution changed peoples’ lives either by creating jobs or, more often, creating unemployment.  Unemployed people were unable to ask for relief because they were able bodied.  As a result, slums in the cities were on the rise.

Also, there was no health provision and epidemics accounted for many deaths leaving families without a wage coming in.  In addition, the Disruption of 1843 shattered the established church when about 2/5 of the ministers and many of their parishioners left the established church.  Without their support, there were fewer donations and less people to manage poor relief.  All of these social and economic factors led to the legislation of the Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act of 1845.

The change in this legislation meant that the church and heritors (landlords) were no longer responsible for looking after the poor.  They were replaced by parochial boards who appointed Inspectors of the Poor.  It was the inspectors responsibility to complete application forms from individuals seeking support.  This is where the poor relief records can help your family history research.

What is the difference between a poorhouse and workhouse

The workhouses were used in England to offer deterrence, but their reputation was poor.  They were seen as austere, bleak, and a place of last resort.  It was argued that if people were in difficulty, they were likely to accept the offer of the workhouse.  However, if they refused the offer, then it would mean that they didn’t actually needed support.  In the workhouse, families were separated on entry, made to observe rules and work to stay busy. This could include breaking up stones or digging up a hole and filling it up again.  Consequently, the workhouse was not a place to go to.

Poorhouses appeared in Scotland when the 1845 Poor Law Amendment (Scotland) Act was introduced.  A poorhouse could be built if the parish had a population of 6000 to 8000.  Otherwise, two smaller parishes could share a poorhouse.  To receive relief, applicants had to be born in the parish or living there for at least 5 years.  The parochial board had the right to remove a poor person and send them to their appropriate parish or ask that parish for compensation to look after their parishioner.  The location of poorhouses are online at Poor Law Unions in Scotland (workhouses.org.uk)

If you are needing some help with your family history, then feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.

Until my next post, mar sin leat as we say in Scots Gaelic for ‘goodbye’.


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