Learning Zone - Scottish High Court Criminal Records

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Quick Facts

Types of Records: Precognitions, Minute Books and Processes

Locating the Records and Accessing Them

Viewing Original Records

Frequently Asked Questions

Quick Facts

Looking for the highlights? See our quick guide to these records.

You can search over 133,000 High Court records within our new collection, Scotland’s Criminal Database. This is by no means all High Court records, but it does cover the period from 1800 to 1916. We will add to the database over time. Follow us on Facebook to keep up-to-date with new releases.

The High Court of the Justiciary (or the High Court as it is usually referred to) heard a great variety of cases. These cases were often the more serious crimes. The Court also heard cases of repeat offenders as well as appeals from lower courts, such as the Sheriff Court. The High Court had the authority to impose harsher punishments such as execution and transportation but this did not always happen.

The records of High Court cases are very extensive and can be interesting and informative. If you are researching your Scottish family tree and your ancestor was brought before the High Court we would definitely recommend looking at the original paperwork.

The High Court building is in Edinburgh and that’s what we may think of as the High Court. The Court, however, also travelled around Scotland and heard cases nearer to where the crimes were committed. This is known as the High Court on Circuit. If your ancestor committed a crime which was to be heard by the High Court, they may have had to wait until the court visited and the case would be heard then. This can mean a delay between the crime being committed and the case being heard.

Historical High Court records are cared for by the National Records of Scotland and extensive conservation work was done a few years ago to help make these records accessible to the public.

Types of records: Precognitions, Minute Books and Processes

The survival rate of High Court records is very high. As with all historical documents, there are some missing, but for most cases, three main types of records exist: Crown Office Precognitions, Minute Books and/or Books of Adjournal, and High Court of Justiciary Trial Papers or Processes.

A precognition was created before the trial. Precognitions are made up of written evidence from witnesses and are very interesting as each person gives their perspective on the crime. The witnesses might be eyewitnesses of the crime, or may take the form of a statement from a doctor, police officer, or other person who is called to give evidence.

Minute books, or the more detailed Books of Adjournal, when available, contain the record of the sittings of the High Court, what actually happened on the day(s) in court. These are useful as they give us the timeline of the case and its outcome. Many of these records have been digitally imaged and are available through the Virtual Volumes system in the National Records of Scotland.

The processes are the trial papers. They are likely to include, the Criminal Libel or Indictment (a statement of the crime the defendant has been accused of), evidence (sometimes physical), and a list of jurors amongst other items.

It is necessary to look at all of these documents to get a full picture of what has happened in the case of your ancestor.

Accessing High Court Records

You can search Scottish High Court records from 1800 to 1916 on Scottish Indexes. Once you find the record you need, simply choose the research package that is right for you. If you have any questions just get in touch.

The result will give you the full National Records of Scotland (NRS) reference. If you want to view the original record simply click the NRS Reference to be taken to their website and follow the instructions.

Frequently Asked Questions

My ancestor was transported from Scotland, how do I find the court records?

If your ancestor was transported during the Victorian period they will almost certainly be in these records. In the earlier period of Scottish period of Scottish history some lower courts could sentence a person to transportation but during the height of prisoner transportation, only the High Court could give that sentence. It’s free to search so it is definitely worth having a look.

Why have you created an index?

We have more specific data than is available through the NRS catalogue. Our index includes ages and other information taken from other sources which do not appear in the NRS catalogue entries for the case, making it even easier to locate your Scottish ancestors.

The NRS catalogue is very useful and it is possible to locate the entries, especially if you have the trial date from another source such as a newspaper. As the catalogue search is by keyword, and wildcards are not permitted, it can make finding people a bit challenging.

Let’s say you were searching for a Jane Scott. In the default catalogue search, an entry for Jane Smith and Mary Scott may be returned. Although you can prevent that by searching for ‘Jane Scott’ as a phrase, if she was listed as ‘Jane Mitchell alias Scott’ the entry would not be shown!

Our index is more than a catalogue. It’s been designed by experienced genealogists here in Scotland so that you can find entries quickly and easily without having detailed knowledge of how the High Court worked.

Is the High Court the same as “The High Court of the Justiciary”?

Yes it is. As "The High Court of the Justiciary" is a bit of a mouthful most people simply refer to it as the "High Court". You may be interested in our quick guide to High Court records.

Precognition, Pannel, Assize - What do all these words mean?

We have a glossary of words used in genealogy, and in particular court records, here which should you research your criminal ancestors.

My ancestor wasn’t transported, should I still search this index?

Definitely. Not all High Court convictions resulted in transportation, your ancestor could have been convicted and remained in Scotland. Also, some entries include victims’ names: perhaps your law-abiding ancestors were the victim of a crime.

My Scottish Ancestor was murdered, can you help me find out more?

Our index includes the accused and some victims. There are many murder victims named in the records, simply search Scotland’s Criminal Database.

When we have consulted the register volumes as well as the minute books, the index will also include:

The document year (the date the document was created, as opposed to the date it was registered).

Read Next

Learn more about Scottish genealogy; read our guide to Scottish Deeds.

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