Scotland’s poor relief system

This guide was last updated in 2012

Prior to 1845, the funding and administration of poor relief in Scotland was shared by the kirk sessions (church authorities) and heritors (landowners) in each parish.

Support for the destitute was mostly through outdoor relief – handouts of money, food, clothing or fuel – although Edinburgh, Glasgow and towns such as Ayr, Dunfermline and Aberdeen also established poorhouses to house the destitute.

The most significant records from this period are the minute books and accounts of the heritors and kirk sessions which include details of poor relief applications and payments. Other surviving documents may include parish poor rolls – lists of named individuals receiving relief such as cash or portions of oatmeal.

In 1845, the Poor Law (Scotland) Act introduced a new system of poor relief, still parish-based but administered by Parochial Boards (Parish Councils from 1894). Poor relief – from which the able-bodied were explicitly excluded – could be given in cash or in kind, and large parishes could also set up a poorhouse their sick or destitute poor. Groups or ‘combinations’ of smaller parishes could join together to administer poor relief and operate a shared poorhouse.

The new system was overseen by a central Board of Supervision but was still locally financed. Parishes could choose to continue funding relief through the kirk sessions and heritors, or move to a property rates based system – something which most parishes gradually opted to do over the next thirty years. Within this period, family historians may need to consult kirk sessions’ and heritors’ records as well as those kept by Parochial Boards.


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