Scottish poor

This guide was last updated in 2012

If, like Annie Lennox, you find Scottish ancestors who struggled to make ends meet, you may uncover rich records. Peter Higginbotham has compiled a handy guide to get you started.

Despite the Bible’s well-known dictum that “the poor will always be with you”, it can come as a shock to discover an ancestor whose depth of poverty drove them to seek help from the public coffers or, even worse, give up their own home to enter a workhouse or – as they were usually termed in Scotland – a poorhouse. 

As was the case in England and Wales, state-directed support for the poor in Scotland dates back to the sixteenth century and there are many parallels between the two systems. In each case poor relief was, for a long period, locally administered within each parish.

In both systems, the emphasis was on supporting the helpless or ‘impotent’ poor, with able-bodied claimants being discouraged or – as was usually the case in Scotland – completely denied parish relief. In both systems, a parish was only obliged to relieve those who were legally settled there – in Scotland, this was through birth or have resided for seven years.

Despite these similarities, Scotland’s separate legal system resulted in a number of significant differences in the country’s administration of poor relief compared to the rest of Britain.

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