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Scottish ancestry: How to find Scottish criminal records

The Scottish court and criminal system is distinct from that of England and Wales. Nell Darby explains the records that you need to find your Scottish ancestors

Scottish criminal records. Four thieves and pickpockets in police custody in Glasgow, circa 1865. From left to right, James Martin Lindsay, James Brown Cummings, Peter Hasson and John McRae.

The Scottish criminal records system has historically been different from, and separate to, the institutions of England and Wales.

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When the Act of Union took place in 1707, the Scottish legal and criminal justice systems remained separate from England. Since then, Scotland has generally continued to maintain its own systems, overseen by Scottish institutions. Historic Scottish criminal records now survive in different online collections.

If your ancestors were among Scotland’s poor, they might well have been driven to crime to survive at some point. You can use these websites to help find their Scottish criminal records.

The best websites for Scottish criminal records

1. National Records of Scotland

National Records of Scotland Scottish criminal records

Family historians looking for Scottish criminal records can’t afford to miss the National Records of Scotland (NRS) guide. It looks at both institutions, such as the burgh courts, High Court of Justiciary and sheriff courts, and individual criminals. It also explores transportation – only prisoners who had been tried at the High Court of Justiciary could be sentenced to be transported. In addition the guide details the different Scottish criminal record record sets that you can consult at the NRS building in Edinburgh. You can locate records using the NRS online catalogue.

2. Ancestry

Ancestry Scottish criminal records

Ancestry has several Scottish criminal record sets relating to Fife, drawn from Fife Archives. You can search criminal registers covering 1910-1931; the register from 1912 to 1923 includes photographs.

3. Findmypast

Findmypast Scottish criminal records

Findmypast has the Scotland Prison Registers Index 1828-1884, taken from Scottish criminal records at the NRS. Transcripts offer details such as name, age, birth year, birth county/country, occupation, residence, crime, prison (and prison location), archive and archive reference. To get the full record after locating an individual in the index, you would need to go to the NRS. You can also order a full transcription, for a fee, from Scottish Indexes.

4. TheGenealogist

TheGenealogist Scottish criminal records

TheGenealogist has a good collection of transportation records, including Scottish criminal records, drawn from the series HO10 and HO11 at The National Archives. The List of Convicts in Tasmania, from HO11, has several entries relating to Scottish criminals who were transported to Australia. One of them, Ann Bryan, was convicted in Scotland and received a life sentence in 1817. These records can help tell you when your ancestors were sentenced and transported; what ship they were transported on; when they arrived in Australia; and when their sentence expired.

5. The Mitchell Library

The mitchell library Scottish criminal records
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Glasgow City Archives, at the Mitchell, includes several police records, such as Glasgow Police Court books for the early 19th century (B3/1/1/ 1–10) and circuit-court indictments for 1896– 1977 (SR22/53/2–3), although many records only survive for a limited period (for example the Dunbartonshire Constabulary criminal photographs register, which covers 1903–1914). Unfortunately the Glasgow records have not been digitised or indexed, so you will need to visit the Mitchell and be prepared to spend time going through the material to find the information that you need. The library has created an informative guide to Glasgow criminal records.