Shires of Scotland

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The former County Buildings in Paisley, seat of Renfrewshire county council.

The shires or counties of Scotland (Scots: Scots Coonties, Scottish Gaelic: Siorrachdan na h-Alba) are historic subdivisions of Scotland.

Scottish shires each sent Commissioners (MPs) to the Scottish Parliament. They trace their origins to the mormaerdoms, stewartries and sheriffdoms of the High Middle Ages. Many of these early entities, while sharing a root of a name with a later shire, represent a greater or smaller area. The case of the Mormaerdom of Moray, which included parts the later shires of Moray, and of Nairnshire, Banffshire and Inverness-shire, is an example of this difference.[1]

By the reign of James IV, the sheriffdoms were used to select Commissioners (MPs) to the Parliament of Scotland, forming the basis of the "landward constituencies", which existed distinct from the burgh constituencies until the Representation of the People Act 1918. Before the Union of 1707, Commissioners could represent multiple counties, or, on occasions, a part of one. After Union, eight counties were paired, electing a member at alternating elections to the Unreformed House of Commons. A number of sheriffdoms, such as those of Ross and Cromartyshire, were also merged during the 18th century. As a result of the 1832 Reform Act the pairing system ended, and Elginshire and Nairnshire were merged into a single constituency, as were Ross and Cromartyshire and also Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire. Bute and Caithness, previously paired, became separate constituencies.

Scotland still has county constituencies of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (Westminster), and the same term is used in reference to constituencies of the Scottish Parliament (Holyrood), created in 1999.

Historically, county constituencies did represent specific counties (minus parliamentary burghs within the counties). Now, however, county in county constituency means predominantly rural. Similarly, burgh constituencies are predominantly urban constituencies.

Shire or County Lieutenancy areas[edit]

Scotland's lieutenancy areas are largely based on the shires or counties.[2]

Registration counties or shires[edit]

Scotland's shires or Registration county are used for land registration purposes.[3]

The thirty-three counties of 1868 remain in use by the Scottish Land Register under later legislation.[4]

In 1868 a new system of land registration was introduced to Scotland. Sheriffs were to maintain presentment books recording writs relating to lands and heritages, with a different series for each county. Thirty-three registration counties were formed: they differed in number from the thirty-four civil counties then existing as the Barony and Regality of Glasgow was to be treated as a county, while four counties which shared a sheriff were paired (Rosshire with Cromarty and Orkney with Zetland).[5]

The Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 (Commencement No.12), Order 1998, has an "Explanatory Note : "This Order brings into force on 1st October 1999 in the areas of the Counties of Berwick, East Lothian, Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles sections 2(1) and (2) and 3(3) of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979. Section 2(1) and (2) provides for the circumstances in which an interest in land shall be registrable and section 3(3) provides that certain persons are to obtain a real right only by registration."[6]


Sheriffdoms or shires[edit]

Main article: Sheriffdom

Malcolm III (reigned 1058 to 1093) appears to have introduced sheriffs as part of a policy of replacing native "Celtic" forms of government with Norman feudal structures.[7]

This was continued by Edgar (reigned 1097 to 1107), Alexander I (reigned 1107 to 1124), and in particular David I (reigned 1124 to 1153). David completed the division of the country into sheriffdoms by the conversion of existing thanedoms.[8][9]

The areas under the jurisdiction of sheriffs - known as "shires" or "sheriffdoms" - were also later recorded as "vice comitatas" or counties. For example, King John Baliol (ruled 1292 to 1296), was appointed over the Vice-Comitatis (county) of Nort Argail, and Steward, the Seneschel of Scotland, was appointed over Vice-Comitatis of lands. Stayhar (Stair) was in the "Vicecomitatus de Air" (County or Ayr / Ayrshire).[10] In the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, AD1306-1424 APP.1, there is a charter no.119 for Malcolm Fleming de comitatu de Wigtoun of lands (named) in the "vicecomitatus" de Wigtoun. Comitatus meaning County.[11] Fleming was in the Index "Officiorum" as "Comes de Wigtoun" or "Count of Wigtoun" (not Wigtownshire). There are numerous records in this Vol.I. of R.M.S., for "vicecomitatu" (county), including King David II (reigned 1329-1371) APP. 2: no. 1152 Aberdeen. Banff., no. 1153 & 1154 Drumfries, no.1155 & 1166 Lanark, no.1158 Selkirk, 1160 & 1163 Edinburgh, no. 1164 Fife, no.1165 Berwick, no.1172 Dumbarton. None of these were listed as "Shire", but as "vicecomitatu" (County).

The counties were listed as Vice-county (vice county or biological vice-county), a geographical division of the British Isles used for the purposes of biological recording and other scientific data-gathering. It is called a Watsonian vice-county used by Hewett Cottrell Watson and listed in the third volume of his Cybele Britannica published in 1852.[12]

The shires of the Highlands were completed only in the reign of King Charles I (reigned 1625 to 1649).

Shires extant by 1305[edit]

In 1305 Edward I of England, who had deposed John of Scotland issued an Ordinance for the Government of Scotland. The document listed the twenty-three shires then existing and either appointed new sheriffs or continued heritable sheriffs in office.[8]

^Note a : Gospatric was mentioned as sheriff in a number of charters of Earl David.[13][14] The shire was not listed in the ordinance, and in 1305 appears to have been partly under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff of Selkirk, with the remainder comprised in the constabularies of Jedburgh and Roxburgh under the jurisdiction of the constable of Berwick.[15] The shire was one of those surrendered to Edward III of England in 1334.[16]

Shires formed after 1305[edit]

The remaining shires were formed either by the territorial expansion of the Kingdom of Scotland, or by the subdivision of existing sheriffdoms. Many of the new shires had highly irregular boundaries or detached parts as they united the various possessions of the heritable sheriffs.

  • c.1326: Argyll (or Argyle): lordship subdued by Alexander II in 1222. Norwegian claims over the area finally ended in 1266. First record of appointment of sheriff dates from 1326.[17]
  • 1369: Kirkcudbright formed when area between Rivers Nith and Cree granted to Archibald the Grim. Archibald appointed a steward to administer the area, hence it became a "stewartry".[18]
  • c.1388: Bute. The islands formed part of Kintyre district of Argyll. A heritable sheriff was appointed to the shire in 1388.
  • 1402: Renfrew: separated from shire of Lanark by Robert III.[19]
  • 1503: Ross formed from part of Argyll by act of 1503. Barony of Tarbert was annexed to Cromarty in 1685, but later returned.
  • 1503: Caithness: Separated from the sheriffdom of Inverness by act of 1503 during the reign of James IV. Under the legislation the sheriff of Caithness was to sit at Dornoch and Wick, and the area of the sheriffdom was to be identical to that of the Diocese of Caithness.
  • 1581: Orkney was erected into a lordship with the right of sheriffship. It was annexed to the Crown in 1612, although the term "lordship" continued to be applied to the area.[20]
  • 1633: Sutherland separated from Inverness.b

^Note b : In 1583 the Earl of Huntly, hereditary sheriff of Inverness, granted the Earl of Sutherland jurisdiction over the sheriffdom of Sutherland and Strathnaver. This was only the south-eastern area of the later county, with Halladale River forming the boundary. The shire was formed in 1631 by Crown Writ of Charles I, severing Sutherland from Inverness. The new county comprised the Earldom of Sutherland along with Assynt and the baronies between Ross and Caithness. Dornoch was appointed the head burgh of the shire. The writ was confirmed by the Parliament of Scotland in 1633.[21]

The 1707 Act of Union and the ending of heritable jurisdictions[edit]

Following the union of Scotland with England and Wales, the term "county" began to be applied to the sheriffdoms in acts of the united parliament. The full machinery of county government that existed in the rest of Great Britain was not immediately established. This was largely due to the fact that the office of sheriff or steward had become hereditary in certain families in the majority of sheriffdoms. At the accession of George II twenty-two sheriffs were hereditary, three were appointed for life and only eight held office at the pleasure of the monarch.[22] Following the unsuccessful Jacobite Rising of 1745 the government took the opportunity of overhauling county government. The Heritable Jurisdictions Act 1747 revested the government of the shires in the Crown, compensating those office holders who were displaced. The Sheriffs (Scotland) Act 1747 reduced the office of Sheriff Principal to a largely ceremonial one, with a sheriff depute or sheriff substitute appointed to each "county, shire or stewartry". Twelve of the smallest counties were paired to form sheriffdoms, a process of amalgamation that was to continue until the twentieth century.[23] In 1794 Lord-Lieutenants were appointed to each county, and in 1797 county militia regiments were raised, bringing Scotland into line with England, Wales and Ireland.

Names and terminology[edit]


In official documents a shire was given as "the Shire of X" rather than Xshire, just as in England officialdom referred to "the County of X". Nevertheless this does not appear to reflect common usage. ("Haddingtonshire" and "Stirlingshire" amongst others are found in the twelfth century.) Thus in parliamentary proceedings one may find, for example, a heading referring to "Act for the shirrefdome of Dumbartane" but the text "the sevine kirkis to Dumbartane schyr"[24]

The first accurate county maps of Scotland appear in the late seventeenth century and contain a first-hand record of shire names. John Adair (maps c. 1682) gives the names of Midlothian, East Lothian, Twaddall and Wast Lothian (the latter also as "Linlithgowshire"[25]). The eighteenth century county maps of Herman Moll (dated c. 1745), preferred to keep the "Shire" suffix a separate word, as for example "Berwick Shire", "Roxburgh Shire", "the Shire of Selkirk otherwise known as Etterick Forest", and in the north to "Murray" (Moray), "Inverness Shire", "Aberdeen Shire", "Banff Shire", "Ross Shire".[26] The map of Boswell's and Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773) gives "Shire" to every one shown, including "Angus Shire" and "Fife Shire".

Several shires have alternative names of long standing. These include:

The county whose centre was Dumbarton was nevertheless spelled Dunbartonshire.

'Shire' and 'county'[edit]

From their earliest appearance some counties of Scotland have been called "shires", when sheriffs were appointed to the "vicecomitatus" (counties). The county sheriffdoms were shortened to county(name)-shire, the county being virtually under the command of the sheriff working for the Count. One sheriff was Shire Alexander McCulloch of Wigtownshire who ruled with a fist of iron, and who married the daughter of an ancient Knights Templar family. Some Counts of the Counties are listed in the Ragman Rolls.[27] From the time of King Robert I the "counties" were recorded as "vice comitatis". In the Register of the Great Seal of Scotland, AD1306-1424, APP.1 there is a charter no.119 for Malcolm Fleming de comitatu de Wigtoun (comes de Wigtoun in the index) of lands (named) in the "vicecomitatus" de Wigtoun.[11]

In Scotland, as in England and Wales "shire" and "county" have been interchangeable, where in England and Wales "county" prevailed as the standard term. In Scotland "county" prevails in Lieutenancy areas and Registration areas, as well as Associations, Organisations, etc. In Ireland, "shire" is little used.

Kirkcudbrightshire is commonly called the 'Stewartry of Kirkcudbright', or just 'the Stewartry'.

Local government[edit]

From the 17th century the shires (counties) started to be used for local administration apart from judicial functions. In 1667 Commissioners of Supply were appointed in each sheriffdom to collect the land tax.[28] The commissioners eventually assumed other duties in the county.

In 1858 police forces were established in each county under the Police (Scotland) Act 1857. It should be noted, however, that burghs were largely outside the jurisdiction of county authorities.

Shire or County placenames[edit]

Some shire or county place-names, such as Aberdeenshire, are used for the post-1996 council areas, some shire or county place-names are used for area committees of the councils, and some for other associations and organisations such as Shire/County Chambers of Commerce.

Postal direction[edit]

The Royal Mail included counties in most postal addresses in Scotland until 1996. On the mainland these counties approximated to the boundaries of the civil counties. Offshore islands, however, were regarded as distinct counties for postal purposes. This meant that there was no postal county of Buteshire, which was instead divided between the Isles of Arran, Bute and Cumbrae. Larger post towns such as Edinburgh and Glasgow did not form part of a postal county.

Counties until 1890[edit]

Counties of Scotland until 1890

It may be noted that the map depicts a large number of exclaves physically detached from the county that they were politically deemed to be part of. Cromartyshire's borders, a particularly fragmentary example, were achieved as late as 1685, although at that time the word "county" was not applied to the sheriffdom.

Counties from 1890 to 1975[edit]

Basis of local government[edit]

Shires or Counties became a basis of local government, alongside burghs, when 34 county councils were created in Scotland by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. These administrative counties resembled the traditional shires of Scotland, but not exactly. The most notable differences were that the Local Government council exclaves were abolished, Ross-shire and Cromartyshire were merged into Ross and Cromarty, and 4 'counties of cities' - Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow - were created.

About 90 years later, under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, these local government council authorities were abolished as local government bodies and were replaced with regions and districts and island council areas. Local government was reorganised again under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 to create the currently existing council areas.

Some of county names, such as Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire, are names of the post-1996 council areas and for area committees of the present councils.

Local government[edit]

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 established county councils in Scotland. Unlike in England and Wales, where corresponding legislation created new entities called administrative counties, the Act amended the existing areas for local government purposes, including merging Ross and Cromartyshire into Ross and Cromarty, and setting up a boundary commission to make further Local Government council area changes as necessary. Generally speaking, exclaves were abolished, the only significant exclave left untouched being the part of Dunbartonshire between Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire.

These local government areas excluded from their area the counties of cities in Scotland.

Originally only the city and royal burgh of Edinburgh had this status, but Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen were added in 1893, 1894 and 1899 respectively.[29][30][31]

Each of these Local Government areas, counties of cities, were enlarged on a number of occasions at the expense of the surrounding Local Government council areas. These are not shown on the map below as separate entities.

Name changes[edit]

Following the 1889 act, the County of Edinburgh became Midlothian (a name previously used unofficially). The County of Elgin became known officially as Morayshire or the County of Moray by 1918. Early in the twentieth century, the county council of Dumbarton adopted the form "Dunbartonshire" in preference to "Dumbartonshire" and this became the accepted official form. In 1921 the County of Haddington became East Lothian, and three years later the County of Linlithgow became West Lothian.[32] In 1928 Forfarshire was renamed Angus.[33]

Local government reform[edit]

In 1930, the councils were re-constituted, including two joint councils covering the "combined council areas" of Perthshire and Kinross-shire, and Morayshire and Nairnshire by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929.[34]

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 created new administrative areas listed as 'county council areas', 'counties of cities council areas', large burghs and small burghs. Although these had been established by earlier legislation, the Act classified the various Local Government county council areas and other divisions for the first time. (note: The Government of Scotland is not the country of Scotland, nor is the Local Government of a county the county.)

In 1963 the Government published a white paper which proposed a reduction in the number of Local Government areas from thirty-three to between ten and fifteen.[35] A process of consultation between Local Government councils and officials from the Scottish Office was begun to affect the amalgamations. Following a change of government, it was announced in 1965 that a "more comprehensive and authoritative" review of local government areas would be undertaken.[36]

In 1966 a Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley was appointed.[37] The commission's report in 1969 recommended the replacement of the county council areas with larger regions.[38]

In 1970 another change in government control was followed by the publication of a white paper in 1971 implementing the commission's reforms in a modified form.[39] The abolition of counties for local government purposes was enacted by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, with counties playing no part in local government after 16 May 1975. The counties were dis-established, meaning that their Administration section was handed over to the Local Government councils. The counties remained, but were administered by the Local Government councils.

County towns, area and population[edit]

See List of counties of Scotland 1890–1975.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ County Directory of Scotland.
  3. ^ Land Register Counties & Operational Dates
  4. ^ Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 (1979 C.33)
  5. ^ Land Registers (Scotland) Act 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. C. 64)
  6. ^ The Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 (Commencement No.12) Order 1998. (1999-10-01). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  7. ^ John of Fordun wrote that Malcolm II introduced the shire to Scotland and also the thane class. Shires are certainly mentioned in charters by the reign of King Malcolm III, for instance that to the Church of Dunfermline, AD 1070-1093
  8. ^ a b Wallace, James (1890). The Sheriffdom of Clackmannan. A sketch of its history with a list of its sheriffs and excerpts from the records of court compiled from public documents and other authorities with preparatory notes on the office of Sheriff in Scotland, his powers and duties. Edinburgh: James Thin. pp. 7–19. 
  9. ^ The earliest sheriffdom south of the Forth which we know of for certain is Haddingtonshire, which is named in a charters of 1139 as "Hadintunschira" (Charter by King David to the church of St. Andrews of the church of St. Mary at Haddington) and of 1141 as "Hadintunshire" (Charter by King David granting Clerchetune to the church of St. Mary of Haddington). In 1150 a charter refers to Stirlingshire ("Striuelinschire"). (Charter by King David granting the church of Clackmannan, etc., to the Abbey of Stirling)
  10. ^ Charters of King Robert I in
  11. ^ a b comitatus - Wiktionary. (2013-05-20). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  12. ^ Cybele Britannica : or British Plants and their geographical relations (1847) by Hewett Cottrell Watson.
  13. ^ Barrow, G. W. S., ed. (1999), The Charters of David I: The Writtens Acts of David King of Scots, 1124—53, and of his son Henry Earl of Northumberland, 1139—52, Woodbridge: Boydell Press, pp. 59–60, 69–70, ISBN 0-85115-731-9 
  14. ^ Reid, Norman H.; Barrow, G. W. S., eds. (2002), The Sheriffs of Scotland : An Interim List to C.1306, St Andrews: University of St. Andrews Library [on behalf of] The Scottish Medievalists, p. 37, ISBN 0-900897-17-1 
  15. ^ Kerr, Robert (1811). The History of Scotland during the Reign of Robert I. Edinburgh. p. 152. 
  16. ^ Barrell, Andrew D M (2000). Medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press. p. 127. 
  17. ^ MacNair, Peter (1914). Argyllshire and Buteshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1, 69. 
  18. ^ Learmonth, William (1920). Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 2–3. 
  19. ^ Mort, Frederick (1919). Renfrewshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. 
  20. ^ Orkney and Zetland (Shetland) were generally treated as a single county, with Orkney being described an 'Earldom' and Zetland being described as a 'Lordship'. They constituted a single Orkney and Shetland constituency in the House of Commons, as they had done in the Scots Parliament, and were counted together in the census.
  21. ^ Campbell, H F (1920). Caithness & Sutherland. Cambridge County Geographies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 79–80. 
  22. ^ The heritable sheriffdoms were Argyll, Bute, Banff, Caithness, Clackmannan, Cromarty, Dumbarton, Dumfries, Elgin, Fife, Kinross, Kirkcudbright (Stewartry), Linlithgow, Nairn, Orkney & Zetland, Peebles, Renfrew, Roxburgh, Selkirk, Sutherland, Stirling and Wigtown,; those appointed for life were Perth, Forfar and Ayr; those held at pleasure were Aberdeen, Berwick, Edinburgh, Haddington, Inverness, Kincardine, Lanark and Ross Whetstone, Ann E. "The Reform of the Scottish Sheriffdoms in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies (The North American Conference on British Studies) 9 (1): 61–71. JSTOR 4048219. 
  23. ^ Whatley, Christopher A (2000). Scottish Society 1707-1820. Manchester University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-7190-4540-0. 
  24. ^ Parliamentary Minutes, 13 November 1641.
  25. ^ (1682) - John Adair – Mappe of Wast Lothian commonly called Linlithgowshire authore Johanne Adair; (manuscript in the National Library of Scotland)
  26. ^ Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland
  27. ^ Instrumenta Publica Sive Processus Super Fidelitatibus Et Homagiis Scotorum Domino Regi Angliae Factis, A.D. 1291-1296. Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  28. ^ The sheriffdoms listed were Edinburgh (i.e. Midlothian), Hadingtoun (i.e. East Lothian), Berwick, Roxburgh, Selkirk, Peebles, Lanerk, Dumfreize, "the sherifdome of Wigtoun and stewartrie of Kirkcudbright", Air, Dumbartan, Bute, Renfrew, Striviling (i.e. Stirlingshire), Linlithgow (i.e. West Lothian), Perth, Kincairdine, Aberdene, Inverness and Ross, Nairne, Cromarty, Argyle, Fyfe and Kinross, Forfar (i.e. Angus), Bamf (i.e. Banff), Sutherland, Caithnes, Elgine (i.e Moray), Orkney and Zetland, Clakmannan. "Act of the convention of estates of the kingdome of Scotland etc. for ane new and voluntar offer to his majestie of seventie two thousand pounds monethlie for the space of twelve moneths". Records of the Parliaments of Scotland. University of St Andrews. 23 January 1667. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  29. ^ "County of City of Glasgow Bill". Hansard 1803-2005. Parliament of the United Kingdom. 4 July 1893. Retrieved 2009-03-12. 
  30. ^ Dundee Corporation Act 1894 c.lxxiv "An Act to provide for the constitution of the City and Royal Burgh of Dundee as a County of a City and to confer various powers on the Lord Provost Magistrates and Town Council for affording greater facilities for transacting the public business of the said City and Burgh and for other purposes"
  31. ^ Aberdeen Corporation Act 1899 c.lx "An Act to provide for the constitution of the City and Royal Burgh of Aberdeen as a County of a City, to authorise the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council of the said City and Burgh, to execute sewage works; and for other purposes"
  32. ^ Orders made under the Private Legislation (Scotland) Act 1899, listed in the Edinburgh Gazette on 18 March 1921 and 21 March 1924.
  33. ^ "Angus - What's in a name". Angus Council. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  34. ^ 19 & 20 Geo. 5., C. 25, S.10(7)
  35. ^ The Modernisation of Local Government in Scotland (Cmnd. 2067)
  36. ^ Scots council reform plans changed, The Times, 6 March 1965
  37. ^ Tasks set for planners of local government - Members of royal commissions named, The Times, 25 May 1966
  38. ^ Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland 1966 - 69 (Cmnd.4150)
  39. ^ Reform of Local Government in Scotland (Cmnd. 4583)

External links[edit]