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The History of local government in Scotland is a complex tale of largely ancient and long established Scottish political units being replaced after the mid 20th century by a frequently changing series of different local government arrangements.


Map of Scotland, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow. Cumbrian regions in white. Gaelic regions in green.

Anciently, the territory now referred to as Scotland belonged to a mixture of Brythonic groups (Picts and Cumbrians) and Angles.

The Picts were based north of the ForthClyde line, traditionally in seven kingdoms:

In later legends Albanactus, the legendary founder of Scotland, had seven sons, who each founded a kingdom. De Situ Albanie enumerates the kingdoms in two lists, the first of which locates the seventh kingdom between the Forth and the Earn, while the second additionally replaces Cat with the area that became Dalriada.

The Cumbrians were based in the southwest, in two principal kingdoms:

The Angles were based in the southeast, in the Kingdom of Northumbria, which was divided into a number of sub-kingdoms, some of which were located in territory now considered part of Scotland:

When the Irish group Scotii invaded, they established the Kingdom of Dál Riata in the area between Glen Coe and Loch Long, which they organised into four geographic kin-groups:


Map of Scotland, in the time of the early Kingdom of Alba

For reasons which are extremely opaque to historical enquiry, most of the Pictish lands became a kingdom of the Scotii based at Scone – the Kingdom of Alba. The statuses of Fortriu and Dalriada are extremely unclear; it seems that theoretically they were meant to owe some form of vassalage to the King of Alba, but in practice were somewhat independent. The other Pictish kingdoms were divided up, with the King of Alba retaining the more useful coastal parts, while handing the remainder of each former kingdom to a powerful governor. The king controlled his lands through a number of stewards (maer in Gaelic), hence the powerful governors were great stewards (mormaer in Gaelic).

Northumbrian pressure caused Rheged to collapse, establishing Galloway as an independent state. Strathclyde took the opportunity created by Rheged's collapse to expand towards the southeast, into what is now northern Cumbria. Records are unclear, but it seems that Scotii raids led to Galloway submitting to the authority of Alba, and the transfer of Carrick from Strathclyde to Galloway.

Danish invasions caused the power of Northumbria to collapse, and ultimately its lands to become parts of a unified England. Meanwhile, Norse invasions of the islands to the north and west of the mainland conquered Cat, and established:

Norse invaders also besieged Dumbarton Rock, the capital of Strathclyde, eventually causing its defeat. As a result, Dunbarton Rock was abandoned, and Strathclyde moved its capital upriver, to Partick. Alba took the opportunity to seize the now-undefended area around Loch Lomond. Similarly, the weakening of Northumbria enabled Alba to push south and take over the area around Stirling.

By the 10th century, the governance of the area now known as Scotland thus broke down as follows:

Former ethnicity Former area Outcome Status
Pictish Cat Caithness Norse jarldom
Sutherland Norse jarldom
Ce Buchan Mormaerdom
Banff Stewardry
Mar Mormaerdom
Circinn Mearns Stewardry
Angus Mormaerdom
Fib Fothriff Stewardry
Fife Mormaerdom
Fotla Gowrie Stewardry
Atholl Mormaerdom
(possibly Fidach) Menteith Mormaerdom
Strathearn Mormaerdom
Fortriu Ross Mormaerdom
Moray Quasi-independent
Cumbric (Scottish) Rheged Galloway Quasi-independent vassal
Lennox Mormaerdom
Strathclyde (remainder) Independent
Anglian Lothian Stirling Stewartry
Lothian (remainder) English ealdormandom
(Scottish) Bernicia (Scottish) Bernicia English ealdormandom
Gaelic nÓengusa Islay Norse jarldom
Loairn Mull Norse jarldom
Lorn Quasi-independent vassal
nGabráin Argyll Quasi-independent vassal

Middle ages


Main article: Provinces of Scotland

Provinces or Lordships in 1689.

In the later medieval period, government combined traditional kinship-based lordships with a relatively small system of royal offices. Until the 15th century the ancient pattern of major lordships survived largely intact, with the addition of two new "scattered earldoms" of Douglas and Crawford, thanks to royal patronage after the Wars of Independence, mainly in the borders and south-west. The dominant kindred were the Stewarts, who came to control many of the earldoms. Their acquisition of the crown, and a series of internal conflicts and confiscations, meant that by around the 1460s the monarchy had transformed its position within the realm, gaining control of most of the "provincial" earldoms and lordships. Rather than running semi-independent lordships, the major magnates now had scattered estates and occasional regions of major influence. In the lowlands the crown was now able to administer government through the system of sheriffdoms and other appointed officers, rather than semi-independent lordships. In the highlands James II created two new provincial earldoms for his favourites: Argyll for the Campbells and Huntly for the Gordons, which acted as a bulwark against the vast Lordship of the Isles built up by the Macdonalds. James IV largely resolved the Macdonald problem by annexing the estates and titles of John Macdonald II to the crown in 1493 after discovering his plans for an alliance with the English.[1]

The shires of Scotland have their origins in the sheriffdoms or shires over which a sheriff (a contraction of shire reeve) exercised jurisdiction. The term shire is somewhat misleading, as it should not be confused with an English county. In medieval Latin, the latter was referred to as a comitatus which, in Scotland, was the region controlled as a province or lordship (as opposed, for example, to a Lairdship), such as a mormaerdom, or an early Earldom, and typically survived as a regality (though this is a broader term encompassing also more junior authority). Shire instead came into use, in Scotland, to refer to the region in which a particular sheriff operated; in Scottish medieval Latin this was sometimes called the vice-comitatus. Malcolm III appears to have introduced sheriffs as part of a policy of replacing native "Celtic" forms of government with Anglo Saxon and Norman feudal structures.[2] This was continued by his sons Edgar, Alexander I and in particular David I. David completed the division of the country into sheriffdoms by the conversion of existing thanedoms.[3][4] Many of the shires were directly analogous to existing provinces (e.g. the province of Teviotdale and the shire of Roxburgh), whilst other formed from combinations of provinces (e.g. the shire of Ayr consisting of Cunninghame, Carrick and Kyle).

Founding of the Burghs

Main article: Burgh

Reverse side of the burgh seal of Crail, a Fife fishing port

The first burghs existed from the 12th century, when King David I (r. 1124–1153) established Edinburgh, Stirling, Dunfermline, Perth, Dumfries, Jedburgh, Montrose and Lanark as Royal Burghs.[5] Most of the burghs granted charters in his reign probably already existed as settlements. Charters were copied almost verbatim from those used in England,[6] and early burgesses were usually invited English and Flemish settlers.[7] They were able to impose tolls and fines on traders within a region outside their settlements.[7] Most of the early burghs were on the east coast, and among them were the largest and wealthiest, including Aberdeen, Berwick, Perth, and Edinburgh, whose growth was facilitated by trade with other North Sea ports on Continental Europe, in particular in the Low Countries, as well as ports on the Baltic Sea. In the south-west, Glasgow, Ayr and Kirkcudbright were aided by the less profitable sea trade with Ireland and to a lesser extent France and Spain.[8]

Burghs were typically settlements under the protection of a castle and usually had a market place, with a widened high street or junction, marked by a mercat cross, beside houses for the burgesses and other inhabitants.[7] 16 royal burghs can trace their foundation to David I traced to the reign of David I (1124–53)[9] and there is evidence of 55 burghs by 1296.[10] In addition to the major royal burghs, the late Middle Ages saw the proliferation of baronial and ecclesiastical burghs, with 51 created between 1450 and 1516. Most of these were much smaller than their royal counterparts. Excluded from foreign trade, they acted mainly as local markets and centres of craftsmanship.[8] Burghs were centres of basic crafts, including the manufacture of shoes, clothes, dishes, pots, joinery, bread and ale, which would normally be sold to "indwellers" and "outdwellers" on market days.[7] In general, burghs carried out far more local trading with their hinterlands, on which they relied for food and raw materials, than trading nationally or abroad.[11]

Early Modern Scotland

From the sixteenth century, the central government became increasingly involved in local affairs. The feud was limited and regulated, local taxation became much more intrusive and from 1607 regular, local commissions of Justices of the Peace on the English model were established to deal with petty crimes and infractions.[12] Greater control was exerted over the lawless Borders through a joint commission with the English set up in 1587.[12] James VI was much more hostile to the culture and particularism of the Scottish Highlands than his predecessors. He sent colonists from Fife to parts of the region and forced the Highland chiefs to accept Lowland language and culture through the Statutes of Iona 1609.[13] In 1685 Sir George Mackenzie, recently made Viscount of Tarbat and later elevated to Earl of Cromartie, secured two Acts of the Parliament of Scotland transferring his lands in Easter Ross from Ross-shire to Cromartyshire,[14] making Cromartyshire the last of the shires to be established.

From the seventeenth century the function of shires expanded from judicial functions into wider local administration,[15] and in 1667 Commissioners of Supply were appointed in each sheriffdom or shire to collect the cess land tax.[15] From this point shires came to be regarded as the main division of the country in preference to the former provinces.

The parish also became an important unit of local government, pressured by Justices in the early eighteenth century, it became responsible for taking care of the destitute in periods of famine, like that in 1740, in order to prevent the impoverished from taking to the roads and causing general disorder.[16] Behaviour could be regulated through kirk sessions, composed of local church elders, which replaced the church courts of the Middle Ages, and which dealt with moral and religious conduct.[16] The local court baron remained important in regulating minor interpersonal and property offences. They were held at the behest of the local baron when there was a backlog of cases and could appoint birleymen, usually senior tenants, who would resolve disputes and issues. The combination of kirk sessions and courts baron gave considerable power to local lairds to control the behaviour of the populations of their communities.[17]

From the eighteenth century the shires (used for administration) began to diverge from the sheriffdoms (used for judicial functions) (see Historical development of Scottish sheriffdoms).[18]

Modern era

As a result of the dual system of local government, burghs (of which there were various types) often had a high degree of autonomy. In 1858 police forces were established in each county under the Police (Scotland) Act 1857. In 1890 with the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 came into force. It established a uniform system of county councils in Scotland. The county councils assumed many of the powers of existing organisations such as the Commissioners of Supply and County Road Trustees and many of the administrative powers and duties of the Justices of the Peace and parochial boards.

Between 1890 and 1929, there were parish councils and town councils, but with the passing of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929, the functions of parish councils were passed to larger district councils and a distinction was made between large burghs (i.e. those with a population of 20,000 or more) and small burghs. The Act also created two joint county councils covering Perthshire and Kinross-shire, and Morayshire and Nairnshire, but retained residual Nairnshire and Kinross-shire county councils.

This system was further refined by the passing of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 (10 & 11 Geo. 6. c. 43) which created a whole new set of administrative areas known as 'counties', 'counties of cities', 'large burghs' and 'small burghs'. These were to last until 1975. At the same time, the role of local government in postwar Britain reduced due to the Labour Party's social and economic reforms, which nationalized many functions traditionally performed by them such as healthcare and electricity.[19]

A Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland in 1969 (the Wheatley Report) recommended that the interests of local government would best be served by large Regional councils instead of councils based on small counties. The report was largely implemented by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 – creating a system of regions and districts in 1975.

The system was only to last for 21 years as with the passing of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 the regions and districts were re-organised into all-purpose unitary council areas.

Local Government Acts

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See also


  1. ^ A. MacKay and D. Ditchburn, eds, Atlas of Medieval Europe (London: Routledge, 1997), ISBN 0-415-12231-7, p. 179.
  2. ^ John of Fordun wrote that Malcolm II introduced the shire to Scotland and also the thane class. Shires are mentioned in charters by the reign of King Malcolm III, for instance that to the Church of Dunfermline, AD 1070–1093.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 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 Madolyn Stirlingshire (Striuelinschire).(Charter by King David granting the church of Clackmannan, etc., to the Abbey of Stirling)
  5. ^ J Mackay, The Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland, From its Origin down to the Completion of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, Co-operative Printing, Edinburgh 1884, p.2
  6. ^ G. W. S. Barrow, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), ISBN 074860104X, p. 98.
  7. ^ a b c d A. MacQuarrie, Medieval Scotland: Kinship and Nation (Thrupp: Sutton, 2004), ISBN 0-7509-2977-4, pp. 136–140.
  8. ^ a b R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd ed., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, p. 78.
  9. ^ K. J. Stringer, "The Emergence of a Nation-State, 1100–1300", in J. Wormald (ed.), Scotland: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0198206151, pp. 38–76.
  10. ^ B. Webster, Medieval Scotland: the Making of an Identity (St. Martin's Press, 1997), ISBN 0333567617, pp. 122–23.
  11. ^ J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470–1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, pp. 41–55.
  12. ^ a b J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, pp. 162-3.
  13. ^ J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, pp. 164-5.
  14. ^ Mackenzie 1810, pp.15–16
  15. ^ a b R. A. Houston, I. D. Whyte, Scottish Society, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), ISBN 0521891671, p. 202.
  16. ^ a b R. Mitchison, Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603-1745 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), ISBN 074860233X, p. 144.
  17. ^ R. Mitchison, Lordship to Patronage, Scotland 1603-1745 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983), ISBN 074860233X, pp. 80-1.
  18. ^ Owen Ruffhead, The statutes at large: from Magna Carta to the end of the last parliament, 1761 [i.e. 1763], M. Baskett (1765 [1763]) p. 104.
  19. ^ Thorpe, Andrew (1997). A History of the British Labour Party. London: Macmillan Education UK. pp. 125–126. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-25305-0. ISBN 978-0-333-56081-5.