What's the difference between counties, parishes, burghs, regions and districts?

How are places classified?

For most of its history (from medieval times until 1975) Scotland was divided into counties, parishes and burghs for civil and religious purposes. Information created by central government, the Church, local government and the legal system was often divided and sub-divided into counties, parishes and burghs. Examples of historical information divided like this are tax rolls, parish registers of baptisms and marriages, population statistics, property registers and official reports on subjects like health and education. So if you are looking for information about people, buildings, and events in a place in the past, it helps if you know the relevant parish and county, and whether the place was a burgh.This is because Burghs (especially royal burghs) were often treated differently by central government and the legal system. Many had their own courts of law, local government, churches and schools. The physical and social structure of burghs differed from the rest of the country for much of their existence.

Scottish Counties

Counties were administrative units in Scotland from later medieval times until 1975. They began as judicial and administrative areas (sheriffdoms). Local justice and some civil administration in each sheriffdom was the responsibility a local judge and crown official known as a sheriff. By the mid-nineteenth century the boundaries of some counties and sheriffdoms diverged. In 1891, two separate counties, Ross-shire and Cromartyshire were combined to make the county of Ross and Cromarty. Counties were abolished in 1975 and replaced by the two-tiered region and district system and three island council areas. In 1996, this system was replaced by the local council areas of today. Some counties have been known by different names at different times.

The main alternative names to bear in mind are:

  • Angus = Forfarshire = the County of Forfar
  • East Lothian = Haddingtonshire = the County of Haddington
  • Kincardineshire = Mearns = the County of Kincardine
  • Midlothian = Edinburghshire = the County of Edinburgh
  • Moray = Morayshire = Elginshire = the County of Elgin
  • Peeblesshire = The County of Peebles = Tweeddale
  • Selkirkshire = the County of Selkirk = Ettrick Forest
  • Shetland = Zetland
  • West Lothian = Linlithgowshire = the County of Linlithgow

In 1929 the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee were made counties of cities, meaning that these four cities were treated as both burghs and counties for adnministrative purposes.

View map of Scottish counties

Scottish Parishes

Scotland has been divided into parishes since early medieval times, but there have been many boundary changes, amalgamations, changes of name and abolitions. It is important to distinguish between civil parishes and ecclesiastical parishes. Initially parishes were areas of land, whose inhabitants were compelled to pay a proportion of their produce or income (in Scotland called teinds) to support the Church. The Church was originally responsible for education and poor relief but in the nineteenth century these functions were made the responsibility of local government bodies (parochial boards and school boards) in most parishes and parishes which had these bodies were known as civil parishes. Many classes of historical record are arranged by parish, including valuation rolls, tax records, church records, poor relief records and education records. It is important, therefore, to know which parish and county a place was in. Many civil parish boundaries changed between 1845 and 1975, especially around 1891-1900, when the Boundary Commission rationalised parish and county boundaries. The ScotlandsPlaces Gazetteer attempts to take these changes into account. Boundary changes can explain why a place might appear in the records in one parish for a while, and then, apparently, disappear.

Scottish Burghs

Burghs were urban settlements which enjoyed trading privileges from medieval times until 1832 and which regulated their own affairs to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the type of burgh) until the abolition of Scottish burghs in 1975. Burgh status has implications for historical records. Separate valuation rolls and electoral rolls were compiled by royal and police burghs until 1975. Burgh Records burghs produced characteristic forms of historical record, such as court books, guild records, registers of deeds, financial accounts, and, latterly, records of burgh institutions such as schools and libraries.

Royal Burghs

Most royal burghs were sea ports, and each was either created by the crown, or upgraded, as it were, from another status, such as burgh of barony. Each royal burgh (with the exception of four 'ineffective burghs') was represented in the Scottish parliament and could appoint magistrates with wide powers in civil and criminal justice. By 1707 there were 70 royal burghs.

Burghs of Regality and Barony

These were burghs granted by the crown to a secular or ecclesiastical landowner. A burgh of regality was granted to a lord of regality (one of the leading Scottish nobles who held very large estates and had wide powers in criminal and civil law). A burgh of barony was granted to a tenant-in-chief (a landowner who held his estates directly from the crown). More than 300 burghs of barony or regality were created between 1450 and 1707, but many did not survive for long, and many others were 'parchment burghs' (burghs erected by landowners, which never developed into the market towns they hoped for).

Parliamentary and Police Burghs

Parliamentary burghs were royal burghs and many burghs of barony and regality on which elected town councils were imposed by parliament in 1832-33. Police burghs were towns which adopted local or national acts of parliament to adopt an elected town council, which was responsible for policing, paving, lighting and cleansing. Between 1900 and 1975 over 100 police burghs were created. Some were existing royal burghs and burghs of barony or regality. Others were new creations - growing towns which wanted to control industrial pollution, crime and so on. Small burghs, large burghs and cities In 1930 (under the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929) burghs were divided into counties of cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee), large burghs, and small burghs. Burghs were abolished in 1975 and replaced by district councils, which in turn were replaced by current local authorities in 1996.

Scottish Islands

Scotland includes hundreds of islands. More than 100 are inhabited now and many more have been inhabited in the past. Because many historical records are arranged by parish and county, anyone researching a Scottish island needs to find out the parish and county to which an island belonged prior to 1975.

Scottish New Towns

The term 'new town' has been used to describe settlements which were planned and created for a purpose. Examples in the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland have included Inveraray, Kinross, New Lanark, and the 'new town' of Edinburgh. However, in terms of historical records, the term 'New Towns' is used with reference to five specific areas of Scotland, which were given a special status in the second half of the twentieth century: East Kilbride (1949), Glenrothes (1948), Cumbernauld (1956), Livingston (1962) and Irvine (1966). After the Second World War, New Towns were seen as a way of alleviating overpopulation in inner cities, speeding up regeneration of industry and increasing employment. A sixth New Town was proposed for Stonehouse, in Lanarkshire, but this was abandoned. New Towns re-housed tens of thousands of people from west-central Scotland (especially Glasgow) attracted new industrial and commercial developments and were key sites for modern planning and architecture. Many important functions (housing, planning, architecture, etc) were performed by New Town corporations (as opposed to local government) and supervised by government-appointed boards (rather than elected councillors). New Town corporations were abolished in 1995-6 and their functions transferred to local authorities. Scottish

Regions and Districts

In 1975, the government implemented a new system of division in Scotland and the burghs and councils were replaced by districts contained with regions. The three island areas, Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles remained one-tier systems. The regions varied in size and where one region may only have three districts, another may have nineteen. Regions were controlled by regional councils who were responsible for police services and education. Regions were divided up into smaller district which were run by district councils and were responsible for such things as local planning, housing and libraries. In 1996, regions and districts were abolished and were replaced by the modern council areas.

Scottish Modern Council Areas

The modern council areas which are run by unitary authorities were implemented in 1996. Although many modern council areas share the same (or similar) name to the older counties, the boundaries for the areas are quite different. The modern councils are responsible for police and fire services, health services, electoral registration and council tax, and transport.