Shires of Scotland

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The counties, districts and burghs as they were in 1947 Scotland Administrative Map 1947.png
The counties, districts and burghs as they were in 1947

The shires of Scotland (Scottish Gaelic : Siorrachdan na h-Alba; Scots : Scots coonties), [lower-alpha 1] or counties of Scotland, are historic subdivisions of Scotland established in the Middle Ages and used as administrative divisions until 1975. Originally established for judicial purposes (being the territory over which a sheriff had jurisdiction), from the 17th century they started to be used for local administration purposes as well. The areas used for judicial functions (sheriffdoms) came to diverge from the shires, which ceased to be used for local government purposes after 1975 under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. [2]


Today, local government in Scotland is based upon council areas, which sometimes incorporate county names, but frequently have vastly different boundaries. Counties continue to be used for land registration, [3] and form the basis of the lieutenancy areas (although the latter are not entirely identical). [4]


Shires of Scotland by population (2011) Shires of Scotland by population (2011).png
Shires of Scotland by population (2011)
Shires of Scotland by population density (people per hectare) in 2011 Shires of Scotland by population density (2011).png
Shires of Scotland by population density (people per hectare) in 2011

Sheriffdoms or shires

Malcolm III (reigned 1058 to 1093) appears to have introduced sheriffs as part of a policy of replacing previous forms of government with French feudal structures. [5] This policy 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. [6] The earliest sheriffdom south of the Forth which we know of for certain is Haddingtonshire, which is named in a charter of 1139 as Hadintunschira [7] and in another of 1141 as Hadintunshire. [8] Stirlingshire appears in a charter of 1150 under the name Striuelinschire. [9]

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

Shires extant by 1305

In 1305 Edward I of England, who had deposed John Balliol, 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. [6]

^a Gospatric was mentioned as sheriff in a number of charters of Earl David. [10] [11] 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. [12] The shire was one of those surrendered to Edward III of England in 1334. [13]

Shires formed after 1305

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.

^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. [24] [25]

1707 Act of Union and the ending of heritable jurisdictions

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. [26] The commissioners eventually assumed other duties in the county. Following the union of Scotland with England, the government began bringing Scotland's local governance into line with the rest of Great Britain. The full machinery of county government was not immediately established, 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. The heritable sheriffdoms were Argyll, Bute, Banff, Caithness, Clackmannan, Cromarty, Dumbarton, Dumfries, Elgin, Fife, Kinross, Kirkcudbright, 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. [27] 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, and thus led to the sheriffdoms and the shires having different boundaries. [28] 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.

Later developments

The county buildings in Paisley, formerly the seat of Renfrew County Council Renfrewshire county.jpg
The county buildings in Paisley, formerly the seat of Renfrew County Council

In 1858 police forces were established in each shire under the Police (Scotland) Act 1857. Burghs were largely outside the jurisdiction of shire authorities.

Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889, thirty-four county councils were formed. The areas governed by these councils, referred to as "administrative counties", resembled the traditional shires of Scotland, but not entirely. Exclaves were abolished, with the exception of one exclave of Dunbartonshire. Ross-shire and Cromartyshire were merged into Ross and Cromarty, and four cities - Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow - were made counties in their own right. These "counties of cities" were periodically expanded as their urban areas spread further and further into the surrounding countryside. In general, they were still considered part of the wider geographical county; for instance, Glasgow was still reckoned part of Lanarkshire, though it was no longer within the jurisdiction of Lanark County Council.

Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929, two pairs of councils were combined with each other to form the "joint county councils" of Perth & Kinross and Moray & Nairn. Though governed by the same council, each county remained nominally independent from the other.

In 1963 the Government published a white paper which proposed a reduction in the number of counties from thirty-four to between ten and fifteen. [29] A process of consultation between county councils and officials from the Scottish Office was begun to effect 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. [30]

In 1966 a Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley, was appointed. [31] The commission's report in 1969 recommended the replacement of the counties with larger regions. [32]

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. [33] 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, being replaced by regions and districts.

Local government was reorganised again under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, with the regions and districts being replaced by the currently existing council areas. These councils are unitary, meaning they undertake all local governance within their area, though "community councils" do operate in several towns.

The historic counties of Scotland are included in the Index of Place Names (IPN) published by the Office for National Statistics. Each "place" included in the IPN is related to the historic county it lies within, as well as to a set of administrative areas.


In official documents shires were referred to as the Shire of X, rather than X Shire. The latter was more common in general usage. 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." [34]

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" [35] ). 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". [36] 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:

In Scotland, as in England and Wales, the terms "shire" and "county" have been used interchangeably, with the latter becoming more common in later usage. Today, "county" is more commonly used, with "shire" being seen as a more poetic or archaic variant.[ citation needed ]

Lists of shires

Counties until 1890

Counties of Scotland until 1890

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

Counties of Scotland from 1890 to 1975
Scotland Administrative Map 1947.png

See also


  1. In dialects of Scots (not Scottish English per se), "shires" are typically smaller than counties ("coonties"; more like a village in English), and traditionally enjoyed some baronial or ecclesiastical privilege (e.g. Musselburgh or "the shire of Gellan in Aboyne"). [1]

Related Research Articles

Shire is a traditional term for an administrative division of land in Great Britain and some other English-speaking countries such as Australia and the United States. It is generally synonymous with county. It was first used in Wessex from the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement, and spread to most of the rest of England in the tenth century. In some rural parts of Australia, a shire is a local government area; however, in Australia, it is not synonymous with a "county", which is a lands administrative division.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Highland (council area)</span> Council area of Scotland

Highland is a council area in the Scottish Highlands and is the largest local government area in the United Kingdom. It was the 7th most populous council area in Scotland at the 2011 census. It shares borders with the council areas of Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Moray and Perth and Kinross. Their councils, and those of Angus and Stirling, also have areas of the Scottish Highlands within their administrative boundaries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Local government in Scotland</span> System of state administration on a local level in Scotland

Local government in Scotland comprises thirty-two local authorities, commonly referred to as councils. Each council provides public services, including education, social care, waste management, libraries and planning. Councils receive the majority of their funding from the Scottish Government, but operate independently and are accountable to their local electorates. Councils raise additional income via the Council Tax, a locally variable domestic property tax, and Business rates, a non-domestic property tax.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sutherland</span> Historic county in Scotland

Sutherland is a historic county, registration county and lieutenancy area in the Highlands of Scotland. Its county town is Dornoch. Sutherland borders Caithness and Moray Firth to the east, Ross-shire and Cromartyshire to the south and the Atlantic to the north and west. Like its southern neighbour Ross-shire, Sutherland has some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe, especially on its western fringe where the mountains meet the sea. These include high sea cliffs and very old mountains composed of Precambrian and Cambrian rocks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ross and Cromarty</span> Area in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

Ross and Cromarty, also referred to as Ross-shire and Cromartyshire, is a variously defined area in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. There is a registration county and a lieutenancy area in current use, the latter of which is 8,019 square kilometres in extent. Historically there has also been a constituency of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, a local government county, a district of the Highland local government region and a management area of the Highland Council. The local government county is now divided between two local government areas: the Highland area and Na h-Eileanan Siar. Ross and Cromarty border Sutherland to the north and Inverness-shire to the south.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caithness</span> Historic county in northern Scotland

Caithness is a historic county, registration county and lieutenancy area of Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Northern Constabulary</span> Former police force in Scotland, United Kingdom

The Northern Constabulary was the territorial police force responsible for Northern Scotland, covering the Highland council area along with the Western Isles, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands, which make up most of the Highlands and Islands area. It was the police force covering the largest geographical area in the United Kingdom, equivalent to the size of Belgium, but was one of the smallest in terms of officers, with about 715 officers. The Constabulary was one of those amalgamated to form Police Scotland in 2013.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of local government in Scotland</span>

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Crofters Party</span>

The Crofters' Party was the parliamentary arm of the Highland Land League. It gained five MPs in the 1885 general election and a sixth the following year.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ross-shire</span> Historic county in Scotland

Ross-shire is a historic county in the Scottish Highlands. The county borders Sutherland to the north and Inverness-shire to the south, as well as having a complex border with Cromartyshire – a county consisting of numerous enclaves or exclaves scattered throughout Ross-shire's territory. Ross-shire includes most of Ross along with Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Dingwall is the traditional county town. The area of Ross-shire is based on that of the historic province of Ross, but with the exclusion of the many enclaves that form Cromartyshire.

Commissioners of Supply were local administrative bodies in Scotland from 1667 to 1930. Originally established in each sheriffdom to collect tax, they later took on much of the responsibility for the local government of the counties of Scotland. In 1890 they ceded most of their duties to the county councils created by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. They were finally abolished in 1930.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sheriffs (Scotland) Act 1747</span> United Kingdom legislation

The Sheriffs (Scotland) Act 1747 was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain which applied only to Scotland. It stated that anyone who was prosecuted on or after 1 April 1748 for treason or misprision of treason could be tried anywhere in Scotland if the crime had been committed in any of the shires of Dunbartain, Stirling, Perth, Kincardine, Aberdeen, Inverness, Nairn, Cromarty, Argyll, Forfarshire, Banff, Sutherland, Caithness, Elgine, Ross, and Orkney. Normally a crime had to be tried in the shire where it had been committed. The Act also said that in such a trial, the jurors could come from adjoining counties, instead of the county where the trial was held.

A sheriffdom is a judicial district of Scotland. Originally identical to the Shires of Scotland, from the eighteenth century many counties were grouped to form "sheriffdoms".

The Sheriff of Bute was historically the office responsible for enforcing law and order on the Isle of Bute, Scotland and bringing criminals to justice.

The Sheriff of Roxburgh was historically the royal official responsible for enforcing law and order in that area of Scotland. Prior to 1748 most sheriffdoms were held on a hereditary basis. From that date, following the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the hereditary sheriffs were replaced by salaried sheriff-deputes, qualified advocates who were members of the Scottish Bar.

The Sheriff of Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland was historically the office responsible for enforcing law and order in Ross-shire, Cromarty and Sutherland, Scotland and bringing criminals to justice.

The Sheriff of Sutherland was historically a royal appointment, held at pleasure, which carried the responsibility for enforcing justice in the sheriffdom of Sutherland, Scotland. It became a heritable post in the hands of the Earls of Sutherland until 1747, when it reverted, in combination with Caithness, to being a Royal appointment, usually for life.

The Sheriff of Caithness was historically the royal official responsible for enforcing law and order in Caithness, Scotland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Historic counties of the United Kingdom</span> Ancient divisions of the United Kingdom

The historic counties of the United Kingdom are ancient geographical divisions of the United Kingdom. Although not defined by any one function, over many centuries, various forms of administrative function have been based on them. These have included the areas of parliamentary constituencies, the court of quarter sessions, the areas in which a lord-lieutenant and sheriff serve, territorial units of the Militia, as well as the basis of the original county councils. Although these areas have subsequently changed, the historic counties on which they were originally based have not. The Office for National Statistics recommended them in the Index of Place Names as a stable, unchanging geography which covers the whole of Great Britain.


  1. "Dictionaries of the Scots Language:: SND :: shire n1" . Retrieved 18 May 2024.
  2. "Counties and Burghs". National Records of Scotland. 31 May 2013. Retrieved 11 April 2016.
  3. Land Register Counties & Operational Dates Archived 28 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  4. County Directory of Scotland.
  5. 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 Malcolm III, for instance that to the Church of Dunfermline, AD 1070-1093
  6. 1 2 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.
  7. Charter by King David to the church of St. Andrews of the church of St. Mary at Haddington
  8. Charter by King David granting Clerchetune to the church of St. Mary of Haddington
  9. Charter by King David granting the church of Clackmannan, etc., to the Abbey of Stirling
  10. Barrow, G. W. S., ed. (1999), The Charters of King David I: The Written 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
  11. 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
  12. Kerr, Robert (1811). The History of Scotland during the Reign of Robert I. Edinburgh. p.  152.
  13. Barrell, Andrew D M (2000). Medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: Cambridge University Press. p. 127.
  14. MacNair, Peter (1914). Argyllshire and Buteshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. pp.  1, 69.
  15. Learmonth, William (1920). Kirkcudbrightshire and Wigtownshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. pp.  2–3.
  16. Mort, Frederick (1919). Renfrewshire. Cambridge County Geographies. London: Cambridge University Press. p.  3.
  17. Mitchell, Dugald (1886). "The Sheriffdom of Tarbert". Tarbert, Past and Present: Gleanings in Local History. Tarbert: Bennett & Thomson. pp. 45–51.; Scottish Medievalists and the Department of Geography of the University of Edinburgh (1975). "Administration: Sheriffs, stewards and bailies". An Atlas of Scottish History to 1707. pp. 208–210.
  18. 1 2 3 "Records of the Parliaments of Scotland".
  19. 1 2 3 Kennedy, Allan D. (2014). Governing Gaeldom: The Scottish Highlands and the Restoration State, 1660-1688. BRILL. pp. 155–156. ISBN   9789004269255.
  20. "Records of the Parliaments of Scotland".
  21. 1 2 "Records of the Parliaments of Scotland".
  22. Mackenzie, Sir George Steuart (1810). General View of the Agriculture of the Counties of Ross and Cromarty: With Observations on the Means of Their Improvement. Richard Phillips. pp.  15–16.; RPS 1685/4/66, RPS 1685/4/67, RPS 1686/4/35, RPS 1690/4/108, RPS 1690/4/119
  23. 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.
  24. Campbell, H F (1920). Caithness & Sutherland. Cambridge County Geographies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.  79–80.
  25. "Records of the Parliaments of Scotland".
  26. 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 kingdom of Scotland etc. for a new and voluntary offer to his Majesty of seventy-two thousand pounds monthly for the space of twelve months". Records of the Parliaments of Scotland. University of St Andrews. 23 January 1667.
  27. Whetstone, Ann E. (1977). "The Reform of the Scottish Sheriffdoms in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 9 (1). The North American Conference on British Studies: 61–71. doi:10.2307/4048219. JSTOR   4048219.
  28. Whatley, Christopher A (2000). Scottish Society 1707-1820. Manchester University Press. p. 147. ISBN   978-0-7190-4540-0.
  29. The Modernisation of Local Government in Scotland (Cmnd. 2067)
  30. Scots council reform plans changed, The Times, 6 March 1965
  31. Tasks set for planners of local government - Members of royal commissions named, The Times, 25 May 1966
  32. Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland 1966 - 69 (Cmnd.4150)
  33. Reform of Local Government in Scotland (Cmnd. 4583)
  34. Parliamentary Minutes, 13 November 1641.
  35. (1682) - John Adair – Mappe of Wast Lothian commonly called Linlithgowshire authore Johanne Adair; (manuscript in the National Library of Scotland)
  36. Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland