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Counties of Scotland

Renfrewshire]] county council. The counties of Scotland () were the principal local government divisions of Scotland until 1975. Scotland's current lieutenancy areas and registration counties are largely based on them. They are often referred to as historic counties.[1][2]



Sheriffdoms or shires

In the 12th century the office of sheriff was introduced to Scotland. The areas under the jurisdiction of sheriffs - known as "shires" or "sheriffdoms" - were eventually adapted to become the counties of Scotland. Malcolm III appears to have introduced sheriffs as part of a policy of replacing native "Celtic" forms of government with Norman feudal structures.[3] 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.[4][5]

The earliest shires or sheriffdoms were a lowland system that subsequently spread along the east coast which remained under royal control. The shires of the Highlands were completed only in the reign of King Charles I.

Shires extant by 1305

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.[4]

: Gospatric was mentioned as sheriff in a number of charters of Earl David.[6][7] 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.[8] The shire was one of those surrendered to Edward III of England in 1334.[9]

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.

  • 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.[10]
  • 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".[11]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 1633: Sutherland separated from Inverness.

: 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.[14]

The 1707 Act of Union and the ending of heritable jurisdictions

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.[15] 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.[16] 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


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"[17]

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"[18]). 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".[19] 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:

  • Angus Forfarshire
  • East Lothian Haddingtonshire
  • Kincardineshire Mearns
  • Midlothian Edinburghshire
  • Moray Elginshire
  • Peeblesshire Tweeddale
  • Selkirkshire Ettrick Forest
  • West Lothian Linlithgowshire

'Shire' and 'County'

From their earliest appearance the counties of Scotland have been called "shires". The word "county" did not become the usual usage until the nineteenth century.

By contrast, in England and Wales "shire" and "county" have been interchangeable, with "county" prevailing as the standard term. In Ireland, "shire" is little used.

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

Local government

From the seventeenth century the shires 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.[20] 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.

The counties became a basis of modern local government, alongside burghs, when 34 county councils were created in Scotland by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. About 90 years later, under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, these county authorities were abolished as local government bodies and were replaced with regions and districts and island council areas. Areas for Lieutenancy, areas similar to those of the counties, were created at the same time. 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, have been revived for the post-1996 council areas. Some also remain in use for lieutenancy areas and for area committees of the present councils.

Land registration

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).[21]

The thirty-three counties of 1868 remain in use by the Scottish Land Register under later legislation.[22]

Postal direction

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

Counties of Scotland until 1890

  1. Caithness
  2. Sutherland
  3. Ross-shire
  4. Cromartyshire
  5. Inverness-shire
  6. Nairnshire
  7. Morayshire
  8. Banffshire
  9. Aberdeenshire
  10. Kincardineshire
  11. Angus
  12. Perthshire
  13. Argyll
  14. Bute
  15. Ayrshire
  16. Renfrewshire
  17. Dumbartonshire
  18. Stirlingshire

  1. Clackmannanshire

  2. Kinross-shire

  3. Fife

  4. West Lothian (Linlithgowshire)

  5. Midlothian (Edinburghshire)

  6. East Lothian (Haddingtonshire)

  7. Berwickshire

  8. Roxburghshire

  9. Dumfriesshire

  10. Kirkcudbrightshire

  11. Wigtownshire

  12. Lanarkshire

  13. Selkirkshire

  14. Peeblesshire

    Not shown:
    Zetland (Shetland)

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

  1. Caithness
  2. Sutherland
  3. Ross and Cromarty
  4. Inverness-shire
  5. Nairnshire
  6. County of Moray
    (also known as Elginshire until 1918)
  7. Banffshire
  8. Aberdeenshire
  9. Kincardineshire
  10. Angus
    (Forfarshire until 1928)
  11. Perthshire
  12. Argyll
  13. County of Bute
  14. Ayrshire
  15. Renfrewshire
  16. Dunbartonshire
  17. Stirlingshire
  18. Clackmannanshire
  19. Kinross-shire
  20. Fife
  21. East Lothian
    (Haddingtonshire until 1921)
  22. Midlothian
    (County of Edinburgh until 1890)
  23. West Lothian
    (Linlithgowshire until 1924)
  24. Lanarkshire
  25. Peeblesshire
  26. Selkirkshire
  27. Berwickshire
  28. Roxburghshire
  29. Dumfriesshire
  30. Kirkcudbrightshire
  31. Wigtownshire
  32. Zetland
  33. Orkney

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 counties for local government purposes, including merging Ross and Cromartyshire into Ross and Cromarty, and setting up a boundary commission to make further 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 counties 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.[23][24][25] Each of these counties of cities were enlarged on a number of occasions at the expense of the surrounding counties. These are not shown on the map below as separate entities.

Name changes

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.[26] In 1928 Forfarshire was renamed Angus.[27]


In 1930, the county councils were re-constituted, including two joint county councils covering the "combined counties" of Perthshire and Kinross-shire, and Morayshire and Nairnshire by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929.[28]

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 created new administrative areas named 'counties', 'counties of cities', large burghs and small burghs. Although these had been established by earlier legislation, the Act listed the various counties and other divisions for the first time.

In 1963 the Government published a white paper which proposed a reduction in the number of counties from thirty-three to between ten and fifteen.[29] A process of consultation between county 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.[30] Accordingly a Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley was appointed in 1966.[31] The commission's report in 1969 recommended the replacement of the counties with larger regions.[32] Another change in government control in 1970 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.

Parliamentary constituencies

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.

County towns, area and population

See List of pre-1975 counties of Scotland.

See also

  • List of counties of Scotland in 1951 by population and by area
  • List of counties of Scotland in 1971 by population and by area
  • List of Scottish counties by highest point
  • List of burghs in Scotland
  • Local government areas of Scotland 1973 to 1996
  • Lieutenancy areas of Scotland
  • Subdivisions of Scotland
  • List of places in Scotland
  • Counties of the United Kingdom


External links

bg: br:Kontelezhio Bro-Skos cs:V voj spr vn ho len n Skotska cy:Siroedd yr Alban de:Traditionelle Grafschaften Schottlands el: fr:Comt s d' cosse ga:Contaetha na hAlban gd:Siorrachdan na h-Alba it:Contee tradizionali della Scozia nl:Graafschappen van Schotland no:Tradisjonelt grevskap (Skottland) nn:Tradisjonelle grevskap i Skottland ru: sco:Scots coonties

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