A Gazetteer of Scotland


Scottish Counties and Parishes

Counties and parishes have been the main units of local administration in Scotland from the Middle Ages until modern times. Only the burghs have had comparable importance and they operated alongside the county and parish structure.

Counties developed gradually as the dominant middle tier of government from the introduction of the feudal system in the time of David I (1124-53). Over the centuries the great earldoms were brought under central control and their territories became the modern counties of Scotland. As parliamentary democracy developed, counties became also the basis of representation, along with the burghs.

In 1975 a major re-organisation created an extra tier of local government and many counties disappeared, being replaced by the two tiers of Regions and Districts. Some county names survived as those of Districts, either singly or in combinations. One of the most welcomed aspects of the 1975 changes was the creation of a single tier authority for the Outer Hebribes, called the Western Isles Council or Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, thus ending the regime by which the administration of those islands was divided between two mainland county councils based on the opposite side of Scotland from the Isles.

This article refers mainly to the situation that existed for those centuries preceding 1975, as that is the period that will be of interest to historians, genealogists and most users of this web site.

Scottish county names are sufficient in themselves to designate their areas. There is no need to add the word "County" either afterwards (as in the USA) or before (as in Ireland). Those counties whose names might be confused with that of a town, city, or other entity include the suffix -shire. (Buteshire includes the Isle of Bute and the larger Isle of Arran. Argyll is the name of a district within Argyllshire.) The counties where no such confusion can arise are the four most northerly counties Shetland, Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland, and the lowland county of Fife. (The usage Fifeshire is also known.) A second group comprises counties whose names are of recent origin, having changed since the original Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland was published. They are:

Midlothian (formerly Edinburghshire)
Moray (formerly Elginshire)
Angus (formerly Forfarshire)
East Lothian (formerly Haddingtonshire)
West Lothian (formerly Linlithgowshire)

The county of Ross and Cromarty has long been united from former counties of Ross-shire and Cromartyshire. The combined name had no need of the -shire.

The county of Dumbartonshire changed its spelling to Dunbartonshire at some time after Groome's Gazetteer was published, while the town of Dumbarton has remained unchanged.

If you are wondering why some counties contain a hyphen before the -shire suffix, it is to avoid the triple s that would otherwise result. Counties ending in a single s do not contain a hyphen. Thus we have:

Inverness-shire
Kinross-shire
Dumfriesshire
Peeblesshire

Parishes are the lowest tier of local administration. In Scotland they were unknown outside the Lothians area before the reign of David I (1124-1153). It was he who developed the parish structure as part of his programme of modernisation of the Scottish state. His successors extended it to the whole kingdom so that "by 1200 there were eleven sees covering the whole kingdom. Every bishop ruled a defined territorial area... every centre of population (within the feudalised area) probably possessed a new stone church, with an incumbent responsible for the spiritual welfare of the souls in his parish." (T C Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1969). In fact the functions of church and state were intertwined. The church was the main vehicle of social control and impacted on many aspects of people's lives. It was involved in the resolution of local disputes and in the punishment of petty crime.

Later, as the roles of church and state became separated and the separate needs of civil and religious jurisdictions diverged, so the parish developed into two units, civil and ecclesiatical, and changes occurred in the boundaries of civil and eccleasiastical parishes which were not always in step. In Groome's Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland the terms qoud sacra and quod civilia are used to distinguish the two. If no such distinction is made a civil parish is implied.

Parishes vary tremendously in size and structure. In a few lowland areas with relatively large villages and few outlying hamlets, there is virtually a parish for each village. In Scotland more than in England however, the norm is for a parish to cover a large area containing many villages or hamlets.

Particularly during the industrial revolution, whole new towns and villages have appeared within ancient parishes, and the name of a parish may be that of what is now an obscure hamlet or even a lost village. Further confusion is caused by the joining of neighbouring parishes in depopulated areas, and the splitting of large ones in areas of population growth.

In our Index of Parishes for each county we have tried to include any place that is mentioned in the original Gazetteer as being, or having been, a parish, whether quod sacra or quod civilia. This means that, hopefully, any Scottish parish found in a historical reference may be located both on the Gazetteer web site and on a modern Ordnance Survey map through the OSMaps links.