High Court Records – what will you discover?

A prison register entry
1 Aug, 2019

High Court Records – what will you discover?

It is an irony of ancestor-hunting that you are more likely to find information about an ancestor who committed a crime than one who was a respectable, law-abiding citizen.

You may have different reasons for wanting to search criminal records – perhaps you discovered your ancestor in prison in a census return; you are tracing an ancestor who was transported; your ancestor was a victim of, or witness to a crime; maybe they were a Sheriff Officer. Whatever reason, exploring criminal records is both fascinating and worthwhile.

National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds a huge number of records relating to crime and criminals. Records of the High Court of Justiciary (NRS ref JC26) which has jurisdiction over serious crimes such as murder, rape and treason, hold a wealth of information. Most case papers from 1800 onwards are listed by the criminal’s name in NRS’ catalogue but it is worth remembering that these records are closed for 100 years due to Data Protection.

Pre-1800 case papers are not catalogued in detail, however we hold formal records of trials from 1576 onwards in the minute books (JC6-JC9). Victim’s names in cases older than 100 years also appear in the catalogue.

What information can be found in these records?

Precognitions – evidence taken before a trial – record the words spoken by witnesses and suspect(s) during interviews (refs: pre-1900 AD14, post-1900 AD15). Precognitions often describe people’s characters, local environments and information about their lives. These are also subject to 100 year closure.

Evidence can record terminology or include descriptions not thought appropriate in today’s language, but provide an illustration of how people viewed the world at the time.

An example of evidence of a person’s character can be seen in the case of George Chalmers who was brought before the High Court in 1870, accused of the murder of John Miller, a Tolbooth keeper. The defence argued he had been insane at the time of the murder; his brother William gave evidence as to his delicate mental health which, he said, had been affected when George suffered sun-stroke at 15 years old. ‘There was a good bit of difference in my brother after the sunstroke…He always had a strange sort of nature…viscous and mischievous and easily raised…he was worse after the sunstroke…he was apt to strike people.’ Another witness, William Smith added ‘if the cattle he was herding disobeyed him he would have thrown off all his clothes except his drawers and run after and amongst them, as I used to say, faster than a dog.’ The plea of insanity was rejected. Chalmers was hanged on 4 October 1870 in Perth. (NRS ref AD14/70/250)

Suspects found to be ‘criminally insane’ were sent to prison as ‘prisoner-patients.’ In 1865, Perth Prison established a Criminal Lunatic Department (CLD). NRS hold these records under reference HH21/48 which complement the High Court trial papers.

NRS’ summer exhibition ‘Prisoners or Patients? Criminal Insanity in Victorian Scotland’ focuses on these criminal lunatics. For more information, please visit our website.

Crime Scenes

Sometimes sketches of the locus of the crime scene survive within case papers – these are generally kept in the Register House Plan (RHP) series. This example shows a detail of the floor plan from 17 Sandyford Place – the locus of the murder of servant Jessie McPherson Richardson in 1862. Her friend, Jessie McLachlan, was found guilty; her sentence was reduced from hanging to 16 years imprisonment.

crime scene map

Ref: NRS, RHP92864/2


In some cases, drawings of key items of evidence or, more exciting still, the original items survive. This is rare, however, and those that do are removed from the papers by our conservation team to be stored separately.

knife from a crime scene

 A razor produced in the trial of George Bryce for the murder of Jane Watt or Seton. Bryce was found guilty and hanged at Edinburgh, 21 June 1864.  (NRS, RH19/67)


Prison Records

From the mid-19th century, police took photographs of criminals for identification purposes. In the case of William Johnstone, a police officer noted that ‘copies [of Johnstone’s photograph] were recently sent to the Governors of the English Convict Establishments and other places. From one…he was recognised as having been twice convicted at Durham, and a copy…has been sent there for corroboration.’ (NRS, AD14/73/30)

Prison volumes (ref HH12) include descriptions of the criminal, their crime, sentence and, in some cases, their image. A small number of prison registers also include original photographs.

A description of Mary McKellar

A description of Mary McKellar or Kerr. Other interesting ‘distinguishing marks’ are sometimes provided, in this case a ‘cut on left side of cheek.’ Mary was imprisoned multiple times for theft. Ref: NRS, HH12/56/7/301


Crime Reports

High Court papers sometimes describe methods of tracking criminals. In the case of John Aitken Swanston, arrested in 1909 for breaking into mansion houses, newspapers reported how ‘footprints in the garden were traced and would seem to correspond with those of a man who police have been in search of for some time.’

Swanstons footprints

Police compared casts of the footprints found in a garden against the soles of Swanston’s shoes. They concluded that he was the thief. Swanston was sentenced to six years penal servitude. Ref: NRS, JC26/1909/92/12


For more information on criminal records held by NRS, please see our online guide.


About the Author

Veronica Schreuder photo

Veronica Schreuder in an archivist at National Records of Scotland (NRS). Whilst studying for her undergraduate degree in History at The University of Edinburgh, she began volunteering with the NRS helping to catalogue World War One Tribunal Papers. This experience encouraged her to pursue a career in archives so she could continue enjoying working with historical records. She completed her Archive and Records Management Diploma through Dundee University and has enjoyed a variety of roles within NRS including a year as the Search Room Graduate Trainee and Sheriff Court Archivist and now enjoys helping audiences of all ages and backgrounds to engage with archives in the Outreach and Learning department.

Guest Writer

Guest writers are non RQG members who are experts in their own field. They range from academics, archivists to experienced (but not necessarily qualified) genealogists.