Top resources to help you research feudal history in Scotland


29 June 2022
Chris Paton shares his top recommendation for researching feudalism, the dominant form of land tenure in Scotland until 2004.

What was the feudal system in Scotland?

Scotland’s feudal system involved a series of granted agreements for land use in the form of perpetual leases, which could be passed on through inheritance (making them 'heritable' arrangements). Within any feudal land contract there were two parties, a 'superior' and a 'vassal'. The whole process of granting land in such agreements started at the very top, with the Crown, as the ultimate superior, subdividing its lands into large holdings known as 'feus', and appointing vassals directly to oversee them.

In some cases these grants of land could be small, and the vassal simply abided by the Crown's rules, and that was it. In areas where the land holdings were much larger, however, and too large to be ruled over by the person to which it had been granted, the land held could be subdivided yet again into smaller holdings or feus. When this happened the vassal of the Crown became a superior in his or her own right, with vassals beneath them appointed to manage parts of the lands on his or her behalf.

This process of subdivision was known as 'subinfeudation', creating a 'feudal ladder'; when it happened, anyone who held land from a superior, but who had vassals beneath them also, gained the special designation of a 'subject superior'. The land could continue to be subdivided, and the process repeated, until it became too small to do so, at which point small plots would be either worked on or leased out.      

Resources to help you research feudal history & records

There are many challenges to be faced when looking through the records generated by Scotland's feudal system, particularly when going back before the 18th century. To understand the legal language used within them can be quite an issue, but in most cases such documents were written in a particular style with the same types of wording. A very useful book that can help is Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents, compiled by Peter Gouldesbrough in 1985, and published by the Stair Society in Edinburgh, in which Peter has given transcribed examples of all the main records types, including Latin and English translations. To learn the older forms of Scottish handwriting used, the National Records of Scotland has a free introductory platform at Scottish Handwriting, whilst a free course on FutureLearn, entitled 'Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records', can also help.  

A good legal dictionary can also assist, such as Andrew Dewar Gibb's Students Glossary of Scottish Legal Terms, whilst a useful guide to many old terms used in the documents can be found on the People of Medieval Scotland website. The Dictionary of the Scots Language can also help, and for a general steer on the on this topic, and the various other topics raised in my previous two articles on Scottish land records, my book Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records (Pen and Sword, 2019) can also help.

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Read more about the history of land tenure in Scotland in Chris Paton’s in-depth article in the August 2022 issue of Family Tree magazine. Download your copy here

Chris Paton runs the Scotland’s Greatest Story research service and teaches online courses through Pharos Tutors.

His books, including Tracing Your Scottish Family History on the Internet are available from Pen & Sword. Chris’s Scottish GENES blog can be found here.