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The High Court of Justiciary Discover your ancestor's darkest days

Scottish High Court records can be accessed in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are free to view in person and contain wonderful information about our ancestors.

Our index 'Scotland's Criminal Database' expands on work already done by the NRS by including additional information such as ages and birthplaces taken from prison records. Our aim is to make a user friendly index so that you can positively and easily identify your ancestors.

The Historical Search Room of the National Records of Scotland

The High Court of Justiciary is the highest Scottish criminal court, and it deals with the most serious crimes such as murder and treason. It’s a myth that the High Court only dealt with very serious crimes, as they also heard cases of repeat offenders of more minor crimes. This court also hears appeals. We find quite a variety of cases in the records of the High Court.

To protect people's privacy High Court records less than 100 years old are closed.

The records of the High Court are very extensive but there are there some main records you will need for each case: Precognitions, Trial Papers and Minute Books (sometimes we can use the slightly more detailed ‘Books of Adjournal’).

Precognitions

When a serious crime had taken place the Lord Advocate’s office oversaw the preparation of a ‘Precognition’. 19th-century Precognitions are found within the AD14 series held by the NRS. You can now easily search these for free on www.scottishindexes.com.

Precognitions were prepared before the trial. The witnesses would be examined and statements made. This would show whether or not there was a good basis for a trial. The facts would also serve to direct the prosecutor and prepare the indictment.

Even if the case did not go to trial these wonderful records often survive. These items help us understand the full picture.

It's as if you can hear the voices of our ancestors come off the written page! The social insights are intriguing. How did our ancestors dry their washing? What conversations took place between friends? It's fascinating.

Trial Papers

We follow the case in the records of the High Court of Justiciary and we look at the trial papers.

There is some duplication between the precognitions and the trial papers but there will also be some unique items; this means that it is best to look at both.

Within the High Court Trial Papers you will find things like this:

The outline of the accused's foot! We could find something similar for your ancestor. Do you have the same size foot as your ancestor?

There is also a copy of the indictment within the trial papers. The indictment was served to the accused and stated the charges. It usually gives a brief summary of events with the dates that the crimes were committed. It may also mention previous convictions.

You will also see the ‘List of Assize’, that is, the list of jurors. Only basic information is given: name, occupation and residence.

As well as things like the papercut of the footprint found in a field, you sometimes find maps or plans showing where a crime was committed.

All of these things are absolutely fascinating.

So we have now looked at the Precognitions and the Trial Papers. We have seen what the person was accused of, what evidence there was and how they pleaded; what we do not know is the outcome.

The Minute Book

Often we have to go to a third record to find the outcome of the case. The minute book, or the slightly more detailed ‘Books of Adjournal’, if available, fill out the story. These books draw the story together and give us the conclusion.

These records use legal and antiquated terms that you may not be familiar with. We explain many of these here in our Genealogy Glossary.

Our new index, 'Scotland's Criminal Database' will make it easier to search for your Scottish criminal ancestors in High Court and other court records.

With thanks to the National Records of Scotland for allowing us to reproduce items: JC26/1843/214, JC12/46 page 53a and AD14/43/197

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