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The Scottish Sheriff Courts - a genealogical resource for Illegitimacy records

Did you know that in Scotland in the 19th and into the 20th century, a child's mother could apply to the Sheriff's Court for assistance in forcing the father to take financial responsibility for their illegitimate offspring? Read on to discover more about these records and where to access a handy index which is online and free.

Picture of legal books and Judge's mallet - from

What are the Sheriff's Courts?

According to the National Records of Scotland, the Sheriff's Courts are often overlooked, yet they are second in importance only to the Supreme Court.

Located across Scotland, the Sheriff Court records date from the 16th century overall, and contain an enormous range of civil, criminal and administrative material. For our purposes though, it is the Sheriff Courts' civil cases which contain records regarding attempts to obtain court orders requiring an illegitimate child's father to provide financial support.

What is in the records?

As with any court records in any country, the type and extent of material found therein varies. However, Scottish Sheriff Court records will include some or all of the following:

  • Who the Court decided was the child's father;

  • The amount of maintenance he was ordered to pay the child's mother;

  • The length of time the father was to make maintenance payments for the child;

  • The child's parents' names and addresses and often the grandparents' names if the parents were living at home;

  • The child's date and place of birth;

  • Testimony from witnesses, particularly if the father was reluctant to admit his paternity;

  • Documentary evidence of a relationship between the parents e.g. love letters or other correspondence showing arrangements to meet.

Free online index

Scottish Indexes, a small family run business in Scotland, have indexed these records and generously made them available to the public to search online.

Open legal book and judge's mallet -

To view the original legal document packets pertaining to each case, you will need to either visit the Records of Scotland in person or pay someone to retrieve and copy the records for you if you can't get to Scotland. However, the indexes are an excellent start.

Scottish Indexes have also produced two excellent guides which I recommend you read at the outset:

  • Finding Paternity Cases in Sheriff Court Records which is a general overview; [Click here] and

  • Tracing Your Illegitimate Ancestors in the Sheriff Court Records which both illustrates and explains each step in locating the records. [Click here]


If you have any illegitimate members in your Scottish family tree in Scotland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, then the Scottish Sheriff Court records, combined with the separate online index, is an excellent addition to your genealogy toolkit.

When so many Scottish records are pay-to-access, full credit goes to Scottish Indexes for sharing their hard work with others.

How did you go?

Let me know in the Comments section below if you had any success or tell me what you think of the record set and index as an addition to your Scottish genealogy toolkit.

In the meantime, happy ancestor hunting.

Therese Lynch

Your Family Genealogist


Records of Scotland. Research Guides, Sheriff Court Records. Viewed online at

Scottish Indexes. Learning Zone - Finding Paternity Cases in Sheriff Court Records. Viewed online at

Scottish Indexes. Tracing Your Illegitimate Ancestors in the Sheriff Court Records. Viewed online at

Pictures : Pixabay

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