From the middle ages until 1975, Scotland was divided into parishes and many historical records are structured by parish or parish names occur within them. In 1855 Scotland was divided into registration districts to administer the new system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths, and the resulting civil registers are arranged by registration district. The terms ‘district’ and ‘parish’ are also used in other ways, so if you are researching Scottish history, geography and family history, it pays to familiarise yourself with the concepts of parishes and districts.
The parish as an administrative unit was widespread in western Europe in the middle ages. Normally a 'parish' meant the area around a local church. The inhabitants of the parish paid a tenth of their produce (in Scotland these were called ‘teinds’) to sustain the local clergy. By the 17th century the division of Scotland into about 900 parishes had become a convenient way for the Church and the Crown to administer and record activities in the country for things like taxation, school education, road building and poor relief. In legal records (such as wills and testaments and church court records), individuals would often be referred to by where they lived, for example 'James Murdoch in Corstorphine parish'.
The 900 or so parishes in Scotland at the time of the Reformation (1560) were regarded as parishes for both church and civil purposes (such as education, poor relief and taxation) and the terminology for this was a quoad omnia parish (from the Latin 'for all purposes'). Each quoad omnia parish had a parish church, a minister, a local church court (the kirk session) and a committee of landowners who were supposed to manage the fabric of the church buildings, the burial grounds, education and poor relief. The kirk session appointed a session clerk, who recorded baptisms, marriages and burials in the Old Parish Registers.
As the population of Scotland grew and industrial towns began to appear, the Church needed to alter parish boundaries or make new parishes, but this was seldom done as it needed royal approval or the approval of the Court of Teinds, as well as the approval of the heritors. In the 18th century the Church devised a way to create a new type of parish for ecclesiastical purposes only. These parishes were called parishes quoad sacra (from the Latin ‘for sacred purposes’). They had a church and a minister and a kirk session but the boundaries of the old quoad omnia parishes remained as they were for civil purposes.
A wholesale revision of civil parishes was carried out between 1889 and 1929 by the Boundary Commissioners and the Secretary of State for Scotland and in 1929 parish-based local government was abolished (for things like poor relief and education). The civil parish was too useful a geographical unit, however, and records such as valuation rolls continued to be sub-divided by parish until 1975.
The boundaries of quoad omnia and quoad sacra parishes only applied to the Church of Scotland and not to other churches. The way that the Roman Catholic Church (from the 18th century onwards) and other presbyterian churches arranged the country into congregations or parishes was different. The boundaries of parishes were not so important for these churches and for research purposes it is best to think of Roman Catholic and other church parishes as being congregations, meeting in a church building but not having defined geographical boundaries. A Roman Catholic parish or Free Church 'parish', for example, might overlap several quoad sacra and quoad omnia parishes. This is why, for the church registers index, you are not able to search all church registers for a single parish but we have attempted to place each Roman Catholic parish and other church congregation within counties, so you can search for a baptism, marriage or burial for all churches across a single county. For more details see our guide on church registers.
The Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854 provided for the division of Scotland into registration districts. They were based on the parishes and burghs but some had to be divided and others united to form new districts. When the Act came into force on 1 January 1855 the total number was 1027. This rose to 1082 in 1910. Since then various amalgamations and alterations have taken place owing to changes in population distribution and to local government reorganisation. Any new districts were erected on 1 January of the following year.
The top of each register page provides the parish or district name and the county or burgh. You may also find that the registrar has written B or L in the margins of the page to indicate whether the entry relates to the burgh or landward part of the district. Each registration district has a reference number. For some districts this RD number can remain the same over many decades. Districts in cities and larger urban areas have a suffix, for example, 685-2 for the district of St Andrews in the burgh of Edinburgh.
The Local Electoral Administration and Registration Services (Scotland) Act 2006 aligned registration district boundaries to those of the 32 Scottish local authorities. This reduced the number of registration districts to 32 from 1 January 2007.
A guide to all registration districts in Scotland is published on the Registration Districts page of the National Records of Scotland website. It gives the dates during which each was operative up to January 2009. There are separate lists for the registration districts of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The Registrar General for Scotland was responsible for taking the 1861 to 1911 censuses and issued instructions to registrars based on procedures established in 1841 and 1851.
The registration district was the principal division for the census. Registrars had to sub-divide their district into enumeration districts. They had to submit a plan of division and the name of the enumerator for each district to the sheriff clerk of the county (or chief magistrate of the burgh) for approval. The aim was to keep the enumeration districts the same as those for the previous census, but if there had been a significant change in population, the enumeration districts in the area had to be rearranged.
Enumeration districts usually covered about 200 families in towns and an overall journey of 15 miles for the enumerator in the country. They included smaller institutions, boats and barges on inland waterways, tents, caravans and barns.
Larger public institutions such as barracks, prisons and hospitals as well as hotels and inns had their own special schedules. The head of the institution was the enumerator. In 1861 this applied to establishments with 50 or more persons usually resident. In 1871 the number had increased to 135 and in 1881 to 200. From 1891 to 1911 it was revised again to upwards of 100.
Enumerators provided descriptions of their districts in the enumeration transcript book. You can see an example for Kirkcudbright’s second district in 1881 as well as the title page of an 1861 census book for an institution in Perth in the record guide to census returns.
The term 'district' was a widely used one in the 18th and 19th centuries and did not just apply to registration and enumeration districts. You might come across other districts mentioned in records like valuation rolls. 'Special districts' were areas that were created for some local government purposes (like water supply, sewerage or drainage) in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In 1930 counties were divided into districts for functions like education and poor relief, replacing the previous parish-based system. None of these 'special districts' or 'districts' were the same as registration districts or enumeration districts.