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'Gun without a Licence' by Lucy Roscoe

Court & criminal records: research guide 5

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If your ancestor was accused of and tried for a crime, you are more likely to find out information about them than you would if they had been a law-abiding citizen. This guide details the main types of court and criminal records held by East Lothian Archive Service (ELAS) and the National Records of Scotland (NRS). It is not a comprehensive list of every type of court record; for more information visit the NRS website at and

In addition to the sources listed below, if you think your ancestor committed a crime in East Lothian from the mid 19th century onwards, it is worth consulting our local newspapers, many of which are indexed. The indexes and newspapers can be consulted in the Archive and Local History Centre at the John Gray Centre. The newspaper indexes can also be searched via our website.

Some of the more notorious characters in East Lothian’s history featured in an exhibition at the John Gray Centre, which you can see online here.

High Court of Justiciary, c. 1672–ongoing

NRS reference: JC

This is Scotland’s supreme court, where people are tried for crimes of a serious nature, such as murder, rape, treason, heresy etc. The High Court was founded in 1672 but its origins date from a much earlier period, when Justices of the Peace travelled around Scotland hearing cases on circuit. The records for the High Court are held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS reference: JC). The main record of a High Court trial is the bundle of case papers known as the ‘process’ or ‘small papers’. They usually include a copy of the indictment, which sets out the charges against the accused, depositions, confessions and other information on the accused, together with information about witnesses and jurors. Further trial records are found in the High Court’s minute books, which provide summaries of proceedings.

For information on how to find records of individuals, visit the National Records of Scotland website at and Many case papers from 1800 onwards are fully catalogued and can be searched on the NRS website under the name of the accused. Case papers not catalogued in this way are stored according to the year and location of the trial, and it is necessary to search through them to find individuals’ records.

Sheriff courts, c. 1600–ongoing

NRS reference: SC

The local sheriff courts deal with both criminal and civil cases. The commonest crimes to be tried in sheriff courts are theft and assault. Sheriff court records over 25 years old are held in the National Records of Scotland (NRS reference: SC). The records for Haddington Sheriff Court are held under the reference SC40 and date from about 1600. For further information on sheriff court records visit the NRS website at and 

Burgh courts, c. 1555–1979

ELAS references: HAD (Haddington); DUN (Dunbar); MUS (Musselburgh); NB (North Berwick)

Burgh courts tried lesser offences, and their records are the main type of court records held by East Lothian Archive Service (ELAS). Our collection includes court records for the burghs of Haddington (1555–1878), Dunbar (1678–1868), Musselburgh(1605–1979) and North Berwick (1638–1720).

A large number of people were taken to court because they owed money for services or goods they had not paid for. Other common offences were breach of the peace and assault. Theft was tried by the burgh courts as well as the sheriff court. In June 1660 James Watherstone was tried in Musselburgh for breaking into a warehouse and stealing cloth. James was imprisoned in Musselburgh tolbooth and whipped by the hangman to try and get him to give up the names of his accomplices. While imprisoned, James attempted to escape by ‘comeing over the bartisene [battlement/parapet] of the highe tollbooth to the haisard of his lyfe [hazard of his life]’.

In addition to the offences cited above, the burgh courts tried to assert their moral authority. In Dunbar you could be taken to court for breaking the Sabbath, ‘shaking off all fear of God and drinking and tipling til nay after twelve o clock at night’. In November 1713, William Watsone and Jannet Lawson were punished for being ‘married in a most clandestine and inorderly way’ (irregular marriage). They were imprisoned for 3 months and fined 100 merks Scots.

Burgh court records held by East Lothian Archive Service (ELAS) at the John Gray Centre

Archive Reference No. Description Dates
HAD/4/2/3 Haddington Burgh Court Books 1555–1878
DUN/7/2/3 Dunbar Burgh Court Books 1678–1868
NB/4/2 North Berwick Court Books 1638–1720
MUS/4/2 Musselburgh Court Records 1638–1720
Jougs from the kirk at Kirkports

Jougs from the kirk at Kirkports

In addition to the burgh court records a series of ‘criminal records’ is held for Haddington. The first volume in this series is known as ‘The Black Book for Recording Criminalls’ 1732–1801 (reference HAD/7/4/1) and details offences committed and punishments handed out. Common offences were theft, disorderly or lewd behaviour and vagrancy. Punishments included imprisonment, whipping (usually in public), standing in the jougs (i.e. fastened to a prominent wall or tree by an iron neck collar) and banishment from the town. The types of punishment handed out vary from burgh to burgh. One factor was the town’s ability to pay for certain punishments. Prison sentences could be quite short, since the town would have to pay for a jailer and food when someone was imprisoned. Banishment from the town was an attractive punishment because it didn’t cost the council any money. 

Police (19th century) & district courts, c. 1975–ongoing

District courts: ELAS reference COP/2
Police courts: for ELAS reference see burgh courts above

Burgh courts were replaced by police courts, which tried minor offences such as breach of the peace, theft and assault. At the local government reorganisation of 1975 district courts were introduced. The Haddington District Court replaced all of the county’s police courts. ELAS holds some district court records under the reference COP/2. Police court records are held under the burgh record series Haddington (HAD), Dunbar (DUN), North Berwick (NB) and Musselburgh (MUS). Records for these courts are incomplete.

Justice of the Peace courts, 1587–ongoing

ELAS reference COP

Justice of the Peace courts have replaced the district courts that were established in 1975, although the JP courts pre-exist this date. A Justice of the Peace is a lay magistrate appointed from within the local community and trained in criminal law and procedure. Justices of the Peace were first introduced to Scotland by James VI in 1587 to deal with ‘crimes and defaults of the second degree’. ELAS holds JP court records under the reference COP/3. Please note that these records are incomplete.

Prison records, 19th century

NRS reference: HH21 (Dunbar HH21/3/1–2 1844–1878; Haddington HH21/13/1 1848–1861; Musselburgh HH21/19/1)
ELAS references: ELCC/13/3/1; NB/7/4/2; see also Dunbar burgh records (DUN)

'Theft of Apples', by Lucy Roscoe

‘Theft of Apples’, by Lucy Roscoe

ELAS holds a few records relating to prisons and prisoners. One of the most informative is the Inspector of Prisons Report for Scotland 1848 (ELCC/13/3/1). At this time there were three prisons in the county – Haddington, Dunbar and North Berwick – as well as Musselburgh prison, which came under the county of Edinburghshire. In his introduction to the report the Inspector of Prisons notes that he was disappointed to find many juveniles held in prison for minor offences. When he inspected Musselburgh prison there were four boys aged between seven and ten imprisoned for thirty hours for being found on a garden wall for the supposed purpose of stealing fruit.

ELAS also holds the Jail Register for the Burgh of North Berwick 1826–1832 (NB/7/4/2), however, only seven people appear on the register, mainly for civil debt. There are some papers relating to police and prisons among the Dunbar burgh records (reference DUN) but these mainly relate to the proposed amalgamation of the Dunbar burgh police force with the county police force.

The National Records of Scotland hold the records from the Scottish Prison Service and earlier bodies which had responsibility for prisoners. The main records are the prison registers (NRS ref HH21), which generally note particulars of the trial and sentence for each inmate as well as personal details such as place of birth and occupation of the prisoners. For East Lothian the relevant registers are Dunbar HH21/3/1–2 1844–1878; Haddington HH21/13/1 1848–1861 and Musselburgh HH21/19/1. The prison registers have been digitised by the NRS and are available on Virtual Volumes in the Historical Search Room and via Scotland’s People. For further information visit the NRS website:

Police records, 1805–1992

Edinburgh City Archives reference: ED006
ELAS reference: COP/2

The records of Lothian and Borders Police and its predecessors are held by Edinburgh City Archives (reference ED006). For further information visit their website at ELAS holds some police records under the reference COP/2. These include criminal registers, information and charge books and casualty records. One of the most fascinating volumes in this series is the Haddington Criminal Register, 1894–1901. It details the offender, offence, time, place and punishment given, however it also gives a detailed physical description of each individual. An index to this register is available here. You can also view a series of cartoons inspired by the register created by the illustrator Lucy Roscoe, who was guest artist at the John Gray Centre in 2012.

Witchcraft, 1563–1763

NRS references: JC; PC; CH

Witchcraft was a criminal offence between 1563 and 1736. Witchcraft trials are found in the records of the High Court of Justiciary (ref: JC) and the Privy Council (ref: PC), both held by the NRS, as well as local Kirk Session records. East Lothian Kirk Session records are currently held by the NRS (reference: CH) and available on Virtual Volumes at their Historical Search Room, and Scotlands People ( An online database of Scottish witchcraft cases, ‘The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft’ (, hosted by Edinburgh University, is the best source available on Scottish witchcraft trials. The database can be searched by place and date as well as the name of the accused.

Further information

National Records of Scotland
HM General Register House
2 Princes Street
Edinburgh EH1 3YY
(0131) 535 1314
[email protected]

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