Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy



An instrument of sasine (pronounced ‘say-zin’) is a legal document that records the transfer of ownership (usually a sale or an inheritance) of a piece of land or of a building. It will normally detail the names of the new and previous owners and will give a basic description of the property transferred.

There will usually be an indication of the price paid for the property. Sasines can also give you information about family history, particularly where an individual is passing land to another family member, or where the family designation is revealed (e.g. ‘John Campbell of X’). Sometimes information given in one sasine will give you clues as to earlier titles in the chain and so lead you back to the earlier history of the ownership of a building or piece of land.

Very few. This record is essentially about the ‘haves’ of Scottish society rather than the ‘have nots’.Until the 20th century when owner-occupation became more common, only a tiny proportion of Scots owned the house they lived in or the land that they farmed. Most rented their property and will not appear in this record.

There were several attempts to start a national register of sasines in Scotland. One early attempt, called ‘The Secretary’s Register’, started in 1599 and ended in 1609. It is very incomplete. The full register really begins from 1617 and it runs until the present day. Since 1983 it is being gradually replaced, county by county, by the system of Registration of Title (ROT) but the sasine register still remains one of the oldest continuing records of land transactions in Europe. The new ROT system is managed by The Registers of Scotland, Erskine House, 68 Queen Street,
Edinburgh, EH2 4NF. NAS does not hold any of the landholding records that ROT is generating.

Despite speaking of a ‘register’ there are in fact several different series of registers.
-1599 – 1609: the incomplete Secretary’s Register, divided into counties.
-From 1617: a ‘particular register of sasines’ for most counties and a ‘general register of sasines’ based at Edinburgh. The general register could accept deeds relating to property anywhere in Scotland, except the three Lothian counties, and it was also used to record details of properties that were spread over more than one county.
-1869 onwards: The system was restructured in 1869, since when there has been one general register arranged in county divisions. All these registers are in NAS under the catalogue reference RS.
-The sixty-six royal burghs maintained their own burgh registers of sasines. With the exception of those for Glasgow, and for Dundee and Aberdeen before 1809, these are held in NAS under the catalogue reference B.

The register was intended from the outset to cover all land transactions in Scotland. It was (and still is) a legal requirement to record a sasine or an equivalent title deed within a few days of its being made up. In practice, the registers are ‘fairly complete’ from 1617 and are generally regarded as fully comprehensive from about 1660 onwards. There is only one significant qualification to this. Once made out, a sasine had to be recorded. It might happen, however, that an individual inherited a property where he was already resident. Most commonly this would happen where an eldest son
inherited property on his father’s decease. If his possession was undisputed, he might not go to the expense of having a sasine executed for some considerable time. Only later would he do this, if his possession was disputed, or if he had to produce a full set of titles before he could sell the property to a third party.

One of the ideas behind establishing the register was to prevent the repeated use of a piece of property as fraudulent collateral for securing loans. Consequently all deeds that secured debts on land (e.g. mortgages) had to be recorded. This means that you can sometimes learn a lot about the financial dealings of merchants, businessmen and land owners. Such investigations require time and patience, however.

The register has always been a ‘public’ record, open to inspection by anyone. This was again an aspect of its function of stopping fraud. The NAS does not charge fees if you are looking at the register for family history or other historical purposes. If your interest centres on a legal matter (e.g. you are in dispute with a neighbour about the line of a boundary wall or the division of costs for a common repair) then you will have to pay legal search fees to examine the record.

The basic structure of a sasine is straightforward. It will begin with the date, and thereafter sets out the principal parties (usually with the grantee/buyer named first), the type of transaction, including the land involved, the precise time that it took place, and the names of the witnesses. Sasines before the early twentieth century are normally handwritten, however. While Victorian copperplate handwriting is simple to read, the handwriting of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries can be much
more difficult. Practice, as always, makes it easier. Nor does it help that for many years the clerks paid for the blank sasine volumes out of their wages and so had a vested interest in cramming as much handwriting onto each page as possible. A more serious obstacle is that many sasines, even down to the late eighteenth century, are in Latin. Again these follow a standard form. A Latin dictionary together with the styles and translations of sasines given in Peter Gouldesborough, A Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents (Stair Society, Edinburgh, 1985) pp. 108-111, will allow most readers to understand what is going on.

The sixty-six royal burghs generally kept their own individual registers of sasines. These are all now in NAS, under the catalogue reference B. The only exceptions are the Glasgow registers and the Aberdeen and Dundee registers for the years before 1809. These three groups are now kept in the city archives of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, respectively. Burgh registers begin at different times, starting from the early seventeenth century. They were all gradually closed down at different times in the 20th century, and their business merged into the main series of registers held in NAS
under the catalogue reference RS. Sasines recording property transfers in the other, lesser burghs were generally recorded in the particular register of sasines for the surrounding county. It is important to remember that the sasine registers for the royal burghs cover only the small area of the original core medieval burgh (‘the royalty’). For instance, properties on Princes Street, although now Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, will not be found in the burgh register of sasines; they were recorded with other Midlothian sasines.

The register of sasines is comprehensive and consequently it is theoretically possible to trace the progression of ownership of every property in Scotland from 1617 to the present day. This is a fairly mechanical process but it is not always quick. There are a variety (and sometimes a lack) of indexes and you should be prepared to invest time and patience in any search. Before plunging into the various catalogues and indexes described here, it is worth considering spending some money on a short cut. Since 1876 the government has maintained a series of search sheets for property in
Scotland. These identify the volume and page numbers of all the sasines and deeds for a given building or piece of land and can be used as a ‘jumping off’ point from which to carry searches further back in time. Copies of the search sheets for particular properties can be purchased from Registers of Scotland, Erskine House, 68 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 4NF.
Searching the general and particular registers before 1781
Before 1781, the indexes to the sasines are incomplete. The following is an outline guide to what is available. Fuller details are given in Cecil J Sinclair, Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors, pp. 55-6.
-General Register of Sasines: indexed 1617 to 1735
-Particular Register of Sasines (PRS) for Aberdeenshire: indexed 1599-1660
-PRS for Argyll, Bute and Dumbartonshire: indexed 1617-1780
-PRS for Ayrshire: indexed 1599-1660
-PRS for Banffshire: indexed 1600-1780
-PRS for Berwickshire: indexed 1617-1780
-PRS for Caithness: indexed 1646-1780
-PRS for Dumfries and Kirkcudbright: indexed 1617-1780
-PRS for The Lothians: indexed 1599-1660, 1741-1780
(including an index for West Lothian, 1701-1760)
-PRS for Elginshire (Moray): indexed 1617-1780
-PRS for Fife and Kinross-shire: indexed 1603-1660
-PRS for Forfarshire (Angus): indexed 1620-1700
-PRS for Inverness-shire (including Caithness until 1646): indexed 1606-1780
-PRS for Kincardineshire: indexed 1600-1657
-PRS for Lanarkshire: indexed 1618-1780
-Orkney and Shetland: indexed 1609-1660
-PRS for Perthshire: indexed 1601-1609
Many of these indexes are published and can be found in good reference libraries. Visit our bookshop
for indexes available for purchase.
There are no indexes at all for the particular registers for the following counties: Clackmannan, Peebles, Renfrew, Roxburgh, Selkirk, Stirling and Wigtown.
If there is no index for the period or area in which you are interested, you will need to use the minute books as a substitute. These are notebooks that were compiled on a daily basis by the clerks writing the sasines into the register. They are in strict chronological order and give a quick summary of each document and are much faster to search than the full record. When you have found the minute for
a particular sasine, this will provide the date of registration that will allow you to find the full document in the main register.

From 1781 to the present day, the sasines are very well indexed. Starting from that year, there are printed ‘abridgements’ for every recorded transaction in the register. An abridgement is a concise
summary of each recorded transaction and indeed for many purposes it will provide all the information that most researchers need. These abridgements are arranged in county volumes and cover both the general and the particular registers. These volumes are themselves indexed. In practice, you use the index to identify particular individuals or properties, the index leads you to the appropriate abridgements, and the abridgements in turn lead you to the original recorded document. The procedure
is explained and illustrated in Cecil J. Sinclair, Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors, pp. 57-9. The NAS has a full set of these abridgements at General Register House. Some Scottish local authority archives have sets relating to their own counties.

There are almost no published or printed indexes for burgh registers until the 20th century when they were amalgamated with the main county registers. The indexes that exist are either contemporary manuscript indexes or later typescripts. They are available only in NAS. Fuller details are given in
Cecil J. Sinclair, Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors, pp. 59-60.

Annan 1809-1910, 1911-2 B2
Auchtermuchty 1811-1914 B5
Burntisland 1809-1922 B9
Cullen 1810-1904 B11
Culross 1810-1918 B12
Dysart 1810-1909 B21
Edinburgh 1809-1907 B22
Forfar 1809-1914 B26
Fortrose 1819-1921 B28
Inverbervie 1811-1905 B33
Kinghorn 1810-1907 B39
Kintore 1810-1922 B40
Kirkcaldy 1810-1906 B41
Lochmaben 1809-1907 B49
Nairn 1812-1914 B53
Newburgh 1813-1926 B54
North Berwick 1810-1923 B56
Paisley 1860-1921 B57
Queensferry 1810-1907 B61
Tain 1810-1918 B70
Whithorn 1810-1923 B71
Wigtown 1809-1908 B72

No. The most common misconception about the register of sasines is that it can tell you who owned a particular property in a given year. Unfortunately, the register is a record of transfers, rather than of the status quo at any given time. If someone owned land, say, in 1750, this will not appear in the register for 1750; it will appear in the register for the particular year when he bought (or inherited) it.

Sadly, sasines are about ‘owners’ and have little or nothing to say about cottars or tenants. Only after 1858 was it permissible (but not compulsory) to register long leases on properties. Consequently the register is of little use for identifying tenants.

It is a prime function of a sasine to describe the property involved in a transaction. Acreages of properties are only rarely given before the appearance of Ordnance Survey maps from the mid-19th century. In the majority of cases, boundaries to properties are described in terms of the adjacent lands or in terms of geographical features (e.g. ‘the lands of Y bounded by the river X on the east side, running north east up to the boundaries of the meadows of Z on the north side,’ etc.).
As the nineteenth century wore on, more and more sasines refer to maps illustrating the property concerned. Some of these have been purposely preserved in the legal series of preservation writs held by NAS (ref: RD16). Others can sometimes be found in local lawyers’ offices, in other archives, and even in the NAS’s own plans series. Sadly, however, it is all too often the case that plans described in sasines no longer exist. They were routinely returned to the owner or the lawyers involved and subsequently lost. It is only with the development of photocopy technology in the early 1930s that plans of properties start to be recorded regularly in the registers with the associated sasines.There is a series of farm boundary plans compiled by the government during the later 1940s and early 1950s. These are preserved in the NAS plans series.

Other records can sometimes give ‘snapshots’ of ‘who owned what’ at a given time. There were several poll and hearth taxes levied at the end of the 17th century. Similarly, Loretta Timperley used the surviving land tax records in NAS to publish A Directory of Scottish Landownership in 1770 (Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh, 1976). This shows all the named landowners for that year together with the names and values of their properties, insofar as these can be gleaned from the record. This publication will be available in good reference libraries and it gives an accurate sense
of the type of information available from the original record. The annual valuation rolls from 1855 also list owners and occupier. The records of the Inland Revenue
Valuation Office provide a snapshot of landownership in 1911-12. Their staff surveyed every property in Scotland, recording the names of owners, tenants and occupiers, charges on the land, valuations and other particulars. Each property’s boundaries and assessment number were marked on specially printed Ordnance Survey maps. The field books and maps resulting from this work are held by NAS
(refs: IRS51-88 and IRS101-133).

For further information go to the NAS

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