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Retours of Services of Heirs (Scotland) (Land & Property)

Nature of Source

Records generated from the result of an inquest heard by a jury to establish the right of an heir to inherit property. Under the feudal system of land tenure an heir had to prove the right to inherit and this was established by a jury of local landowners who were summoned by the local sheriff on instruction from the Chancery. The jury heard the pleas and decided on the rightful heir. The findings were returned or retoured to the Chancery who had the authority to confirm the inheritance and grant possession to the heir. Retours are especially important before 1868, as up until then it was not possible to leave heritable property in a will. This change in the inheritance laws began the gradual decline of retours. Essentially, inheritance of land was established by Retours of Services of Heirs rather than any form of will until 1868 and the actual register of the transfer or other change in ownership was recorded in Sasines.

There are two kinds of Retours, Special and General. Special Retours dealt with the property that was subject to inheritance and provides a specific description of the property whilst General Retours provide details of the chain of inheritance and those involved but not the property involved.

These records are better understood with a basic understanding of property ownership. The transfer of land was determined by the feudal system. Scotland retained many aspects of this system until the partial reform of feudal tenure in 1974 and finally in 2000 with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act which came into force in 2004. The essential tenet of the feudal system of land tenure was that in theory all land belonged to the Crown, as the ultimate superior. The Crown could assign a Tenant-in-Chief with the use or benefit of the land in return for some service such as his ability to raise men at arms and generally administer the land on behalf of the Crown. The Tenant-in-Chief could then parcel out land to tenants or vassals who owes the superior 'fealty' or loyalty and also 'homage'. The owner could pass the land to an heir but within a strict set of rules. The superior received 'feu duty' from the vassal usually in the form of some physical payment at the point of the transfer.

The territorial rank immediately below the Crown was the Earl who controlled territory known as an Earldom followed by manorial lord in England and Barony in Scotland. In Scotland the title of baron is not a noble title (unlike England) which means that barons are not peers and therefore do not sit in the house of lords. The opposite to feudal property tenure is allodial tenure which means full and absolute ownership of land without obligation of service to any superior. The land is held outright by the individual as opposed to feudal tenure in which the crown owns all land and grants use of land to his or her subjects. Since 2004 all privately held land in Scotland is allodial. In England the crown remains the sole owner of all land and the tenure is held by fee simple.

Most Retours are written in Latin until 1847 and only deal with a very small percentage of the population, most of those appearing will be property owners rather than tenants or workers. The absence of a named son can be of genealogical use as it suggests that no surviving son existed at the time of the property inquest or the transfer. In Scottish law, property passed automatically to the son. The original inquest records should always be consulted as the records contain considerably more detail about a person's family than is entered in the final Services of Heirs.

The feudal system of tenure provided for a means of restricting the line of property inheritance. This was known as an 'heir of tailzie', similar to fee tail in common law, and restricted inheritance for example to the male line and thus prevented property passing outside the family. Do not presume that the date of the Retour coincides with the death as the recording could take place many years after the death in the event of some dispute. Other sources when researching land and property are charters, valuation rolls, electoral registers, hearth tax records, wills and testaments, sasines and estate and manorial records.

It is important to note that up to 1600, the new year began on 25 March (Lady Day) and from 1 January 1601, the year began 1 January. Events that took place between 1 January and 25 March pre-1601 are often referred to as old style and new style dates.

Other Scotland Resources
Census Returns
Charter Rolls
Clan & Tartan Records
County & Local Histories
Court Records
Directories, Trade, Professional, Telephone & Street
Electoral Registers or Burgess Rolls
Emigration Records
Estate Records & Maps
Hearth Tax
Heraldic Coats of Arms & Seals
Kirk/Church Sessions
Land Tax Assessments & Returns
Maps & Gazetteers
Militia Lists
Monumental/Memorial Inscriptions
Newspapers, magazines & journals
Old Parish Registers-Baptisms (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Burials (OPRs)
Old Parish Registers-Marriages & Proclamations (OPRs)
Passenger Lists
Pedigrees and Family Histories
Poor Law Records
Registers of Deeds (Books of Council and Session)
Sasines, Registers of
Statistical Accounts of Scotland
Statutory Registration-Birth
Statutory Registration-Death
Statutory Registration-Marriage
Surname Origins and Distribution
Valuation Rolls & Stent Rolls (Names of tenants)
Wills/Testaments and Inheritance

Where Found

ScotlandsPeople Centre (The ScotlandsPeople Centre is the official government resource for family history research. Retours of Services of Heirs can be found in Chancery records in series C22-27and C28-30. Indexes to Services of Heirs from 1700 are also available. Crown charters of royal grants of lands are also amongst Chancery records. ScotlandsPeople Centre is a partnership between the National Records of Scotland and the Court of the Lord Lyon. The National Records of Scotland was created on 1 April 2011 by the amalgamation of the National Archives of Scotland and General Register Office for Scotland)
Society of Genealogists (Indexes to Retours of Services of Heirs)  
LDS FamilySearch Centers

Period Covered

1545 - 1964

Genealogical Value

Date of inquest, the names of the jury, the name of the deceased and date of death, the lands concerned (if a special retour), and the name of the legitimate heirs and the relationship to the deceased. Land held and parish address. The Extent (worth) of the land.

Further References

Retours of Services Related
Durie, Bruce. Retours of Services of Heirs 1544-1699, vol. A: Bruce Durie, 2012 (1816) (Edited, rearranged and with a new introduction by Bruce Durie) Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Retours of Services of Heirs 1544-1699, vol. B: Bruce Durie, 2012 (1816) (Edited, rearranged and with a new introduction by Bruce Durie) Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Retours of Services of Heirs 1544-1699, vol. C: Bruce Durie, 2012 (1816) (Edited, rearranged and with a new introduction by Bruce Durie) Buy Now on Amazon
Family History Guides  
Adolph, Anthony. Tracing Your Scottish Family History: Collins, 2008 Buy Now on Amazon
Bigwood, Rosemary: The Scottish Family Tree Detective: Tracing Your Ancestors in Scotland: Manchester University Press, 2007  Buy Now on Amazon
Clarke, T. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: The Official Guide: Birlinn, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Cory, Kathleen B. Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Scottish Genealogy: The History Press, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Durie, Bruce. Documents for Genealogy & Local History: The History Press, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Hamilton-Edwards, Gerald. In Search of Scottish Ancestry: Phillimore, 1983  Buy Now on Amazon
Holton, Graham & Winch, Jack. Discover Your Scottish Ancestry: Internet and Traditional Resources: Edinburgh University Press, 2009 (Preview available from Google Books)
 Buy Now on Amazon
James, Alwyn. Scottish Roots: From Gravestone to Website: The Step-By-Step Guide to Tracing Your Scottish Ancestors: Luath Press, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Maxwell, Ian. Tracing your Scottish Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword, 2009  
Paton, Chris. Researching Scottish Family History: The Family History Partnership, 2010  Buy Now on Amazon
Stewart, Alan. My Ancestor was Scottish: Society of Genealogists, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Tovey, Helen. My Scottish Ancestry: Lomond Books, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Concise Scots Dictionary: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Lynch, Michael. Oxford Companion to Scottish History: OUP Oxford, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Moffat, Alistair & Wilson, James. The Scots: A Genetic Journey: Birlinn, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Richards, Eric. The Highland Clearances: Birlinn, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon
Scots Dictionary: Collins, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Timperley, Loretta R, (ed). A Directory of Land Ownership in Scotland c 1770: Scottish Record Society, 1976 Buy Now on Amazon
Torrance, Richard D. Scottish Trades, Professions, Vital Documents & Directories: Scottish Association of Family History Societies, 1998 Buy Now on Amazon
Wightman, Andy. The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland and How They Got it: Birlinn, 2013 Buy Now on Amazon


NAS Research Guide: Inheriting Land and Buildings

Websites (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Chancery Records) (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Inheriting Land and Buildings) (National Records of Scotland: Research Guides: Deeds) (Research Wiki: Service of Heirs or Retours) (The National Archives Podcast: Inheritance in Scotland - Testaments and Retours: Podcast by Bruce Durie) (Bruce Durie - Genealogy: Introduction: The Retours of Services of Heirs 1544-1699) (Farewell to Feudalism by David Sellar) (Guide to Property Records) (The Feudal Baronies of Scotland A Brief Overview)
(Beginners' Guide: Services of heirs) (Scots Law - Scottish Land Law Glossary/Dictionary) (Land Register Scotland: Land Registry Title Deeds) (Land Records in Scotland by Dr Bruce Durie) (Knowledge Base - Money & Banking) (Scottish coinage) (Scottish words and phrases that could be found in deeds, wills other documents) (The Dictionary of the Scots Language: Electronic editions of the Older Scottish Tongue [DOST] and the Scottish National Dictionary [SND]) (Scottish Language Dictionaries: The nation's resource for the Scots language) (Translate from Scots to English)

CD Roms

The Scottish Genealogy Society (Retours of Service of Heirs, 1544-1699 and Retours of Service of Heirs, 1700-1859. Based on the work by Thomas Thomson who indexed and calendared the retours in the early 19th century)