Up until 2000, landholding in Scotland was feudal. Originally, the king, as superior or overlord had feued out land to his vassals. The vassal was required to pay an annual feu duty to the superior and as long as he did this, the property belonged to him
Records of land held directly from the Crown are to be found in the Register of the Great Seal (printed to 1668) and among private family papers
Retours/Services of Heirs
When a subject of the Crown died, his heir had to prove his right to his ancestor’s property by petitioning Chancery who would then order an inquest to be held to determine whether he was the true heir. The result would be a Retour or Service of Heirs. There are General and Special Services. The former do not specify the land being inherited, while the latter do. Up until 1847 (except for 1652-1659), these are in Latin. There are summaries of pre 1700 retours in the Inquisitionum ad Cappelam Regis Retornatorum Abbreviato which are arranged by counties. These lead to the actual Registers of Retours. After 1700, there are printed decennial indices to the Services of Heirs. Once the service was issued, sasine to the new heir generally took place. It should be stressed though that Retours or Services only involve land held directly from the Crown.
Registers of Sasines
Vassals of the Crown, could, in turn, feu out of parts of the property that they held from the king to their own vassals and so by doing became superiors themselves; hence sub-infeudation. Records of these transactions are to be found in the Registers of Sasines or prior to that in Notarial Protocol Books
Records of land ownership involve the actual land and not the buildings standing on that land. A large landowner is distinguished in the records as being ‘of’ an estate or property while those with small holdings are described as ‘in’.
Up to 1868, land could not be bequeathed but descended according to the law of primogeniture, i.e. the eldest lawful son inherited whom failing his eldest son and so on. If there were no sons, then a daughter or daughters could inherit
When ownership of land changed hands, permission had to be got from the superior. This took the form of a charter or disposition containing a precept of sasine (a letter from the superior, ordering his bailie to give title to the new owner). In earlier times, the ceremony of change of ownership took place on the actual lands. Present would be the new owner or his representative (attorney or procurator), a notary, a bailie, (specially appointed by the superior for that occasion in his precept) and witnesses. Documents were presented to the notary who read and explained them to the assembled company and then the new owner or his representative was given a handful of earth and stones by the bailie or he would take hold of the hasp of a door, if the property was in a town, to signify that he had been infeft or seised in the property. If the teind sheaves (tithes) were included, he would sometimes be given a handful of corn.
Details of the transaction were recorded by the notary in an Instrument of Sasine which he would then take to be recorded in the Register of Sasines for the county in which the property lay. A copy of this Instrument would be given to the new owner
Records of change of ownership from 1617 onwards appear in Particular Registers of Sasines for each county or in the General Register of Sasines which covered the whole country. There was a brief experimental period known as the Secretary’s Register before this between 1599 and 1609, but not all registers for that time have survived
All the Sasine Registers have been digitised
Registers of Sasines of the Royal Burghs
Royal burghs, such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow etc. had the right to keep their own registers. The superiors in this case were the provost and town council and so sasine to the new owner would be given by one of the bailies (here meaning magistrate). In burghs, an area of land was called a tenement, (not to be confused with the later multi-storied Victorian tenement buildings). Some records in Notary Protocol Books go back as far as the late 15th century. Most of the very early ones have been printed by record societies
Land used as Security
In the past, in the absence of banks, land could be used as security for a loan. It could either be wadset which was a type of mortgage or a creditor could receive an annualrent out of it. From 1847 onwards, such a loan was termed a Bond and Disposition in Security. When the loan was repaid, interest would be added and, if a specific time was set for repayment, a penalty would be included. If unpaid, a creditor could even claim part of a debtor’s lands to the value of the loan through action in court, resulting in diligence (Inhibitions, Apprisings and Adjudications)