Friday, 27 April 2012

Retours of Services of Heirs 1544-1699

This is not a new development, just one that I appear to have picked up on very late!

I've just noticed that the three volumes of the Inquisitionum ad Capellam Domini Regis Retirnatarum Abbreviatio 1544-1699 are all available on Google Books, having been digitised in mid-2010. For those with an allergy to Latin, these are the abridgements to the Retours of Services of Heirs for that period.

In Scotland, when a person died, there was no automatic right to inherit property or land (heritable estate). The right to inherit this was said to be "in hereditate jacente" of the deceased owner, and before being officially recognised as an heir any incumbent was known as an "apparent heir" (not to be confused with the English phrase "heir apparent"). To formally inherit, he or she had to jump through a few hoops to be legally recognised as the heir. If the land in question was held feudally of the Crown, the process involved popping along to a local jury called the Services of Heirs, where they would confirm that you were who you said you were, and then send notice to the Scottish Chancery about it, via a 'retour' - at which point, voila, it was yours. (Not all inheritance was dealt with like this - if the land was held of a subject superior, rather than of the Crown, all you needed was a document called a 'precept of clare constat').

There were two types of retours - Special Services (or special retours) and General Services (general retours). The Special Services tended to deal with estates, and the abridgements provide a lot of detail on the properties being conveyed, as well as notes on the parties involved, date and value (extent) of the land; whilst the General Services were much more basically indexed. The records for the Special Services are grouped chronologically in order by county, whilst those for the General Services are all lumped together in one big national chronology. The abridgements are not quite complete, with a volume missing from 1611-1614, for example, with others also missing sporadically throughout. (Bear in mind also that some services are also to be found in sheriff, burgh and regality courts, and were never retoured to the Chancery).

The abridgements in the volumes deal with both sets of retours up to 1699. Unfortunately most of them are in Latin (with an exception around the Commonwealth period in the mid-17th century), but they are indexed by name (index nominum) and by place (index locorum). Special Services are abridged in Volume 1 (Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland) and Volume 2 (Peebles to Wigton), whilst the General Services are abridged in Volume 2. The indexes are in Volume 3 for both types of services. There are also a few other minor sets of records to do with appointments of tutors to those inheriting in their minority, or those not sound of mind.

The records are on Google Books via the following links:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

There are additional indexes for retours from 1700-1859 available on a separate CD from the Scottish Genealogy Society ( - these are much more basic, and in English. The original documents for all are available at the National Records of Scotland ( There is also a CD available for the records from 1544-1699, which I've been using, but obviously having them freely available online and fully keyword searchable is a bit more advantageous! Incidentally, the indexes continued beyond 1859 up to the mid 20th century, but after 1868 land could be bequeathed in a will in Scotland.

There's a bit more on all of this at and on my Walking in Eternity blog at


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  1. Would the Retours for the period 1700-1859 be useful should a person be a tenant under the person who held the property ? I would assume that the Index would only be useful where the owner of the property were mentioned. Regards, Lindsay Campbell, New Zealand

  2. Not really useful - unless the tenant was the heir perhaps! Valuation rolls from 1855 onwards a better bet, or the 1841 and 1851 censuses (or earlier in some cases, a small number of surviving lists exist for earlier censuses, usually in kirk session records).