- 13th Century
- 15th Century
- 17th Century
- 18th Century
- 19th Century
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
Sticks and Stones
Before official records began, the ancient ceremony of ‘Sasine’ (taken from the French word ‘Seiser’ meaning ‘to seize’) marked the official transfer of land ownership.
The ceremony involved the handing over of a clod of earth and stones to represent the transfer of land from one owner to another.
(Image – Dalyell family participating in a Sasine Ceremony in 1944, when their ancestral home – House of the Binns, transferred to the care of the National Trust for Scotland. Image copyright NTS)
King and Country
In 13th century Scotland, under the feudal system, no individual or organisation could hold land absolutely, other than by authority of the King. When authority was granted, it was usually in the form of a charter, such as that granted to Holyrood Abbey by David 1st of Scotland.
This system not only set out rights to land but also gave the owner rights to resources such as crops, livestock, fishing and mineral rights.
The King’s administration kept a record of these charters in a parchment roll register and Edinburgh Castle, shown left, housed the very first inventory and register of land.
- As well as a clod of earth, other symbols were used for the transfer of other rights, for example, fishing rights were represented by a coble (a small fishing boat) and an oar or net.
- 1286 The first reference to a government official responsible for looking after the records was in 1286 William of Dumfries is Clericus Rotulorum (Clerk of the Rolls) of the royal 'chapel' or chancery. This office was later to develop into that of Lord Clerk Register.
- One of the earliest recorded records is from 1248 when Sir Malcolm (son of the Earl of Lennox) ‘conferred full Sasine’ of some lands at Strathblane to Sir David Graham.
Maps and Manuscripts
Sasine ceremonies were still being used around 1491 when the first written records of ownership not granted by the crown were created under the hand of Thomas Cowe, priest of the Diocese of Aberdeen.
The ceremony later lent its name to the first official land register created in 1617, making it the oldest official land register in the world.
Deeds and Descriptions
The 1617 Registration Act of the old Scots Parliament allowed individuals to have their ownership deeds recorded in official registers for the very first time. The General Register of Sasines was description-based, as maps were not yet accurate enough or widely used.
Later, Timothy Pont, a Scottish topographer, produced the first detailed map of Scotland.
- 19 Aug 1617 to 29 June 1618, the first entry in the General Register of Sasine is an annual rent right to Robert Pitcairn, a tailor in the Canongate, secured on a property at Pitfirrane, Fife.
Records are moved to Parliament Hall on the Royal Mile
1662 saw the start of the move of records from Edinburgh Castle to the basements (Laigh Hall) of the Parliament Hall on the Royal Mile.
Conditions were not ideal, with vermin and damp having a destructive impact on the records. Many of the documents were also lost due to the wide variety of locations in which they were stored out with the Laigh Hall once space became limited.
Records and Restoration
Within 100 years, the Laigh Hall had become too small and in 1765 the first purpose-built record repository in the world was commissioned; Register House.
This iconic building solved the storage problems, but Scotland’s records were in a sorry state. Thomas Thomson was the champion of their restoration. In his role as Deputy Clark Register, he oversaw a nine-year period of restoration and indexing over 6500 crumbling volumes.
- Funding for the building of Register House came from the sale of confiscated lands of Jacobite supporters after their defeat at Battle of Culloden in 1746.
- 1779: Register House is used as Edinburgh’s first airport, as the unfinished rotunda is used for the assembly and launch of hot air balloons.
Review and Reform
By the mid-19th century, industrialisation had led to a massive drift of the population from the countryside to industrial towns such as Dundee.
The considerable change in land use and subsequent increase in demand for housing meant the system of property registration had to be overhauled.
Recognising this, the Land Register of Scotland Act 1868 introduced important reforms to the Sasine and other registers.
The Act provided that in future all information relating to lands and heritages in Scotland should be recorded in presentment books, sorted by county and held centrally in Edinburgh.
Progress and Process
In 1871, search sheets, (a chronological history of all transactions for a property) were introduced to reduce the time and cost of searching and producing the registers.
This initiative was controversial and debate continued internally for 20 years with various options for the search sheets under consideration and trial. The final version was produced in 1905 and is still in use today.
These improvements helped to prepare Registers of Scotland for the changes in the volume of work that were to come throughout the 20th century, as economic conditions affected the number of property and land transactions.
Boom and Bust
Search sheets were hand written up until the introduction of the typewriting machine in 1921 after authorisation for their use was received from the Secretary of State.
Photocopying is introduced to Registers of Scotland
As well as the required changes that took place after 1868, the tools used to carry out registration work also had to evolve with the times.
As early as the 1860’s Registers of Scotland was investigating the use of new technologies. This included an experimental technique to reproduce documents using a camera, an early form of photocopying. It was, however, prohibitively expensive so was not introduced until 1934.
Registers and Records
Even before World War II had ended, plans were being made to develop Scotland’s towns and countryside.
Many people believed that a lot of the land in Scotland was underused, especially in upland areas – these were seen as ideal places to create a productive forestry industry. Today, The Forestry Commission is now Scotland’s largest land owner.
Accurate maps were produced for the first time, which, crucially, could also be used to identify land ownership more precisely.
In 1948, as a result of these changes, the government split the Office of the Keeper into two bodies. The General Register Officer for Scotland became responsible for records such as Births, Marriages and Deaths, and Registers of Scotland became responsible for Scotland’s land and property records.
New Policies, New Home
In the second half of the 20th century, home ownership in Scotland rose dramatically. This was due to economic growth and the policies of the UK governments of the time, with initiatives such as the right to buy your local authority owned home.
This meant that large numbers of home ownership titles had to be registered, especially in towns and cities. In turn, this put great pressure on the Registers of Scotland.
The increase in the volume of registered titles meant that Register House, the first purpose-built record repository in the world, was no longer big enough and Registers of Scotland moved to its new home in 1976, Meadowbank House.
- Meadowbank House and St Margaret’s House were built on the site of the St Margaret's Railway Marshalling Yards, which was primarily for steam locomotives.
Survey and State
The introduction of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 created a map-based register of title that simplifies the land registration process and would progressively replace the General Register of Sasines.
The new register establishes the boundary of any piece of land through survey and issued the proprietor with a certificate of title guaranteed by the state.
This simplified the land registration process and the amount of time and resource required to register a property.
The Land Register goes live
The Land Register goes live, progressively replacing the General Register of Sasines, county by county.
Work begins to digitise the General Register of Sasines
Online and Onwards
In the last year of the millennium, there was progressive development of the electronic systems relating to registering property transactions.
The development and introduction of Registers Direct, provided a tool which allowed online access to the land registers and provided an essential part of buying any property.
- Between 1993 and 1997 the General Register of Sasines is digitised allowing for computerised searches of the registers and saving vast amounts of office space.
Last legal ceremony of sasine
The last legal ceremony of sasine is performed as Glenmorangie hand over the land of St Mary’s Chapel in Easter Ross to the Cadbol Trust.
The final county is moved from the General Register of Sasines to the Land Register
Customers register deeds online
A second version of Registers Direct was launched, at the same time as a new eRegistration product, ARTL (Automated Registration of Title to Land) which would allow customers to register their title deeds online.
Digital and Dynamic
The modern Registers of Scotland is a non-ministerial department of the Scottish Administration with staff members in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The organisation operates in a dynamic environment and works together with bodies such as central government, the Scottish Parliament, the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Law Commission.
The Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 is brought in and allows the introduction of electronic documents, signatures and registration. It brings in the tools needed to phase out and replace the General Register of Sasines with the Land Register.
Land Register Completion
Scottish ministers invite Registers of Scotland to complete the Land Register in ten years, with all public land registered in five years.
The Land Register is a digital, map-based public record of land ownership in Scotland. A completed land register will be a national asset for Scotland and it makes buying and selling property easier, faster and cheaper.
Once complete, the Land Register of Scotland will provide a full picture of exactly who owns what across the country.
Registers of Scotland celebrates 400 years of land registration
The way the Registers of Scotland works and what it does is changing rapidly as the business embraces digital transformation. The new offices in St Vincent Plaza reflect this more dynamic approach and the next four years for Registers of Scotland will see the organisation change almost as much as it has during the last 400 years.
Read more about the 400th anniversary.
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