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Estate Papers

picture of some gates

Family and estate papers

Family and estate papers are a valuable resource for studying local history and archaeology.

  • Using family and estate papers you can build up detailed pictures of:
  • settlement and landscape change
  • land-management and farming practices
  • building developments
  • communities and individuals

These collections are often very large and cover many other diverse topics, including local politics, business concerns, overseas properties, legal disputes, and personal papers of family members. The most useful types of records to look out for when studying settlements and landscapes are surveys, architectural plans, tacks and leases, rentals, and accounts. Further information about each of these record types is given below.

Family and estate papers are normally deposited in local archives, or in the National Archives of Scotland. However, many records still remain with their owners and these may be stored in estate offices, outbuildings or houses. Check the National Register of Archives to discover where your local estate papers are held. Remember that some families owned large estates in different parts of Scotland and their collections may have been deposited in different places because of this.

Estate plans and surveys

Surveys were often commissioned by landowners planning improvement to their properties in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They come in two parts:

The survey plan

A survey plan may show settlements, field boundaries (including field names), farm boundaries, roads and tracks, land-use (for example, rough grazing, improved pasture, arable, sheilings) and natural features. It often contains details about tenants and planned improvements - but beware, as these were not always executed. Some plans are highly coloured and very detailed - but others may be disappointingly sparse.

The surveyor's book of reference

It is always worth looking at the surveyor's book of reference, if one exists, as this will contain valuable additional details about the land, crops, natural vegetation, local land management practices and possibly also the tenants.

Architectural plans and specifications

Architectural plans may exist for new farm buildings and planned improvements to existing buildings. Ground plans and elevations show the layout and style of buildings, but they are also useful sources of dating evidence for buildings and may assist in establishing chronologies of different phases of development.

Tacks and leases

'Tack' is the Scots form of the English term, 'lease'. Today, both words are used interchangeably, but you will find that 'tack' is used more frequently in estate collections.

Tacks and leases provide information about:

Tenants and tenancies (whether land was rented to individuals or groups)

Land and buildings (often a description of the ground to be leased, with information about arable, pasture, woodland, waste, peat, shielings, enclosures, and buildings)

Rent (how much was due and if it was to be paid in cash, kind, or both)

Planned improvements (an obligation to undertake improvements to land or buildings was often set as a condition of the lease)


Accounts are very useful records because they contain information about:

Estate income (money earned from rents and through the sale of crops, livestock, timber, etc.)

Estate expenditure (money spent on land and building improvements, stock, staff, etc.).

Some of the more common accounting records you are likely to encounter are rentals, cash accounts, daybooks, journals and vouchers (invoices and receipts written on small scraps of paper and tied in bundles).

Rentals are particularly worth noting, as they show how much rent the estate received from each of its tenants and how this was paid - whether in cash, kind, or both. Normally, there is a separate rental for each farm, township, village or parish. If farms or townships were held under shared tenancies, this is also shown. These are accessible and useful records because they are normally arranged in volumes, which are arranged either geographically or chronologically.

Factor's correspondence

A factor is appointed to oversee the management of large estates. In the past, factors held a great deal of power over all aspects of the running and administration of their estates. Their correspondence is a fascinating and detailed source of information which usually pays dividends, if you have time to investigate it.

If you are lucky, both incoming and outgoing correspondence may survive:

Incoming correspondence is likely to include letters received from suppliers, tradesmen, business associates, the estate owner and his solicitors. This may be filed chronologically or alphabetically and is sometimes indexed by name, or, subject. However, do not be surprised if it is not - sometimes it is simply lucky to have survived at all and is stored, unsorted, in boxes.

Outgoing correspondence will include the factor's letters to all of the above. However, his main correspondent was his employer, who, during periods of absence from his country-seat, would be kept informed of all estate matters in regular diary-style letters. These letters are particularly interesting because of the detail they contain about estate matters. Carbon copies of outgoing correspondence may survive in letter books, which were normally indexed by name or subject. However, beware, as these letter books are often poorly preserved, sometimes to the point of illegibility. The original letters may also survive elsewhere in the estate collection - most likely listed with the personal papers of the family.

© Historic Environment Scotland - Scottish Charity No. SC045925.