Some Scottish counties may trace their origins to the mormaerdoms, stewartries and sheriffdoms of the High Middle Ages. Many of these early entities, while sharing a root of a name with a later county, represent a greater or smaller area. The case of the Mormaerdom of Moray, which included parts the county of Moray, and of Nairnshire, Banffshire and Inverness-shire is a striking example of this difference.
The original of the first shires in Scotland is obscured through lack of documentary evidence. There is no evidence of shires in Northumbria before much of it was annexed by Scotland. Nevertheless, the first shires appear there, in Lothian; there is evidence of eleventh century shires based on Tynninghame (East Lothian) by 1094, and on Ecclesmachan (West Lothian), Cadzow, Carluke and Renfrew and Mearns. John of Fordun wrote that King Malcolm II introduced the shire to Scotland and also the thane class. Shires are certainly mentioned in charters by the reign of King Malcolm III.
The concerted development of sheriffdoms or shires can be attributed to King David.
The earliest sheriffdom south of the Forth which we know of for certain is Haddingtonshire, which is named in a charters of 1139 as "Hadintunschira and of 1141 as "Hadintunshire. In 1150 a charter refers to Stirlingshire ("Striuelinschire").
The process whereby the patchwork of early mormaerdoms, sheriffdoms and stewartries became the later counties may be linked to the expansion, then concentration of sheriffdoms. Perhaps the earliest counties are those of the south-east, such as Haddingtonshire and Berwickshire, whose form was larger established in the High Middle Ages. For some northern counties, the process continued through the Late Middle Ages and beyond. Many small shires, of which Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire are the only surviving examples, existed until modern times. Examples are many. Proceeding downstream from Clackmannanshire on the north shore of the River Forth, the shires of Culross, Dunfermline, Kinghorn, and Crail, all lay within the traditional county, so-called, of Fife.
The earliest shires or sheriffdoms were a lowland system. They spread along the east coast which remained under royal control, but the shires of the Highlands were completed only in the reign of King Charles I.
By the reign of James IV, the sheriffdoms were used to select Commissioners (MPs) to the Parliament of Scotland, forming the basis of the "landward constituencies", which existed distinct from the burgh constituencies until the Representation of the People Act 1918. Before the Union of 1707, Commissioners could represent multiple counties, or, on occasions, a part of one. After Union, eight counties were paired, electing a member at alternating elections to the Unreformed House of Commons. A number of sheriffdoms, such as those of Ross and Cromartyshire were also merged during the 18th century. As a result of the 1832 Reform Act the pairing system ended, and Elginshire and Nairnshire were merged into a single constituency, as were Ross and Cromartyshire and also Clackmannanshire and Kinross-shire. Bute and Caithness, previously paired, became separate constituencies.
Orkney and Zetland (Shetland) were generally treated as a single county, with Orkney being described an 'Earldom' and Zetland being described as a 'Lordship'. They constituted a single Orkney and Shetland constituency in the House of Commons, as they had done in the Scots Parliament, and were counted together in the census.
The first accurate county maps of Scotland appear in the late seventeenth century and contain a first-hand record of shire names. John Adair (maps c. 1682) gives the names of Midlothian, East Lothian, Twaddall and Wast Lothian (the latter also as "Linlithgowshire"). The eighteenth century county maps of Herman Moll (dated c. 1745), preferred to keep the "Shire" suffix a separate word, as for example "Berwick Shire", "Roxburgh Shire", "the Shire of Selkirk otherwise known as Etterick Forest", and in the north to "Murray" (Moray), "Inverness Shire", "Aberdeen Shire", "Bamff Shire", "Ross Shire. The map of Boswell's and Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773) gives "Shire" to every one shown, including "Angus Shire" and "Fife Shire".
Several shires have alternative names of long standing. These include:
Kirkcudbrightshire is commonly called the 'Stewartry of Kirkcudbright', or just 'the Stewartry'.
Victorian statutes created a number of counties for statutory purposes, to which ultimately county councils were attached by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889.
The counties became a basis of local government, alongside burghs, when 34 county councils were created in Scotland by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. About 90 years later, under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, these county authorities were abolished as local government bodies and were replaced with regions and districts and island council areas. Areas for Lieutenancy, areas similar to those of the counties, were created at the same time. Local government was reorganised again under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 to create the currently existing council areas.
Although the counties themselves no longer fulfil any administrative function, the boundaries of the majority remain in use by the Scottish Land Register as the registration counties - the only differences being that Glasgow forms a separate county from Lanarkshire - although this may reflect the fact that Glasgow was a unitary 'City of the County of' from 1893 to 1975. Orkney and Zetland together form a combined county for these purposes. The boundaries also remained in use in an adapted form as postal counties until 1996.
Some of the names, such as Aberdeenshire and Ayrshire, have been revived for the post-1996 council areas. Some also remain in use for lieutenancy areas and for area committees of the present councils.
|Counties of Scotland until 1890|
It may be noted that the map depicts a large number of exclaves physically detached from the county that they were politically deemed to be part of. Cromartyshire's borders, a particularly fragmentary example, were achieved as late as 1685, although at that time the word "county" was not applied to the sheriffdom.
|Counties of Scotland from 1890|
The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 established county councils in Scotland. Unlike in England and Wales, where corresponding legislation created new entities called administrative counties, the Act amended the existing counties for local government purposes, including merging Ross and Cromartyshire into Ross and Cromarty, and setting up a boundary commission to make further changes as necessary. Generally speaking, exclaves were abolished, the only significant exclave left untouched being the part of Dunbartonshire between Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire.
These local government counties excluded from their area the 'counties of cities' in Scotland. Originally only the city and royal burgh of Edinburgh had this status, but Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen were added in 1893, 1894 and 1900 respectively. Each of these counties of cities were enlarged on a number of occasions at the expense of the surrounding counties. These are not shown on the map below as separate entities.
The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1947 created new administrative areas named 'counties', 'counties of cities', large burghs and small burghs. Although these had been established by earlier legislation, the Act listed the various counties and other divisions for the first time.
In 1963 the Government published a white paper which proposed a reduction in the number of counties from thirty-three to between ten and fifteen. A process of consultation between county councils and officials from the Scottish Office was begun to affect the amalgamations. Following a change of government, it was announced in 1965 that a "more comprehensive and authoritative" review of local government areas would be undertaken. Accordingly a Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley was appointed in 1966. The commission's report in 1969 recommended the replacement of the counties with larger regions. Another change in government control in 1970 was followed by the publication of a white paper in 1971 implementing the commission's reforms in a modified form. The abolition of counties for local government purposes was enacted by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, with counties playing no part in local government after May 16 1975.
Historically, county constituencies did represent specific counties (minus parliamentary burghs within the counties). Now, however, county in county constituency means predominantly rural. Similarly, burgh constituencies are predominantly urban constituencies.