Mapping the Parishes of Medieval Scotland


Mapping the Parishes of Medieval Scotland is a diverse group of research scholars from Scottish universities who in 2009 decided  to formalise their common interests in medieval parishes. We are a broad church whose interests vary from parish place-names to dedications, and from chapel sites to how parishes were created ab initio.

Parishes provided the basic infrastructure of Scottish society from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries. Anyone interested in researching the Scottish past – whether their interest is focused on family, locality, social groups, economy, religion or landholding - needs to have an understanding of them. Furthermore, the parish is a complex historical organism, typically created out of pre-existing secular systems of land division and assessment. The modern parish map is to a significant extent the product a nationwide reassessment of parish boundaries which was implemented in 1891. The configuration of each parish before this date is often far from straightforward to establish. There were more than 1250 parishes in the middle ages; some were altered, amalgamated and divided before the Reformation, after which this process quickened considerably. Research on mapping the history of parishes has hitherto been piecemeal in coverage and method. There is, of course, no scholarly or readily accessible guide for navigating a way through this fundamental aspect of Scottish History.

The group has the following broad goals:

(i) To establish a definitive list of pre-1891 parishes

This would establish standard name-forms which would, where practicable, match the forms used by the NAS and the RCAHMS, and would provide standard ways of expressing united or amalgamated parishes by the use of ‘and’ or a hyphen.

(ii) To maintain a census of research already completed/in progress

This would provide a brief record of who has worked/is working on the boundaries of what parishes. The main objective is to identify how much research would remain to be done in order to produce a complete survey of Scotland’s historic parishes: it is likely that large parts of the south of Scotland, Argyll and the Isles are likely to be the most significant gaps in current research. Most of these areas do, at least, have the benefit of the fundamental work on parish history, Originales Parochiales Scotiae, 2 vols in 3 parts (1851-1855).

(iii) To establish an agreed methodology for establishing historic parish boundaries using a range of different disciplines

Different parts of the country present different challenges: some have an over-abundance of documentary sources; others have little or nothing before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is required is an agreed method of representing this information on maps, taking care to indicate the variations in the kind and quality of sources and reasoning on which they depend. It is anticipated that this could lead ultimately to a traditional hard-copy mapping of the historical development of parishes (and/or publication of the hard-copy as pdf files on the web).

(iv) To establish an agreed methodology for representing parishes over time in a digital format appropriate for a web-based resource

At the same time as developing a potentially complex scholarly resource in hard copy, it will also be important to create a method of streamlining and packaging this information so that it can be represented digitally in an interactive format (perhaps GIS) that would be accessible to users with no previous experience of historical research. This will also have the function of clarifying the main developments for the purposes of research on a regional or national scale, in contrast to the parish by parish approach of the hard-copy resource outlined in (iii).