Service of Heirs or Retours

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Services of Heirs[edit | edit source]

Land could not be passed to an heir through a probate document or will until 1868. When lands were to be handed over to an heir, services of heirs documents were created through the following process:

  • A chancery court issued a brieve (document) to summon the local sheriffs to hold a jury trial.
  • The jury would determine who was the legal heir.*
  • The jury returned (retoured) their verdict to the chancery.
  • The chancery commissioned the sheriff to grant possession of the land to the heir and collect the fee payable to the crown.
  • If necessary, an inquest was also held to determine a tutor to administer the affairs of minor heirs.

Most people in Scotland did not own property, but the service of heirs records can be very useful if your ancestors owned their own land or houses. Some families can be traced for several generations through these records.

Inheritance land transactions should also appear in registers of Sasines, especially after 1617.

There were two main types of services:

  • "Special" services of heirs deal with specific land to be inherited
  • "General" services of heirs mention inheritances but not specific lands

Indexes. Annotated ten-year indexes are in print for service of heir records created between 1700 and 1860. After 1860, there are annual indexes. Both the Scottish Record Office and the Family History Library have these indexes.

From 1700 to 1959 the indexes are in book form (FHL book Q 941 R2ch). These indexes are very valuable because they give more information than just name and page. The information can help you decide if a certain service of heir is really the one you want. The actual records are difficult to read because they are in Latin. From 1700 to 1860, the indexes are on microfilm (FHL film 990340).

Availability of Records[edit | edit source]

The Scottish Record Office has the original service of heir records. The Family History Library also has microfilm copies of original records from 1586 to 1901. Each volume is indexed. To find the microfilm numbers, look in the Locality Search of the FamilySearch Catalog under:


At has the three volume set to the Retours from 1544-1700 available (no cost) online:

The Family History Library has printed abstracts of services to heirs from 1544 to 1700, in Inquisition ad capellam domini regis refornatarum abbreviatio. [Scotland]: n.p., 1811-1816. (FHL book Q 941 A2i; film 908847.) These records are in Latin.

Record Availability ChartService-to-heirs.png 
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Retours could have been recorded many years after the fact, so you should search accordingly.

Before 1848, retours and services of heirs are also found in sheriff, burgh, and regality court records. Sometimes their verdicts were not ‘retoured’ to Chancery, so the records of these other courts should also be searched.

Beginning in November 1847, services of heirs were granted from the Chancery Court only, though local courts continued to hold inquests and issue retours.

The records of inquestof the local courts may contain more information and may have survived. Locating a list of local archives and their websites at SCAN. You will find indexes to Inquests and Services of Heirs.

References[edit | edit source]

The following book will be of special interest for people in North America using Scottish service of heir records:

Dobson, David. Scottish American Heirs 1683-1883. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1990. (FHL book 941 D2d.) This work names every Scot who is listed in the service of heirs records who has a North American tie.

An excellent guide to these records is produced by the National Archives of Scotland and can be found at: