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Scotland - Unidentified, not unregistered

From the most remote island or highland estate to a city centre tenement flat, Scotland can be a challenge when it comes to finding out who has interest in land, and can often be slightly grey compared to the black and white of England and Wales.


Scotland is unique in land referencing in that all land is registered, somewhere. The Registers of Scotland are the keeper of land, property and legal documents, and have responsibility for twenty-one registers. Currently the Keeper of the registers is able to identify just over 95% of land in Scotland. Unregistered land does not exist, it is simply unidentified. Whilst land referencing is a legal process, given the nature of Scotland’s land ownership and the historical aspect needed as part of land referencing, social history often has to be explored and understood as part of the process. Land referencing cannot just be seen just as a legal process, it is something that you have to think laterally on as well.


With all land in Scotland being potentially registered in a variety of places this can prove a challenge when it comes to identifying parties with an interest in land. There are three main registers held by the Registers of Scotland which are useful to land referencers, The Land Register of Scotland, The General Register of Sasines and the Register of Crofts.


The Land Register of Scotland is the newest of the main registers, with the aim to have all of Scotland registered on this register. Something which hasn’t yet happened. The register is only just over half complete, with about another seven percent undergoing registration. This register will succeed the General Register of Sasines. The Land Register is map based and is expected once complete to be the main source of land ownership in Scotland.


The General Register of Sasines or the Sasine Register is the oldest public land register in the world, with the first record being recorded in 1617. This register proves to be some of the most challenging when it comes to land referencing, as not everything is mapped and even if it is it isn’t necessarily accurate or up to date. This can often lead to a time consuming process and one that can be very GIS heavy. The register is also well known for its use of language, with some terms unique to Scottish titles, with ‘all and whole’ in the description of land and ‘or thereby’ in reference to the measurement of land, two of the most prominent examples, as well as anglicisation of Gaelic over time and long written descriptions. Titles often referring back to older titles, with the language and cursive writing of older titles can cause confusion, but does allow you truly understand the land in question and how the land has developed over time, which can play an important role in the wider scheme or project being worked on.


The Sasine Register is made to look easy when it comes to the dark art of dealing with Crofting. The Register of Crofts is a mainly map based register, but the vast majority of crofts are still held on the list based Crofting Register, held by the Crofting Commission. Crofting is a very legislation heavy and is known for being extremely complex and time consuming. Crofting is in the northern part of Scotland and one that real knowledge of the area as well as social history can be required to truly understand how crofts operate and how crofts look, especially where maps aren’t present.


Whilst titles are legal documents, they can also be eye opening and show social history at its finest, with families not having moved from land for generations, to descriptions of land being based on the landowners and tenants around the property being described, and the house numbering system not being consistent and changing over time especially in tenements. This can make land referencing challenging, it allows you to see how society has changed and how land and property has reformed over time. Going back in Scottish titles, can allow you to confirm you have everyone today.


Scotland also has a plethora of other resources which can all help to paint a picture of who might have an interest in land. This is often where local knowledge can play a crucial role in helping identity land as well as land referencers having a network of contacts.


The use of maps in Scottish land referencing and the close connection to GIS is something which plays a huge part in being able to identify land. Having a knowledge of land holding types and traditional practices in how land and property was often divided can be key to determining who might have an interest in land. The Scottish geography can make land unique.


Local knowledge, social history and the use of maps and GIS in land referencing can be just as crucial to working out as to who own land in Scotland as the official registers can be. Land referencing in Scotland isn’t just a legal process, and lateral thinking can definitely be needed to be successful.


Land referencing is certainly unique in Scotland, but it is one for the inquisitive, one for those who like a challenge and one for someone who just likes to be nosey and delve into things.

External link:

Registers Scotland:

Marcus Humphrey is a Chartered Geographer and Senior Consultant at Ardent with over 7 years of land referencing experience. He works across a variety of projects, mostly specialising in linear projects, transport, and renewables. Prior to joining Ardent, Marcus spent 7 years with Bell Ingram Chartered Surveyors, where Marcus held a number of positions within the GIS team, latterly being GIS Manager. He was responsible for providing GIS and land referencing solutions to clients. Marcus started his career in GIS with BP plc, moving into the utilities and renewables sector, before focusing on land referencing. All views expressed are those of the author.

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