Wednesday, 8 May 2013

All hail the conquering heir...!

So you've read the books, and they tell you that Scotland is a wee bit different to the rest of the UK in how land was inherited - for one thing, land could not be conveyed in a Scottish will until 1868, three centuries after the same thing happened in England. You may also be aware that as such, one possible and very separate way to formally inherit land was to go through a process called the Services of Heirs, whereby a jury confirmed who you said you were, before you could take possession of the inheritance.

So far so good... except, that this does not even begin to cover the many potential complexities surrounding the issue of inheritance!

Take, for example, conquest. By that I don't mean a person going out with a warhammer and clubbing his enemies into submission, but the Scottish legal term for a specific part of the property or land that an heir might inherit. Land that had previously been inherited from a relative or ancestor was known as heritage - but land that was purchased in a person's lifetime, received as a gift, or even obtained by way of an exchange (excambion), had the very different designation of conquest. And in certain circumstances, the person who inherited the conquest was not necessarily the person who inherited the heritage.

Under Scots Law, land was historically conveyed to an heir since the days of old, when the knights were bold, via the rules of primogeniture - so to a first born son, but if he died, to the next eldest son, and so on. If there were no sons, it then went to all the surviving daughters in equal shares (they became known as heirs portioners). If the deceased had no children, however, what would then happen to his estate? That's when it gets interesting!

If the deceased had one brother, either younger or older, all the estate - both the heritage and the conquest - went to the other brother. But if the deceased had an older brother and a younger brother, that's when something very unusual happened - the heritage went to the younger brother, as the next heir of line, but the conquest went to the older brother, as the heir of conquest. As a law in Scotland, this continued right up to 1874.

A simple rule summed up the process - heritage descends, conquest ascends.

But what if there were no brothers? Then it went to the uncles - the heritage to the next youngest brother of the deceased's father, the conquest to the next oldest brother of the deceased's father. And there could be many other combinations of the property going in different directions.

Just for good measure - conquest, when it passed to an heir of conquest, was only ever designated as such the once. When the heir of conquest later died, the conquest he had previously inherited in his lifetime would at this point be designated as heritage, and inherited by his heirs through the normal route of primogeniture. The conquest he had personally obtained in his lifetime - by purchase, gift or exchange - would, however, be designated as conquest until it was inherited, and later became heritage in its own right. (Still with me?!)

The bottom line is, never take anything for granted with Scottish genealogical or land history research - it is wonderfully complicated!

For more on Scottish land records and inheritance, my book Discover Scottish Land Records is available in paperback from Gould Genealogy at or via PDF format ebook (slightly cheaper and no postage!) at

Good hunting!


1 comment:

  1. Very informative, will check out the book,since I have at least 7 Scottish ancestors.