From early medieval times the Crown and the Church enacted laws for the better ordering of society. There were no means, however, for enforcing them across the Highlands. Communities determined what was right and wrong, and administered punishment when needed.
Adminstering feudal law
During the 12th century King David I established sheriffdoms to preserve the king's peace through courts and officers. Sheriff courts were most successful, and have remained the principal locally-based dispensers of justice up to modern times.
Certain earldoms were also granted the hereditary right to administer criminal law (not withdrawn until 1747). In the pursuit of justice they could track down, capture, interrogate, imprison and even condemn to the gallows. Until 1745 Lord Lovat had his own hangman housed in a remote corner of his estates; strangely no one wanted to live beside him! The house, Tighnacrochadair, 4 miles west of Beauly, is still there to this day.
Adminstering church law
Before the Reformation a Gaelic-speaking parish priest was the legal expert on slander, witchcraft and bigamy. He imposed church law and could appeal, if necessary, to the bishop's court.
After the Reformation the Presbyterian system for church discipline was established. Church elders had considerable powers to bring parishioners before the Kirk Session and mete out punishments such as 'sitting on the stool of repentance in sackcloth and ashes'. Appeals passed up through presbytery, synod and ultimately to the General Assembly.
The modern justice system
Justice of the Peace courts were established in 1609 to investigate local disorder such as riots or poaching. These later become part of the sheriff court system dealing with minor criminal offences e.g. at Dingwall, Tain, Dornoch, and Stornoway. Landowners served as unpaid justices with constables as Keepers of the Peace.
The 16th century also saw the introduction of the Court of Session for civil trials and the High Court of Justiciary for criminal offences, both financed by the Crown. The Court of Session sits in Parliament House (Edinburgh) and acts as the court of appeal. The High Court sits in various towns as the need arises, e.g. Inverary, Perth, and Inverness. It handles the most serious crimes such as murder and rape.
The children's hearings system was set up under the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, updated since by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. It deals with young offenders through Children?s Panels.
County police forces were established and financed by commissioners of supply from 1857 and by county councils after 1890.
If a book listed in the bibliography below is available from the Highland Libraries it will be indicated by a book icon -
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