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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1971 (SND Vol. VIII). Includes material from the 1976 and 2005 supplements.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

SHERIFF, n., v.  Also sherriff, shir(r)ef(f), shirrif(e); and Sc. forms sherra, sherry (Edb. 1828 D. M. Moir Mansie Wauch xxvi.), shirra(h). Pl. sheriffs, †shireives (Sc. 1705 Annandale Family Bk. (Fraser 1894) II. 229). Sc. usages. [Sc. ′ʃɪrə]

1. Orig. the chief royal officer in a shire or county responsible for peace and order in his area and having civil and criminal jurisdiction. Many sheriffdoms became hereditary in a landed family and a trained lawyer was usually appointed as sheriff depute to perform the judicial functions of the office. After the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in Scotland in 1748 the sheriff depute succeeded to the duties of sheriff and is now known as sheriff principal, having in turn a deputy or deputies, known as sheriffs, who perform most of the civil and criminal judicial duties of the office besides many other administrative duties. The decisions of the sheriff are subject to appeal in civil cases to the sheriff principal and thereafter, or directly, to the Court of Session, and thereafter to the House of Lords. In criminal matters there is only an appeal to the High Court of Justiciary. Sheriffs and sheriffs principal are now appointed by the Crown. See also combs. below. The Shirra was an affectionate nickname applied to Sir Walter Scott, who was Sheriff (Principal) of Selkirkshire (1799-1832). Sheriffs principal and sheriffs were formerly appointed ad vitam aut culpam, but must now retire at 70. Most sheriffs are assigned to a particular court, but floating sheriffs or part-time sheriffs may deal with cases in any part of Scotland; part-time sheriffs (formerly temporary sheriffs) have limited security of tenure. Honorary sheriffs (who need not be legally qualified) can be appointed by the sheriff principal to help out as required; they do not have security of tenure. A sheriff in hac parte, sheriff in that part may be appointed to carry out a particular duty of a sheriff. Derivs. sheriffdom, the office of or territory under the jurisdiction of a sheriff principal, formerly a county or group of counties, now six based on the local-government areas which existed between 1975 and 1996. sheriffship, the office of sheriff.Sc. 1708 Burgh Rec. Gsw. (1908) 425:
Her grace the dutches of Hamiltoun, high shirreff of the said shirreffdom or county of Lanerk.
Sc. 1738 J. Chamberlayne Pres. State Scot. 202:
The Sheriff, in effect, is the supreme Justice of Peace, to whom is mainly entrusted by the Law the securing of the Quiet and Tranquility of that Part of the Kingdom which is subject to his Jurisdiction.
Sc. 1746 Laing MSS. (Hist. MSS. Comm.) II. 378:
The originall peace officer in the constitution is the sherrif within each shire. To him belonged what was called blowing the Kings horn which all the Kings liege men were bound to follow.
Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles i. iv. § 1:
Our kings sometimes erected certain lands, which were only parts of a county, and at other times royal boroughs, with the jurisdiction of sheriff-ship within themselves.
Dmf. 1773 Dmf. Weekly Mag. 79:
I think the devil's in the shirrah.
Sc. 1819 Lockhart Peter's Letters lii.:
He is Chief Magistrate of the county — and, indeed, is known among the country people, who passionately love him, by no other name than that of “the Sherra”.
Sc. 1823 Scots Mag. (Aug.) 220:
The Sheriff is appointed by the Crown, and his only qualification is, that he be an Advocate, with or without practice, of five years standing.
Abd. 1871 W. Alexander Johnny Gibb viii.:
To gar yer maister tak' ye afore the shirra.
Ags. 1891 Barrie Little Minister vii.:
Does the shirra blame the sojers?
Kcb. 1893 Crockett Raiders xvii.:
To be tried by sherras and judges that hae ye judged and condemned, afore ever ye win into the Coort.
Sc. 1896 W. K. Morton Manual 16:
The judge of first instance, called Sheriff-Substitute, resides within the territory, and is available for all summary proceedings. From him there is an appeal to the Sheriff Principal and thence to the Court of Session or the aggrieved party may appeal direct to the Court of Session.
Sc. 1914 W. F. Gray Some old Sc. Judges 172:
He [Lord Balmuto], however, appears to have enjoyed the work, if one may judge from his habit, when he became a senator, of prefacing his decisions with the remark “When I was Shirra' of Fife”.
Sc. 1929 Scots Mag. (Feb.) 327:
Here in Scotland it's a properly constituted Court afore a Baillie or the Shirra.
Sc. 1957 Scotsman (28 Aug.) 6:
Nowadays the Sheriff Courts themselves have become so busy that all the legal business of the Sheriffdom cannot be conducted by one judge.
Sc. 1965 Northern Scot (3 July) 6:
Sheriff Stuart O. Kermack, was on Tuesday installed as Sheriff Substitute at Elgin and for the Sheriffdom of Inverness, Moray and Nairn and Ross and Cromarty. The installation was carried out by Sheriff-Principal D. M. Campbell.

Combs.: (1) Sheriff-clerk, the clerk of the Sheriff-Court. Hence Sheriff-clerkship, the office of sheriff-clerk; (2) Sheriff-Court, shirra coort, the court presided over by a sheriff (-substitute), the county court; (3) Sheriff-depute, Shirrif-Depute, the deputy of the high- or hereditary sheriff of a county, now the Sheriff-Principal, see definition under 1. The word depute was dropped from the title by Circuit Courts (Scotland) Act 1828, section 22; †(4) sheriff-fee, a fee payable to the sheriff (see quot.); (5) Sherriff('s)-fiars, the average of grain prices for the year struck by the Sheriff in connection with the payment of Tiends. See Fiar, n.2, 2.; †(6) sheriff-mair, a sheriff's official messenger, a sheriffofficer. See (7) and cf. Mair, n.2; (7) sheriff of chancery, the sheriff principal of Lothian and Borders when performing his duties, throughout Scotland, in connection with service of heirs; (8) sheriff-officer, sheriff oafficer, shirra('s) offisher, the official or messenger who carries out the warrants of a sheriff, esp. in regard to poinding (s.v. poind v., n. I. 1.) goods for debt, serves summonses, etc.; (9) Sheriff-Principal, the sheriff of a sheriffdom, the name applied orig. to the hereditary sheriff (see 1.) till 1748, and thereafter to the sheriff depute (see (3)), now the senior judge of his sheriffdom, with mainly appellate jurisdiction and administration of the sheriffdom along with the sheriff clerk, the court and other judicial business of his office being almost entirely performed by sheriffs; †(10) Sherriff steuart, a sheriff in a Stewartry, q.v.; (11) Sheriff-substitute, the chief acting judge in a county or group of counties forming a sheriffdom, orig. so-called as being appointed by the Sheriff-depute as his substitute (see quots., 1. (3) and (9)). Honorary sheriffs-substitute may occas. be appointed by the Sheriff-Principal to deal with summary cases in the absence of the Sheriff-substitute. Hence sheriff-substituteship.(1) Sc. 1747 Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746, section 18:
A Book, to be kept by the Sheriff Clerk of the County within which the Lands lie.
Sc. 1823 Scots Mag. (Sept.) 358:
The fees of Sheriff Clerks were, for the first time, regulated by the Act of Sederunt 1748.
Sc. 1894 Sc. Law Times (28 April) 677:
The Sheriff-Clerk shall cite seven common and three special, jurors for each such inquiry.
Sc. 1967 Sheriff Court (H.M.S.O.) 3:
The office of sheriff clerk is about as old as that of the sheriff, who from the earliest times appointed clerks to assist in discharging his functions.
(2) Bnff. 1700 Ann. Banff (S.C.) I. 171:
Abstracteing of the Shirreff Courts our antient priviledges from this to the Burgh of Cullen.
Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles i. iv. § 1:
Causes were carried for review from the baron-courts of subject-superiors, to the Sheriff-court, as the King's baron-court.
Sc. 1807 R. Bell Dict. Law Scot. I. 331:
Each shire has a head borough, where the Sheriff-court is held, and jurisdiction exercised.
Sc. 1826 Scott Journal (1890) I. 229:
Corrected proofs however, and went to Selkirk to hold Sheriff Court.
Abd. 1871 W. Alexander Johnny Gibb x.:
Didna he begin as he taul's 'imsel' upo' the sweepin's o' the Shirra Coort?
Sc. 1969 Banffshire Jnl. (19 Aug.) 3:
Four youths who went on a stealing spree appeared on indictment at Banff Sheriff Court on Thursday.
(3) Sc. 1708 Burgh Rec. Gsw. (1908) 425:
William Somervell of Corehouse, shirreff deput of the shirreffdom of Lanerk.
Sc. 1709 George Lockhart Letters (1989) 39:
Some of the gentlemen of the shire of Edinburgh spoke to me of recommending Mr John Meinzies of Cambo to be Shirrif-Depute.
Cai. 1719 Old-Lore Misc. II. ii. 112:
They applyed the shirrif depute that he might cause seperate the witches to other prisones.
Sc. 1747 Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746, section 29:
There shall be but one Sheriff Depute, or Stewart Depute, in every County, Shire or Stewartry in Scotland, and he shall be an Advocate of three years standing at the least.
Sc. 1829 Scott Tales Grandfather lxxxvi.:
The administration of justice was vested [in 1747] in professional persons, called Sheriffs-deput (so called as deputed by the Crown, in contradistinction to the Sheriffs principal, formerly enjoying jurisdiction as attached to their patrimony). Such a Sheriff-depute was named for each county, to discharge the judicial duties formerly exercised by hereditary judges.
Sc. 1837 Tait's Mag. (May) 335:
The consequence of giving high salaries to the Sheriffs-Depute for doing nothing, is, that the Sheriffs-Substitute are, in general, inadequately paid for doing the whole work.
Sc. 1927 Gloag and Henderson Intro. Law Scot. 14:
The appointment and terms of office of sheriffs depute (now usually termed Sheriffs Principal), and of sheriffs substitute is now regulated by the Sheriff Courts Act, 1907.
(4) Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles i. iv. § 18:
Sheriffs were likewise intitled to the twentieth part of the sum contained in every decree, in name of sheriff-fee; both proper Sheriffs and messengers, when invested with the power of Sheriffs; but by the late jurisdiction-act, fixed salaries are settled upon Sherifs-depute in place thereof. Messengers, when employed in poinding, are still entitled to their sheriff-fee, which they usually assign to the creditor, on getting a reasonable allowance for their trouble.
(5) Sc. 1723 Act of Sederunt (1790) 278:
The use of the Sheriff's Fiars is to liquidate the price of victual in diverse processes.
Sc. 1752 Bankton Institute IV. xiv. 20 :
It is incumbent on all sheriffs and stewarts to strike the fiars (called the Sheriff-Fiars), i.e. To ascertain the prices that all sorts of grain shall be holden as estimated at in their countries.
(6) Sc. 1707 Morison Decisions 7404:
How his sheriff-mair was insulted in the execution of his office.
Per. 1746 T. L. K. Oliphant Lairds of Gask (1870) 166:
To 2 Sheriff Mairs for summoning 45 Gentlemen to be at Perth, the 1st of January.
Ags. 1776 First Hist. Dundee (Millar 1923) 156:
These have all the power of Sherriffs Mairs within the libertys of the Burgh, And advertise through the Toun all roups, &c.
Sc. 1827 C. I. Johnstone Eliz. de Bruce I. ix.:
The officer whistled as he looked about keenly and suspiciously; and in rushed the Sheriff maires from the hallan.
(8) Sc. 1748 Lyon in Mourning (S.H.S.) II. 106:
Captain Hanley, attended by a sheriff-officer, entred the house, and searched it most strictly.
Abd. 1774 Abd. Journal (10 Jan.):
John Ferrier, a Sheriff Officer of Elgin, returning from Strathaven, where he had executed a Poinding.
Sc. 1818 Scott Rob Roy xxv.:
God's malison and mine to a' sort o' magistrates, justices, baillies, sheriffs, sheriff-officers, constables and sic like black cattle.
Edb. 1828 D. M. Moir Mansie Wauch xiii.:
Hornem, the sherry-officer.
Sh. 1886 G. Temple Britta 72:
A shirra officer comin' frae Lerwick after dem.
Ags. 1894 J. B. Salmond B. Bowden (1922) 108:
The Gairner's gaena send the Sherraofficer to pund the Smith's bellows.
Abd. 1917 C. Murray Sough o' War 27:
Lead on, my Shirra's offisher, gin summons ye've to ser'.
Sc. 1927 Gloag and Henderson Intro. Law Scot. 547:
In any county where there is no resident messenger-at-arms, or in any of the islands of Scotland, a sheriff officer shall have all the powers of a messenger-at-arms in the execution of, or diligence on, any decree, warrant or order.
Gsw. 1990 John and Willy Maley From the Calton to Catalonia 5:
Ye think this is haurd? See me. When ah wiz your age ah done six month in Duke Street fur exercising ma democratic right. Broke a sheriff oafficer's jaw wae it, so ah did.
Gsw. 1990 John and Willy Maley From the Calton to Catalonia 16:
The sheriff oafficers had auld Nan Duffy's things oot in the street afore emdy knew whit wiz happenin.
Sc. 1998 Herald 8 May :
... mixing unfeasibly spectacular violence with blithe slap-stick humour and interludes of pathos calculated to bring a tear to a sheriff officer's eye.
(9) Sc. 1896 W. K. Morton Manual 17:
Appeal is competent from the Sheriff-Substitute to Sheriff-Principal.
Sc. 1953 Scotsman (27 March) 6:
The office of Sheriff-Principal, as it now exists, was unknown to antiquity, and was still unknown as recently as the days of Sir Walter Scott.
(10) Lnk. 1723 Minutes J.P.s (S.H.S.) 217:
At the sight of the Sherriff Steuart or Justice of Peace.
(11) Sc. 1752 J. Louthian Form of Process 249:
The said Lords reverse the foresaid Sentence of the said Sheriff-substitute.
Bte. 1761 Rothesay T.C. Rec. (1935) II. 762:
John Dunlop as Provost and Sheriff Substitute of Bute.
Sc. 1815 Scott Guy M. xii.:
The sherif-substitute of the county, who has authority from the Court of Session. . . . The sheriff-depute (that's his principal, like).
Sc. 1834 Tait's Mag. I. 442:
48 Sheriff Substituteships in the gift of the Sheriffs-depute . . . varying from £150 to £600.
Sc. 1928 Encycl. Law Scot. XIII. 526:
It is customary in all sheriffdoms to have honorary Sheriffs-Substitute to take the place of the ordinary Sheriff-Substitute when the latter through illness or absence is temporarily unable to act. The appointment is in the hands of the Sherif, and is during his pleasure.
Sc. 1951 Scotsman (6 Aug.) 4:
A Sheriff-Substitute has to carry out not only the duties of a County Judge but also duties discharged by various other legal officials in England. A County Judge has no criminal jurisdiction, whereas a Sheriff-Substitute has.
Sc. 1958 Intro. Sc. Legal Hist. (Stair Soc.) 56:
In the Circuit Courts (Scotland) Act in 1828 the Sheriff Depute is referred to as Sheriff. The same Act expressly empowered the Sheriff Depute to appoint Substitutes, who until 1838 held office at the pleasure of the Depute. In 1787 the salaries of these Substitutes were first made payable by the Crown, and for the first time in 1825 they were called Sheriffs-Substitute.

2. “A sort of lead sinker used to guide down a fishing-line and pull up a ‘lead' or hook that has stuck on the bottom of the sea” (Ork. 1929 Marw.).

II. v. To act as a sheriff, used (informally) of a part-time sheriff.Sc. 1989:
I'll be sheriffing tomorrow.
Sc. 1997:
Are you sheriffing today?
Sc. 2004:
I'm sheriffing in Cupar tomorrow.

[O.Sc. schyrryve, 1375, sheray, c.1425, schirra, 1438, a sheriff, schirreff clerke, 1388, -curt, 1428, -depute, 1424, -fe, 1574, -officer, 1682, -principale, 1501, schiravedom, 1386.]

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"Sheriff n., v.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 21 Jul 2024 <>



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