Quarter sessions records can be an important source of evidence because they provide evidence of a legal event which often set out a public way.  Unless there has been a later event, they are very strong evidence of the existence of a right of way.

You are going to be particularly interested in new ways set out in orders for diversions, but you also need to check for routes that you are researching which have been stopped up.

There were four quarter sessions each year, Epiphany (January), Easter, Mid-Summer, and Michaelmas (autumn)

When examining quarter sessions material it may be a good idea to take a current ordnance survey map of the area with you, or perhaps have it on your phone..


Look in your county archive catalogue to see if there is a catalogue of highway quarter sessions decisions.  These were often compiled by council officials working on the first definitive maps.  If you can find this catalogue your job is so much easier.  If you can’t find it you may face an uphill struggle.  Ask archive staff if you can’t find it.  The catalogue may be sorted by parish or by date.


There are two types of records you need to look at- the court record (earlier called the minute book) and the roll.  Rolls and records are normally filed under separate references.  You may need both


The record/minute book, as its name suggests, is a record of what the court decided.  Records tend to be in a book covering a few years.  So this is a less time consuming job than going through the rolls, which have material for each session.  If you cannot find the catalogue of highway quarter sessions and you want to work with quarter sessions records your only option is to go through the records/minutes.  Even this can be very time consuming.

The record will have quite a bit of information on a particular diversion or stopping up, but what you are initially interested in is the description of the route.  There will be a description of the route to be stopped up and, if there is a diversion, the one to be substituted.  BUT THERE WILL BE NO MAP.

A session or two later there should be a confirmation- a statement that a justice has gone out and inspected the diversion and that it is complete.  See below if you can’t find this.

You may or may not be able to identify the route from the record/minute.  Your ordnance survey map may help you.  If you can identify it check whether or not it appears on the current map with the correct status. If not you may be on to something and it is worth copying all the material about the diversion, including the confirmation. 


Rolls are like the background papers for a meeting.  They record all the stuff the justices were supposed to look at in making their decisions.  They are called rolls because all the papers were rolled up in a big roll for storage.

The archive may give you this roll or, if you are lucky, may have taken out each sheet and put it in a book.

Looking at a roll can be quite intimidating.  You may be confronted with a large number of curled up sheets of paper which may be dusty and be coming apart. You have to sort through to find the material about the diversion or stopping up.  Take your time.

A handy couple of tips:

  1. You can usually ignore anything that is less than foolscap size, since the highway material was usually at least this size.
  2. Look for newspapers.  These can be comparatively easy to spot. When a highway change was proposed it had to be advertised in local papers and copies of these had to be submitted.  Sometimes the whole newspaper is there and this tends to stick out.

Rolls can be difficult to photograph.  You should always find a map of the diversion and there will always be a description of the old and new routes.  It may be easier to read this from any copy of a handbill that was posted up locally, or the newspaper.

For a first look, the map and the description may be enough.  You may be able to identify the route fairly easily by comparing the map and description with your ordnance survey map, but this may not be easy.  If the OS map shows that the route is recorded as a right of way of the correct status then you need go no further

But if you make an application based on this evidence you will need to copy all of the material at some point. You may want to try to copy it all now.

Note that there will be nothing about the confirmation in the roll.


If you can’t find the catalogue then you have no choice.  It is impossible to work through all the rolls so you have to start with the records.  You may then want to go on to the rolls if you find anything interesting.

But if you have a catalogue and you are researching in a limited area, such as a parish, it is better to go for the roll because this will always give you the map and the description.


Have a look at the current ordnance survey map or, better, the first definitive map for the area.  If the diverted routes are shown then they probably came into existence (although you may want to get advice here)  but if not, then you have good evidence that the “old” route was and is a public right of way.  After all, why would the landowner have asked for a diversion, which was an expensive business, if there was no existing right of way?


First, identify where the diversion is using the map, description and an ordnance survey map.  You may also want to consult maps of the period at the National Library of Scotland if there are features that you can’t identify on a modern map.  If the route is on the map with the correct status then you can stop there.

Then compare with the first definitive map and any other material held at the county archive on the first definitive map for the relevant parish. 

There are two reasons for doing this.

Firstly, if the route in question was on the first definitive map with the status set out in the order (footpath, bridleway etc.) but not on the current rights of way map then it has probably been correctly diverted for a second time.  If it was not on the first definitive map then check subsequent diversion and stoppings up in that parish.  If you cannot find any later quarter session and the route was not on the first definitive map you are on to something.

Secondly, if there is any mention of someone having looked at the quarter sessions records in the papers for the first definitive map at the county archive then it will be argued that this evidence is not new.  You will have to find some other evidence that they have no record of having looked at before you can make an application- although once you have found it you can use the quarter sessions material.

(This is why I always suggest that researchers copy all the first definitive map material that is available in the county archive for their area.)

If you think that you have got evidence that you have found a lost right of way then make sure that you have all the material from the quarter sessions record and roll if you have not already copied it.  You may need to go back to the archive.

File the evidence and then go on to look for other evidence before you make an application.

If you are not interested in the route you have discovered (perhaps because you are only researching another route) then please file the material for others working in your area.

Chris Smith November 2021