Too late for a Scottish passport!

Among the records in Edinburgh City Archives are records of passports issued by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh (class SL165, dates 1845-1916).

Apparently Edinburgh Town Council issued passports, or certificates of good character, to its inhabitants from at least the 17th century. They were issued by the Lord Provost under his authority as Admiral of the Firth of Forth.

The idea of a compulsory identity document which had to be carried by all travellers was first introduced in 1792 in revolutionary France where all travellers had to carry state-issued identity documents with them 1

Britain required travellers to have a passport to enter or travel in the country from 1793 to 1826.

From 1794 to 1858 all British passports were issued by the Secretary of State and were only issued to friends and acquaintances, or to someone recommended by a London banker 2.

At this time the more important the passport looked, the more important it was considered to be; wax seals and fancy lettering with a long list of titles which stressed the importance of the official who issued the passport all added to this impression.   In 1850 a British Treasury official commented that those that came closest to the ideal were issued by the “Civic Chief” of Edinburgh 3

The Illustrated London News puts it nicely:

It seems that the municipal head of “Auld Reekie” rejoices in a vast multiplicity of obsolete titles – “Lord High Admiral if the Firth of Forth” is one of the smallest, but all of which are stated at most imposing length in the passport, the effect being to inspire all manners of frontier officials with a deep and pervading awe for this dreadful potentate, and a corresponding degree of civility towards the lucky personages armed with his most imperial mandate. Add to these characteristics a number of vast seals of antique and venerable aspect, and nearly as big as saucers, and the charm is complete. 4

No wonder, in 1855, the Edinburgh Christian Magazine writes:

To peep across the Channel you need not obtain through Lee the bookseller or Coutts the banker in the Strand any passport from the Foreign Office… The passport of the Lord High Admiral of the Firth of Forth known commonly amongst us in Scotland as the Provost of Edinburgh we have always found quite sufficient for such short excursions and is moreover a few shillings cheaper than any other. 5

Seemingly Edinburgh continued to issue its own passports to at least 1913.

I’d love to see one of these impressive documents – I don’t suppose any of you have come across one?


  1.  Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World by Jane Capaln and John Torpey (Eds), 2002, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691009124
  2. Identity & Passport Service website downloaded 8 Dec 2009
  3. see #1
  4. Illustrated London News, September 6, 1851 quoted in #1
  5.  The Edinburgh Christian Magazine April 1855-March 1856, Vol VII, page 144 from

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