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Back to the language of the law

It’s one of those great moments in the movies — when a bit of dialogue is uttered and everybody knows it’s going to be heard over and over and over again.

It was in the film Princess Bride.

And the bit of dialogue, spoken by the character Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”1

That’s exactly what came to The Legal Genealogist‘s mind when a fellow genealogist posted on Facebook a few days ago that folks could tell that she wasn’t feeling well, since she had “a court record from Scotland burning a hole in (her) email bucket” and, she said, she didn’t even have the energy to check it out.

The record: “a sheriff’s aliment record from 1835” and Cathy Martin Naborowski hoped it would answer some questions about her second great grandfather.2

Now before you start wondering why some sheriff might be creating a record about people who were ailing, look at the word again. Yup. Like me, you might think to yourself: “… that word … I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It’s aliment, not ailment, and it’s a really cool kind of record with great genealogical potential.

In Scotland, the word aliment means “to maintain, support, provide for; to provide with necessaries. As a noun, maintenance, support; an allowance from the husband’s estate for the support of the wife.”3

One way the term was used was when somebody was locked up in debtor’s prison for a civil debt. If he is “so poor that he cannot aliment [maintain] himself, and will make oath to that effect, it shall be in the power of the magistrates to cause the creditor by whom he is incarcerated to provide an aliment for him, or consent to his liberation; which, if the creditor delay to do for 10 days, the magistrate is authorized to set the debtor at liberty.”4

But the way Cathy was using it means something else entirely: the mother of a child born out of wedlock could go to the Sheriff Court for maintenance payments for her child. And those payments were called — you got it — the aliment.5

In fact, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS):

Thousands of single mothers … took men to court to prove the paternity of their children, usually in an effort to extract financial support. Most of these affiliation and aliment cases were heard in the sheriff courts and can be found in the NRS catalogue under the names of the parties.6

The detail that can be in the files in these cases — generally known as paternity cases “although they are not normally referred that way in the records”7 — is amazing. An example posted by the NRS tells the tale of one Mary Ann Lindsay, a shop girl who, the record said, got cozy with William Steel Jr., the son of the shopkeeper, with the result being one Ann Lindsay, born 27 October 1880. The whole story is set out in the Sheriff Court records, including the court’s finding against young William despite the fact, it said, that it knew its ruling would be “detrimental” to his “prospects in the profession to which he purposed coming forward” — he was studying for the ministry.8

aliment indexes

Extracts of the NRS records by Graham and Emma Maxwell and available free on their Scottish Indexes website can help show whether a record exists. These free indexes set out the names of the pursuer (woman bringing the claim) and defender (the man against whom the claim was brought) and their residences, the child’s birthdate, the year the court rules, what court decided the case, the county in which it was decided and the NRS reference needed to find or order the record.9

Aliment. A word where we began with “I do not think it means what you think it means” — and ended up with a cool set of genealogical records.

Note: A major hat tip to Cathy Martin Naborowski for permission to use her post as the inspiration for this post.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Meanwhile, in Scotland…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Feb 2019 ( : accessed (date)).


  1. I could cite it, but come on now. Go ahead. You know you want to watch it again. There are lots of copies of the clip on YouTube like this one
  2. Cathy Martin Naborowski, Facebook status update, 31 January 2019, used by permission.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 60, “aliment.”
  4. Ibid., 21, “act of grace.”
  5. See, generally, Graham Maxwell, Tracing Your Illegitimate Ancestors in the Sheriff Court Records, PDF online, ( : accessed 5 Feb 2019).
  6. A Victorian Valentine,” National Records of Scotland ( : accessed 5 Feb 2019).
  7. Maxwell, Tracing Your Illegitimate Ancestors in the Sheriff Court Records, PDF at 2.
  8. A Victorian Valentine,” National Records of Scotland.
  9. See Sheriff Court Paternity Case Search, ( : accessed 5 Feb 2019).
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