The organization of Scottish places is a complicated amalgam of civil and parochial systems, both of which have suffered revisions. In particular, the civil system has been significantly revised several times since the 1960s, which can cause much confusion to the genealogist or historian looking to understand historical geography. For this reason, WeRelate uses the traditional systems as its primary means of organizing place information in Scotland, as this will correspond more directly with the vast majority of records of genealogical interest.
The primary jurisdictions of interest to the genealogist are the "traditional county" and the "parish". Scotland comprises 33 traditional counties and slightly over 900 parishes. You will see the 33 counties listed in the box to the right (under "Contained places"), and if you click into a county page, you will see its contained parishes similarly listed. If you click into a parish page, there you will see its contained towns, villages, and inhabited places. The parishes, being a church jurisdiction, actually fall into a hierarchy of presbyteries (the next level above parish) and synods (a level roughly equivalent to counties). Once you've located an ancestral place, it will be useful to explore the related places that place contains or is contained in. For example, if an ancestor came from a particular village, there may be sources and records of interest associated with the parish, the county, the presbytery, the synod, etc. Specific place pages may also contain useful information about historical jurisdiction changes. (For instance, it may be useful to know that a village used to be in a different parish or county, but boundaries were changed.)
Except for the very largest cities, most Scottish place pages are named in the form "Village, County, Scotland", for example, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. For the smaller places, or those whose names are not unique within their county, the parish may also be included in the page name, for example, Finzean, Birse, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. In some cases, you may see "(village)" added after a village name. This is typically to distinguish it from a parish of the same name.
Traditionally, for the purposes of civil administration, Scotland was divided up into thirty-three counties. (See wikipedia:Counties of Scotland for a detailed discussion of the evolution of Scottish counties.) The counties were formalized as units of local government in 1890, even though their use goes much much further back in history. The formalization of 1890 defined counties generally as they had been traditionally understood, while eliminating a number of irregularities, especially exclaves. An "exclave" is a scattered bit, like a jurisdictional island, not connected to the main part. Prior to 1890, Banffshire comprised a dozen contiguous parishes plus one parish on the far side of Aberdeenshire, Inverness-shire had a bit splitting Moray in two, and Cromarty was a whole series of little scattered "islands" within a "sea" of Ross. In addition, there were numerous minor border adjustments through the years. The WeRelate pages are organized based on the traditional counties as defined in 1890. Recognizing that any point in geographic history is somewhat arbitrary, the 1890 counties are probably the most aligned with the organization of the bulk of existing sources and repositories.
The counties were officially abolished in 1975, in favor of a system of regions and districts, which was overhauled again in 1996 with a new system of "unitary authorities". Many of these unitary authorities use the same or similar names as the counties, but often have significantly revised areas. For example, the post-1996 council area called Aberdeenshire includes most of the traditional counties of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, and Banffshire, but excludes the City of Aberdeen (which is its own unitary authority). One needs to be aware of the new system when using resources based on current geographic data, e.g., when using online map systems like streetmap.co.uk. At the same time, one needs to keep in mind the traditional system when looking at nearly all genealogical records. (It should also be noted that the General Register Office of Scotland has continued using "registration districts" for the purposes of vital and land records that generally still correspond to the traditional counties and parishes.) Thus, the researcher must bear all this in mind and understand that, for example, the town of Stonehaven is described as being in Aberdeenshire on modern maps, but traditionally belongs to Kincardineshire.
In confronting the bewildering details of Scottish local government, it is helpful to be familiar with the following terms:
Prior to the adoption of civil government registration in 1855, the Church of Scotland parishes were the most significant source of vital records (baptisms and marriages) and other historical records. Even when civil registration started in 1855, the civil system basically took up the existing parishes as its "registration districts", and in many cases these continue to the present. Unfortunately, both of these systems, initially aligned in 1855, evolved independently. The General Register Office, as populations grew and shifted, occasionally split or reorganized its registration districts (or "civil parishes"), while the Church of Scotland, for reasons of its church administration, split or reorganized its parishes, neither coordinating its actions with the other. For genealogical purposes, again an arbitrary but arguably useful point in time was identified for the purpose of organizing parish pages, which are essentially the parishes as they existed in 1855. The pre-1855 parishes are those for which there are Old Parochial Registers, which are the cornerstone of Scottish genealogy. (The GRO has a handy table mapping "traditional parishes" to the evolution of registration districts.) Those parishes created after the early 1850s are often referred to as quoad sacra parishes, to distinguish them from the "civil parishes" (or quoad civilia). (Here is a well-written account of this muddle using Banffshire as an example.)
The hierarchy of the Church of Scotland has also evolved. Traditionally, parishes were governed by a "kirk session", a "presbytery" (local level), a "synod" (regional/county level), and a general assembly. Around the same time as the local government was being significantly reorganized in the latter 20th century, the Church also reorganized its synods, merged a number of presbyteries, and ultimately did away with the synod level altogether. Once again, the WeRelate Place pages corresponding to presbyteries and synods reflect the Church organization as it existed in the mid-1800s, as this will most closely align with the sources and repositories of genealogical interest.
Cities, Burghs, Towns, Villages, and Inhabited places
Some attempt has been made to categorize inhabited places according to their size, as "cities", "towns", "villages", etc., although this is in most cases a most arbitrary decision. Cities are the only really clear-cut category, as it is well-established (and reasonable) that Scotland has four cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Dundee. After cities, one may argue that there is an official definition of a "burgh", and one can distinguish "burghs" from mere "villages" because the burghs have a charter. Historically, there are royal burghs and burghs of barony. In the 19th century, a concept of a "police burgh" also arose as a entity of local government. In addition, "burgh constituencies" were defined for electing members of parliament. And in part of the 20th century, there were officially designated "large burghs" and "small burghs". Moreover, while some "burghs" by these definitions (e.g., Ayr) are nearly cities, others (e.g., Marywell) were and are not even really a village. Depending on where one looks, one will find quite varying "lists of burghs". So it turns out "burgh" is not a particularly useful distinction. This leaves towns vs. villages, where the distinction is completely arbitrary. One may argue whether there should be an arbitrary population required for a "town" (5,000? 10,000?), or one may argue that it may vary to the scale of the county or a more subjective weight of "importance" rather than strict population. This decision is left to the editorial discretion of anyone who edits these wiki pages. Finally, on the small end, the term "Inhabited place" is used to characterize any identified place that is less than a village. Since so much of Scotland is rural, there were names for individual farms or land holdings, that may have had one or several houses on them, and names for scarcely discernable concentrations of farm houses. These are termed "Inhabited places".
How You Can Help
Note that we have described how the Scotland place pages ideally ought to be. Work is underway to make them match the ideal, but there is much work to be done. If you have any interest in helping that project, please see how you can help.