There are 32 Council Areas, formerly known as counties, in Scotland. From Aberdeenshire and Angus to Stirling and West Lothian, here’s everything you need to know about how many counties there are in Scotland.

From the windswept isles in the north to the Scottish Borders in the south, Scotland is divided into 32 Council Areas, which traditionally, were better known as ‘Counties’.

Historically, Scotland was divided into counties or shires, which played a significant role in the country’s judicial and administrative framework. However, the current picture is markedly different. Since the mid-1990s, Scotland’s local government has undergone substantial changes, leading to the establishment of a system that departs from these historical divisions.

In this article, I delve into the transformation from the old shire-based system to the modern structure of Council Areas, unpacking the historical context and the implications of this transition for understanding Scotland’s current administrative divisions. By tracing this evolution, we gain insight not only into the number and nature of Scotland’s counties but also into the broader narrative of how Scotland has adapted its governance structures to meet the challenges of the modern era.

Keep reading, to discover how many counties there are in Scotland.

How many counties in Scotland?

Scotland is no longer home to ‘Counties’ in the traditional sense, but rather, there are 32 Council Areas, which function as the main administrative divisions. These were established in the 1990s through local government reorganisation. In this respect, it’s important to note that the term ‘county’ is more historical in the context of Scotland, as the traditional counties or shires, which existed before this reorganisation, are no longer used as administrative entities.

Historically, Scotland was divided into counties or shires, similar to other parts of the UK. These counties were established for administrative purposes, mirroring the system in England and Wales, but over time, the administrative structure evolved. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 marked a significant shift, leading to the establishment of regions and districts which altered the traditional county structure.

The modern Council Areas, though occasionally referred to as counties in a colloquial sense, are quite distinct from these historic counties. They were introduced to streamline administration and reflect the contemporary needs of local governance. These council areas vary significantly in size, population, and character, ranging from urban centres like Glasgow and Edinburgh to remote and scenic areas such as the Shetland Islands and the Highlands.

The shift from counties to council areas represents Scotland’s adaptation to changing administrative needs, balancing historical boundaries with modern governance requirements. While the historic counties are remembered and sometimes still used in cultural or geographical references, it’s the council areas that hold significance in today’s governance and public administration in Scotland.

Map of Council Areas in Scotland, from Wikipedia. Map by TUBS.

Read more: How Many Counties in the UK (United Kingdom)?

List of Council Areas in Scotland

Here’s a list of Scotland’s 32 Council Areas:

  1. Aberdeen City
  2. Aberdeenshire
  3. Angus
  4. Argyll and Bute
  5. City of Edinburgh
  6. Clackmannanshire
  7. Dumfries and Galloway
  8. Dundee City
  9. East Ayrshire
  10. East Dunbartonshire
  11. East Lothian
  12. East Renfrewshire
  13. Eilean Siar (Western Isles)
  14. Falkirk
  15. Fife
  16. Glasgow City
  17. Highland
  18. Inverclyde
  19. Midlothian
  20. Moray
  21. North Ayrshire
  22. North Lanarkshire
  23. Orkney Islands
  24. Perth and Kinross
  25. Renfrewshire
  26. Scottish Borders
  27. Shetland Islands
  28. South Ayrshire
  29. South Lanarkshire
  30. Stirling
  31. West Dunbartonshire
  32. West Lothian

Read more: What is the United Kingdom? Everything You Need to Know.

How do Scotland’s Council Areas work?

Scotland’s Council Area system is a key component of the country’s governance structure. It operates within the broader context of the Scottish and UK governments, each with distinct roles and responsibilities.

Here’s an overview of how the system works and its relationship with the wider governance framework:

Scotland’s Council Area System

  • Local Governance: The 32 Council Areas in Scotland are the primary units of local government. Each is governed by a council, elected by residents of the area. These councils are responsible for local services and issues, such as education, social care, roads, planning, and environmental services.
  • Decision-Making and Autonomy: Councils have the authority to make decisions on various local matters. They operate within the legal framework set by the Scottish and UK Parliaments but have discretion over how certain services are delivered and funds are allocated.
  • Funding: Councils are funded through a combination of sources, including the Scottish Government, Council Tax (a local tax levied on households), and fees for certain services.

Relationship with the Scottish Government

  • Devolved Powers: The Scottish Government, established through devolution in the late 1990s, has powers over various areas that directly impact local governance, such as education, health, local government finance, and housing.
  • Legislation and Oversight: The Scottish Parliament passes laws and regulations that affect local councils. It also provides a significant portion of council funding, influencing local government operations.
  • Collaboration and Guidance: Councils often work with Scottish Government agencies on wider policy initiatives, like economic development, public health, and transport.

Relationship with the UK Government

  • Reserved Powers: The UK Parliament retains control over certain areas, known as ‘reserved matters‘. These include defence, foreign policy, immigration, and constitutional matters. While these areas don’t directly involve local councils, they can influence broader policy contexts in which councils operate.
  • Financial Framework: The UK Government influences the overall financial framework of the UK, including Scotland. Decisions on public spending, taxation, and economic policy at the UK level can indirectly affect local government finance in Scotland.
  • Legal Framework: The UK Parliament can pass legislation that affects Scotland, including its local government system, under certain circumstances.

The Council Area system in Scotland is a foundational layer in the country’s governance, interfacing between the local communities’ needs and the broader policy directives from both the Scottish and UK governments. This multi-tiered system ensures that governance in Scotland is responsive at different levels, from local to national.

Map of the United Kingdom, with Scotland in the north.

Read more: How Many Counties in Northern Ireland? Everything You Need to Know.

A history of Scotland and its counties

Scotland’s history of local government, particularly its ‘county system’, has evolved significantly over centuries, reflecting broader social and political changes. Here’s a brief history of Scotland and its counties:

Early history and formation of shires

The origins of Scotland’s counties, or shires, can be traced back to the medieval period. Initially, these divisions were primarily judicial districts. By the 12th and 13th centuries, the concept of a shire, under the jurisdiction of a sheriff, was well-established in Scotland. Shires were used for judicial purposes, land registration, and eventually, local administration.

18th and 19th century developments

The shires remained relatively stable, but their functions expanded over time. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution and population growth prompted the need for improved local governance. Shires began to play a more significant role in local administration, dealing with issues like public health, infrastructure, and education.

20th-century reorganisation

The most significant changes to Scotland’s county system occurred in the 20th century. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889 formally acknowledged the counties as administrative units, replacing the shire system. However, by the mid-20th century, it became clear that a more comprehensive reorganisation was needed to address modern administrative challenges.

1975 local government reorganisation

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 marked a major overhaul. Effective from 1975, it replaced the traditional counties with regions and districts. This reorganisation aimed to streamline local government and make it more efficient. The regions and districts system brought in larger administrative units, which could handle modern services more effectively.

Introduction of Council Areas in 1996

The most recent major change came with the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. Effective from 1996, this act abolished the regions and districts and introduced the current system of 32 unitary council areas. These areas are responsible for all local government functions, a move intended to simplify the administrative structure and bring local governance closer to the people.

How many counties in scotland
The flag of Scotland.

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What were the historic counties of Scotland?

The historic counties of Scotland, established over centuries before the modern local government reorganisations, played a significant role in the country’s administrative and cultural history.

These counties were often used for judicial and administrative purposes, as well as land registration. Here is a list of the traditional counties, as they were known before the major reorganisations of the 20th century:

  1. Aberdeenshire
  2. Angus (Forfarshire)
  3. Argyll
  4. Ayrshire
  5. Banffshire
  6. Berwickshire
  7. Bute
  8. Caithness
  9. Clackmannanshire
  10. Cromartyshire
  11. Dumfriesshire
  12. Dunbartonshire (Dumbarton)
  13. East Lothian (Haddingtonshire)
  14. Fife
  15. Inverness-shire
  16. Kincardineshire
  17. Kinross-shire
  18. Kirkcudbrightshire
  19. Lanarkshire
  20. Midlothian (Edinburghshire)
  21. Moray (Elginshire)
  22. Nairnshire
  23. Orkney
  24. Peeblesshire
  25. Perthshire
  26. Renfrewshire
  27. Ross-shire
  28. Roxburghshire
  29. Selkirkshire
  30. Shetland (Zetland)
  31. Stirlingshire
  32. Sutherland
  33. West Lothian (Linlithgowshire)
  34. Wigtownshire

These counties were known for their distinct identities, histories, and local cultures. They were used for a variety of purposes, including local administration, legal jurisdictions, and electoral arrangements. While the modern council areas have replaced these counties in terms of administrative functions, the historic counties continue to hold cultural and historical significance in Scotland. They are often still used in cultural references and for geographical purposes.

A historic map of Scotland showing the counties as they were in 1847. Map by XrysD.

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What’s the capital of Scotland?

Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is a city steeped in history and culture. Renowned for its striking architecture, Edinburgh seamlessly blends its medieval Old Town and elegant Georgian New Town, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Perched on an ancient volcanic rock, overseeing the city’s sprawling landscape, the city’s skyline is dominated by Edinburgh Castle. As the seat of the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh plays a crucial role in the political life of the country, symbolising Scotland’s blend of historical tradition and contemporary governance.

Beyond politics, Edinburgh is a hub of Scottish culture. It hosts the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, drawing artists and audiences from around the globe. The city is also famous for its literary heritage, being the birthplace of numerous renowned authors and designated as the first UNESCO City of Literature.

Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Photo by Connor Mollison on Unsplash.

How many counties are in the United Kingdom?

The concept of counties in the United Kingdom is complex, largely due to the different systems in place across its four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Each country has its approach to counties or county-equivalent administrative units:

  • England: England is divided into 48 ceremonial counties, which are also known as geographic counties. In terms of administrative divisions, there are various types, including 27 non-metropolitan counties, 6 metropolitan counties, and unitary authorities. The number of administrative counties changes with local government reorganisations.
  • Scotland: As previously discussed, Scotland has 32 Council Areas, which function as the primary administrative divisions. The traditional concept of counties is no longer used for administrative purposes.
  • Wales: Wales has 22 principal areas, which serve as the local government units. These include county boroughs, cities, and counties.
  • Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland is divided into 11 districts for local government purposes. Historically, it was divided into six counties, but these are no longer used for administrative purposes.
Map of the UK’s constituent counties. England in red, Wales in green, Scotland in blue and Northern Ireland in yellow.

Read more: How Many Counties in England? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Scotland a sovereign nation?

Scotland is not a sovereign country; it is part of the United Kingdom, which is a sovereign state. The United Kingdom (UK) comprises four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each of these has a distinct culture, legal system, and identity, but they share sovereignty at the international level as part of the UK.

In terms of governance, Scotland has a significant degree of legislative power through the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, which were established following a referendum on devolution in 1997. This devolved arrangement allows Scotland to exercise a wide range of powers independently of the UK Parliament, particularly in areas like education, health, environment, and justice. However, certain key areas such as defence, foreign affairs, and immigration remain under the control of the UK Parliament.

The relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK is a subject of ongoing political discussion, including debates over the possibility of Scottish independence. While Scotland has a strong national identity and a degree of political autonomy, for now, it remains constitutionally part of the United Kingdom.

Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Jörg Angeli on Unsplash.

Read more: What are the British Isles? Everything You Need to Know.

So, how many counties are in Scotland?

The concept of counties in Scotland has evolved significantly over time, transitioning from the historical shires to the modern system of council areas. While the traditional counties, with their deep historical roots, played an essential role in Scotland’s past governance and cultural identity, today’s administrative structure comprises 32 council areas, established to meet contemporary administrative needs.

These council areas, each with its unique characteristics and governance challenges, reflect the diverse geographical and cultural landscape of Scotland. They serve as the fundamental units of local government, handling a range of services and responsibilities crucial to the daily lives of residents.

This evolution from counties to council areas illustrates Scotland’s adaptive approach to governance, balancing the preservation of historical identities with the practicalities of efficient and effective modern administration. Therefore, in the context of current administration and governance, Scotland is divided into 32 council areas, marking a significant shift from its historical county system.

Read more: How Many Counties are in Wales? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: How many counties are in Scotland?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many counties in Scotland?’:

Q1. Does Scotland have counties?

Historically, yes. Scotland was divided into counties or shires up until the late 20th century. However, for current administrative purposes, these traditional counties have been replaced by council areas.

Q2. What replaced the counties in Scotland?

The traditional counties were replaced by 32 council areas in 1996, following local government reorganization. These council areas now serve as the main administrative divisions in Scotland.

Q3. Can you name some of the historic counties of Scotland?

Some historic counties of Scotland include Aberdeenshire, Lanarkshire, Midlothian, Ayrshire, and Fife. There were many others, each with its unique history and identity.

Q4. Are the historic counties still used for anything?

While they no longer serve administrative functions, the historic counties are often remembered for cultural, genealogical, and geographical references. They remain a part of Scotland’s rich historical narrative.

Q5. How do the current Council Areas differ from the historic counties?

Council Areas are modern administrative units created to streamline governance and provide local services efficiently. They differ in terms of boundaries and governance structures compared to the historic counties.

Q6. Do the Council Areas have the same boundaries as the historic counties?

No, the boundaries of the Council Areas do not necessarily align with those of the historic counties. The Council Areas were designed with contemporary administrative needs in mind, which led to different boundary configurations.

Q7. How often are the boundaries of Council Areas reviewed?

The boundaries of Council Areas can be reviewed and adjusted, though this is not a frequent occurrence. Changes are usually made to address specific administrative or local needs.

Q8. Can you still find references to the historic counties in Scotland today?

Yes, references to the historic counties can be found in historical texts, genealogical records, and in some cultural or heritage contexts.

Q9. How are the Council Areas governed?

Each Council Area is governed by an elected council, responsible for local services like education, social care, planning, and infrastructure. These councils operate within the framework of Scottish law.

Q10. How do the Council Areas fit into the wider UK administrative structure?

Council Areas are specific to Scotland and operate under the devolved Scottish Government. They form the local government layer within Scotland’s political framework, which in turn is part of the broader United Kingdom governance system.