Shire (/ʃaɪər/, also /ʃɪər/) is a traditional term for an administrative division of land in Great Britain and some other English-speaking countries such as Australia and the United States. It is generally synonymous with county. It was first used in Wessex from the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement, and spread to most of the rest of England in the tenth century. In some rural parts of Australia, a shire is a local government area; however, in Australia, it is not synonymous with a "county", which is a lands administrative division.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions locations ending or beginning with 'scire' or 'scira'.

The word shire derives from the Old English sćir, from the Proto-Germanic *skizo (Old High German: sćira), denoting an 'official charge' a 'district under a governor', and a 'care'.[1] In the UK, shire became synonymous with county, an administrative term introduced to England through the Norman Conquest in the later part of the eleventh century. In contemporary British usage, the word counties also refers to shires, mainly in places such as Shire Hall.[2]

In regions with rhotic pronunciation, such as Scotland, the word shire is pronounced /ʃaɪər/; in areas of non-rhotic pronunciation, the final R is silent, unless the next word begins in a vowel sound. In England and Wales, when shire is a place-name suffix, the vowel is unstressed and usually shortened (monophthongized); the pronunciations include /ʃər/ and /ʃɪər/, with the final R pronunciation depending on rhoticity. The vowel is normally reduced to a single schwa, as in Leicestershire /ˈlɛstərʃər/ or /ˈlɛstərʃɪər/ and Berkshire /ˈbɑːrkʃər/ or /ˈbɑːrkʃɪər/.[3]


The system was first used in the kingdom of Wessex from the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement, and spread to most of the rest of England in the tenth century, along with the West Saxon kingdom's political domination. In Domesday (1086) the city of York was divided into shires.[4] The first shires of Scotland were created in English-settled areas such as Lothian and the Borders, in the ninth century. King David I more consistently created shires and appointed sheriffs across lowland shores of Scotland.

The shire in early days was governed by an ealdorman and in the later Anglo-Saxon period by a royal official known as a "shire reeve" or sheriff. The shires were divided into hundreds or wapentakes, although other less common sub-divisions existed. An alternative name for a shire was a "sheriffdom" until sheriff court reforms separated the two concepts. The phrase "shire county" applies, unofficially, to non-metropolitan counties in England, specifically those that are not local unitary authority areas. In Scotland the word "county" was not adopted for the shires. Although "county" appears in some texts, "shire" was the normal name until counties for statutory purposes were created in the nineteenth century. In Ireland "shire" was not used for the counties.

In most cases, the "shire town" is the seat of the shire's government, or was historically. Sometimes the nomenclature exists even where "county" is used in place of "shire" as in, for instance, Kentville in Nova Scotia.[5]

Shires in Australia

"Shire" is the most common word in Australia for rural local government areas (LGAs). New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia, use the term "shire" for this unit; the territories of the Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are also shires. In contrast, South Australia uses district and region for its rural LGA units, while Tasmania uses municipality. Shires are generally functionally indistinguishable from towns, boroughs, municipalities, or cities.

Three LGAs in outer metropolitan Sydney and four in outer metropolitan Melbourne have populations exceeding that of towns or municipalities, but retain significant bushlands and/or semi-rural areas, and most have continued to use "shire" in their titles whilst others have dropped it from theirs. These "city-shires" are:



Shires in the United Kingdom

"Shire" also refers, in a narrower sense, to ancient counties with names that ended in "shire". These counties are typically (though not always) named after their county town. The suffix -shire is attached to most of the names of English, Scottish and Welsh counties. It tends not to be found in the names of shires that were pre-existing divisions. Essex, Kent, and Sussex, for example, have never borne a -shire, as each represents a former Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Similarly Cornwall was a British kingdom before it became an English county. The term "shire" is not used in the names of the six traditional counties of Northern Ireland.

The historic counties of England — red indicates "-shire" counties, orange indicates where the "-shire" suffix is occasionally used

Shire names in England

Counties in England bearing the "-shire" suffix comprise: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire. These counties, on their historical boundaries, cover a little more than half the area of England. The counties that do not use "-shire" are mainly in three areas, in the south-east, south-west and far north of England. Several of these counties no longer exist as administrative units, or have had their administrative boundaries reduced by local government reforms. Several of the successor authorities retain the "-shire" county names, such as North Yorkshire, East Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and South Gloucestershire.

The county of Devon was historically known as Devonshire, although this is no longer the official name.[6] Indeed, it was retained by the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment until amalgamation in 2007. Similarly, Dorset, Rutland and Somerset were formerly known as Dorsetshire, Rutlandshire and Somersetshire, but these terms are no longer official, and are rarely used outside the local populations.

Hexhamshire was a county in the north-east of England from the early 12th century until 1572, when it was incorporated into Northumberland.

Shire names in Scotland

In Scotland, barely affected by the Norman conquest of England, the word "shire" prevailed over "county" until the 19th century. Earliest sources have the same usage of the "-shire" suffix as in England (though in Scots this was oftenmost "schyr"). Later the "Shire" appears as a separate word.

"Shire" names in Scotland comprise Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Banffshire, Berwickshire, Clackmannanshire, Cromartyshire, Dumfriesshire, Dunbartonshire, Inverness-shire, Kincardineshire, Kinross-shire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Lanarkshire, Morayshire, Nairnshire, Peeblesshire, Perthshire, Renfrewshire, Ross-shire, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire, Stirlingshire, and Wigtownshire.

In Scotland four shires have alternative names with the "-shire" suffix: Angus (Forfarshire), East Lothian (Haddingtonshire), Midlothian (Edinburghshire) and West Lothian (Linlithgowshire).

Sutherland is occasionally still referred to as Sutherlandshire. Similarly, Argyllshire, Buteshire, Caithness-shire and Fifeshire are sometimes found. Also, Morayshire was previously called Elginshire. There is debate about whether Argyllshire was ever really used.

Shire names in Wales

Shires in Wales bearing the "-shire" suffix (Sir preceding the name in Welsh) comprise: Brecknockshire (or Breconshire), Caernarfonshire (historically Carnarvonshire), Cardiganshire (in Welsh- Ceredigion), Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, and Radnorshire. In Wales, the counties of Merioneth and Glamorgan are occasionally referred to with the "shire" suffix. The only traditional Welsh county that never takes "shire" in English is Anglesey; in Welsh it is referred to as 'Sir Fôn'.

Non-county "shires"

The suffix "-shire" could be a generalised term referring to a district. It did not acquire the strong association with county until later. Other than these, the term was used for several other districts. Bedlingtonshire, Craikshire, Norhamshire and Islandshire were exclaves of County Durham, which were incorporated into Northumberland or Yorkshire in 1844. The suffix was also used for many hundreds, wapentakes and liberties such as Allertonshire, Blackburnshire, Halfshire, Howdenshire, Leylandshire, Powdershire, Pydarshire, Richmondshire, Riponshire, Salfordshire, Triggshire, Tynemouthshire, West Derbyshire and Wivelshire, counties corporate such as Hullshire, and other districts such as Applebyshire, Bamburghshire, Bunkleshire, Carlisleshire, Coldinghamshire, Coxwoldshire, Cravenshire, Hallamshire, Mashamshire and Yetholmshire. Richmondshire was until 2023 the name of a local government district of North Yorkshire.

Non-county shires were very common in Scotland. Kinross-shire and Clackmannanshire are arguably survivals from such districts. Non-county "shires" in Scotland include Bunkleshire, Coldinghamshire and Yetholmshire.

"The Shires"

Colloquially, the term "the Shires" has become used to refer to those counties, particularly of the southern Midlands, which are still largely rural and which are stereotypically thought of as being where a more bucolic lifestyle is possible.[7]

Shires in the United States

New York and New England

Before the Province of New York was granted county subdivisions and a greater royal presence in 1683, the early ducal colony consisted of York Shire, as well as Albany and Ulster, after the three titles held by Prince James: Duke of York, Duke of Albany, Earl of Ulster. While these were basically renamed Dutch core settlements, they were quickly converted to English purposes, while the Dutch remained within the colony, as opposed to later practice of the Acadian Expulsion. Further Anglo-Dutch synthesis occurred when Prince James enacted the Dominion of New England and later when William III of England took over through the Glorious Revolution.

The word also survives in the name of the state of New Hampshire, whose co-founder, John Mason, named his Province of New Hampshire after the English county of Hampshire.

Vermont has 14 counties – each has one county seat or Shire, except the Shire Towns of Southwestern Vermont where there is a South Shire – Bennington and a North Shire – Manchester.


In 1634, eight "shires" were created in the Virginia Colony by order of Charles I, King of England. They were renamed as counties only a few years later. They were:

Today, the concept of a "Shire" still exists in Virginia code. It is defined as a semi-autonomous subdivision of a consolidated City-County. Currently no Shires exist in the commonwealth and the administrative provision is largely unknown. [8]

See also


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Shire". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 18 July 2021.
  2. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1991) C.T. Onions, Ed., p. 821.
  3. ^ The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1991) C.T. Onions, Ed., p. 821.
  4. ^ Gareth Dean, Medieval York 2008:21.
  5. ^ Coleman, Ed (19 May 2015). "How Kentville became the shiretown". Annapolis Valley Register. SaltWire. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  6. ^ " Home Page". Archived from the original on 3 June 2016.
  7. ^ Cambridge Dictionary definition
  8. ^ "§ 15.2-3534. Optional provisions of consolidation agreement". Retrieved 5 October 2021.
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