Prior to 1975, there were 37 counties covering Scotland, including counties of city comprising each of the four major cities. The counties were all-purpose authorities responsible for a wide range of services. Outside the counties of city, the counties contained 21 large burghs, which had a wide range of functions and were generally independent of the counties, and 176 small burghs which had limited powers including housing, but were generally serviced by the counties, although independent of them. The remaining area of the counties was divided into 196 districts with very limited powers (also known as landward districts). These administrative units had been largely unchanged since 1889, with the distinction between large and small burghs dating from the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929 when the criterion used was that a large burgh had a population of more than 20,000.
By the 1960s there was general agreement that the system of local government in Scotland was in need of reform. The Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, chaired by Lord Wheatley, was appointed in 1966 and reported in 1969. In its report, the Wheatley Commission recommended a two-tier structure of local government in Scotland. As a result, a system of 9 Regions, 53 Districts and 3 Islands Areas (Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles) was introduced by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. The councils for the new local government areas took up their responsibilities on 16 May 1975, and the counties, burghs and landward districts ceased to exist from that date.
Today's Scottish local government structure was the result of reorganisation in 1996, the legislative basis for which was the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994. The 1996 reorganisation resulted in the 9 regions and 53 districts being abolished, although the geographic extent of the 3 island councils remained unchanged. The district councils and regional councils were replaced with 29 single tier (or unitary) bodies to provide a more economic, cohesive, accountable and effective system.