Podcast: Inspiration from the Archives, with ES Thomson

Crime and Punishment: How Archives Can Inspire Fiction, with Dr Elaine Thomson.

Rogues podcast outline

In this week’s Open Book Podcast ES Thomson, author of “The Peachgrowers’ Almanac”, “Beloved Poison”, “Dark Asylum” and others, tells us how archives have inspired her and how the stories of real people from the past can help to develop and inform creative writing.

Elaine looks at some of the strange and remarkable case papers from 19th century Scottish courts she’s found in the NRS archives that inspired elements of her own fiction, including a man transported to Australia for the pettiest of thefts; a bodysnatching medical student with parental issues and a particularly tragic case involving the murder of a newborn infant.

Elaine’s talk is a great introduction to records held by National Records of Scotland and an insight into forgotten stories of a bygone era, whether you’re a budding writer yourself or just have an interest in crime, records or Victoriana.

Find out how to access historical papers from the criminal courts, along with a huge range of other records, at the NRS website.

Open Book, the National Records of Scotland Podcast, is now available to download via iTunes.

Recorded on 20 November 2017 at General Register House, Edinburgh.

Pastures New: Scottish Emigration to Australia

It is common knowledge that Australia was originally treated as a penal colony by the British Empire. In May 1787 the first fleet of convict ships set sail from England and arrived in Botany Bay some 8 months later in January 1788.

As a punishment for persistent offenders – most commonly crimes of housebreaking, theft or forgery – it is estimated that between 1787 and 1868, 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia. A mere 5% of these were Scottish, nearly 7600 people. However this first transportation would later hinder the settlement of Australia by free men and their families, as in the early years convicts greatly outnumbered free settlers.

The large number of convicts, along with other disincentives – such as the long and hazardous journey, the extreme expense, and the unknown nature of Australia to those in Scotland – meant that it was difficult to break the long tradition of Scottish emigration to Canada. However, Australia was in desperate need of labour and it quickly became clear that only through some form of assisted emigration, that this demand would be met.

This demand for labour, coinciding with political unrest in Canada, resulted in Scots being squeezed out of the home labour market by industrial or agricultural improvement, and the development of societies and schemes to aid with emigration, helped to turn the tide. Encouraged by the lure of higher wages, better working conditions and the prospect of marriage or of owning land, many Scots decided to make the long journey to Australia as economic migrants.

Government poster providing ‘General Information for Intending Emigrants’ to Canada, Australasia and South Africa (National Records of Scotland, AF51/91)

The McCrackens

Robert McCracken (born March 1813) and his brother Peter (born Feb 1818) were members of  a large family of seven brothers and three sisters whose descendants had moved to Ayrshire in the southwest of Scotland from the parish of New Luce, Galloway in the 18th century. Their father Robert (1770-1831), was the tenant farmer of Ardwell, and his brother William farmed a few miles away at Auchencrosh near Ballantrae.

The McCrackens had benefitted from an ongoing process, discernible throughout the Scottish Lowlands from the 1760s, in the emergence of larger, economically more effective farms. But this resulted in a decline in the number of available tenancies, thus increasing the likelihood that several of the next generation of the McCrackens would have to seek employment elsewhere.

Among the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) collections are papers relating to the McCracken family, GD533, which include Peter McCracken’s journal detailing the voyage to Australia and genealogical research by Coiler McCracken (Peter McCracken’s son). Through these papers we have a unique insight into members of the McCracken family’s experience of travelling, and of the situation in the Australian colony.

“I attended school for several years at Girvan and then went for 7 months to Ayr Academy. On returning from which in 1835 I filled my brother Robert’s place…on the farm, and remained with the family, sometimes doing a little in cattle and now and again offering for a farm none of which I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get. In 1839 I began to think of going out to Australia but my mother being much against it, it got no further than talk.

…on the 11th Feb[ruar]y our dear mother and only parent was dangerously struck with paralysis from which she never recovered…

Immediately after the death of my mother I began to think seriously of starting for Australia – and during the Spring leaving made up my mind to go. I wrote to brother Robert (who was in Manchester) regarding a passage & he not being in good health resolved to go along with me.”

(Extract from ‘Events in the Life of Peter McCracken and of the family to which he belonged – copied from his own writing by his son Coiler McCracken on September 1st 1888. GD533/4/12)

Peter McCracken made the long trip to Australia to seek his fortune. Through Robert McCracken’s journal we get a colourful insight into the difficulties of the journey.

“We had plenty to eat although not of the finest quality. It is no easy matter to chew sea biscuit for four months yet still I got quite stout on it. We had also plenty to drink, except water.

There was a strange medley of passengers, and nearly all of them towns people. They were mostly proud enough, but I believe also mostly poor enough…

There was a great deal of drinking on board, and in our mess there were three confirmed drunkards. One Sabbath afternoon there were no fewer than six drunk, one of them a woman, she and one of the men fell down the companion ladder, which helped to sober them a little, and where there is drinking there is sure to be quarrelling. Sometimes they were for Pistolling each other but they could never screw their courage to the point. Peter and I managed to keep friends with them all, but were often troubled with arbitrations, which was far from pleasant.”

(Extract from Robert McCracken’s journal of the voyage from Liverpool to Victoria, Australia, on board the ‘Nimrod’, 1840-1841. GD533/4/4)

Peter and Robert arrived in Melbourne in January 1841. They were not the only emigrants from their family. Their younger brother, Alexander Earle, followed in 1850, although he returned to Scotland several years later. Initially, the McCracken brothers barely made ends meet, however they persisted with their endeavour. The brothers, in partnership with their brother-in-law, James Robertson, went on to establish a brewery. The initial yield of this brewery, was small, making only 4 barrels of beer per brew. However, good business acumen and a willingness to embrace new methods and techniques led to the company’s success.

Robert ‘tied’ publicans to his brewery, securing a guaranteed buyer for their beer. This coupled with the steady improvement of the product, the regular provision of their beer accompanied by large quantities of wine, tobacco and sweets at a discount, made them a reliable supplier that could meet the demand of thirsty settlers.

By 1861 James Robertson was able to retire a wealthy man, after which the brewery traded as R. McCracken and Co, until 8 May 1907 when it became part of Carlton and United Breweries.

Education Workshops

NRS - Outreach and Learning - Migration and Empire Workshop - 29 January 2018
Migration and Empire Workshop in New Register House. Head of Learning, Tessa Spencer, addressing Webster High School Students

The remarkable story of the McCracken family held in our records has formed the basis for one of our educational workshops, led by our new Head of Learning Tessa Spencer.

New Register House Dome (National Records of Scotland, Crown Copyright)

Recently NRS was delighted to welcome a Higher History class from Webster’s High School into New Register House for a workshop on ‘Migration and the Empire’. This learning activity looked at both primary and secondary sources, and explored the McCracken correspondence and journals alongside published accounts of their lives. We asked the students to examine what the information presented revealed about the McCrackens’ experience  and to consider the push and pull factors of emigration, the development of the colony on Australia, and the different perspectives offered by personal and published accounts.

For more information about NRS’ education workshops please see the ‘Services for Schools’ section of our website.

For more information about records relating to migration held in NRS and other archives see our ‘Emigration Records’.

Jocelyn Grant


National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

The Emigrants. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimiles, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

The Scots in Australia. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimile, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

Australian Dictionary of Biography, McCracken, Robert (1813-1885)

Scotland’s Census 2021 – Homeless People Count

Sophie and Anna2With planning for the next census in 2021 well underway at National Records of Scotland, our Statistical Futures team are focussed on understanding the needs of our users, data users and respondents.

As part of our preparations, Sophie Davies and Anna Krakowska from the Enumeration team have been engaging with groups and organisations that work with homeless people, as well as with people who are currently or formerly homeless, to better understand their needs and any barriers to participation.

Sophie and Anna have met and held workshops with Fresh Start, Cyrenians, Crisis and Rowan Alba, as well as with Homeless Action Scotland, Edinburgh Council Housing Support Services and Heriot Watt University.  In the course of their research, Sophie and Anna also visited Edinburgh’s only homeless shelter, run by Bethany Christian Trust.

These discussions have inspired a strategic rethink for counting homeless people in Scotland during the 2021 Census. The data from the census in 2011 estimated that there were 98 people homeless or sleeping rough in Scotland, whereas Heriot-Watt researchers estimated there are currently around 600.

The Enumeration team is therefore designing and developing a detailed, tailored enumeration strategy, in collaboration with key stakeholders, to help improve data collected on homeless people in 2021.

The success of Scotland’s Census 2021 will require the continued support and contribution of many groups and organisations.  Sophie and Anna’s work is helping to ensure that the next census will provide valuable and high quality data.

Scotlands Census 2021 - Data Collection - Enumeration - Delivery Model - New

For further information on Scotland’s Census 2021, and to keep up to date with all the latest news, you can sign up to our newsletter or visit the Scotland’s Census website.

Open Book Podcast – Episode One


This is the first episode of the Open Book Podcast, a new series of talks and discussions from National Records of Scotland dedicated to preserving Scotland’s past, recording the present and informing our future.

We kick off with a talk given by Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, on Scotland’s most famous poet and lyricist – Robert Burns.

Centered on recently identified documents at the National Records of Scotland, Gerard’s talk discusses Burns’ place in the Excise Service during revolutionary times.

Was the poet a willing government employee or was he a reluctant, neutered individual, deliberately de-barbed by the powers that be? What were the cultural and intellectual contexts afforded to Burns as a civil servant? What kind of relationships did he have with Excise colleagues and how did his career intersect with his creative and family lives?

Following the French Revolution and the Excise Service enquiry into the poet’s political beliefs, Gerard discusses the nature of Burns’ views and how these were expressed during the turbulent 1790s.

Our exhibition Robert Burns: Radical Exciseman is free to visit on weekdays at General Register House, Edinburgh, between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm until 23 February 2018.

You can find extracts from the letters on display, to which Gerard refers, below.

Burns Letter 1 compressed

“He stood, with Eyes & hands, directed upwards, in an attitude Poetically fancifull”…

Letter from John Mitchell, Collector of Excise, to Robert Graham of Fintry, Commissioner of Excise, 6 August 1789 (National Records of Scotland, GD151/11/26/35A)


Burns Letter 4 compressed
“He had certainly many shining qualities, blended with foibles of various kinds, the most irreconcileable whereof were his political principles, which somehow unluckily was rooted, & proves now a drawback to the humane feelings of many, but such a Genious as he possessed behoved to have eccentricities of some kind or other”.
Letter from John Mitchell, Collector of Excise, to Robert Graham of Fintry, Commissioner of Excise, 2 September 1796 (National Records of Scotland, GD151/11/26/47A)

Recording and images Crown Copyright 2018.

“D Day” 1971 – All Change

Our archivists have retrieved some items from the NRS archives to mark the 47th anniversary of decimalisation in the UK on 15 February.

The first is a still from the film “All Change”, produced in colour in 1969 by World Wide Pictures Ltd. for the Central Office of Information, on behalf of the Decimal Currency Board.

Decimalisation All Change
“All Change”, 1969 – British Official Photograph: Crown Copyright Reserved.  Issued for British Information Services by Photographs Division, Central Office of Information, London.


The film gave shopkeepers across the UK a preview of how retail trading would look soon after “D Day” – 15 February 1971 – when Britain was to officially move to decimal currency. The film explained what “going decimal” meant; what its benefits would be and why early planning was needed.

In this scene, it’s explained that three halves of bitter will cost twenty one new pence.

We’ve also photographed pages from the booklet “New Money In Your Shop”, issued by the Decimal Currency Board in 1969.

Decimalisation Booklet 2

Decimalisation Booklet 1
“New Money In Your Shop”: Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland.

Everyone is now familiar with decimalised currency but since most readers will be far too young to remember pre-decimal days, we’ve included the most straightforward summary of “old money” in the UK, as found in the 1990 novel Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman:

“One shilling = Five Pee… Two Farthings = One Ha’Penny. Two Ha’pennies = One Penny. Three Pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 Pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

“The British resisted decimalised currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated”.

Home From The Front

National Records of Scotland holds a wealth of military records from many conflicts dating back to the start of the seventeenth century. As these records sometimes reach us in a disorganised state, our archivists catalogue them to make them more accessible to the public.

We recently began a project to catalogue First World War Pensions Appeal records. This project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will catalogue and conserve fascinating documents that have until now been an untapped resource for many genealogists, medical historians and other researchers.

This series contains the pension appeal applications for around thirty thousand Scottish servicemen who suffered from injuries sustained during the war, or who died afterwards from associated illnesses and conditions.

Before cataloguing began, searching these records was very difficult. The appeals are organised in 288 boxes, arranged alphabetically by month from November 1919 to December 1932. This means that, in order to locate records, you must first know when a claim was heard by the Appeals Tribunal. As this information wasn’t recorded anywhere, researchers have had to trawl through hundreds of records!

We began cataloguing work before Christmas and have now reached the milestone of 1000 records. Over the next two years, we’ll add these records to a custom-built, publicly accessible database. We’ll also re-house them in specially designed folders and boxes, and will highlight conservation issues.

Once completed, our new database will make searching the Tribunal records much easier, as it is searchable across all the fields, including those listed below:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Age
  • Service Number
  • Regiment and Rank
  • Medical Conditions
  • Notes of interest

We’ll also add Medical Subject Heading Codes to each record to describe the medical history of each applicant. These are commonly used by medical historians, as they standardise terminology.

Although we’ve so far only dipped a toe in these records, we’ve already uncovered some visceral and poignant personal stories.

The records are currently closed to the public for cataloguing but we hope that after the project is complete, we can help to ensure that the stories and sacrifices of Scotland’s First World War servicemen are not forgotten.

Lynn Bruce & Olivia Howarth

Project cataloguers, WW1 Pension Appeals Project

National Records of Scotland

Records & Responsibilities

Food StandardsIn December, the Keeper of the Records of Scotland (the Keeper) agreed the Records Management Plan (RMP) of Food Standards Scotland.

This was the 207th RMP to be agreed by the Keeper but more significantly, it was the first RMP agreed for an authority which didn’t appear on the original Schedule of the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011.

The Act, which came into force on 1 January 2013, requires public authorities listed on the Schedule to create a RMP detailing the records management arrangements within those authorities.

Records management is the systematic control of an organisation’s records, throughout their life cycle, in order to meet operational business needs, statutory and fiscal requirements, and community expectations.

Effective management of corporate information allows fast, accurate and reliable access to records, ensuring the timely destruction of redundant information and the identification and protection of vital and historically important records.

Food Standards Scotland was established by the Food (Scotland) Act 2015 to make sure that food is safe to eat, to ensure consumers know what they are eating and to improve nutrition.

Elspeth Macdonald, Deputy Chief Executive at Food Standards Scotland said:

“Food Standards Scotland is pleased that the Keeper of the Records of Scotland has agreed our Records Management Plan. It was a real team effort within the organisation in developing the RMP, which demonstrates we have the necessary arrangements in place to efficiently manage information and records.

“As a relatively new organisation, we’re delighted to have achieved this. We’re committed to ensuring everyone plays their part in carrying out the plan across the organisation”.

You can find out more about how NRS helps public authorities to manage their records at our website.



Criminal case papers brought to life by University students

This Saturday, 3rd February, legal students from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee will be delving almost 130 years into the past and, using High Court and Crown Office archive records held by the NRS, will stage a mock trial of a notorious Dundee crime which resulted in the city’s last ever execution.

William_Henry_Bury (public domain - Dundee Courier, 12 Feb 1889)
William Bury (Dundee Courier, 12 Feb 1889)

William Bury was accused of the brutal murder of his wife, Ellen, and the trial was heavily reliant on the medical evidence presented by both prosecution and defence. This evidence, which is preserved in the trial papers, resulted in the jury returning a somewhat reluctant and controversial guilty verdict.


One important point of distinction centred around whether Ellen had taken her own life and her husband had concealed the body out of fear of being accused of the act, or whether William Bury had strangled Ellen and then concealed the body. The medical evidence was presented with markedly different interpretations by the doctors who examined the body.  Two of them determined that Ellen had been murdered.  However, a third doctor claimed, in a 14-page report, that the evidence pointed to Ellen having taken her own life.

As well as being the last man hanged in Dundee, Bury has the dubious notoriety of also

NRS Precognition and Trial Records: JC26/1889/15/4, JC26/1889/15/10, and AD14/89/160/1

being a suspect in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, although the murder of his wife was the only conviction brought against him.


Professor Dame Sue Black, Director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, said that the event would have been impossible to stage without the records preserved here in the archives.   These records, along with contemporary newspaper reports, will allow students from Aberdeen University (for the defence) to re-examine the medical evidence, and seek to persuade a new jury that today’s forensic science standards may justify a different verdict.

The event will be held at Dundee Sheriff Court and will be live-streamed on Dan Snow’s HistoryHit TV online History Channel. Live tweets will also keep interested members of the public up to date on the trial as it progresses.  It will be fascinating to see whether 130 year old medical evidence will still ‘stand up in court’ after all this time.

The mock trial is being staged as part of the celebrations to mark the 130th anniversary of the establishment of the Cox Chair of Anatomy at the University of Dundee and more details about the event can be found on their website.


Kirsteen Mulhern, Archivist

Life expectancy in Scottish areas

How does where you live affect your lifespan?

In September, NRS published life expectancy estimates which showed that a boy born in Scotland in 2014-2016 could expect to live until he was 77 years old and a girl could expect to live until she was 81 years old. Today NRS publish life expectancy in Scottish areas. These estimates show how life expectancy in different places within Scotland differs from the national figures.

We always report life expectancy separately for males and females, as women consistently outlive men. This is something which is seen not just in Scotland but all over the world in every country and population.

Between the 32 council areas in Scotland, life expectancy differs by as much as 7 years for men and 4.7 years for women. A baby boy who was born between 2014-2016 could expect to live until he was 80.3 years old if he was born in Orkney Islands. If however he was born in Glasgow City, he could only expect to reach 73.4 years old.

A baby girl on the other hand could expect to live for 83.5 years if she were born in East Renfrewshire or East Dunbartonshire, but if she were born in nearby West Dunbartonshire, she could expect to live for 78.8 years.

Enter your council area on this interactive visualisation to find out how life expectancy at birth compares to other council areas or to Scotland as a whole.

So why do we see such a difference in life expectancy across Scotland? One answer might lie in how urban or rural the area is that people live in. The Scottish Government’s ‘Urban-Rural 6 fold classification’ [*1] is a system that classifies small areas into six groups depending on the number of people living there and the distance from larger towns.

In the ‘Life Expectancy in Scottish Areas’ publication, NRS compare life expectancy for people who live in the different urban-rural areas. Both males and females live longer in more rural areas compared to more urban areas. There are many possible reasons for this, for example, air pollution is much lower in rural areas, meaning that people are less likely to develop diseases in their lungs and airways. It is also possible that people in the countryside have more active lifestyles, resulting in lower incidences of heart disease and obesity related diseases.

Blog life expectancy 1
Females could expect to live 2 years longer in ‘Remote Rural’ areas than in ‘Large Urban’ areas. Males are expected to live 3.6 years longer in ‘Accessible Rural’ areas than in ‘Large Urban’ areas.


The ‘Life Expectancy in Scottish Areas’ publication also reports on how deprivation affects life expectancy. To do this, NRS statisticians use the Scottish Government’s ‘Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation’ [*2] (SIMD) which gives each small area across Scotland a rank depending on how they score on a series of deprivation measures (i.e. access to health care, employment, income and housing availability amongst others). NRS divides these small areas into five groups based on their SIMD score and calculates life expectancy for these groups (known as quintiles).

The statistics show that males living in quintile one (which represents the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland) can expect to live for 10.5 years shorter than males who live in quintile five (the 20 per cent least deprived areas). For females, there is a difference of seven years between those living in quintile one and quintile five.

Blog life expectancy 2

The difference in life expectancy between different SIMD quintiles is larger than the difference between council areas and much larger than the difference between urban and rural areas. This suggests that life expectancy in Scottish areas is more affected by deprivation than by location or rurality.

If you would like to know more about life expectancy in Scotland, please visit the NRS website. The publication ‘Life Expectancy for Areas within Scotland, 2014-2016’ includes life expectancy estimates for Council areas, Health boards and Scottish Parliamentary constituencies as well as estimates for areas by SIMD and Urban-Rural classification.

If you would like to know more about life expectancy for areas across the UK, please visit the ONS website. The ONS also produce estimates of healthy life expectancy and disability free life expectancy as part of their life expectancy publication.

Maria Kaye

Assistant Statistician

National Records of Scotland

*1 For more information on the Urban-Rural classification system, please see the ‘Defining Scotland by Rurality’ section on the Scottish government website.
*2 For more information on SIMD, please see the ‘Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation’ section on the Scottish government website.

Feline Christmassy?

NRS' Christmas Card - cavorting cats
NRS’s Christmas e-card this year.

This year’s Christmas e-card from National Records of Scotland features one of the more light-hearted items from our Register House Plans series – a ballroom filled with cats enjoying a Christmas party, dancing, gossiping and having fun. We think that this could be the item containing the most cats in the NRS collections!

Christmsa print from our archives showing cats at a dance
Meowy Christmas from the Cats’ Christmas Dance

In creating the Christmas card, we have selected three details out of the huge scene of cavorting cats. But look closely at the whole image – there is a lot of frivolity to enjoy. A band sits in the corner creating the evening’s entertainment beside a grand Christmas tree; beautiful felines stand fanning themselves by the wall, waiting to be asked to dance and gentle-cats catch up on world events. In the centre of the floor couples struggle to dance whilst getting knocked off balance by over-excited kittens racing to the stage, and a harassed waiter carrying hors d’oeuvres is pounced upon by kittens trying to reach his tasty mice snacks. Elsewhere, little kittens play with their Christmas toys whilst young couples flirt behind the secrecy of the foliage. The scene is filled with happy conversation, joy and excitement at the holiday season and we are sure that many humans will also partake in the same festivities this Christmas!

This illustration comes from the workshop of Joseph Swain (29 February 1820 – 25 February 1909), and was published in the second supplement to the ‘Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Christmas Number’ 6 December 1890.’ Swain was one of the most prolific English wood-engravers of the 19th century. He is best known from his engravings in ‘Punch’ magazine of cartoons by Sir John Tenniel, the English illustrator, graphic humourist and political cartoonist, perhaps best known for his wonderful drawings of the Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s other characters.

Born in Oxford, Swain moved to London when he was nine and apprenticed to the eminent engraver Thomas Williams. He set up his own successful business in 1842. Swain’s skill was much admired and he subsequently became the head of the engraving department at ‘Punch’, where he worked until 1900, and also created items for ‘Illustrated London News’, ‘Good Words’ and ‘Cornhill Magazine’. Due to his large success, he employed a number of assistants. This is reflected in the signature at the bottom right of the image ‘SWAIN Sc.’ which stands for ‘sculpsit’ (Swain engraved this). It denotes that the work itself was from his office, rather than being a personal creation.

Despite undertaking work of many types of variety and different artistic style, he did not become associated with any in particular. The largest collections of his original engravings are in the British Museum and in the Hartley Collection, Boston Museum.

National Records of Scotland bought this unusual image as part of a larger lot at auction in August 2011, alongside other items. It is referenced RHP142876.