Calling all budding palaeographers!

Students wanted for evening short course at National Records of Scotland 

Archival records are amazing.  They document the lives of our ancestors, allow us to peer into past societies and record the events – big and small – that shaped our country into what it is today.

Reading old records, particularly handwritten manuscripts, can be tough.  Handwriting styles have evolved dramatically through the centuries from medieval Latin origins and readers would be forgiven for assuming that the document below was written in a strange foreign language!

Testament of William Seton.png
Testament of William Setoun, 1574, from the Edinburgh Commissary Court series. Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, CC8/8/3

Furthermore, the way in which people expressed themselves through written language and punctuation has changed remarkably, and perhaps in more subtle ways than you might expect.

Without the right tools and training, and without a basis palaeography skills, reading old handwriting can be extremely frustrating.

Introducing our course

To help researchers overcome this challenge, National Records of Scotland is delighted to announce our forthcoming short class in Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1700, in conjunction with University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.

Over ten weeks, we provide a crash course in palaeography – the study of old handwriting.  Skills to be taught include;

  • Practical methods for transcribing historical documents, including best practice in copying technique and staying truthful to the document’s content and structure
  • Tools and tips for recognising standard phraseology, letter forms, abbreviations, spelling and handwriting conventions of historical documents
  • Insight into Scots language and terminology
  • Tuition on understanding the context and provenance of historical documents, to aid transcription
  • Introduction to citation and how to reference original works comprehensively.
  • Insight into the art of constructing a book or document, called codicology. A hands-on exercise sees students using quills and ink to understand the methods of mark marking by scribes of centuries past.

The Records

Copies of original archival records from NRS’s vast collections dating from between the years 1500 and 1700 will be chosen for study and transcription. These will vary from church records, records of justice and court business, personal accounts, letters, and records of government.

1500-1700 was a period of profound change and development in Scotland, and the records covered in our course will touch on all manner of social and historical subjects including witchcraft, taxation, medicine and fashion. Nothing can quite match the experience of unlocking a past society by reading testimonies from that time, and our course will allow students to do just that.

Who is This Course For?

No prior experience in palaeography is necessary.  Absolute beginners are welcome!

Our course always attracts a wide variety of people. Along with family historians, under and post-graduates, archivists and local historians, the makeup of the class ensures for a lively group of people who share their knowledge and expertise.

Who Teaches The Course?

The course is led by two NRS staff members: Garth Stewart BA Hons., MA, Web Archivist, who has extensive hands-on experience with the holdings of the NRS, and Jessica Evershed Ba Hons, PG Dip, who assists readers in the Historical Search Room handling original documents.


This course takes place on Tuesday evenings between 5:30pm and 7pm, and lasts for a total of 10 weeks. Our first class is on 26th September (less than 3 weeks away!) and details of registration and course fees can be found here.

All classes are held at General Register House in central Edinburgh, home to Scotland’s national archive collection, which is preserved and made available to the public by National Records of Scotland.

GRH not for reuse
General Register House, Edinburgh, where our course is taught. Copyright

Garth Stewart

Web Archivist

National Records of Scotland

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