Once again, that time of year is approaching when the National Records of Scotland throws open its doors and invites the public into the splendour of the General Register and New Register House, and offers a tantalising glimpse behind the scenes.

General Register House

National Records of Scotland, General Register House
National Records of Scotland, General Register House

Before records were officially stored in the archive, there was no permanent repository for Scotland’s national records. It wasn’t until 1774 that the construction of General Register House in part of Edinburgh’s New Town began; designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792), it is perhaps one of his finest public buildings. It is also uniquely, the first purpose-built public record repository inn the British Isles, and may be the oldest archive building in the world still being used for its original function.

Robert Adam and his younger brother James Adam were appointed architects of Register House in 1772, and as a purpose-built repository they deliberately incorporated special elements into the buildings design to defend against some of the traditional enemies of archives. Mainly fire and damp. To prevent fire the building was solidly constructed of stone with brick vaults, and stone flags were used for all the floors bar one. To protect the records from damp special flues were constructed in the floor to carry hot air through the building from 4 furnaces that were kept constantly burning in the basement.

Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in 'Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1' by James Grant
Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in ‘Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1’ by James Grant

The Adams brothers believed that you could judge a society by the quality and grandeur of its public buildings, and used this commission as an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice. So alongside these special design elements that have allowed General Register House to continue as the nation’s archive, they also designed a beautiful top-lit rotunda, known as the Adam Dome.

50 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height, this dome is the centre piece and main public access point for the public into General Register House. Recently renovated in 2008, the Dome features plaster decorations, antique bas reliefs and gilding which acknowledge the building’s national identity.

Today General Register House continues to house Scotland’s archives, and to provide public access to the nation’s records through our Historical Search Room, and ScotlandsPeople.

New Register House

Designed by Robert Matheson, New Register House was built between 1859 and 1863. Designed to complement General Register House, the internal finish of this building was kept simple and the main feature of this elegant building is the dome. Consisting of five tiers of  ironwork shelving and galleries, similar to those at the British Museum in London, this central fireproof repository is surrounded on the outside by staff and search rooms on three floors.

New Register House Dome

The 6.5km (4 miles) of shelving in the Dome contain some half a million volumes, in particular the statutory register of all births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855. These are still being added to every year and can be identified by their colour, red for birth, black for death and green for marriage.

Doors Open Day

For Doors Open Day we will be offering tours of General Register and New Register House. These will give a bit more history about our buildings and offer a rare look behind the scenes. Tours will be running from 10.15am on Saturday 23 September and must be booked. To book see here.

As part of DOD we will also have a special display of historical records looking at Edinburgh’s New Town. We look forward to seeing you there!

Jocelyn Grant, Outreach Archivist

National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

  • ‘A Proper Repository’: The Building of the General Register House, Margaret H. B. Sanderson
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. I, James Grant
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. II, James Grant

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