Calling all budding palaeographers! 

Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1700 

Tuesdays from 5.30 pm to 7 pm, from 25 September

Archival records are amazing. They document the lives of our ancestors; they allow us to peer into past societies and they’re a record of 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, and users would be forgiven for thinking that the document below was a written in a strange foreign language!

Handwriting William Setoun
Testament of William Setoun, 1574, from the Edinburgh Commissary Court series. Our course will help students unlock historic handwriting styles such as this.

Furthermore, the way in which people expressed themselves in writing has changed – and perhaps more subtly than you might expect.

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

Introducing our course

To help researchers overcome this challenge National Records of Scotland, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, is delighted to release details of our forthcoming short class in Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1700.

Running for ten weeks and taught by professional NRS archivists, this course will centre on palaeography – the study of old handwriting. This will include;

– Practical methods for transcribing historical documents

– Tips for recognising historical writing conventions

– Insight into Scots language, terminology and culture

– Tuition on understanding documents’ context

– Introduction to using archive catalogues, and how to reference original works

– A look at how documents were created – including a session using real quills,

– A quiz!

The records

Copies of original archival records from NRS’s collections dating from between 1500 and 1700 will be chosen for transcription. These will vary from church records, orders of court, personal letters, and records of government. Students will also spend part of the course looking at original material in our Historical Search Room.

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

Who is this course for?

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

Our course attracts a wide variety of people. Along with family historians, students, archivists and local historians, we always have a lively group of people who are encouraged to share their knowledge and expertise with the class.

Who teaches the course?

The course is led by two NRS professional archivists: Garth Stewart, Web Archivist, BA Hons., MA, and Jessica Evershed, Historical Records Freedom of Information Officer, Ba Hons, PG Dip.


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 25th September and registration details can be found here. The course has a second term, beginning Tuesday 15th January. Students are encouraged to attend both terms in order to acquire as much leaning and practice as possible.
General Register House from Waverley GateAll classes are held at General Register House, in central Edinburgh, home to Scotland’s national archive collection which is preserved and made publicly available by National Records of Scotland.

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