There are 678 Registrars in Scotland and they record around 140,000 “life events” every year.
These include births, still births, marriages, civil partnerships, and deaths, and National Records of Scotland have been safeguarding these records since compulsory registration was introduced in 1855.
That’s a lot of records, and what many people don’t know is that NRS employs a small team of people who are vital to making sure the records of Scotland are correct: the District Examiners.
The first ever Register General, Sir William Pitt Dundas, summarised their importance:
“I am entirely dependent on the accuracy and fidelity of these officers for presenting to me a true picture of the state of Registration throughout the various districts of the country.”
What did the first District Examiners do?
In 1855, the Registrar General divided Scotland into large examination districts and appointed permanent, paid Examiners of Registers for each district to ensure the Registrars were keeping the new birth, death, and marriage registers accurately.
The Examiners visited every local Registrar in their districts once a year to compare two sets of registers, one of which was to be kept in the parish and the other to be sent to GROS.
When the Examiner called, his job was to sit down with the Registrar and compare the two sets of registers, identifying any discrepancies. He would inspect the schedules and certificates handed in by informants, and assessed the general quality of the register books, the state of their accommodation, and the competence of the Registrar.
It was very much a “policing” role, and the Examiners would report back to the Registrar General at the end of every year’s tour of the Registrars.
In the early days of compulsory registration, Examiners were appointed not on merit but mainly because of their social connections, and in areas where there were few applicants, local men had to be persuaded to serve as a social duty.
Who are our District Examiners now?
Gillian Jackson, Sharon Murray, Anne Reilly, and Wilma Smith are NRS’s Examiners today, and their office is in New Register House in Edinburgh.
Anne and Wilma, who both work part-time now, have many years’ experience of working for National Records of Scotland and for the Scottish Government, whereas Gillian and Sharon, who are both full-time, previously worked as Registrars. Between the four of them, they have a wealth of knowledge and experience.
What do Examiners do nowadays?
Today, our District Examiners still play a crucial part in registration.
Anne Reilly, Wilma Smith, Gillian Jackson, and Sharon Murray cover the whole of Scotland, having responsibility for the 32 local authorities divided up between them.
“Registrars are employed by local authorities, and a big part of an Examiner’s job now is visiting these authorities’ registration departments and advising how best to achieve quality and accuracy” said Gillian. “It’s not so much policing nowadays; it’s more supporting and coaching to ensure registration is carried out lawfully and accurately. The Examiners of old were something of a mystery to the wider registration community and it seemed there was an element of fear and caution around their visits.”
“Sharon, Gillian, and I work from home and are out and about in our Council areas a lot, so we don’t actually see a lot of each other in person. The four of us work really hard to operate as a team and not merely as individuals” Anne pointed out. “Achieving consistency in the examination process is really important to us, plus we often sense-check each other’s decisions, so we speak to each other every day.”
How do they check the records?
“Two or three weeks before the start of the reporting year, we look at our lists of Councils, decide which one to start with, then email their Chief Registrar to give a couple of weeks’ notice that examinations of their records will start” explained Anne. “This gives them the chance to check their own records first.”
“As Scotland’s records are now all stored digitally on NRS’s Forward Electronic Register (“FER”) system, they’re all locked down in the examination period. We then go in and check every single record.”
Gillian told us “We work from the Handbook of the Law & Practice of Registration, but no matter how comprehensive any guide book may be, it won’t cover every single eventuality. After all, this is the recording of human lives we’re dealing with, so there will always be unprecedented anomalies cropping up!”
Wilma explained “until we’ve checked every part of every record, they can’t go onto NRS’s ScotlandsPeople records system for researchers to use”.
What challenges do Examiners face in their jobs?
“I suspect you’ll get different answers from all four of us” Wilma noted.
“It’s rabbit holes for me”, Anne laughed. “Rabbit holes and jigsaws! Quite often I find it hard to pack up work for the night as I’m so engrossed in trying to piece various bits of information about a particular person together to produce a completely accurate record.”
Gillian told us, “When I first started in this job, I was on a mission to make sure every record was 100% correct and standardised, but with experience and coaching I realised that it’s actually more important that a record is understandable.
A good example of this is the word “headteacher”. Is it one word? Or two, as in “head teacher”? Or “Headteacher” with a capital letter? Or even “Head Teacher”? Different Registrars can use different variations, but I soon came to realise that it’s just not worth wasting time on things like that – or spoiling records by adding corrections.
Instead, we concentrate on things like correcting factual inaccuracies, spelling errors, expanding abbreviations, and of course errors in the law and practice of registration, such as the maiden/married names in death registration.
What do they enjoy about the role?
“It’s the detective work involved in ensuring all the records are correct, the piecing together of all the various bits of information”, said Anne. “It’s fascinating! I have a statistics background, so I find dealing with data like this really satisfying.”
Sharon values their positive relationship with Registrars round the country. “It’s great to see them coming to us for advice and readily picking up the phone to talk to us – we’re very different from the Examiners of 200 years ago!”
Gillian particularly appreciates being part of a long tradition of District Examiners. “I’m proud to be doing this job and being part of what’s often as regarded as the best registration system in the world.
It’s a natural progression from my previous job as a Registrar, and I feel that by ensuring Scotland’s records are accurate for future generations, I’m contributing something really positive to our society. Future family history researchers using ScotlandsPeople information will thank us!”
Find out more
NRS’s District Examiners are all very enthusiastic about what they do and would be more than happy to speak to you if you’d like to know more – just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.