2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Doors Open Days, Scotland’s largest free festival and celebration of architecture, culture and heritage.

NRS archivist Tessa Spencer explains the background to this festival in Scotland and our involvement, as well as a brief history of our oldest buildings and highlights taking part in the first ever digital DOD.

2020 marks the 30th anniversary of Doors Open Day (DOD). It was first launched in 1990 as part of the European City of Culture celebrations and since then has expanded to most areas of Scotland

Every year throughout September, it offers free access to over a thousand venues across the country. The aim of DOD is to give everyone the opportunity to explore some of the most architecturally and culturally significant buildings in Scotland, places which are not usually open to the public or which usually charge an entry fee.

The Scottish Civic Trust coordinates the festival nationally and it is part of European Heritage Days, together with Scottish Archaeology Month which is organised by Archaeology Scotland. Both events are supported by Historic Environment Scotland.

National Records of Scotland (NRS) has participated in DOD for many years. We have welcomed visitors into our buildings for behind the scenes tours, exhibitions and the opportunity to speak to us about what we do.

Visitors attending a tour inside the Adam Dome, General Register House, Doors Open Day 2018. Crown copyright, NRS

Conservation display, New Register House, Doors Open Day 2019. Crown Copyright, NRS.

A brief history of our oldest buildings

General Register House

Before records were officially stored in the archive, there was no permanent accommodation for Scotland’s national records. In 1765, a grant of £12,000 was obtained by Lord Frederick Campbell, the Lord Clerk Register, from the forfeited Jacobite estates towards building ‘a proper repository’. However, it wasn’t until 1774 that the construction of General Register House (GRH) in Edinburgh’s New Town began.

Designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792), GRH is one of his finest public buildings. It’s also the first purpose-built public record repository in the British Isles, and is one of the oldest archive buildings in the world still being used for its original purpose. It cost in total £29,000 to build. (Worth approximately over £2,500,000 in 2017 according to The National Archives currency converter).

Detail of ‘Elevation of the South Front of a Building for the Register Office in Scotland.’ By [Robert Adam, architect], 30 Jul 1772. Crown copyright, NRS, RHP6082/7.

Scale [1:120] 1 inch = 10 feet. 475 x 622 mm. Ink and colour wash.

Robert Adam and his younger brother James were appointed architects of the building in 1772 and they deliberately incorporated special features into the building’s design to defend against some of the traditional enemies of archives – mainly fire and damp. 

To prevent fire, the building was solidly constructed from stone with brick vaults and stone flags used for all the floors bar one –  the Lord Clerk Register’s Room, which features a wooden floor. In order to protect the records from damp, Robert Adam chose a typically Roman solution: special flues were constructed in the floor to carry hot air through the building from four furnaces that were kept constantly burning in the basement.

Detail of ‘Plan of the Entrance Story of the Office for the Public Records of Scotland. Crown copyright, NRS, RHP6082/4 ‘The part shaded dark shews what is finished, the light part shews what remains to be finished.’ (Appendix B), 4 Jul 1800.[By Robert Adam, architect]. James Basire, engraver

Scale: 11/16 in = 10 ft. 450 x 563 mm.

Note in the centre of the plan: A – Perforated Plate for Hot Air to pass through from Stoves below and B – Flues under Pavement for warming Saloon

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

Over 15 m (50 feet) in diameter and 24 m (80 feet) in height, and with an area in excess of 609 m (2000 square feet), this dome is the centrepiece and main access point for the public into the building. It is also Adam’s highest and largest surviving room inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.

The central oculus is 4.5 m (15 feet) in diameter and is the only source of natural light. The dome features plaster decorations, gilding and antique bas reliefs depicting Roman marriage and civic ceremonies, and scenes from Greek myth and legends. Scottish thistles also feature, forming the first band of ceiling decoration  and acknowledging the building’s national identity.

Detail of Adam Dome and oculus. Crown copyright, NRS.

The architect Robert Reid, who designed St George’s Church (now West Register House), completed the building to Adam’s design in the 1820s, but with a simplified north façade. He also designed the Antiquarian Room (now the Historical Search Room) which opened in 1847.

Historical Search Room, GRH. Crown copyright, NRS.

Today, GRH continues to house Scotland’s archives and to provide public access to the nation’s records.

General Register House today. Crown copyright, NRS.

You can travel back in time with our digital 3D fly-through animation of GRH from the present day to the 18th century. This animation was created by the Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation (a partnership between Historic Environment Scotland and The Glasgow School of Art) based on research on GRH by John McLintock.

New Register House

Designed by the architect Robert Matheson (1808-1877), Assistant Surveyor of HM Office of Works, New Register House (NRH) was built between 1859 and 1863 to house the records of civil registration in Scotland. It was designed to harmonise with the existing GRH, constructed a century earlier.

The building has a central dome record store and is surrounded by corridors and office rooms which face outwards. The columned centrepiece helps to give it the character of a public building and the style of internal finish was kept simple. It cost, complete with fittings, £35,000 to build. (Worth approximately over £2,000,000 in 2017 according to The National Archives currency converter).

External view of New Register House. Crown copyright, NRS.

The main feature of this elegant building is the dome. Over 27 m (90 feet) high, it is of considerable interest as a piece of 19th century functional architecture and structural engineering. It comprises five tiers of ironwork shelving and galleries, similar to those at the British Museum in London. The central fireproof repository is surrounded on the outside by staff offices over three floors.

Detail of New Register House Dome. Crown copyright, NRS.

The 6.5 km (4 miles) of shelving in the dome contain half a million volumes, including around 400,000 statutory registers of all the births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855. They can be identified by their colour: red for births, funeral black for deaths and green for marriages as it was considered to be a lucky colour.

The dome also houses around 3,500 volumes of Old Parish Registers, the earliest dating from 1553, as well as the open census records. NRH is a working archive and more volumes are added every year.

Digital Doors Open Days

This year and for the very first time, DOD is digital, as the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted festival plans. Buildings cannot be opened to the public in the usual way in order to ensure the safety and the wellbeing of visitors and staff.

Instead you can explore and listen to virtual tours, webinars, audio trails and more remotely via the DOD website from the comfort of your own home. The Edinburgh and East Lothian DOD, organised by the Cockburn Association, will take place on Saturday (26th) and Sunday (27th) September 2020.

The concept of digital DOD posed an immediate challenge to the Outreach and Learning team. Since we are currently unable to access our buildings and archives, we cannot offer in-person and onsite activities such as tours and displays, as we usually do. However, we wanted to participate in a meaningful way that would have a wide appeal to our audiences and create a lasting legacy.

We decided to provide remote access to some of our records and have curated a digital exhibition featuring archives chosen by staff on the theme of ‘staff favourites’. We received many suggestions from colleagues and have selected those images which we found particularly eye-catching, memorable or interesting. You can view the display on the NRS website Image Gallery.

One of the images selected for the online display

Bottling label for Helm Blend ‘fine old Highland whisky’ produced by W Helm & Co, Leith. The label is illustrated with a countryside scene of a castle set above a river bend, c 19th century. Crown copyright, NRS, CE57/4/50.

We hope you enjoy our online exhibition and engagement on social media during DOD weekend and encourage you to investigate what else is going on in Edinburgh and East Lothian and beyond via the DOD website.

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