Doors Open Days 2022 has returned to Edinburgh and East Lothian and the theme of this year’s festival is “Standing Strong”, highlighting the value of regular building maintenance and community approaches to looking after buildings and places.

As archivists, conservators, and collectors of data, National Records of Scotland (NRS) we cast our eyes down to consult archives and records. For Doors Open Days 2022 however, we’re asking you to look up – high above the bustling streets, to the skyline of Edinburgh’s New Town.

West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh
West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh

West Register House in Charlotte Square is a Category A listed building in the heart of the Edinburgh World Heritage site. Built in the early nineteenth century with an impressive, imposing façade, it was originally St George’s Church, one of the congregations which later broke away from the Church of Scotland during the Disruption of 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The original, unrealised 1791 design for St George’s Church was by the famous architect Robert Adam, who also designed General Register House, the first purpose-built public record repository in the British Isles and one of the oldest archive buildings in the world still being used for its original purpose. Architect Robert Reid reinterpreted Adam’s design in a bolder and simpler manner. The total cost was £24,000. According to The National Archives’ currency converter, this is the equivalent today of around £1,116,604.

Architectural pictorial sketch of a proposed design for St George’s Church, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, by Robert Reid, architect. Watercolour. 1810-1811. NRS, RHP22108

Converted to an archive building during the 1960s, the former church remains a significant feature of the Edinburgh city skyline, terminating the view west along the city’s famous George Street.

West Register House has hosted staff offices and archive storage rooms for decades and it’s now home to our government records team and digital records unit, the National Register of Archives for Scotland and others.

The former West Search Room in 2006. Crown copyright, NRS. Our public search rooms are now located in General Register House and New Register House.

As with Edinburgh’s other landmarks however, time and weather take their toll on stone and mortar. In 2018, NRS – supported by Edinburgh World Heritage – began a major fabric repair project to upgrade the building’s 200-year-old exterior.

Repair work in January 2020

The repairs were highly specialised, requiring a main contractor – Ashwood Scotland Ltd – to bring together skilled craftsmen including stonemasons who sourced and carved the sections of new stone.

Some of the key stone features were beyond repair, including an ornate carved roundel. This was replaced with a new roundel carved by the stonemason Josephine Crossland of Hutton Stone. As with all of the replacement stone, the new roundel is clearly identifiable at present but will over time blend to match the rest of the building, looking to the untrained eye as if no repairs had ever been carried out.

As well as removing original worn stones for specially-cut replacements, the team carried out repointing work – that is, replacing old mortar affected by the elements. Over 18 months, we repaired and replaced historic guttering and leadwork and carried out timber and copper repairs, upgraded areas of flat roof, repaired slate roofs and decorative features, ensuring that we maintained the building’s unique historic appearance.

This restoration project was completed in 2021. NRS are delighted to have successfully delivered this major programme of repairs to one of our iconic buildings. It would not have been possible but for the dedication of our Estates team, as well as the expertise of the consultants and contractors that they worked alongside, including skilled stonemasons.

We are very happy to return this building to its former glory and for it to once again take its rightful place on the Edinburgh city skyline, safe and secure for many years to come.

West Register House, August 2022

We are also very grateful for the help of Edinburgh World Heritage, who contributed funding to the project and provided technical advice, drawing upon their many years of experience in conserving many of Edinburgh’s historic buildings.

Throughout this period, we were also reliant upon the indulgence and goodwill of our neighbours in Charlotte Square and the wider New Town. Repair work can at times be noisy and disruptive, and we thank them once more for their cooperation and patience as we delivered these major works.

If you have enjoyed reading this article, you can learn more about the history of our oldest buildings in this article about Doors Open Day 2020 on Open Book.

During DOD this weekend, we hope you can connect with us via Facebook and Twitter . We also encourage you to investigate what else is going on in Edinburgh and East Lothian and beyond via the DOD website and to join in and follow the conversation on social media – #NRSArchives and #DoorsOpenDays.

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