Conservation for the Nation

Conservation close-up

“The fundamental role of the conservator-restorer is the preservation of cultural heritage for the benefit of present and future generations…”*

I remember very vividly John L. Sharpe, a rare book historian and conservator, teaching a class at my conservation course in Italy and describing conservation as a triangle with History, Science and Craft at each vertex.  14 years on, I believe that definition was absolutely spot on.  Conservation is a wonderful profession which combines very diverse skills.  It requires manual dexterity and an insightful knowledge of material science, backed up by a sound historical background.

At National Records of Scotland, conservation is taken care of by Conservation Services Branch.  We are a team of eight Conservators from different backgrounds and with a wide range of skills and expertise.  We look after the physical wellbeing of the records and we make sure that practice is applied in their care.

We work with the whole range of archive materials, including flat paper and parchment documents, bound volumes, wax seals, maps and plans, photographic material, modern material and modern media.

Conservator Andy McFarlane
An NRS conservator, thrilled by a successful treatment!


And what do we do for you?

We treat records when they are in bad condition.  We stabilise them to prevent them deteriorating further or we carry out more extensive treatments to restore their usability.  We also do a variety of other things.  Many, really!

We assess and prepare records for digital imaging, and we take care of a series of preservation activities like triaging new accessions and re-packaging.  We monitor the environment in our store rooms and we carry out surveys.  We also prepare records for exhibitions and we install and courier them when they’re on loan.  We advise our colleagues and the general public on the correct handling of cultural heritage, and offer advice on preservation and conservation to the Scottish Archives and to privately owned archives.

This specialist work by Conservators helps to preserve the national Scottish collection, which in turn makes it available to the public.

Recent projects we have worked on include preparation for the Famous Scots from the Past Exhibition – you can read about the four subjects of the exhibition here; here, here and here.  We also oversaw set-up of a new environmental monitoring system across our stores, the conservation of a Court book in very poor condition that led us to some interesting discoveries and the monitoring of vibration and dust in General Register House during the recent St. James redevelopment project.

Our studio is always very busy, and who can say what we’ll be up to, by the time this blog post is published!

Conservator Peter Dickson
Conservator Peter Dickson, going the extra mile to care for the national collection!


If you ever need to enlist the services of a conservator, or if you’d like to speak to a particular one, we recommend searching the Conservation Register.

And if you fancy finding out about conservation and preservation in more detail, then you should have a look at the *ECCO guidelines for a more in-depth description of what the role involves.

Gloria Conti ACR


National Records of Scotland

Scottish Handwriting 1500-1700

Calling all budding palaeographers!

Students wanted for evening short course at National Records of Scotland 

Archival records are amazing.  They document the lives of our ancestors, allow us to peer into past societies and record 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 from medieval Latin origins and readers would be forgiven for assuming that the document below was written in a strange foreign language!

Testament of William Seton.png
Testament of William Setoun, 1574, from the Edinburgh Commissary Court series.

Furthermore, the way in which people expressed themselves through written language and punctuation has changed remarkably, and perhaps in more subtle ways than you might expect.

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

Introducing our course

To help researchers overcome this challenge, National Records of Scotland is delighted to announce our forthcoming short class in Scottish Handwriting, 1500-1700, in conjunction with University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.

Over ten weeks, we provide a crash course in palaeography – the study of old handwriting.  Skills to be taught include;

  • Practical methods for transcribing historical documents, including best practice in copying technique and staying truthful to the document’s content and structure
  • Tools and tips for recognising standard phraseology, letter forms, abbreviations, spelling and handwriting conventions of historical documents
  • Insight into Scots language and terminology
  • Tuition on understanding the context and provenance of historical documents, to aid transcription
  • Introduction to citation and how to reference original works comprehensively.
  • Insight into the art of constructing a book or document, called codicology. A hands-on exercise sees students using quills and ink to understand the methods of mark marking by scribes of centuries past.

The Records

Copies of original archival records from NRS’s vast collections dating from between the years 1500 and 1700 will be chosen for study and transcription. These will vary from church records, records of justice and court business, personal accounts, letters, and records of government.

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

Who is This Course For?

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

Our course always attracts a wide variety of people. Along with family historians, under and post-graduates, archivists and local historians, the makeup of the class ensures for a lively group of people who share their knowledge and expertise.

Who Teaches The Course?

The course is led by two NRS staff members: Garth Stewart BA Hons., MA, Web Archivist, who has extensive hands-on experience with the holdings of the NRS, and Jessica Evershed Ba Hons, PG Dip, who assists readers in the Historical Search Room handling original documents.


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 26th September (less than 3 weeks away!) and details of registration and course fees can be found here.

All classes are held at General Register House in central Edinburgh, home to Scotland’s national archive collection, which is preserved and made available to the public by National Records of Scotland.

GRH not for reuse
General Register House, Edinburgh, where our course is taught. Copyright


Garth Stewart

Web Archivist

National Records of Scotland

Wrapping Up Scotland’s Archives

In 2013, the Scottish Council on Archives launched a three-year traineeship scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme.

The Opening Up Scotland’s Archives scheme was created to provide opportunities for individuals to gain experience working in archives, in addition to the more traditional degree and post-graduate qualification route.  At the same time a sister scheme, Transforming Archives, was launched in England and Wales by The National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Archives across Scotland have hosted trainees for a year at a time, working on projects in digital preservation, outreach and traditional archive skills.  For the past year, NRS hosted two digital preservation trainees, Penny Wright and Ruth Marr, who have been developing practical tools to assist Scottish local authorities in getting started in digital preservation.

On Tuesday 15th August the Scottish Council on Archives held an celebratory event at NRS to say a fond farewell to the trainees from all three years of the scheme.

This event began with a look at the legacy of Opening Up Scotland’s Archives and Transforming Archives, which included 56 trainees in total – 19 of them in Scotland.

Intended as a way to attract entrants to the archives sector from more diverse backgrounds, 50% of trainees had a history or an arts degree, while the other half come from a range of backgrounds including engineering, jewellery-making, TV production, computing, dance and the travel industry.

4% of Scottish trainees came from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background, while the figure in England and Wales was 21%.  The scheme has been hailed as a success in broadening diversity in the archives sector and in meeting key skills gaps.

In the afternoon Catriona Doyle, a trainee from Year Two and now Archives and Collections Assistant at Glasgow School of Art, explained how the skills and experience she gained during her traineeship consolidated her interests in working in archives and helped her to move on to the next stage of her career.  Catriona, who studied jewellery and metal design at art school, undertook an outreach project with GSA and Glasgow City Archives to promote their collections to community groups.

Catriona’s presentation was followed by short talks from the six Year-Three trainees on their projects.  You can find out about all the traineeships here.

Following a short talk by Tim Ellis, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, the Year Three trainees were presented with certificates of achievement by Beltus Ojong Etchu, HLF Committee member for Scotland.

In November 2016, Opening Up Scotland’s Archives and Transforming Archives won the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Award for Teaching and Communication, sponsored by the Dutch Coalition on Digital Preservation.  The Scottish Council on Archives decided to use the cash prize to fund an award for the best trainee digital project in Scotland over the three year scheme.

The award was announced at the end of the farewell event.  Third place went to Michael MacKinnon for his project working with the Robin Marwick Albion Rovers Football Club collection at North Lanarkshire Archives.

The prize was won jointly by NRS’s own Ruth and Penny, pictured below with their projects manager Susan Corrigall, as well as Deputy Keeper Laura Mitchell and Keeper Tim Ellis.

Trainees photo

Ruth and Penny’s projects have been heartily welcomed by local authorities in Scotland, and we are very proud of what they have achieved.  The tools that they have created will be published on NRS’s website for public comment soon.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) – the Poet

Robert Burns is the last of the four Famous Scots from the Past featured in our Fringe Festival exhibition this year. With limited space available, the challenge has been to choose a single document that helps us get closer to Scotland’s national poet.

We started by considering how the official records, in which NRS is so strong, could help tell part of the poet’s remarkable life.  By contrast with other archives and libraries which look after manuscripts of his poems and songs, NRS has little direct evidence of his creative life.

Would we choose the record of his birth and baptism in the Alloway parish register (one of the thousands of pre-1855 ‘Old Parish Registers’), or look to the end of his life, using the inventory of his estate, and court records, to trace how his affairs were handled for the benefit of his widow and children? Or should we explore his career as an exciseman, which can be charted in the Exchequer and other records? Continue reading “Robert Burns (1759-1796) – the Poet”

Annual Review – Population & Migration

Each year since 1855, National Records of Scotland has published “Scotland’s Population”, providing an annual overview of the latest demographic trends. In this post, statistician Daniel Burns summarises the latest migration trends in Scotland.

Scotland’s population is at its highest recorded level of 5.4 million, growing by 5% over the past ten years. This increase has been driven by migration.

Before the turn of the century, Scotland was predominantly a country of net out-migration, with more people leaving to live elsewhere than moving to live in Scotland. A few years of net in-migration were first recorded in the early 1990’s. Since 2001, Scotland has been in a period of net in-migration with more people moving to live in Scotland than leaving. In the year to 30th June 2016, the number of people moving to Scotland exceeded the number leaving by around 31,700 (up 3,700 on the year previous). Continue reading “Annual Review – Population & Migration”

Annual Review – Life Expectancy

Each year since 1855, National Records of Scotland has published the Registrar General’s Annual Review, providing an annual overview of the latest demographic trends.

NRS statistician Maria Kaye summarises what we know about life expectancy in Scotland, as found in “Scotland’s Population 2016” – the 162nd Annual Review.

The most recent life expectancy figures published by the National Records of Scotland tell us that a baby girl born in Scotland around 2014 could expect to live for 81.1 years while a baby boy could expect to live until he was 77.1 years old.

Over the past three decades, life expectancy has steadily improved – increasing by 8.0 years for males and by 5.8 years for females since around 1981. The gap between male and female life expectancy has also decreased over the period, from a gap of 6.2 years for those born around 1981 to a gap of 4.1 years for those born around 2014. Continue reading “Annual Review – Life Expectancy”

Annual Review – Scotland’s Households

Each year since 1855, National Records of Scotland has published the Registrar General’s Annual Review of Demographic Trends, an overview of all the statistics we have gathered.

NRS statistician Amelia Brereton summarises our findings on Scotland’s households, as found in Scotland’s Population 2016 – the 162nd Annual Review.


Scotland’s population is growing and ageing. This has affected both the total number of households in Scotland and the most common types of household.

Older people are more likely to live on their own, or with just one other person. This means that as the number of older people in the population has gone up, so has the number of these smaller household types.

According to our latest estimates from the Scottish Household Survey, one-person households are now the most common type of household in Scotland. We estimate that nearly 900,000 people in Scotland are living alone, many of whom will be older people. Continue reading “Annual Review – Scotland’s Households”

Connecticut Connection

National Records of Scotland is known for its records, research and other artefacts, but we also hold a number of antiques at various buildings around Edinburgh.

One interesting example is a chiming clock which hangs on the wall in a meeting room at West Register House, Charlotte Square. This clock, a Chauncey Jerome, was recently repaired by a specialist and is still in working order despite being over 150 years old.  The clock was manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, by the Jerome Manufacturing Company, most likely in the 1840s, and its history is quite interesting.

Jerome Chauncey Clock

The clock was gifted to the Scottish Record Office, one of our predecessor bodies, in the early 1970s, although there are competing stories about the precise circumstances.

Jerome Post 2One is that a former Deputy Keeper, John Bates, bought it in an antiques shop as a gift for colleagues. The other story holds that the clock was gifted by members of the former kirk session of St George’s Church – now West Register House – and that it might have been kept in the church since the 1850s.  An examination of the kirk session minutes has shed no light on the truth of this story, however.

The surprising thing about this clock is its painted glass front, which depicts St George’s Church as seen from George Street. It may seem strange that an American-made clock would have an Edinburgh street scene on it, but these clocks were mass produced with a clear lower glass panel. Following sale, individuals could commission their own design to be painted onto the clear glass making them unique. Continue reading “Connecticut Connection”

Weeding Scotland’s Courts

Every summer, a team of NRS archivists visits Sheriff Courts all over Scotland to collect historical records for preservation and storage.

Case records must be retained for decades after the cases finish for future appeals, cold case reviews and police enquiries, so it’s vital they are kept safe and secure. Centuries from now, these cases will provide an insight for research and understanding of Scottish law, culture and society.

Between May and August each year, our Court & Legal Team visits up to six of Scotland’s 39 Sheriff Courts to collect records that are 25 years old or over. This isn’t a glamorous process as the records must be removed box-by-box, and they’re stored in attics, basements, turrets and other hard-to-access places. Continue reading “Weeding Scotland’s Courts”

Improving Mortality Statistics

In January 2017, NRS adopted new software for recording mortality statistics. This software – IRIS – will help us to improve data relating to deaths from certain diseases and disorders.  It will also help to create statistics that allow for more accurate comparison with other countries, particularly with England and Wales.

When a death is registered, it’s common for a number of diseases or conditions to be recorded on the death certificate. The IRIS software translates causes of death into a code that is recognised under the World Health Organisation’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, Tenth Revision (ICD-10). Continue reading “Improving Mortality Statistics”