Our Smallest Will

Thomas Walker Will photoThis tiny photograph is both the smallest and one of the most unusual items in our extensive collection of soldiers’ wills and testaments.

The photograph belonged to Thomas Walker, who had been an Edinburgh wood machinist living at his brother’s residence before he enlisted to fight in World War I.

Walker was killed in action one hundred years ago today on 28 June 1918 at Merville in France.

Earlier in 1918, Walker – Private Thomas Nicholl Walker, 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), to give him his full name and rank – had written a will on the back of this photograph. The photograph, which measures just 42 x 62 mm (less than 1.75 x 2.5 inches), was found in his belongings after his death.

Thomas Walker willWalker’s will is a puzzle. He left all his ‘personal belongings’ to Mrs S Brown, 81 Queen Street, Dumfries. She appears to be Sarah Brown, a widow who ran a boarding house, but was not a close relative. After the war it was Walker’s widow, Lizzie, who claimed her husband’s war medals.

Walker had formerly served with 5/6 Battalion, Royal Scots, an amalgamation in June 1916 of the 1/5 and 1/6 Battalions, which had both served in Egypt. The 1/5 Battalion also fought at Gallipoli.

The snapshot apparently shows Royal Scots soldiers in glengarry caps, solar helmets and shorts, suitable for Middle East service. Perhaps one of these men is Walker himself, but we currently have no way to tell.

Walker probably belonged to 1/5 or 1/6 Territorial Battalion of the Royal Scots. His body lies buried in Thiennes Cemetery, Tannay, with 18 KOSB comrades killed the same day.

Next to Walker’s gravestone is that of Robert Burns Clark, a 19 year-old from Leith, which bears the motto ‘Peace Perfect Peace’.

On the other side lies George Jackson Hutchison, a promising artist, aged 22, the son of Robert Gemmell Hutchison RSA, a well-known painter of Scottish rural life. For his stone, his parents chose to quote his touching words: ‘Tell mother not to worry.’

Archibald James Shanks MorrisonAlso buried at Thiennes Cemetery is Private Archibald James Shanks Morrison, who was killed in action a month earlier, on 23 May 1918.  Morrison’s name was recently added to the First World War memorial at the University of Glasgow, as he was one of nineteen former students whose association with the institution had only recently been discovered.

Morrison’s will, in which he left his possessions to his mother, is also part of our collection.

You can find guidance on searching our collection of soldiers’ wills here, including soldiers who fought in the First World War and other conflicts between 1857 and 1965.

A Private Matter? Robert Burns, Agnes Maclehose & the Court of Session, by Professor Hector MacQueen


We head back to the law courts this week for a nineteenth century court case with some surprisingly modern themes about privacy and the public interest.

On Valentine’s Day this year, Professor Hector MacQueen of the University of Edinburgh joined us at General Register House to share his observations about a court case arising from the affair between a couple who had written romantic letters to each other using the pen names “Sylvander and Clarinda”.  The pair are better known as Scotland’s most famous poet Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose, to whom Burns later dedicated his famous song, Ae Fond Kiss.

In 1804, their relationship was the subject of a legal action aimed at preventing publication of their private correspondence, which had been written while their mutual passion was at its height.

Burns was long dead by the time the court case began and although Agnes was very much alive, she wasn’t party to the litigation. However, one of the judges deciding on the matter just happened to be Agnes’s uncle, lending an edge to proceedings…

Hector investigates what our legal records can tell us not only about the conduct and outcome of this case but about public attitudes in Scotland during the early 1800s, and ultimately about Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose themselves.

You can find images of selected items from Hector’s talk below, and our previous podcasts – including one on Robert Burns’ professional and artistic life as an exciseman – are available to download here.


Ae Fond Kiss
‘Ae fond kiss’, the parting song which Robert Burns sent to Mrs Maclehose after their final meeting in December 1791. This manuscript is part of the Watson Autograph Collection at the National Library of Scotland. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland.
Clarinda grave
The final resting place of “Clarinda” and Lord Craig – overlooked by the Burns Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Professor Hector MacQueen.

Voices from our Archives: Oscar Slater (1872-1948)


Crime writer Denise Mina recently joined NRS archivist Bruno Longmore at General Register House to research the 1909 trial of Oscar Slater, who was charged with the murder of an elderly woman in Glasgow.

Slater’s trial was highly controversial at the time, attracting critical comments from across the United Kingdom including from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  The trial became a landmark case in Scottish legal history, contributing to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In our video above, Bruno describes the trial and its aftermath, then looks at some of the key case papers and evidence, while Denise gives her thoughts on the significance of this extraordinary case.

Oscar Joseph Slater – originally Leschziner – was born in 1872 in Upper Silesia, Germany, to Jewish parents. In 1893 or 1894 he travelled to London, where he worked as a bookmaker before setting himself up as a dealer in precious stones.

Once settled in Britain, he used various surnames – Sando, George, Anderson, Schmidt and Slater. It was the latter he appears to have used for official purposes. By 1899 he had moved to Edinburgh, claiming at times to be a gymnastics instructor and a dentist, although his business interests in jewelry continued.

When 82-year-old Marion Gilchrist was murdered at her home in Glasgow in 1908, Slater was living only a few blocks away from the scene of the crime. During the investigation, Slater was arrested on suspicion of involvement in her death and his trial in 1909 produced repercussions that echo in modern courts.

You can get a closer look at some of the case papers and evidence at the NRS website, as well as newspaper cuttings that provide an insight into how the case was viewed by the public at the time.

You can find more of Denise’s conclusions about the Slater case and its implications in her show Case Histories, which will be available to download from the BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.

Oscar Slater - Description & Photos
Papers showing Oscar Slater at the start and end of his time in prison.



The sinking of the Tuscania, 1918

On 5 February the United States troopship ‘Tuscania’ was torpedoed by a German U-boat while sailing in convoy through the North Channel, between the north-east tip of Ireland and the Isle of Islay. She was carrying about 2,000 American troops as part of the build-up of forces on the Western Front to increase the Allies’ strength.

The evidence of the Statutory Register of Deaths and the Registrar General’s correspondence in National Records of Scotland adds to the story of this disaster.

Although most of the soldiers were rescued by British escort vessels as the ship sank, about 200 American soldiers died. Of those who attempted to reach Islay, some died on the rugged coastline of the Oa peninsula, but about 130 men landed safely, and were found and cared for by the islanders. The bodies of many of their dead comrades were washed ashore at several places, and gradually gathered in the Drill Hall at Port Ellen for identification.

Bodies found washed up on Scottish island beaches were a fairly common occurrence, particularly during the war years. However, the unprecedented number of dead on Islay put a huge strain on the few policemen, the Procurator Fiscal, and on the islanders close to the scene. It also prompted Donald McLachlan, the schoolmaster who was the local registrar for Kildalton and Oa, to request the advice of the Registrar General in Edinburgh on 7 February. Should he register the deaths of the American soldiers?

He and the other two Islay registrars received a reply by telegram on Saturday morning, 9 February:

‘Tuscania. No registration to be made in Books of your Registration District. Letter follows. You may aid Procurator Fiscal if desired by taking notes of particulars. Supply of Forms Particulars of deaths being forwarded.’

(NRS, General Register Office out-letter book, 1918, GRO1/545, pp.645-6)

On Monday 11 February 1918 the Secretary of the General Register Office wrote more fully to McLachlan, who lived at Port Ellen, and to the registrars of Kilchoman at Port Charlotte and Portnahaven at Bridgend:

‘I am directed by the Registrar General to inform you that … the deaths at sea of members of the American Expeditionary Force of Crew of the vessel caused through the unfortunate torpedoing of the U.S. Transport TUSCANIA do not fall to be registered in the Register Books of your Parish, notwithstanding the bodies may have been washed ashore on the coast of your District or brought ashore therein. Should any deaths however, have occurred amongst any of the survivors who may have been landed in your Parish such deaths would be subject of registration in the usual manner in your Register.’

(NRS, GRO1/545, p.665)

Islay fiscal 1
Letter from Secretary of General Register Office to Donald McLachlan, 11 February 1918

This explains why in the Register of Deaths for Kildalton and Oa only three American soldiers are recorded. Two of them were rescued and taken in at Killeyan farm, and later died there of ‘exposure and shock’. Private Stanley L Collins died on 7 February 1918, and Private F T Benefiel on 14 February 1918. The farmer at Upper Killeyan, Robert Morrison, saved the lives of three survivors he found on the rocky shore, and his two sisters fed and cared for as many as 80 to 90 survivors at the farm. Morrison was awarded the OBE for his services.

American soldier death entries Benefiet and Collins
Death entries for Private F T Benefiel and Private Stanley L Collins, 1918.  (NRS, Kildalton and Oa Register of Deaths, 1918, 541/7) 

An unidentified third soldier was taken to the Islay Hotel in Port Ellen, where he died on 8 February.

American soldier death entry unnamed
Death entry for an unidentified soldier, 1918.  (NRS, Kildalton and Oa Register of Deaths, 1918, 541/6)

Survivors who had been immersed in cold water could succumb to the effects of changing body temperature. The bare details of their deaths were recorded on 29 March, on the information of the Procurator Fiscal. No information about their age or parentage was recorded. Although the soldiers from the ‘Tuscania’ were buried on Islay, the bodies of all except one were later exhumed and returned to America for re-burial.

An even greater tragedy occurred on 6 October 1918, when another troopship, the ‘Otranto’, collided with an escorting warship, with the loss of 400 soldiers. The lives lost in these catastrophes are commemorated by a memorial on the Oa headland.

Tristram Clarke

Head of Outreach

National Records of Scotland

From Disorder to Order: Cataloguing the 19th Century Criminal Case Papers of the High Court of Justiciary, with Simon Johnson


Have you ever wondered what an archivist does?

In this week’s podcast, NRS archivist Simon Johnson opens up the case papers of Scotland’s supreme criminal court in the early 19th Century.

Case papers from the High Court of Justiciary provide endless research potential, both as a record of individual cases and as a tremendous source of Scottish social history.

Cataloguing these case papers can be a laborious and dirty job but it’s always fascinating and in this talk, recorded on St Andrews Day, Simon looks into the process of arranging and cataloguing a collection from the latter Georgian era of 1800-1830.

He’s also picked out some of the more startling criminal cases that he and his colleagues found – cases involving murder, grave robbing and an insight into the very earliest days of forensic analysis in Scotland.

Throughout his talk, Simon refers to photographs and individual case papers, and you can find a selection of these images below.

The NRS Catalogue is available online, including the High Court records. Click here to start searching…

Part of the most recent transmission of records from the High Court of Justiciary
Parliament House and the Laigh Hall
“A chaotic state, unarranged and… mostly indecipherable”… Scottish Records Office Correspondence with the High Court, 1928
Types of libels in criminal cases: Indictment, Criminal Letters and Porteous Roll
19th Century records before cataloguing – a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it…
The NRS Catalogue, available to search online at nrscotland.gov.uk
The John Fordyce case, 1804: Surgeon’s letter stating Jean MacKenzie was killed by shot fired by Fordyce; samples of lead shot, including one piece that was removed from Jean’s heart post-mortem
Case papers from the trial of Hugh Maxwell for murder, 1807

Case papers from the body-snatching case against James Hogg et al, 1807

Trailblazers: The world’s first football club, with John Hutchinson & Andy Mitchell

Long before there was an Edinburgh derby; before the offside rule and the Wembley Wizards or pies and Bovril there was the Football Club, founded in Edinburgh by John Hope in 1824.

It was the world’s first dedicated football organisation, active until 1841, and John Hope’s meticulous records have been preserved among his personal papers here at National Records of Scotland.

In this episode of the NRS podcast, we hear from sport historians John Hutchison and Andy Mitchell, who joined us at General Register House to tell us all about the club; about its extensive membership and how they interlinked through sport and work; where they lived and where they were educated.

They also introduced some startling links between the members of the Football Club and the next generation – the ones who gave us football in the form we know and love today.

You can find some of John Hope’s records from the NRS archives below, including membership lists and receipts.

The NRS podcast Open Book is also available to download from iTunes and other podcasting platforms, and you can find previous episodes here, including a look at the radicalism of Robert Burns; Criminal cases from the archives and a trip to the lonely isles of St Kilda.

John Hope 654
Receipt for payment by John Hope for the use of Dalry Park to play football and practise archery, 1826.
John Hope 653 place after 654
List of subscribers to John Hope’s Foot-Ball Club for season 1831-1832.
John Hope 655
Receipt for payment by John Hope for blowing up footballs, July 1832. A more laborious and much less pleasant process than it is today!

Scottish Archives For Schools

Are you a primary or secondary school teacher?

Would you like to find out more about how you can use records from the National Records of Scotland archives as teaching tools?

Our Outreach & Learning team provide a flexible service with workshops designed to support a wide range of Scottish Curriculum areas and National Qualifications.

You can also use resources available on our Scottish Archives for Schools site as teaching aids, to help pupils connect with Scotland’s history, heritage and culture.

Recent learning events included a school workshop on historical sources for a Higher History class from Webster’s High School in Kirriemuir, supporting the pupils’ recent project on empire and migration.



In this workshop our Head of Learning, Tessa Spencer, provided primary and secondary sources telling the tale of the McCracken family, who emigrated from Ayrshire to Australia in the 1840s. It was a fun day for us, for teachers and – we hope! – for pupils.

The class explored journal entries and correspondence written by Peter and Robert McCracken detailing their voyage to Australia, as well as later genealogical research by Coiler McCracken, Peter McCracken’s son.

These documents offer a unique insight into the family’s experiences, the push and pull factors of emigration in the nineteenth century and the rapidly developing colony of Australia. Students also considered the differences in perspective between the personal and published accounts.

If your class would be interested in taking part in an education workshop, or if you would like to discuss options for learning opportunities with our staff, please see the Services for Schools section of our website.

For more information on school visits and workshops, as well as resources to help pupils connect with Scotland’s history, heritage and culture, you can also visit the Scottish Archives for Schools website or contact our learning team at education@nrscotland.gov.uk.

And you can find out more about the McCracken family’s emigration to Australia in a previous Open Book article from earlier this year.

In From The Cold…

National Records of Scotland recently welcomed a group of staff and history students from the University of Iceland at General Register House, Edinburgh.

The visit involved an introduction to Scotland’s archives and a seminar to consider Scotland and Iceland’s respective national histories, and the nature and survival of historical records.

As part of the visit, our Heads of Digitisation and Learning, Robin Urquhart and Tessa Spencer, as well as Samantha Smart from Digital Services, looked into our archives for interesting documents from Iceland and Icelanders, some demonstrating historic links between our two countries.

We’ve included images of some of the more striking documents from our archives:

– an Icelandic calendar and a book of devotion from 1588-1589;

– a map of Iceland, c. 1748;

– an extract from Sir George Steuart Mackenzie’s travels in Iceland in 1810; and

– an inventory of Thiorbjorn Jonasson, a merchant in Reykjavik who died in Leith in 1895.

We also looked into the Scottish Register of Tartans and found some colourful designs inspired by Iceland’s rugged terrain, including the Volcano tartan.



Map of Iceland c 1748 RHP22361 3 George Louise Le Rouge

Ahead of the visit, our colleagues dug into our records to create a feature on Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847-1927), who composed the Icelandic national anthem while resident in Edinburgh. Sveinbjornsson has now joined hundreds of notable Scots and former residents in the Hall of Fame on the NRS website.

The seminar involved a lively discussion and enthusiastic participation from the students, as well as a bit of friendly rivalry regarding the survival of records!

We hope to arrange another seminar with our Icelandic colleagues and we’re looking forward to engaging with them on other academic projects in future.

If you’re a teacher and would like to learn more about our education services, including workshops for primary and secondary schoolchildren, please see the Services for Schools section of our website.

For more information on school visits and workshops, as well as resources to help pupils connect with Scotland’s history, heritage and culture, you can also visit the Scottish Archives for Schools website or contact our learning team at mailto:education@nrscotland.gov.uk.


St Kilda: The Edge of the World, with Dr Alison Rosie


This is the third episode of Open Book, a Podcast by National Records of Scotland dedicated to preserving Scotland’s past, recording its present and informing our future.

This week, we’re off to the lonely isle of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides, forty miles west of Benbecula.

This craggy isle once supported a small but hardy population, who survived long periods of isolation on a diet comprised of mostly puffins and fulmars. They endured the hard climate and outbreaks of disease, as well as the occasional troublesome tourist and kidnapped aristocrat, until St Kilda was finally evacuated for good in 1930.

Dr Alison Rosie is head of the National Register of Archives of Scotland, which surveys records held in private hands and provides advice and support to custodians. In this talk, recorded at General Register House in Edinburgh’s New Town, Alison looks into the NRS archives to see what we can discover about St Kilda, its people and their history.

She also talks about her recent discovery of the earliest known census of the island’s population from the year 1764, which she found unexpectedly in a private collection.

You can find some of the images that Alison refers to in her talk below, including the 1764 census and many other documents and photographs from the island.  More detailed versions of some of these images are available at the NRS website.

Alison begins her talk with a reference to the album The Lost Songs of St Kilda and you can find a sample of recordings of old St Kildan music at YouTube.

The Open Book Podcast is also available to download via iTunes and several other podcasting applications.





Podcast: Inspiration from the Archives, with ES Thomson

Crime and Punishment: How Archives Can Inspire Fiction, with Dr Elaine Thomson.

Rogues podcast outline

In this week’s Open Book Podcast ES Thomson, author of “The Peachgrowers’ Almanac”, “Beloved Poison”, “Dark Asylum” and others, tells us how archives have inspired her and how the stories of real people from the past can help to develop and inform creative writing.

Elaine looks at some of the strange and remarkable case papers from 19th century Scottish courts she’s found in the NRS archives that inspired elements of her own fiction, including a man transported to Australia for the pettiest of thefts; a bodysnatching medical student with parental issues and a particularly tragic case involving the murder of a newborn infant.

Elaine’s talk is a great introduction to records held by National Records of Scotland and an insight into forgotten stories of a bygone era, whether you’re a budding writer yourself or just have an interest in crime, records or Victoriana.

Find out how to access historical papers from the criminal courts, along with a huge range of other records, at the NRS website.

Open Book, the National Records of Scotland Podcast, is now available to download via iTunes.

Recorded on 20 November 2017 at General Register House, Edinburgh.