Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime 1870-1917

25 October – 1 December 2017
General Register House, Matheson Dome

NRS Rogues Gallery Poster_Portrait2 CMYKRESIZE

Thieves, confidence tricksters, pickpockets and more… Our new exhibition of photographs and criminal records from the Victorian and Edwardian eras will bring you face-to-face with Scotland’s criminal past.

National Records of Scotland will display previously unseen mug shot albums alongside official trial records as part of Rogues Gallery: Faces of Crime 1870-1917, a free exhibition in partnership with Edinburgh City Archives.

Revealing fascinating personal details about criminals, their victims and the society that produced them, Rogues Gallery demonstrates how much we can learn about people of the past from criminal records and provides an insight into the development of policing and detection methods in Scotland.

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Thomas Queen, criminal photographed in 1910 (Edinburgh City Archives, SL260/ELC/6/3/1)

On display for the first time: case papers from the trial of infamous poisoner Eugène Chantrelle. Purportedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr Jekyll, Chantrelle was tried for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1878.  A selection of the trial records will be exhibited, including a transcript of one Elizabeth’s letters, the volume of precognitions, Chantrelle’s declaration and detailed plans of their flat on George Street, Edinburgh.

The exhibition also includes a snapshot of the development of photography, as police and their forensic assistants began to realise its potential to record crime scenes and other physical evidence including the footprints that helped to convict serial housebreaker John Aitken Swanston in 1909.

NRS Rogues Gallery Poster_Portrait3 CMYKRESIZE

Rogues Gallery runs from 25 October – 1 December 2017 in the Matheson Dome, General Register House, Edinburgh. Admission is free.

To accompany the exhibition, you can also attend a series of free talks on the history of photography; how criminals used photos; how historical research informs creative writing and much more.

Jocelyn Grant

Outreach Archivist

Doors Open Day – General Register House and New Register House

Once again, that time of year is approaching when the National Records of Scotland throws open its doors and invites the public into the splendour of the General Register and New Register House, and offers a tantalising glimpse behind the scenes.

General Register House

National Records of Scotland, General Register House
National Records of Scotland, General Register House

Before records were officially stored in the archive, there was no permanent repository for Scotland’s national records. It wasn’t until 1774 that the construction of General Register House in part of Edinburgh’s New Town began; designed by Robert Adam (1728-1792), it is perhaps one of his finest public buildings. It is also uniquely, the first purpose-built public record repository inn the British Isles, and may be the oldest archive building in the world still being used for its original function.

Robert Adam and his younger brother James Adam were appointed architects of Register House in 1772, and as a purpose-built repository they deliberately incorporated special elements into the buildings design to defend against some of the traditional enemies of archives. Mainly fire and damp. To prevent fire the building was solidly constructed of stone with brick vaults, and stone flags were used for all the floors bar one. To protect the records from damp special flues were constructed in the floor to carry hot air through the building from 4 furnaces that were kept constantly burning in the basement.

Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in 'Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1' by James Grant
Adam Dome, General Register House. Illustration printed p.369 in ‘Old & New Edinburgh Vol.1’ by James Grant

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

50 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height, this dome is the centre piece and main public access point for the public into General Register House. Recently renovated in 2008, the Dome features plaster decorations, antique bas reliefs and gilding which acknowledge the building’s national identity.

Today General Register House continues to house Scotland’s archives, and to provide public access to the nation’s records through our Historical Search Room, and ScotlandsPeople.

New Register House

Designed by Robert Matheson, New Register House was built between 1859 and 1863. Designed to complement General Register House, the internal finish of this building was kept simple and the main feature of this elegant building is the dome. Consisting of five tiers of  ironwork shelving and galleries, similar to those at the British Museum in London, this central fireproof repository is surrounded on the outside by staff and search rooms on three floors.

New Register House Dome

The 6.5km (4 miles) of shelving in the Dome contain some half a million volumes, in particular the statutory register of all births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855. These are still being added to every year and can be identified by their colour, red for birth, black for death and green for marriage.

Doors Open Day

For Doors Open Day we will be offering tours of General Register and New Register House. These will give a bit more history about our buildings and offer a rare look behind the scenes. Tours will be running from 10.15am on Saturday 23 September and must be booked. To book see here.

As part of DOD we will also have a special display of historical records looking at Edinburgh’s New Town. We look forward to seeing you there!

Jocelyn Grant, Outreach Archivist

National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

  • ‘A Proper Repository’: The Building of the General Register House, Margaret H. B. Sanderson
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. I, James Grant
  • Old & New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. Vol. II, James Grant

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”

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)


“The daughter of debate that discord aye doth sow”
Elizabeth I, from her sonnet ‘The Doubt of Future Foes’
referring to Mary Queen of Scots

During her lifetime Mary Queen of Scots was a highly controversial monarch and she continues to divide opinion today. When we consider her reign, we often focus on the tragedy of her captivity and execution. These events tend to colour how we view her life, as if its trajectory was an inevitable journey towards the executioner’s block. This is not helped by the two melancholy portraits of Mary which are the most well-known: Clouet’s portrait of her in her white mourning (‘deuil blanc’) after the death of her first husband, Francis II, and the posthumous portrait showing the Queen as a Catholic martyr, now in the Blairs Museum. In the early years of her personal reign in Scotland, however, her success and personal popularity were such that no-one could have predicted her end. Continue reading “Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)”

Sir William Arrol (1839-1913) – The Engineer

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Sir William Arrol aged 70, printed in ‘Sir William Arrol: A Memoir’ by Robert Purvis

A titan of engineering and construction, William Arrol established his company in the early 1870s, when Glasgow was developing as an industrial city and the revolutionary Siemens Martin process was enabling the mass production of cheap steel. Arrol made his name with the construction of the Forth Bridge (1890), and is also known for the second Tay Bridge (1887), Tower Bridge in London and elsewhere. Continue reading “Sir William Arrol (1839-1913) – The Engineer”

Madeleine Hamilton Smith (1835-1928) – The Accused

Madeleine Smith Snapshot
Portrait taken in court of Madeleine Smith from ‘The Trial of Madeleine Smith’ (National Records of Scotland, L034.087)


On 30 June 1857 the trial of Madeleine Smith began. A young woman from a prosperous Glasgow family, Smith was charged with, on three separate occasions, administering arsenic or other poison to Pierre Emile L’Angelier with intent to kill, twice in February and once in March 1857. It was this accusation and the subsequent trial which brought to light the great volume of letters which had secretly passed between them. Presented as evidence of  Madeleine and Emile’s relationship and meetings, these letters formed a core part of the trial, and because of their frank expressions of desire and affection, they scandalised and excited the Victorian public of the time. Continue reading “Madeleine Hamilton Smith (1835-1928) – The Accused”