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

The end of summer weeding

At the beginning of September, we said a fond farewell to our five summer legal students, who are employed each year to assist us with processing the vast amount of Sheriff Court civil records that we take in each year.

Archivists aim to visit 5-6 courts every year and bring back records that are over 25 years old. We keep a record of every case that goes through the courts, but the sheer bulk of the papers concerned means that we have to make informed decisions about what we can dispose of from amongst the huge amount of papers that go along with every court case.

Our 2017 team of Sheriff Court Record ‘weeders’

This is where our legal student team come into play. They are usually drawn from the ranks of 3rd or 4th year students from one of the Scottish Legal degree courses, and they spend twelve weeks sifting through and ‘weeding’ the civil court papers to allow us to dispose of papers with no enduring historical interest, or evidential  value.

In practical terms, this means that we are able to retain the pertinent information about every case (the people involved, the case details, the judgements, etc.) but that we are not overburdened by keeping case papers which are simply multiple examples of similar types of cases (e.g. simple payment cases).

disposing of weeded material
The students disposing of ‘weeded’ material

This year, the students helped us to process over 400 meters of records from Edinburgh, Elgin, Falkirk, Haddington, Hamilton, and Peebles Sheriff Courts.

We anticipate that, by the time we finish cataloguing these records, the ‘weeders’ will have helped us to reduce this down to around half of the original amount – saving us a huge amount of space, and allowing us to efficiently preserve and catalogue the records which will help to inform future generations.

We wish our summer students all the best success with their future endeavours, and send our thanks for their help.


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

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

A fascinating investigation

Handling records in poor condition causes further damage. In such cases extensive conservation treatment is necessary to make records suitable to be produced and therefore available to scholars and researchers.

I recently worked on an interesting court book dating between 1686 and 1714, a limp vellum binding containing a whole block of papers in seriously bad condition. So bad that throughout the treatment the volume was referred to as “the monster book” and phrases like “better you than me” could be heard in the Conservation studio at NRS. As it had been affected by mould, the paper was extremely soft and had lost its strength completely. The edges were frail and brittle, and fragments would be lost at any page turned.

Continue reading “A fascinating investigation”

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”

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”