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.



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!

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.

Pastures New: Scottish Emigration to Australia

It is common knowledge that Australia was originally treated as a penal colony by the British Empire. In May 1787 the first fleet of convict ships set sail from England and arrived in Botany Bay some 8 months later in January 1788.

As a punishment for persistent offenders – most commonly crimes of housebreaking, theft or forgery – it is estimated that between 1787 and 1868, 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia. A mere 5% of these were Scottish, nearly 7600 people. However this first transportation would later hinder the settlement of Australia by free men and their families, as in the early years convicts greatly outnumbered free settlers.

The large number of convicts, along with other disincentives – such as the long and hazardous journey, the extreme expense, and the unknown nature of Australia to those in Scotland – meant that it was difficult to break the long tradition of Scottish emigration to Canada. However, Australia was in desperate need of labour and it quickly became clear that only through some form of assisted emigration, that this demand would be met.

This demand for labour, coinciding with political unrest in Canada, resulted in Scots being squeezed out of the home labour market by industrial or agricultural improvement, and the development of societies and schemes to aid with emigration, helped to turn the tide. Encouraged by the lure of higher wages, better working conditions and the prospect of marriage or of owning land, many Scots decided to make the long journey to Australia as economic migrants.

Government poster providing ‘General Information for Intending Emigrants’ to Canada, Australasia and South Africa (National Records of Scotland, AF51/91)

The McCrackens

Robert McCracken (born March 1813) and his brother Peter (born Feb 1818) were members of  a large family of seven brothers and three sisters whose descendants had moved to Ayrshire in the southwest of Scotland from the parish of New Luce, Galloway in the 18th century. Their father Robert (1770-1831), was the tenant farmer of Ardwell, and his brother William farmed a few miles away at Auchencrosh near Ballantrae.

The McCrackens had benefitted from an ongoing process, discernible throughout the Scottish Lowlands from the 1760s, in the emergence of larger, economically more effective farms. But this resulted in a decline in the number of available tenancies, thus increasing the likelihood that several of the next generation of the McCrackens would have to seek employment elsewhere.

Among the National Records of Scotland’s (NRS) collections are papers relating to the McCracken family, GD533, which include Peter McCracken’s journal detailing the voyage to Australia and genealogical research by Coiler McCracken (Peter McCracken’s son). Through these papers we have a unique insight into members of the McCracken family’s experience of travelling, and of the situation in the Australian colony.

“I attended school for several years at Girvan and then went for 7 months to Ayr Academy. On returning from which in 1835 I filled my brother Robert’s place…on the farm, and remained with the family, sometimes doing a little in cattle and now and again offering for a farm none of which I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to get. In 1839 I began to think of going out to Australia but my mother being much against it, it got no further than talk.

…on the 11th Feb[ruar]y our dear mother and only parent was dangerously struck with paralysis from which she never recovered…

Immediately after the death of my mother I began to think seriously of starting for Australia – and during the Spring leaving made up my mind to go. I wrote to brother Robert (who was in Manchester) regarding a passage & he not being in good health resolved to go along with me.”

(Extract from ‘Events in the Life of Peter McCracken and of the family to which he belonged – copied from his own writing by his son Coiler McCracken on September 1st 1888. GD533/4/12)

Peter McCracken made the long trip to Australia to seek his fortune. Through Robert McCracken’s journal we get a colourful insight into the difficulties of the journey.

“We had plenty to eat although not of the finest quality. It is no easy matter to chew sea biscuit for four months yet still I got quite stout on it. We had also plenty to drink, except water.

There was a strange medley of passengers, and nearly all of them towns people. They were mostly proud enough, but I believe also mostly poor enough…

There was a great deal of drinking on board, and in our mess there were three confirmed drunkards. One Sabbath afternoon there were no fewer than six drunk, one of them a woman, she and one of the men fell down the companion ladder, which helped to sober them a little, and where there is drinking there is sure to be quarrelling. Sometimes they were for Pistolling each other but they could never screw their courage to the point. Peter and I managed to keep friends with them all, but were often troubled with arbitrations, which was far from pleasant.”

(Extract from Robert McCracken’s journal of the voyage from Liverpool to Victoria, Australia, on board the ‘Nimrod’, 1840-1841. GD533/4/4)

Peter and Robert arrived in Melbourne in January 1841. They were not the only emigrants from their family. Their younger brother, Alexander Earle, followed in 1850, although he returned to Scotland several years later. Initially, the McCracken brothers barely made ends meet, however they persisted with their endeavour. The brothers, in partnership with their brother-in-law, James Robertson, went on to establish a brewery. The initial yield of this brewery, was small, making only 4 barrels of beer per brew. However, good business acumen and a willingness to embrace new methods and techniques led to the company’s success.

Robert ‘tied’ publicans to his brewery, securing a guaranteed buyer for their beer. This coupled with the steady improvement of the product, the regular provision of their beer accompanied by large quantities of wine, tobacco and sweets at a discount, made them a reliable supplier that could meet the demand of thirsty settlers.

By 1861 James Robertson was able to retire a wealthy man, after which the brewery traded as R. McCracken and Co, until 8 May 1907 when it became part of Carlton and United Breweries.

Education Workshops

NRS - Outreach and Learning - Migration and Empire Workshop - 29 January 2018
Migration and Empire Workshop in New Register House. Head of Learning, Tessa Spencer, addressing Webster High School Students

The remarkable story of the McCracken family held in our records has formed the basis for one of our educational workshops, led by our new Head of Learning Tessa Spencer.

New Register House Dome (National Records of Scotland, Crown Copyright)

Recently NRS was delighted to welcome a Higher History class from Webster’s High School into New Register House for a workshop on ‘Migration and the Empire’. This learning activity looked at both primary and secondary sources, and explored the McCracken correspondence and journals alongside published accounts of their lives. We asked the students to examine what the information presented revealed about the McCrackens’ experience  and to consider the push and pull factors of emigration, the development of the colony on Australia, and the different perspectives offered by personal and published accounts.

For more information about NRS’ education workshops please see the ‘Services for Schools’ section of our website.

For more information about records relating to migration held in NRS and other archives see our ‘Emigration Records’.

Jocelyn Grant


National Records of Scotland

Further Reading

The Emigrants. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimiles, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

The Scots in Australia. Historical background, list of documents, extracts and facsimile, National Archives of Scotland, History at Source, 1994

Australian Dictionary of Biography, McCracken, Robert (1813-1885)

Open Book Podcast – Episode One


This is the first episode of the Open Book Podcast, a new series of talks and discussions from National Records of Scotland dedicated to preserving Scotland’s past, recording the present and informing our future.

We kick off with a talk given by Gerard Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, on Scotland’s most famous poet and lyricist – Robert Burns.

Centered on recently identified documents at the National Records of Scotland, Gerard’s talk discusses Burns’ place in the Excise Service during revolutionary times.

Was the poet a willing government employee or was he a reluctant, neutered individual, deliberately de-barbed by the powers that be? What were the cultural and intellectual contexts afforded to Burns as a civil servant? What kind of relationships did he have with Excise colleagues and how did his career intersect with his creative and family lives?

Following the French Revolution and the Excise Service enquiry into the poet’s political beliefs, Gerard discusses the nature of Burns’ views and how these were expressed during the turbulent 1790s.

Our exhibition Robert Burns: Radical Exciseman is free to visit on weekdays at General Register House, Edinburgh, between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm until 23 February 2018.

You can find extracts from the letters on display, to which Gerard refers, below.

Burns Letter 1 compressed

“He stood, with Eyes & hands, directed upwards, in an attitude Poetically fancifull”…

Letter from John Mitchell, Collector of Excise, to Robert Graham of Fintry, Commissioner of Excise, 6 August 1789 (National Records of Scotland, GD151/11/26/35A)


Burns Letter 4 compressed
“He had certainly many shining qualities, blended with foibles of various kinds, the most irreconcileable whereof were his political principles, which somehow unluckily was rooted, & proves now a drawback to the humane feelings of many, but such a Genious as he possessed behoved to have eccentricities of some kind or other”.
Letter from John Mitchell, Collector of Excise, to Robert Graham of Fintry, Commissioner of Excise, 2 September 1796 (National Records of Scotland, GD151/11/26/47A)

Recording and images Crown Copyright 2018.