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”

A 1920s family photograph album

As well as locating and surveying historical papers held in private hands, the National Register of Archives for Scotland (NRAS) is often in the position of trying to find a good home for archives. And sometimes this is not at all straightforward.

Take for instance a photograph album bound in soft leather found in a Travel Lodge in Edinburgh and handed in to the National Records of Scotland. Nothing with it to identify the owner, nor the subjects of the snapshots, it is not even clear that the family was Scottish. Its pages record a family at leisure, on high days and holidays.

But who exactly are they, this family of many generations, the smiling brides and grooms, the young girl posing with her friends on the lawn of their boarding school (which looks Scottish baronial, but where?), the nurse laughing in the snow, the grandparents posing in front of their Model T Ford and teeing off on the golf course at Gullane?

Clearly the family was of some substance. The clothes are fashionable, if providing proof positive that the dropped waist dresses of the 1920s only flattered the tall and thin! Hair is bobbed, cloche hats abound, fox furs drape shoulders, hems rise for the younger generation while their older relatives hold on to a longer, more modest look, redolent of an earlier era. There are smart weddings, the bride and bridesmaids in flapper headbands and handkerchief hems.

The snaps record family holidays: to the Lake District, where they stay at the fashionable Ullswater Hotel built in the 1830s to serve the growing tourist trade (now the Inn on the Lake Hotel), and visit Mardale Green, a village which disappeared in 1935 when the valley was flooded to make the Haweswater reservoir; trips to York, to Tintern Abbey and Wells Cathedral; to Argyllshire, staying at the Loch Awe Hotel. There are even foreign holidays, to the Riviera and the Alps, which in the 1920s were limited to the well off.

It has been possible to identify some of the places in the photographs but not where the family lived, which makes finding a suitable archive for the album tricky. All archives have their own collecting policies which set out what material they routinely acquire as well as areas of their collections they would like to build up. Without knowing the particular local connections of the family, and with nothing in the album which renders it of national importance, what should be its fate?

If you recognise any of the people in the photos, please get in touch.

Alison Rosie, Registrar, NRAS

Birds nest manuscript

We have a number of curiosities in our archives, but one of the odder items is the contents of a birds’ nest.

No ordinary nest, this one, found in the roof of St Giles Cathedral in 1961, was lined with papers from Scotland’s exchequer records.

Shredded historical documents used to line a birds nest.
The contents of a birds nest found in St Giles cathedral by Dr Athol Murray.

Keeper of the Records of Scotland from 1985-1990 Dr Athol Murray identified the documents. He takes up the story:

“In 1961 The Scottish Record Office received some papers found by electricians in the roof space of St Giles Cathedral.

“A few were complete, including a copy of the Edinburgh Court from the 1770s, and I recognised others as being torn bits of exchequer documents, mainly eighteenth century.

“I was sent up to have a look around and found more torn papers surrounded by masses and masses of twigs and general rubbish.

“I asked them to send over anything else they found and received a lorry load of twigs and more bits of torn up paper.

“Colleagues patiently sorted through them and found more documents , although it was indicated to me rather strongly that should we receive another such lorry load, I could sort the contents myself.

“The strange mixture of documents, twigs and rubbish had me baffled but later a knowledgeable colleague, Dr Frances Shaw, provided the answer – a jackdaw’s nest.

“A pair of jackdaws must have been flying in and out of the roof space of St Giles into the exchequer office opposite on Parliament square. The St Giles roof was renewed around 1830, so the jackdaws must have got access to the Cathedral and the Exchequer Office after that.

“The jackdaws had been flying in and out, taking whole documents, and ripping them up to feather their nests.”

“Some documents were subsequently restored, but the picture shows those which remain in their shredded state. They date from the 1680s to the 1830s.

Who was Thomas Thomson?

The names of some of our buildings may seem self-explanatory: it is fairly easy to understand why names like General Register House, West Register House, and New Register House were chosen. However, we are often asked about the name of our newest archive building, Thomas Thomson House, which is at Sighthill to the west of Edinburgh city centre.

Model by Building Design Partnership, architects of Thomas Thomson House

TTH (as it is known by staff) was built in 1994 and provides over 37 kilometers of records storage as well as being the base for many of our conservators, archivists, and support staff.

Continue reading “Who was Thomas Thomson?”

Court photos show 1950s Glasgow life

You might expect the pictures contained within Sheriff court Records to be graphic or disturbing, showing the details of crimes and their victims. Of course, this is often the case – but sometimes the pictures can instead give us a glimpse into social or local history.

In a payment case for damages for injuries occurring in a Glasgow washhouse or ‘steamie’ in 1959 we found this wonderfully candid shot. This photograph provides a snapshot into the working of such a wash house. The large washing machines can be seen in the background, with basins on the right, airing cabinets on the left, and tables for folding in the foreground. It definitely shows what a chore hand washing used to be and how much we take our home washing machines for granted! Such an everyday shot of a very ordinary place would usually not have been a typical subject for a photographer. As the photographer here is trying to capture the machine layout and not the women, they are mostly unaware they are being photographed which creates a lovely action shot.

A Glasgow steamie in 1959
Women at work in a Glasgow “steamie” or wash house in 1959.


In another Glasgow Sheriff Court case from 1957 we found a couple of attractive images of St Enoch’s Square in Glasgow. This case was to recall an order made by the Corporation of the City of Glasgow to discontinue the use of the centre of St Enoch’s Square as a parking place. The case was brought by the Royal Scottish Automobile Club, The Automobile Association, and The Royal Automobile Club, who were representing their members, all agreed that removing parking places from the square would only move the problem of inadequate parking facilities in the city elsewhere. The Automobile clubs eventually lost their case and it was prohibited to park in St Enoch Square. These images again capture an everyday snapshot of people going about their business unaware their picture is being taken.

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Jennifer Homewood, Archivist



Three roads to Hampden?

Hampden Park is today known as the iconic home of Scotland’s national football team (and, of course, of Queen’s Park F.C.) However, did you know that there have been three different Hampden Parks since the formation of the SFA in 1873?

Hampden Park #1 was the first home of Queen’s Park and they played there for ten years. It was also at this time used as a venue for Scottish international matches. But plans to create the new Cathcart District Railway proved fatal for this first home of Scottish football as this plan shows.

RHP40386/1: Bound plans and sections of Cathcart District Railway, 1879
RHP40386/1: Bound plans and sections of Cathcart District Railway, 1879

Continue reading “Three roads to Hampden?”

The Marquis of Montrose’s death and re-assembly

Marquess of MontroseOn 21 May 1650 the royalist hero James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, was publicly executed by hanging on a scaffold at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh, and his body dismembered. A remarkable account of expenses held by National Records of Scotland throws light on how, a decade later, Montrose’s remains were reassembled with pomp and ceremony, ready for his elaborate funeral. The revealing account is one a small group of papers in the miscellaneous series (National Records of Scotland, RH9/1/38).

The former Scottish covenanting commander was captured in 1650 by his enemies and condemned to death for his treachery to the covenanting cause and his military action against them during the 1640s. Rather than facing honourable execution by beheading, the Marquess was hanged like a common criminal. He went to his death defiantly, maintaining his adherence to the Covenant. He also went stylishly, dressed in a black suit, a scarlet coat with silver trimmings, and a beaver hat. In an exceptional move designed to inspire fear and awe in the populace, his head was placed on a spike on the Edinburgh Tolbooth next to the High Kirk (St Giles), his limbs distributed to other Scottish burghs, and his torso buried near the Burghmuir loch, at the east end of the modern Meadows.  Continue reading “The Marquis of Montrose’s death and re-assembly”

A window into the 18th century: John Home’s estate plans

The NRS maps and plans collection contains many exceptional items, but we’re looking today at the estate plans of John Home. Home was a land surveyor who worked across Scotland during the mid to late 18th century. It was something of a golden age of surveying in Scotland – a time when estate plans were much in demand from landowners wanting to assess and ‘improve’ their holdings.

His plans are highly detailed and contain a wealth of information which users may not initially expect. A major point of interest is that many give the names of the owners, tenants or possessors of individual holdings in rural areas, or of dwellings in his urban plans. A good example is this plan of Stonehaven in 1795, which gives individuals’ names and the location of their dwellings.

Detail from: National Records of Scotland, RHP142494: Plan of Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, 1795.

Continue reading “A window into the 18th century: John Home’s estate plans”

Preview: Medieval Charters Exhibition

NRS archivist Dr Tristram Clarke, Head of Outreach, talks about Scribes & Royal Authority: Scotland’s Charters, 1100-1250, a free exhibition at General Register House, Edinburgh.

The exhibition, which runs from 5 April to 17 May, is a rare opportunity to see examples from two of Scotland’s most important collections of medieval charters.

You can find out more here.

Medieval Charters Exhibition

Scribes and Royal Authority: Scotland’s Charters 1100-1250

5 April – 17 May 2017

Free Exhibition, Matheson Dome, General Register House

For the first time precious examples from two of Scotland’s most important collections of medieval charters are going on show in National Records of Scotland.

1. GD_45_13_223
Charter of Thor, son of Swain for Holyrood Abbey, National Records of Scotland (GD45/13/223)

The charters from Holyrood Abbey and Melrose Abbey reveal how government developed in the period between 1100 and 1250, as part of the emergence in Western Europe of government as we recognise it today. These charters are but a tiny sample of what survives from the period and they offer a glimpse into the work of Scotland’s medieval scribes. This exhibition investigates how changes in the handwriting of the royal and monastic scribes reflect these crucial changes in charters that granted lands and rights.

Continue reading “Medieval Charters Exhibition”