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Thursday 23 March 2017

History of the National Archives of Scotland

Based in Edinburgh, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) has one of the most varied collections of archives in the British Isles. It is the main archive for sources of the history of Scotland as a separate kingdom, her role in the British Isles and the links between Scotland and many other countries over the centuries. Before 1999, the NAS was known as the Scottish Record Office, whose antecedents in turn date back to the 13th century. The organisation is headed by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland and formally became a Government Agency in 1993. In April 2011 NAS merged with the General Register Office for Scotland to form the National Records of Scotland. This page tells you about the history of the NAS and its buildings, among which is General Register House, designed by the eminent architect, Robert Adam.

Early history

The early history of the national archives of Scotland reflects Scotland's own troubled history. Many records were lost as a result of being taken out of the country first in the 13th century by Edward I during the Wars of Independence and later by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. As a result, the earliest surviving Scottish public record is the Quitclaim of Canterbury of 1189; the oldest private record is a charter by David I to the church of St Cuthbert in Edinburgh, 1127. The earliest surviving exchequer roll belongs only to 1326; the records of the Great Seal survive only from 1315; and, although there are a few early rolls starting in 1292, full records of Parliament do not begin until 1466. The first reference to a government official responsible for looking after the records dates from 1286. William of Dumfries was a clerk of the rolls of the royal 'chapel' or chancery. This office was later to develop into that of Lord Clerk Register.

The archives in the Middle Ages

When war broke out between Scotland and England in 1296 and Edward I invaded, he had all the symbols of Scots nationhood - the regalia, the national archives and the Stone of Destiny - removed to London. The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton ended the first War of Independence in 1329 and provided for the return of the records to Scotland. But they remained in London, many disappeared, and when their remnants were sent back to Scotland in 1948, only about 200 documents remained. During the reign of Robert I, 'the Bruce' (1306-1329) and with the more settled nature of the country after the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the national archives grew in quantity. Records accumulated over the centuries and by the mid-sixteenth century it became necessary to build a special 'register house' in Edinburgh Castle to house them.

Civil War and Cromwell

The archives remained safe in the Castle until its capture by Cromwell's army in December 1650. The Scots were allowed to remove the archives and they were deposited in Stirling Castle. When that too fell to the English in August 1651, some of the records were carried off by the garrison, some were rescued by the clerks, but most were sent away to London. Their removal proved very inconvenient, so in 1657 the legal registers were returned to Scotland. It was not until the restoration of Charles II in 1660 that the other records were sent back. One of the two ships carrying the archives, the 'Elizabeth', sank in a storm off the Northumbrian coast with the loss of all the papers and parchments on board.

The Laigh Parliament House

Those records which had survived the voyage north were deposited again in Edinburgh Castle. But in 1662 the legal registers were transferred to the Laigh Parliament House on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, where parliamentary and other records from the Castle joined them in 1689. The move was partly designed to promote access to the records, but the accommodation was far from satisfactory and the archives were damaged by damp and vermin. Records were piled on the floor and the backs of cupboards ran with damp. The great fire of 1700, which threatened the Parliament House, forced a temporary removal of the records to St Giles' church for safety. Although the Treaty of Union of 1707 specified that the public records were to remain in Scotland in all time coming, there was no public money available to provide adequate accommodation and supervision for them.

General Register House

By the mid-eighteenth century the need to provide accommodation for the national archives was widely recognised. In 1765 a grant of £12,000 was obtained from the estates of Jacobites, forfeited after the 1745 rising, towards building a 'proper repository'. A site was chosen fronting the end of the North Bridge then under construction. The eminent architect Robert Adam and his brother James were selected for the project, and the foundation stone was laid in 1774. While exercising tight control from London through his clerk of works and the supply of detailed drawings, Adam used stone from neighbouring quarries, Edinburgh tradesmen for supplies and local masons and craftsmen. In 1779 the money ran out and the building remained an empty shell until 1785. The derelict site, described as 'the most magnificent pigeon-house in Europe', was the haunt of thieves and pick-pockets. The building finally opened to the public in 1789. Robert Reid, also architect of St George's Church (now West Register House), completed the building to Adam's plan in the 1820s, but with a much simplified north façade. Reid also designed the Antiquarian Room (now the Historical Search Room), which opened to the public in 1847. General Register House is one of the oldest custom built archive buildings still in continuous use in the world. More information can be found in our publications on the history of Register House and Robert Adam as well as our leaflet on General Register House.

Thomas Thomson

In 1806 the office of Deputy Clerk Register was created to oversee the day to day running of the office. The appointment of Thomas Thomson to the post laid the foundation of the modern record office. His thirty-five year term of office saw a programme of cataloguing and repair of the older records and the start of a series of record publications.

West Register House

Since the early twentieth century accessions of records have increased both in bulk and variety. The growth in the office's activities and holdings brought a need for more accommodation and improved facilities. In 1971 the former St George's Church in Charlotte Square was converted into West Register House. Robert Adam, architect of General Register House, designed the frontages of the houses in Charlotte Square and included a plan for a church in his drawings in 1791. The plan was never used and in 1810 Robert Reid drew up a new design. The foundation stone was laid in May 1811 and the building opened to public worship in 1814. The church discovered dry rot in 1959 and, unable to meet the spiralling costs of repair, closed in 1961. In 1968 began the process of converting the church into a branch of the Scottish Record Office. The exterior was left unaltered but the entire interior was removed and replaced by five floors of reinforced concrete for offices and record storage.

Thomas Thomson House

By the 1980s both city centre sites were filled to capacity and it became clear that another building was needed. This provided the unique opportunity to design a modern archive building. In 1994 Thomas Thomson House was built in the west of Edinburgh and opened the following year by the Princess Royal. Designed to provide space for the national archives of Scotland until the mid 21st century, the building is essentially two separate buildings joined together. One high-tech block provides over 37 kilometres of environmentally controlled record storage while the other houses spacious records reception and sorting areas, staff offices and a purpose built conservation unit.

Find out more

You can find out more about the NAS, its buildings and the architect Robert Adam in several of our publications. You can also download our leaflet on General Register House.

Leaflet on General Register House - Acrobat PDF 1190 KB, new window

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Page last updated: Thursday, 19 July 2012

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