National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Our History

Our History

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) was created on 1 April 2011 by the merger of two national institutions, the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) and the National Archives of Scotland (NAS).

The Chief Executive of NRS fulfils the roles of two office holders – the Registrar General for Scotland and the Keeper of the Records of Scotland. Both of these roles have a proud history.

The Office of the Registrar General for Scotland

The Registrar General for Scotland is one of the statutory titles of the Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland, Mr Paul Lowe, who took up his appointment in December 2018.

Over 400 years ago a Provincial Council of the Scottish clergy meeting in Edinburgh enacted that a register of baptisms and marriages should be kept. Later, an Act of the Privy Council, which followed a proposal of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, decreed that parish registers of baptisms, burials and marriages should be kept by every minister in Scotland. Church Ministers continued to be responsible for maintaining the registers of these events until 1854 when Parliament passed an Act 'to provide for the better registration of births, deaths and marriages in Scotland', thus transferring the responsibility from church to State and putting a statutory obligation on individuals to register vital events.


Registration - Change of System 1855

Registration - Change of System, 1855 (378 KB PDF)

Sgrìobhadh-cuimhne - Atharrachadh Riaghailt 1855

Sgrìobhadh-cuimhne - Atharrachadh Riaghailt, 1855 (378 KB PDF)

The 1854 Act provided for the setting up of the General Registry (sic) Office, the appointment of a Registrar General and the appointment of registrars in every parish. It also provided that the Registrar General should produce an annual report to be forwarded to the Home Secretary to be laid before Parliament containing 'a general abstract of the numbers of births, deaths and marriages registered during the foregoing year'. The first general abstract (relating to 1855) was submitted in 1856. This was in the form of a report composed of tables and text. Many of the tables are similar to those produced for modern Annual Reports: for example, tables giving numbers of deaths by cause of death, sex, age and area within Scotland. On the other hand, the text goes well beyond what we think of as appropriate to include today. Thus, the report relating to 1855 discusses not only 'the specific diseases which are the more immediate gateways (or trap doors) through which our race drops into the grave' but also 'other agencies which powerfully modify these diseases, and their action on mankind'. These other agencies included the state of trade, including the question of wages paid, and the fullness of employment, the price and quality of provisions, and the weather.

One conclusion of this first 'annual report' was that the year 1855 was not one in which trade was dull, or employment for the working classes scarce, as was best proved by the sums which were deposited by the working classes in the savings banks that year. There was a good deal of speculation as to the causes of illegitimacy. It was noted that in many cases the parents of the illegitimate children were 'cohabiting as married parties and were true to each other' much the same as today. It was also noted that, in rural areas, the smaller the average size of the farms, the greater the number of illegitimate births. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the reports were written in this way, bearing in mind that they were written at a time when statistics were increasingly being seen as instruments for social change.

Registrars General for Scotland

Section 2 of the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Scotland) Act 1854, which provided for the setting up of a compulsory system of registration in Scotland required the provision of an office in the General Register House at Edinburgh to be called "The General Registry Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages" and the appointment of a Registrar General - the appointee to be the person for the time being holding the office of Deputy to the Lord Clerk Register. The Deputy Clerk Register was, in terms of section 5 of the Lord Clerk Register (Scotland) Act 1879, required to be an Advocate of the Scottish Bar of not less than ten years standing.

Section 3 of the 1854 Act provided for the appointment of a Secretary to act in the absence of, and with all the powers of, the Registrar General.

William Pitt Dundas was the first holder of the combined post of Deputy Clerk Register and Registrar General and acted as such from September 1854 until April 1880. His successor, Roger Montgomerie, died six months after his appointment, and Mr Pitt Dundas resumed office for a year or so until the appointment of Sir Stair Agnew, KCB., the New Register House, on 30 March 1861.

The last person to hold the combined posts was Sir James Patten McDougall, KCB, who was in office from May 1909 to March 1919. A vacancy existed from then until 1 January 1921 when, following the passing of the Registrar General (Scotland) Act 1920, which provided for the appointment by the Secretary of State for Scotland for a whole-time Registrar General, Dr James Craufurd Dunlop, Medical Superintendent of Statistics was appointed Registrar General, to the dismay of Mr Gray, the then Secretary, who had borne full responsibility of running the office for nearly two years.

Here is a chronological list of Registrars General past and present:-

Registrars General Dates
William Pitt Dundas 12 September 1854 - 28 April 1880
Roger Montgomerie 19 April 1880 - 25 October 1880
William Pitt Dundas CB 17 November 1880 - 12 January 1881
Sir Stair Agnew KCB 13 January 1881 - 30 April 1909
Sir James Patten MacDougall KCB 1 May 1909 - 7 March 1919
Dr James Craufurd Dunlop 1 January 1921- 2 September 1930
Andrew Froude ISO 3 September 1930 - 14 February 1937
James Gray Kyd CBE 1 September 1937 - 30 November 1948
Edmund Albert Hogan CBE 1 December 1948 - 31 May 1959
Alexander Burt Taylor CBE D Litt 1 June 1959 - 4 September 1966
James Allan Ford CB MC September 1966 - September 1969
Archibald L Rennie CB October 1969 - 11 June 1973
William Baird 12 June 1973 - 3 August 1978
Victor Colvin Stewart 4 August 1978 - 12 April 1982
Dr Charles Milne Glennie CBE 13 April 1982 - 31 October 1994
James Meldrum 1 November 1994 - 21 February 1999
John Randall 22 February 1999 - 1 August 2003
Duncan Macniven CBE 4 August 2003 - 5 August 2011
George MacKenzie 8 August 2011 - 28 September 2012
Audrey Robertson (Acting Registrar General) 1 October 2012 - 1 February 2013
Timothy Ellis 4 February 2013 - 3 May 2018
Anne Slater (Acting Registrar General) 4 May 2018 - 16 December 2018
Paul Lowe 17 December 2018 - 19 February 2023
Janet Egdell 20 February 2023 - present


The Office of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland

The Keeper of the Records of Scotland is another of the statutory titles of the Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland.

The Keeper of the Records of Scotland is responsible to the Scottish Ministers for the management of certain functions of the NRS, and to the Lord President of the Court of Session for the efficient management of the court and other legal records in Scotland. The office of Keeper of the Records of Scotland was created in 1949, although its antecedents date back to the 13th century.

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. 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.

Here is a chronological list of Keeper of the Records past and present:-

Keeper of the Records Dates
Sir James Ferguson of Kilkerran Bt 1949 - 1969
Dr John Imrie 1969 - 1984
Dr Athol Murray 1985 - 1990
Patrick Cadell 1991 - 2000
George MacKenzie 2001 - 2012
Audrey Robertson (Acting Keeper) 1 October 2012 - 1 February 2013
Timothy Ellis 4 February 2013 -  3 May 2018
Anne Slater (Acting Keeper) 4 May 2018 - 16 December 2018
Paul Lowe 17 December 2018 - 19 February 2023
Janet Egdell 20 February 2023 - present


A History of Records and Archives

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) 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.

Early History

The early history of the 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.

History of NRS Buildings

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 1788. 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.

New Register House

New Register House, the main building of the General Register Office for Scotland, close to the east end of Edinburgh's famous Princes Street, was designed by Robert Matheson, the Clerk of Works at the Office of Her Majesty's Works in Scotland, who was responsible for Government buildings at the time. He also designed Edinburgh's former General Post Office building nearby.

The New Register House site, on Gabriel's Road, was acquired in 1859. The architect's aim was for the new building to harmonise with the existing Register House designed by Robert Adam in the 18th century. A portico was added to the south elevation to give it the character of a public building; and the style of internal finish was kept simple. The building was first occupied in 1861 and completed in 1863 following the addition of 5 offices to each floor on the north side. The Accountant in Bankruptcy and Lord Lyon's departments were also allocated rooms. It cost, complete with fittings, nearly 35,000 pounds to build.

The main feature of this elegant building is the lofty fireproof central repository, the Dome, which consists of five tiers of ironwork shelving and galleries similar to those at the British Museum in London and is surrounded on the outside by staff and search rooms on three floors. The Dome is a large and striking circular chamber, over 27m (90 feet) high and of considerable interest as a piece of 19th century functional architecture and structural engineering.

The 6.5km (4 miles) of shelving in the Dome contain some half a million volumes. These include some 400,000 statutory registers of all the births, deaths and marriages in Scotland since 1855, still being added to every year. Red birth volumes are on the first tier, the death volumes in funereal black on the second, and the marriage volumes in green on the third. The original marriage schedules, which are signed by the parties immediately after marriage ceremonies in Scotland, are shelved on the top tier of the Dome as are the open Census records from 1841 to 1891.

The old parish registers are perhaps the greatest treasures in New Register House. The oldest volume dates from 1553 and is for the parish of Errol, near Perth

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 NRS, its buildings and the architect Robert Adam in several of our publications. You can also download our leaflet on General Register House. (1190 KB PDF)