National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future



This guide is a general introduction to the types of sources in National Records of Scotland (NRS) which can help you trace the history of castles, houses, schools, churches, mills, railway stations, and other buildings. You should also consult our guide to 'Tracing Scottish Local History' (Edinburgh, HMSO, reprinted 1996) - details can be found in our Publications page.

Register of sasines

Frequently when a house or other building was erected, ownership of the land on which it was built was transferred. Details of this transaction are recorded in the registers of sasines running from the early 17th century onwards (NRS reference RS). Burgh registers of sasines run from the 1690s (NRS reference B).

Information about buildings in burghs can be found in the records of the Dean of Guild courts which had powers to control building within burghs. A few of these are preserved in the burgh records held here, many are held in local archives.

Exchequer records

The records of the Masters of Works (NRS reference MW) provide information on royal buildings and palaces prior to 1707. Many of these records are published in 'Accounts of the Master of Works, 1529-1649' (2 volumes, Edinburgh,). Records of estates forfeited from Jacobite landowners involved in the 1715 and 1745 rebellions, contain information on schools and other estate buildings (NRS reference E700-E788). The exchequer records also include window tax, inhabited house tax and other taxation records of the 18th century (NRS reference E326). For Midlothian there are also schedules for the Small House Duty or Cottage Tax for 1803-12. Most of these tax rolls are available online. For more details see our guide on taxation records. Valuation rolls from 1855 record properties (apart from those with a very low rental value), listing annually the names of the owner, proprietor, tenant and principal occupier for each property (NRS reference VR). For more details see our guide on valuation rolls.

Court records

The records of the Court of Session (NRS reference CS), the High Court of Justiciary (NRS reference JC), the Sheriff Courts (NR reference SC) and the records of the Justices of the Peace (NRS reference JP) and the Crown Office (NRS reference CR) held by us contain a wealth of information relating to buildings in Scotland, but there are no systematic subject indexes to identify relevant references and the normal findings aids based on personal names must generally be used. Descriptions of buildings can occur in court cases specifically relating to property, but probably much more may also be found incidentally as part of civil or criminal actions.

Court of Session records (NRS reference CS)

The long sequence of surviving court cases from the 16th century to the present day contains many cases relating to disputed property rights, and to the performance of and payment for work by architects, builders and surveyors. Such cases have to be identified by the names of the parties in a case, some of which can be found in card indexes. Alternatively, the printed sets of case papers held by the Signet Library and the Advocates Library can be helpful in determining the nature of a particular court process. NRS holds a copy of the index to the Signet Library's set. For more information see our guide to Court of Session records.

Sheriff court processes (NRS reference SC)

Civil cases survive for many sheriff courts from the 17th century onwards and mostly consist of actions for payment. These may sometimes relate to repairs or other building work carried out on specific buildings, or to goods supplied for fitting them out. They are mostly unindexed. For more information see our guide to sheriff court records.

Registers of deeds

Building contracts for private houses and other buildings were occasionally recorded in the Register of Deeds, known as the Books of Council and Session (NRS reference RD), or the registers of deeds in the Sheriff Courts (NRS reference SC). They can only be located by the names of the parties to a contract, or by working through the registers. Interesting seventeenth-century examples are printed in the 'Miscellany of the Scottish History Society' Volume XI (1990), pp.269-327. As the purpose of registering was to record an authentic copy of a contract in case of dispute, the court processes may contain a relevant case. For more information see our guide on deeds

Crown Office and High Court records

The precognitions taken by the Crown Agent in preparing a criminal case may include detailed descriptions of the locus of a crime (NRS reference AD). Relevant plans are generally kept in the RHP series, for example detailed plans of some shops and public houses, 19th century. Evidence produced in court can occasionally be found in the papers relating to High Court of Justiciary cases (NRS reference JC), for example a sketch of the toll house at Helmsdale, Sutherland, in 1817 (NRS reference JC26/383). The High Court records also include miscellaneous private and public papers, such as the papers of James Anderson WS, relating to the policing of St James's Square, Edinburgh in the late 18th century (NRS reference JC65). For more information see our guide to High Court criminal trials.

Estate records

We hold many records of the large landed estates among our collections of private papers (NRS reference GD). These may contain information on anything from the owner's castle or country house, to farms, mills and estate workers' cottages, from schools and churches, if the owner was a heritor, to bridges and roads. Some landed estates were entailed (NRS reference RT) and from 1770 owners of entailed estates could charge the cost of making improvements to the buildings on the estate against succeeding heirs. Details of their expenditure had to be recorded with the appropriate sheriff court (NRS reference SC). Some estate collections have been deposited with local archives, the National Library of Scotland or are still in private hands. The National Register of Archives for Scotland holds surveys of collections held outside NRS and these are available for consultation in our search rooms. For more information see our guide to estate records.

Church records

We hold the records of the Church of Scotland and other denominations. Information on churches, manses, graveyards, schools and schoolhouses can be found in the presbytery and session records (NRS reference CH2 and CH3) or the heritors' records, the records of the major landowners in the parish (NRS reference HR). For more information see our guide to church records.

Railway records

The records of British Rail Scotland (NRS reference BR) are organised according to the pre-vesting companies amalgamated in 1923. They contain information on railway stations and lines, as well as canals. For more information see our guide to railway records.

Register House Plans

Our plans collection is referred to as the Register House Plans series (NRS reference RHP) and it includes architectural drawings and related maps and plans from a wide variety of sources. Most drawings relate to other collections we hold, such as court or estate records, which can enhance the value of the visual material as historical evidence for buildings. There are now over 150,000 plans in this series, and the catalogue is searchable electronically.

Scottish Office and other governmental records

The Scottish Office and its associated departments and agencies have exercised responsibility for buildings of almost every variety throughout Scotland. The administrative records of Scottish departments and other bodies dealing with housing, agriculture, education, health provision, prisons, industry, transport and communications are therefore a rich source for architectural history. Many of the files of Historic Scotland and its predecessor departments, which concern ancient monuments and historic buildings, are conveniently listed in Morag Cross, 'Bibliography of Monuments in the Care of the Secretary of State for Scotland' (Glasgow, 1994). The files of the Ministry of Works (NRS reference MW) and Environment Department (NRS reference DD) provide information on public buildings, roads and bridges. The latter also contain files on ancient monuments. Those of the Scottish Office Education Department (NRS reference ED) contain information on museums, galleries and libraries. ED31 is a series of files on school buildings and further education colleges.

Inland Revenue field books

The 'field books' (NRS reference IRS51-88) were compiled by the Inland Revenue, 1909-1915, in order to determine the value of all land in the UK. The books contain architectural notes on the number of storeys, the construction materials of walls, roofs, steps and external features such as mouldings, and internally the number and occasionally the functions of rooms and other architectural features. Sanitation arrangements in the form of water or earth closets and bathrooms are usually mentioned. The survey covers urban and rural buildings of all types. The various buildings which might make up a farm are all noted. Public buildings such as churches may only be described briefly as 'stone, roof slated'. Where lengthy descriptions necessitated the use of supplementary files, these files do not form part of the records preserved by us and are presumed to have been destroyed. The field books usually, but not invariably, contain sketch block plans of buildings and boundaries marked with dimensions. A series of Ordnance Survey maps, marked with the number of each property allocated by the IRS, provides the key to the books, which are arranged by county, parish and ward. For more information see our guide to Inland Revenue survey maps and field books.

Ordnance Survey name books

The name books were compiled in the middle of the 19th century and contain brief architectural descriptions of properties featured in the 6-inch and 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps. They can be helpful in determining the general appearance of a rural building, for example the number of storeys and the roof materials. The ame books are available online. For more details see our catalogue reference OS1).

Sources Elsewhere

Local archives and libraries

Local archives hold Dean of Guild and modern planning department records; plans and drawings of buildings. Your local library may hold newspapers and trades directories which provide much information on buildings.

National Monuments Record of Scotland

Historical information on many buildings are held by the National Monuments Record of Scotland, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, John Sinclair House, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh EH8 9NX. It houses an excellent photographic collection, architectural drawings and papers, and a useful library on Scottish architecture and architects. See 'National Monuments Record of Scotland Jubilee, A Guide to the Collections, NMRS, 1941-1991' (Edinburgh, 1991).

CANMORE is the website for Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) providing information on the NMRS's archaeological and architectural photographs, plans and drawings and other records. It is searchable topographically and in various other ways.

Statutory lists of buildings of architectural or historical interest

Copies of the Statutory Lists of Buildings of Architectural or Historical Interest are held both by the National Monuments Record for Scotland and by Historic Scotland at Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh, EH9 1SH Tel 0131 668 8600. These lists often refer to primary or secondary sources which may help with more detailed research. Alternatively you can search for information on listed buildings on the Historic Scotland website.

National Library of Scotland

The Manuscripts Department of the National Library of Scotland contains many collections of private family and estate papers of value for architectural history. The Map Library holds an extensive collection of manuscript maps and architectural drawings, as well as other published plans and full sets of Ordnance Survey maps.

Further Reading

The following is a selection of the many excellent books on Scottish architecture.

The illustrated architectural guides published by the Royal Incorporation of Architects (Scotland) cover many Scottish counties.

Historic Scotland's 'Exploring Scotland's Heritage' series.

For in depth surveys see also the 'Buildings of Scotland' (Penguin) series.

Howard M Colvin's 'Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840' (London, 1995) is useful for country houses, ecclesiastical and municipal buildings.

Glendinning, MacInnes and MacKechnie, 'History of Scottish Architecture' (Edinburgh, 1996)

Older but still standard works are D. MacGibbon and T Ross, 'The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland, 1660-1800' (5 vols.) and 'The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland' (3 vols.).

For information on records of architectural practices, consult 'Scottish Architects Papers' by Rebecca Bailey (Edinburgh, 1996).