Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksNational Archives of Scotland

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

In the past, I have talked generally about where many records can be found. These repositories include courthouses, libraries, and archives. Libraries are most notable for primarily housing books, and courthouses for housing relatively current records. Archives are a long term repository for the organizing and storage of more historic records, generally over 100 years old.

Archives can be understood with relation to government jurisdictions and agencies. While a National Archives or a State Archives are most common, there are potentially unique locality Archives, such as the Philadelphia City Archives or the Westchester County (NY) Archives. As for Private Archives, examples would be the Coca-Cola Archives, the Railroad History Archives for New England, and the Archives of the American Baptist Historical Society in Atlanta. Another example includes colleges and universities that have their own institutional archives.

TGeneral Register Househe National Archives of Scotland, the NAS, as the name suggests, is the housing of the historical records of Scotland. They claim to have one of the most varied collection of archives in Europe. The NAS is based at three locations in Edinburgh which include HM General Register House, West Register House, both in the city centre, and the Thomas Thomson House in the Sighthill area of the city. The latter is the main repository.

The NAS changed its name from the Scottish Record Office on January 7, 1999. It is headed by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland and is an Executive Agency of the Scottish Government. It is responsible for records management, which includes selecting, preserving, promoting, and making available, the national archives of Scotland.

On April 1, 2011, the NAS was merged with the General Register Office of Scotland (GROS) who is primarily responsible for civil registrations (ie. birth, death, marriages, divorces, etc.). Together they form the National Records of Scotland, whose responsibilities, in addition to civil registrations and historical records management, include the census, demography, family history, etc.

Circular FilesWhile there are historic records dating back to before 1200, the bulk of the records date back to the mid-1300s. Over time, the accumulation of records grew to such an extent that a special ‘register house’ was built within Edinburgh Castle to house them.

The troubled history of Scotland with England resulted in the loss of records during several periods as records were taken and returned to Scotland on several occasions.

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, all records were returned and thenceforward retained in Scotland. By 1806 the office of Deputy Clerk Register was created, and Thomas Thomson given the first appointment, serving in that office for 35 years. He laid the foundation of the modern record office.

In the late 1990s NAS became a pioneer in the digitization of, and providing online access to, historical records on a large scale. This was done as a project called the Scottish Archive Network (SCAN). Partners in SCAN included the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Genealogical Society of Utah (now Family Search). One of their biggest achievements was to scan the wills and testaments in the Commissary Court and Sheriff Court registers between 1513 and 1901, creating an index and making them available online. The NAS maintains the products and websites of SCAN.

Meanwhile, in conjunction with the GROS, NAS supplies the content for the ScotlandsPeople website, allowing searches in pre-1855 old parish registers, civil registers since 1855, census returns, valuation rolls, and the aforementioned wills and testaments. ScotlandsPeople is the official Scottish Government website for searching historic government records. It is used by hundreds of thousands of people each year to research family history, biography, local history and social history.

The website for the National Archives of Scotland, now National Records of Scotland, is They have a page dedicated to family history research, with numerous research guides by area of research. The website for ScotlandsPeople is with a ‘Help and Guidance’ page, and more.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.