It is possible to do genealogy research at the New Register House, pictured below. It is located conveniently close to Waverley Station and The Balmoral. This structure (1858) along with the General Register House (1788), is the home of the National Records of Scotland.
The National Records of Scotland exists “to select, preserve, and make available the national archives of Scotland in whatever medium, to the highest standards; to promote the growth and maintenance of proper archive provision throughout the country; and to lead the development of archival practice in Scotland.” More simply said: Preserving the Past—Recording the Present—Informing the Future.
I found the staff to be very helpful while strongly advising those interested in pursuing their ancestry to do their “homework” prior to coming to the site. The Frommer’s article by Jason Cochran is found below to get you started. Note: this article references using the General Register House, which is presently closed to the public. The “homework” can be done with the assistance of staff in the New Register House.
This glorious dome of the General Register House was designed by Robert Adam and opened in 1788 as the first purpose-built public record repository in the British Isles. In addition to genealogists researching their ancestry and solicitors checking on property records, members of the public can also delve into Scottish history.
The history of the building itself was not always smooth; construction began in 1774 as a key architectural feature of the New Town, using funds from forfeited Jacobite estates. When money ran out, construction halted until 1785. Even after the building was in use, it was altered to widen the road and to accommodate the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in St. Andrew Square in front of it.
There are two search rooms at the General Register House, but they are presently closed due to preservation assessment being done on the Adam Dome.
“Robert Adam’s design incorporated special features to ensure the safety of the archives, particularly in keeping fire and damp at bay. The building was solidly constructed of stone with brick vaults, and flagstones were used on most of the floors. Individual offices had their own fireplaces but the central rotunda relied on an ancient Roman solution, underfloor heating. Flues in the floor carried hot air from furnaces in the basement to protect the records from damp.
The rotunda is a stunning room, with an impressive domed roof which rises above the building. The rotunda is 50 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height, and was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, with light coming only from the circular window in the centre of the dome. Look closely in the decorative plasterwork and you can see Roman and Greek scenes, but also Scottish thistles.”
How to Research Your Ancestry on a Trip to Scotland
Scotland’s government makes researching your ancestry easier than in most places. Here’s where to go in Scotland to find your roots—and what to know before you make the trip.
If you’re heading to Scotland and you know you have Scottish roots, take the opportunity to do some genealogical research. Ancestry tourism is a big industry in Scotland—the hotel concierge at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh is as likely to hand you a card tipping you off to a good local researcher as he is to recommend somewhere for dinner.
It so happens that the official nerve center for ancestry research Scotland is directly across the street from the famous Balmoral. They call it the ScotlandsPeople Centre. It’s the archive that the government of Scotland has set aside just for research into the past, it’s where massive amounts of records (birth and death certificates, census returns, official Coats of Arms, wills, and so on) are digitized and stored, and it’s open to tourists.
In fact, tourist business is a major profit center that helps fund the mountain of digitization still to be done.
1855: The Pivotal Year
Before you get to Scotland, do everything you can through online methods to figure out where your kin lived. The reason is simple: The government didn’t start collecting records (in what’s called Statutory Registers) until 1855. Anything before that will likely only be discovered among the church records of the parish in which they lived. To find the papers, you have to know their town, or at least a major one near it.
That can be done, methodically, on the ScotlandsPeople webpage (www.ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk) in the months before you fly over. Because the archiving is handled by an outside contractor, it costs money to get full records. You can search surnames online for free, but accessing full documents costs about £2.33 (US$3.50) to £10 (US $15) per document, depending on how elaborate it is.
As you can imagine, the costs can mount fairly quickly, so it pays to know what you’re doing or, if you can, hire a professional genealogist to lead your paper trail to the correct parish records.
If you hit a road block– after all, you can’t find everything you need on Ancestry.com–check Scotland’s list of the kinds of papers you’ll find in its archive: http://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/a-z
VisitScotland, the official Scottish tourism resource, has put together more resources to help you do advance research before a trip, as well as ideas and contacts for helping you explore family roots when you’re on the ground in Scotland. For that, check www.visitscotland.com/about/ancestry.
Finding Your Roots in Edinburgh
In Edinburgh, the gorgeous Generral Register House, dating to 1788, is where to find both the computers and the stacks that hold your key to your past. The front rotunda, patterned after Rome’s Pantheon, is 50 feet wide and 80 feet high. It’s a gorgeous building, and it says a lot about what the Scottish people think of their heritage that it occupies one of the grandest and most primary spots in town, rising proudly at the foot of the beloved Waverley Bridge in New Town.
Even if you’re not planning family history research, the building, which combines grand stone buildings from both the 18th and 19th century, is worth a look. Deep within the complex is a five-tiered column of shelves, containing more than half a million volumes, under an ancient dome—it’s a silent and dusty well of bygone souls.
It costs £15 to enter (0131/314 4300; 9am–4:30pm weekdays), but once you’re there, you can dig into the computer systems, searching every spelling possibility, without being disturbed. The Centre also offers free entry for two-hour introductory sessions at 10am and 2pm daily.
You’d be wise to begin a visit at 1pm, when a daily informational talk is delivered (£7, including refreshments; book: firstname.lastname@example.org). That will acclimate you to the computer system and acquaint you with the basics on the particulars of family research in Scotland.
If you need help, the Centre will rent you a Family History Officer for £20 an hour, but they’re only able to help you find records that fall after 1855, when official government record-keeping began.