Where To Start

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Where to start

When you begin investigating the history of settlements and landscapes, the best starting point is normally your local archive, local studies library, or museum. Explain what you are hoping to do and ask if they hold records relating to your research area - even if they don't, they may be able to direct you to another source.

It is also a good idea to speak to local people, especially older residents of an area, or owners of the land and buildings that you are interested in. They may be able to provide first hand information, or hold original documents (e.g. title deeds, old photographs, etc) relating to the property, that you will not find elsewhere.

As well as local sources of information, it is useful to be aware of what National sources exist, and make use of them where you can.

National Archives of Scotland (NAS)

The NAS is the single biggest source of archival material in Scotland and holds a vast collection of public and private records, including estate papers and maps relating to all parts of the country. Maps and plans are made available to the public in West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh; all other records are normally consulted at General Register House, Princes Street, Edinburgh. All researchers are issued with a reader card, for which proof of identity is required.

A very good guide to local history sources in the National Archives is available: Scottish Record Office, Tracing Scottish Local History: a guide to local history research in the Scottish Record Office (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1994).

An on-line catalogue to the collections is hidden deeply within the NAS website: from the left hand menu bar, select 'NAS for Researchers', then 'NAS website links: Catalogues and Indexes'. On this page, select 'On-line Public Access Catalogue'. The catalogue can be slow and sometimes grinds to a halt - a reflection of the volume of material that it contains. A new, improved version is promised for Autumn 2007.

National Library of Scotland (NLS)

The NLS is the legal deposit library of Scotland. This means that it receives a copy of every book, map and music sheet published in Britain and has done so since The Copyright Act of 1911. In addition to this, the library holds one of the best collections of early printed books, maps and music in Scotland, as well as a large number of manuscript collections.

The manuscript collections tend to be mostly personal, literary and musical papers, but one significant exception is the Sutherland Estates Papers, which reside here, not the NAS, as one might expect. Catalogues to both printed and manuscript collections are available on-line, though these are not yet comprehensive.

The vast map collection is housed in the Map Library, Causewayside Building, 33 Salisbury Place, Edinburgh. It includes an excellent collection of early printed maps of Scotland, 1560-1928, and complete coverage of historical and modern Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland at various scales. Maps belonging to the Sutherland Estates Papers are also held in this building.

The NLS has digitised much of its early map collection and this is available on-line at www.nls.uk/maps/index.html. Copies of these maps and historical Ordnance Survey map sheets are available at a very reasonable cost.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)

RCAHMS is the national body responsible for surveying and recording archaeological sites and monuments in Scotland. It has a very large archive of the sites which it has recorded, as well as survey and excavation reports deposited by other archaeological bodies and local organisations, and a vast aerial photograph collection. The archive is available for consultation in the Commission's library, together with a very good collection of reference books on archaeological, architectural and local history topics.

RCAHMS hosts four on-line databases which give you access to information about sites and related collections:

  • CANMORE is the main source for finding out about sites and for obtaining details of related collections held in the archive. It can be searched on-line by following links from the RCAHMS home page. Canmore includes a map-based search tool called Canmap, allowing users to find where sites and monuments are in any area and what they are.
  • HLAMAP is a digital map which allows you to view an analysis of the historic landscape of Scotland - how it is used now and how it has been used in the past.
  • AIRPHOTOFINDER is a digital map which allows you to locate and order vertical aerial photographs.
  • PASTMAP is an interactive digital map which allows you to search for listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments, historic gardens and designed landscapes, and site information held by RCAHMS and some of the local Sites and Monuments Records.

Local Authority Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) may sometimes have information about sites not listed in the RCAHMS database. Contact details for Local SMRs are available by following links from RCAHMS home page.

School of Scottish Studies

The archive and library of the School of Scottish Studies holds a vast collection of material relating to Scottish culture and traditions, including over 9000 oral history and musical recordings, 10,000 photographs, and important material relating to the Scottish Place Name Survey. The Sound Archive is a rich source of information on traditional agricultural practices, rural building techniques and ways of life.

National Register of Archives (NRA)

This is a national index to archives held in public and private hands across the British Isles. It is updated and maintained by staff in the National Archives and should be your first port of call if you are trying to locate family and estate papers, or other records which relate to a particular geographical area.

The register can be searched online via the link given above. A successful search will provide you with a brief summary of any records found, together with their covering dates, a note of where they are located, and a link to an on-line catalogue, if one is available. Sometimes collections become split up over time, so don't be surprised if records for the same family or estate are held in different public archives (some may still be in private hands). If the records you are interested in remain in private hands, the NRA will contact the owner on your behalf to negotiate access for you.

Scottish Archive Network (SCAN)

Not to be confused with the similar-sounding SCRAN (Scottish Cultural Resources Network), this is an on-line catalogue to the archives held by most Scottish local authority (Argyll and Bute council are one notable exception) and some Scottish university archives. Like the NAS, this catalogue can be slow and sometimes grinds to a halt - again, a reflection of the volume of material that it contains. A new, improved version is promised for Autumn 2007.

Archives Hub

This is an on-line catalogue to archives held by universities in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Scotland's older University libraries (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen) hold some excellent collections of estate and antiquarian papers, especially Aberdeen, which is the main source of estate papers for the North East of Scotland.

© Historic Environment Scotland - Scottish Charity No. SC045925.