Uncovering archaeology records at National Records of Scotland


11 March 2021
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Grange Distillery, Burntisland, Fife, 1928. Crown copyright, NRS, RHP252
In this special blog for History Scotland Archaeology Month, National Records of Scotland explore record sets that may help to inform the study of archaeology and those with a general interest in Scottish history.

National Records of Scotland (NRS) holds a wealth of information relating to Scotland’s history. Covering 80km, and spanning the 12th century to the current day, these records tell us about the life of Scotland’s population and changing landscape over the centuries, as well as how the land was governed and towns and cities evolved. 

Inland Revenue Survey Maps and Field Books

The Inland Revenue (Scotland) (IRS) survey of land values and ownership took place between 1910 and 1915. This massive survey recorded information on 99.7% of all land in Scotland. These records have more potential for research than is currently realised and can offer excellent insights into the Scottish rural and urban landscapes at that time. They contain historical facts as well as anecdotes about local areas and social communities across Scotland. 

Surveyors often commented on the "historic value" of certain sites, and how this affected their overall value. Linlithgow Palace for example (NRS, IRS86/94 entry 877) was estimated, rather nonchalantly, to have an historical value of, "say £10,000". Information on buildings now demolished can also be recovered through these records. St Andrew's Halls Theatre in Glasgow, which was heavily damaged by fire in 1962, is recorded along with a sketch plan within entry 377 in IRS67/150.

For more information on these record sets and how to use them please see our online guide.

Ordnance Survey Name Books

Ordnance Survey Name Books, a collection of 1,688 volumes, have been digitised and are available to search and view for free on the ScotlandsPlaces website. These records contain every place name that appeared on Victorian maps of Scotland and were created by the Ordnance Survey's field surveyors as they mapped Scotland from the 1840s until 1878, when they completed their work on Orkney and Shetland. The surveyors recorded information about the names of every natural feature and man-made structure that was to appear on the maps, relying on knowledgeable locals to supply them with accurate names. 

The surveyors added notes from printed histories, gazetteers, directories and dictionaries making the name books a snapshot of the landscapes and townscapes of Scotland. They can be studied online along with the maps to which they relate.

‘Maiden Stone, Chapel of Garrioch, Ordnance Survey Name Book: Aberdeenshire. NRS, OS1/1/13/59

MW1 Ancient Monument Files 1794-1975

The ancient monument case files are records of scheduled (or listed) monuments of nationally important archaeological sites or historic buildings. Ancient monument files relate to the following classes of ancient monuments: those under Crown ownership, monuments in the guardianship of the Department of the Environment (formerly the Ministry of Public Building and Works) by way of relevant legislation, and unscheduled monuments which for any reason may have come within the purview of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

The Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882, was the first legislation to protect such sites for future generations. The current Schedule of Ancient Monuments are maintained by Historic Environment Scotland.

Many of these scheduled monuments have their own case file in this record series, which can include information on their local environment, on-site drawings, past excavations, and conservation assessments. A large number of these evaluations were conducted by the Ministry of Works (later to become the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works) in the mid-eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, however there are files dating back to 1794. The case file for Arbroath Abbey (NRS, MW1/464) was created between 1833 and 1910, and includes extensive notes on the site, grants for repair and contemporary photographs of the ruined abbey. 

Arbroath Abbey (c. 1900?), NRS, MW1/464 page 100

DD27 Ancient monuments case files 1859-1988

The MW1 series of ancient monument case files is continued in the more recent record series DD27, which reflects the changes to protective legislation surrounding these historic sites. These case files contain similar information to the MW1 files, but can also include paperwork concerning the handover of ownership, photographs, press cuttings and correspondence with relevant public bodies, such as the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, now National Museums Scotland. 

An excellent example from this series of records can be found in the case file for South Uist (NRS, DD27/688) which contains several sites dating back to Middle Iron Age (400-100 BC). The case file details that the area was selected by the Ministry of Defence as a guided missile range in the late 1950s, which was opposed by some local residents, and a subsequent case was brought before the Land Court. These events inspired Compton Mackenzie to write his sequel to Whisky Galore (1947), entitled Rockets Galore (1957). 

Wheelhouse excavated at Benbecula airfield, South Uist. NRS, DD27/688 page 59

Improvements to Entailed Estates 

If an estate was entailed (due to pass to the nearest male heir), and it required improvements to be made to it, charges for the costs could be made against the estate, rather from the owner’s personal finances. This could include drainage, building or maintaining stables, glasshouses, or anything which would be of lasting benefit to the estate. As well as informing us about the disrepair of an estate, these records are also helpful for dating buildings which do not otherwise have much of a history. 

In order to obtain official permission for these improvements, an application had to be made to the sheriff court for approval. Whilst these do not always survive in the local sheriff court it is always worthwhile checking the records. Perth Sheriff Court has a particularly good series (NRS, SC49/59). Search the NRS catalogue for the phrase ‘register of improvements to entailed estates’ to discover more. 

Maps and Plans

NRS holds a series of records known as Register House Plans (RHP). This consists of around 170,000 topographical plans, marine charts, architectural and engineering drawings. The plans originate from government departments and agencies, nationalised industries, the courts, churches, private organisations, landed estates and families. Most are unique whilst many of the engraved and lithographed plans have only survived in limited quantities.

These plans can be helpful in providing detail of the layout of the grounds of a private estate, for understanding the architecture of a building which no longer exists and others which might support research in industrial archaeology. 

This is by no means a comprehensive list of records in NRS which may help with archaeological research. We recommend that you search the NRS catalogue for  ‘archaeology’ or other related terms to see what you can find. Bear in mind that the search engine will only return results for the exact word(s) you have entered so it is worthwhile performing multiple searches. 

For more information about NRS please visit our website. For more information on how to search NRS’ catalogue please visit our Youtube channel, NRS Archives.