30 January 2024
Are you looking to begin or advance your Scottish family history research but keeping an eye on your budget? The good news is that a number of record collections records sets held by National Records of Scotland (NRS) can be accessed online for free, writes Veronica Schreuder.
ScotlandsPeople (www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk) is used by hundreds of thousands of people each year to research family history, biography, local and social history. If you’re just getting started, you will first need to register for an account (which you can do free of charge). This allows you to search all indexes at no cost; these include:
- civil registration indexes
- testaments and inventories
- military appeals
- census records
- pre-1855 parish records
You only pay to view and save images of original records and to order certificates. There are, however, some record sets where you can view the full image for free, featured below.
Maps and Plans
The NRS holds the largest known collection of original maps and plans of Scotland – over 170,000 topographical maps and plans and architectural and engineering drawings from a wide variety of sources. Where copyright, conservation and ownership restrictions permit, we are regularly adding images of items from this collection to the ScotlandsPeople website.
At present, over 3,500 of these can be explored online. Many of the maps show the changing Scottish landscape over time. They also illustrate the areas where people lived or worked, throwing light on ancestors’ lives and suggesting new avenues for research. Most drawings relate to other collections we hold, such as court or estate records. These can be useful for family and local history research and enhance the value of the visual material as historical evidence for buildings and places. Spanning four centuries, they are particularly strong in estate and railway plans, architectural and engineering drawings, particularly of ships, railway engines and rolling stock. Visit ScotlandsPeople to search.
Drawing of a bridge intended to be built at Dumbarton, 1684
National Records of Scotland, RHP3493
Records made available via Virtual Volumes
Virtual volumes is the online service designed to allow the NRS to make thousands of its historical records available to the public via ScotlandsPeople. These records are made available without intensive indexing of their contents by personal name, place of other subjects. Therefore, the records are free to browse through page by page.
Virtual volumes currently contains more than 6,000 volumes from the courts of the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian churches, with more to be added in the near future. The records are mainly those of kirk sessions, presbyteries and synods between 1560 and 1870. Kirk session records are created from the activities of the church and may include minute books and accounts and can hold a cornucopia of information for genealogical research. To see what is available, use the virtual volumes search page.
The session’s main responsibility was to investigate a variety of issues in the parish including blasphemy, drunkenness, bad behaviour and sexual relations outside of marriage. The records also record payments for those in receipt of poor relief and capture the everyday moments in parish life including bad weather and crop failures.
Scottish Cabinet Records for 2003-2008 can also be explored on Virtual Volumes. The Scottish Cabinet is the group of senior Ministers which is responsible for Scottish Government policy. The relating digital records are available to view as PDF copies.
Church court records and other records from NRS collections, including annual releases of Scottish Cabinet papers will regularly be added to Virtual Volumes. The ScotlandsPeople newsletter will announce any future releases.
Detail from Crieff kirk session minutes, 8th June 1857
National Records of Scotland, CH2/545/6 page 322
The image library comprises a selection of over 2,000 high quality images from the NRS’s historical record collections of photographs, manuscripts and drawings. The images within the library range from mediaeval documents to photographs from the mid-20th century.
Search via a number of fields including title or description, category – such as ‘agriculture’ or ‘wars and conflicts’ – year range or a specific institutional reference. You can access the library here.
It is free to browse and view images; downloading a digital copy costs £18.
Screenshot of a page from the image library
Crown copyright, NRS.
Highland and Island Emigration Society (HIES) records
The HIES was a voluntary organisation set up in 1852 by private subscription with the aim of alleviating destitution in the Highlands by promoting and assisting emigration. Between 1852 and 1857, the Society assisted 4919 men, women and children to leave western Scotland for Australia. Their details were recorded in the Society's passenger lists which record the surname, forename, age residence and estate of individuals whose emigration to Australia was assisted by the Society. The records were arranged by ship name, departure port and date and arrival port. Individuals were generally listed as part of family groups, sometimes with notes on their health, appearance and situation. These lists are one of the few sources for emigration held by the National Records of Scotland and are all free to search and view here.
The Buchanan family recorded in the passenger list for the ‘Georgiana’.
National Records of Scotland, Highland and Island Emigration Records, HD4/5 page 10
A transcribed version of the 1881 (LDS) Census
This is an additional index for the 1881 census which links to a transcription rather than a digital image of the record. The indexing was coordinated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). The search form includes address, census place and birth place rather than county and district. The transcriptions are free to view. Search online at ScotlandsPeople.
Screenshot of an example page from the 1881 (LDS) Census
Crown copyright, NRS.
Scottish Handwriting Pack
Created in partnership with NRS and the Scottish Records Association (SRA) the pack was originally made available in 1994. The contents have now been refreshed with high-resolution images, updated instruction and, for the first time, a free digital downloadable pdf version. The pack is a step-by-step guide to reading the handwriting of Scottish documents originating between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries using facsimiles, mainly from the NRS’ archives, to aid transcription, such as kirk session minutes and a testament and inventory. You can download a free copy here. A pack is also available to purchase from the ScotlandsPeople online store for £12.15 plus postage.
The front cover of the Scottish Handwriting pack
Crown copyright, NRS