2022 is Scotland’s Year of Stories, but the tradition of historian-storytellers is in danger of being suffocated by an unacceptable lack of access to our national records.
As a group of historical and other researchers, ranging from senior academics to students, from professional genealogists and independent researchers to local and family historians, we share a love of Scotland’s history and of telling its stories to the world.
The National Records of Scotland (NRS) is restricting access to Scotland’s national archive with significant negative impacts on Scottish culture, education, economy and tourism. While we understood the need for access restrictions during the height of the pandemic, our research endeavours and our small businesses continue to be negatively impacted by NRS restrictions.
The NRS’ restricted access policy has real life impacts:
- Academic studies are being put on hold and students are unable to complete the work needed to progress their careers or move on to PhD or further study.
- The already precarious position of junior university-based researchers has been exacerbated by the lack of access.
- Authors are unable to complete work on books despite agreed deadlines with publishers and other institutions, with a direct impact on future funding and grant awards.
- Professional researchers and genealogists – who have already endured significant economic hardship during the pandemic – remain unable to fulfil commissions or take on new projects leading to lost income and disgruntled clients. They are unable to operate on a profitable basis due to the scarcity of visiting slots.
- Reputational damage to NRS and the Scottish archival sector. Scotland’s records system has previously been held in high regard by both domestic and international users. In contrast, The National Archives (TNA) in London and the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) are operating normally, and we have spoken to numerous overseas researchers who are shocked at the restrictions we face.
- NRS has failed to reinstate their photography service. One researcher based in Shetland explained the discriminatory effect this has on those who can’t access New Register House.
Fourteen months on from the partial reopening of the Historical Search Room and the Scotland’s People Centre in Edinburgh, access remains heavily – and unreasonably – restricted. NRS takes weeks to respond to enquiry e-mails, and visits must be booked weeks in advance, with the gap between visits currently anywhere between 5 and 8 weeks. This is unacceptable – the nature of historical research means researchers often have to follow a chain of records to a conclusion, with one source leading to another and another.
To view more than 12 documents one must book another slot, leading to weeks more of delays. This causes significant problems for research students, who are unable to progress their thesis timeously, with obvious consequences for their mental health. The policy effectively prohibits international research in Scottish history as no-one will travel to view only 12 documents. Academics are very unlikely to obtain funding for such limited research. This has the practical effect of reducing international interest in Scottish history.
Ancestral tourism – an important lucrative growth market fuelled by numerous TV programmes and recognised by both Visit Scotland and the Scottish Government – is also affected. Every year thousands of members of the Scottish diaspora make a once in a lifetime journey home to Scotland from all over the world to research their family history and visit their ancestral places. We are aware of visitors from Australia, Canada and the US who have been sorely disappointed to learn that their plans to research their personal history have been thwarted.
Meanwhile, public communication from the National Records of Scotland has been very poor. Only rarely are plans for reopening set out in advance. We are not aware of any meaningful engagement with stakeholders regarding plans to reopen the archives. We are left to scan thousands of words describing service status at the NRS to work out what, if anything, has changed.
TNA in London and PRONI in Belfast are operating normally. Significantly, both organisations work closely with active user groups to discuss issues affecting researchers and consult with them more generally. NRS has no equivalent group and any consultation with users is limited and opaque.
Meanwhile, Scottish local archives, with far fewer resources, allow researchers to visit the archives with a minimum of fuss. Other national bodies, such as the National Library of Scotland (NLS), provide an excellent service to researchers. The frontline staff at NRS have been exemplary under very difficult circumstances, but the strategic operational decisions resulting in continued difficulties are incomprehensible. The NRS is lagging embarrassingly far behind its peers, both within and furth of Scotland.
Informal approaches and formal complaints to the NRS have not produced any meaningful improvement in the situation. This is unacceptable.
We therefore call on the NRS and, where appropriate, the Scottish Government:
- To remove all restrictions on access to Scotland’s national archive
- As a first step, to move immediately to improve access to the historical search room at Register House or provide alternative facilities to increase capacity.
- To issue clear and prompt service status updates which allow service users to plan ahead
- To allocate resources to enable NRS staff to respond to e-mails and other contacts in a reasonable timeframe
- To agree to the establishment of a user-led forum for regular and meaningful consultation with a range of researchers and other stakeholders.
The historical records of Scotland are internationally renowned. They are part of our national heritage and tell a story which resonates with countless people within Scotland and beyond. It is a fundamental duty of the NRS, as the custodian of our heritage, to make those records available to all of us. At present, it is singularly failing in that duty.
Lynn Abrams, Professor of Modern History, University of Glasgow
Thomas Ahnert, Professor of Intellectual History, University of Edinburgh
Dr Barbara Ball, University of Strathclyde
Julie Belcher, postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Dr Amy Blakeway, Lecturer in Scottish History, University of St Andrews
Michelle D Brock, Associate Professor of History, Washington and Lee University
Michael H Brown, Professor of Scottish History, University of St Andrews
John W Cairns, Professor of Civil Law, University of Edinburgh
Ewen A Cameron, Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History, University of Edinburgh
Martin Chick, Professor of Economic History, University of Edinburgh
John Cleary, Associate Professor, School of Social Sciences, Heriot-Watt University
Margaret Connolly, Professor of Palaeography and Codicology, University of St Andrews
Dr Bryony Coombs, University of Edinburgh
Ashlyn Cudney, PhD student, University of Edinburgh
Tunji David Lees, postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Jack Davis, Genealogist, Thistle Heritage Services
Jane Dawson, John Laing Professor Emerita of Reformation History, University of Edinburgh
Juliette Desportes, PhD student, University of Glasgow
Jean Dickson, genealogist, Edinburgh
Dr Laura I Doak, Convenor, Economic and Social History Society for Scotland, University of Dundee
Irene Docherty, Genealogist, Bradford
Susie Douglas, Professional Genealogist, Historian and Writer at Borders Ancestry, Coldstream
Elizabeth Ewan, Professor of History and Scottish Studies, University of Guelph
Susan Fabbro, professional genealogist, Edinburgh
John Finlay, Professor of Scots Law, University of Glasgow
J D Ford, Professor of Civil Law, University of Aberdeen
Adam Fox, Professor of Social History, University of Edinburgh
Dr Ewan Gibbs, lecturer, Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow
Mark Godfrey, Professor of Legal History, University of Glasgow
Prof Julian Goodare, University of Edinburgh
Michael Graham, Professor of History, University of Akron
Kevin Hall, PhD student, University of Edinburgh
Philip A Hannay, managing director, Cloch Solicitors
Jane Harris, genealogist, Janealogy
Graham S Holton, Principal Tutor, Genealogical Studies, University of Strathclyde
Prof James Hunter, University of the Highlands and Islands
Prof Louise A Jackson, School of History, Classics & Archaeology, University of Edinburgh
Emma Jolly, genealogist and writer, Edinburgh
Dr Ciaran Jones, independent researcher
Dr Allan Kennedy, lecturer, University of Dundee
Dr Chloë Kennedy, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law, University of Edinburgh
Kate Keter, Genealogist, Family Tree Tales
Lorna Kinnaird, Family History Researcher, Dunedin Links
Alice Krzanich, early career researcher in Scottish legal history, Edinburgh
Chris Langley, Reader in Early Modern History at Newman University, Birmingham
Dr Darren S Layne, Curator, The Jacobite Database of 1745
Harry Lewis, PhD student, University of Edinburgh
Penny Lewis, professional genealogist, Findo Gask
Dr Clare Loughlin, University of Stirling
Lorna MacBean, Doctoral Researcher, University of Glasgow
Dr Alan MacDonald, Associate Dean for Quality and Academic Standards, University of Dundee
Alasdair F Macdonald, Teaching Fellow, Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme, University of Strathclyde
Alastair Macdonald, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Aberdeen
Neil D M MacLeod, Solicitor, Edinburgh
Hector L MacQueen, Emeritus Professor of Private Law, University of Edinburgh, Vice-President, The Stair Society
Dr Rebecca Mason, University of Glasgow
Tony Mathieson, postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Tahitia McCabe, PhD student and Course Director, Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies, University of Strathclyde
Catherine McFarlane, postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Holly Mckenna, postgraduate researcher, School of Law, University of Glasgow
Dr Carol McKinven, genealogist and archival researcher, Scottish Kin
Dr Esther Mijers, Senior Lecturer in Scottish History, University of Edinburgh
Dr Graeme S. Millen, ECR/Associate Staff, University of Dundee
Prof Steve Murdoch, Swedish Defence University, Stockholm
Stana Nenadic, Professor of Social and Cultural History, University of Edinburgh
Trisha O’Reilly, postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Chris Paton, genealogist, ScotlandsGreatestStory.co.uk
Morag Peers, writer, genealogist and postgraduate student, University of Strathclyde
Dr Alasdair Raffe, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Edinburgh
Ieuan Rees, independent researcher
Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter, Hon Research Associate, School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow
Michael Riordan, Independent Historian, Edinburgh
Richard Rodger, Emeritus Professor, University of Edinburgh
Calum M Ross, Solicitor, Edinburgh
Sian Salt, Freelance TV Producer and genealogist
The Scottish Historical Review Trust
Fergus Smith, independent researcher, OldScottish.com
Janice Smith, genealogist and family historian, Roslin Roots
Laura A M Stewart, Professor of Early Modern British History, Head of the Department of History, University of York
Lorraine Stewart, Genealogist, Kincardineshire Ancestors
Dr Siobhan Talbott, Reader, Keele University
Tania Taylor, postgraduate student, Strathclyde University
Prof Annie Tindley, Head of the School of History, Classics & Archaeology, Newcastle University
Dr Sally Tuckett, University of Glasgow
Sarah van Eyndhoven, historical linguistics PhD student, University of Edinburgh
Kirsty F Wilkinson, research manager, AncestryProGenealogists
Charles W J Withers, Professor Emeritus of Historical Geography, University of Edinburgh, Geographer Royal for Scotland
Prof David Worthington, Head, Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands
Scott Wortley, Lecturer in Private Law, University of Edinburgh
Dr Kathrin Zickermann, lecturer in history, University of the Highlands and Islands