Mortcloth and burial records

Posted November 13, 2014 11:39 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

Before civil registration started in 1855 records of death and burial were poorly kept. There was no official requirement for this information to be recorded and this meant that many parishes did not bother. Often the only record that survives is the mortcloth register: this was a list of payments made to the kirk session for the hire of the mortcloth, a black cloth that was draped over the coffin or body for the duration of the funeral.

The published lists will only contain details of those who applied to the local kirk session for the use of the mortcloth. Wealthier families in the community would often have their own personal mortcloth, while trade incorporations in the towns and cities might also have a burial cloth for the use of their members.

Many of the family history societies in Scotland have published the surviving mortcloth and burial registers from parishes within their geographical area. A list of the published records that are held by the library can be found in the online catalogue by searching for ‘burial registers scotland’ or ‘mortcloth records scotland’ (use the search box at the top right hand of the page and click the ‘catalogues and resources’ option). More information on the subject can also be found on the website of the Scottish Archive Network.

Family history day: Saturday 15 November 2014

Posted November 4, 2014 9:47 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

On Saturday 15 November between 10.30am and 4pm, Edinburgh Central Library is hosting a Family History Day as part of ‘Previously… Scotland’s History Festival‘ programme. The National Library of Scotland will be participating in this event, along with a number of other organisations.

Giving help and advice on the day will be staff from the Edinburgh & Scottish Collection and Reference Library Collection at the Central Library. Also participating is Edinburgh City Archives, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries, Edinburgh’s War, Lothian Health Services Archive, Scotlandspeople and SCRAN. There will also be a number of talks being hosted by ‘Previously…’ on the day.

We look forward to seeing you at the event.

Soldiers’ Wills

Posted October 21, 2014 1:43 pm by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

Guest post by Robbie Mitchell.

The National Records of Scotland hold a collection of wills of soldiers who served during the First and Second World Wars, of which about 26,000 relate to the 1914-18 conflict. These wills were written by ordinary Scots – some written when they were about to go overseas, others composed on the morning of a battle – most of whom were married, and so they help form a connection with the family they left behind whilst serving during the War. The wills are normally dated from when they were called up to active service, but that is not always the case.

The wills in the collection mostly relate to those who served with Scottish Regiments – for example, there are 2,500 wills relating to Gordon Highlanders – but other services are included, such as the Machine Gun Corps, Royal Field Artillery, the Royal Army Medical Corps, and the Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF). 85% of the Wills relate to soldiers who served on the Western Front, while the remainder concern those who served in other theatres of operation, such as Mesopotamia and Salonika; the wills also include those of six recipients of the Victoria Cross during World War 1. Soldiers who survived would have probably kept their own will, while their service records would have been retained by the Army.

Not everyone left a will; the authorities encouraged it but did not make the writing it compulsory. For those that did write a will, the Army encouraged them to use a standard form of text, which usually began with the words In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to…” The most common kind of soldiers’ will was the “Informal Will from his Pay Book (Army Book 64)” – this was non-witnessed, written and signed by the soldier on a form in his pay book, when under orders for active service, or during active service. He could write another will when he was issued with a new Pay Book, and if he died his most recent will would be retrieved from the pay book – if that was possible. This was also known as a “Short Form of Will”.

A more formal witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier, was on “Army Form B.243” (naming one beneficiary) or “B.244” (more than one), which allowed for the naming of executor(s) and were favoured by certain Regiments. The Scots Guards almost exclusively used Form B.243 for their Wills, retaining copies at the Regimental depot in London – this means 37% of their Wills have survived, compared to just 19% of the King Own Scottish Borderers. Another version of the formal will used was “Army Form W.3297”. This was also a witnessed will, written and signed by the soldier, for naming one or more beneficiaries but not executors. Usually on a half foolscap sheet, this type was much less common, but was used by soldiers in both World Wars.

As well as the formal Army wills, there were civil wills – informal and formal, non-witnessed or witnessed, wills written on non-Army stationery; some follow the official wording of the Army forms, but many were probably written at home. Though only a few appear to have been drafted by a lawyer, around 9,000 civil wills relating to soldiers were deposited in Sheriff Courts throughout Scotland. Many informal wills are handwritten in a style which differed from the recommended standard format, and some used this to make personal or political statements. Some were written in the style of a letter, and such letters would also be treated as documentary evidence of a Last Will & Testament. Within the National Records of Scotland, there are around 100 informal wills relating to Privates who rose through the ranks and became Officers. 

In some cases, the surviving wills are only fragments recovered from the bodies of dead soldiers prior to their burial. If a will was completely missing, the War Office accepted evidence from soldiers, family or friends concerning what a soldier had stated verbally concerning his wishes or had written in his will. This was known as a nuncupative will, and is more common for those wills from the First World War than the Second World War. Sometimes nuncupative wills came with certificates of authenticity completed by those soldiers dying from wounds or illness in hospital, while other substitute evidence might have been testimonies from comrades or family members who had seen the will being written.

Further information on how to locate soldiers’ wills can be found on the National Records of Scotland website.

World War 1: a grand-daughter’s research

Posted October 1, 2014 10:32 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

Alison - blogGuest post by Alison Leslie.

The catalyst to finding out my grandfather’s World War One history was a postcard handed to my uncle five years ago.  All that we knew was that grandad was hoarse as a result of being gassed. A colleague at the National Library of Scotland was able to identify my grandad’s regiment and point me in the right direction.  The first stage in a fascinating and humbling journey was using the library’s resources to get some background to the 9th Seaforth Highlanders and the 9th (Scottish) Division. 

The 9th Seaforths were the first Pioneer Battalion in the British Army, shown by a crossed rifle and pick-axe collar badge.  This meant that as well as being infantrymen, the soldiers also built and maintained the infrastructure of war: for example,  trenches, train and tram lines, and water supplies. In the ‘Pioneer Battalions in the Great War’ by K.W. Mitchison (2014), the 9th (Scottish) Division historian called these Pioneers “a shining example of pluck and endurance” and stated that “they are as notable for their fighting as for the value and quality of their work.”

A visit to London last year meant I was able to visit the National Archives at Kew to access the War Diary of the 9th Seaforths.  As the writing changed in the diary, I couldn’t help but wonder if the officers had been transferred, injured or killed.  A return visit this year provided the probable date for my grandad’s gassing, and the reason he is not on any casualty list.  Through consulting W.G. Macpherson’s ‘Medical Services General History’ (1921-4) at NLS I had learned about the different types of gas, their effects and treatment.  This led me to believe that my grandad had inhaled mustard gas.  The type of gas is not mentioned in the war diary, but the entry correlates with the treatment listed in the general history:  “Not included as casualties: 41 other ranks admitted to field ambulance after gas attack 21 July (1917).”

On returning from London I have widened my research to the 9th (Scottish) Division history in order to gain a broader picture, and possibly more information on the 9th Seaforths.  In the meantime my uncle had found grandad’s mobilisation and demob papers, as well as a service record from the Home Guard in World War Two.  This is as much personal history as we will ever get as grandad’s full service record is part of the Burnt Records collection held at Kew.  These were damaged during the Blitz of World War Two.

During the first stage of my research I was honoured to attend the ‘Passing of a Generation’ service at Westminster Abbey on 11 November 2009 with my dad. This national service marked the death of the last World War One veteran earlier in the year.

We will remember them.

Alison - blog2



Donaldson’s Hospital

Posted September 9, 2014 9:52 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

2014-08-19_152954Donaldson’s Hospital was founded in 1851 in Edinburgh from money bequeathed by the printer Sir James Donaldson (1751-1830). The deed of constitution and an excerpt from his will was published in ‘Documents relating to Donaldson’s Hospital, 1851′, Edinburgh, 1851 which is held by this library. This volume also contains job descriptions for the staff, regulations of the school and how children could apply for a place in the Hospital.

Many of the applications came from poor families, especially those with deaf children. By 1938 all pupils at the school were deaf. The library holds some early lists of applications for the admission of children to the Hospital, providing personal information on the listed individuals. The printed lists survive for the years 1863 and 1865. Extracts from the 1830-1927 Minute Books of the school can be found in Robert T. Skinner’s ‘A notable family of Scots printers’, Edinburgh, 1927.

Various histories of the institution can also be found in the library. These include ‘Donaldson’s Hospital’ by Eben H. Macleod, Edinburgh, 1993, ‘Donaldson’s College’ by Kathleen B. Clegg, Edinburgh, 1998 and George Montgomery’s ‘Silent Destiny: a brief history of Donaldson’s College and the origins of education of deaf children in Edinburgh, Scotland and the world’, Edinburgh, 1997.

Finally, the National Library of Scotland holds the manuscript archive of Donaldson’s School for the Deaf as it is now called. The archive comprises four collections, referenced Acc.12753, Acc.11896, Acc.12657 and Acc.12849. The first two have online inventories available. Further enquiries regarding access to this collection should be made to the Manuscripts department at the library.


Posted September 3, 2014 2:04 pm by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

Guest post by Sara Windram.

2014-09-03_115105Many people researching family history will be familiar with using newspapers as an aid to finding birth, death and marriage announcements. These details are often the first steps of family history research. However, newspapers can also be a tool to finding out a lot more than dates and names.

Newspapers can provide an insight into a geographical area at a certain time through local news. This can often reveal extra information not found in official records. Details such as businesses of the time and what they were selling give us an idea of what our ancestors surroundings were like, along with what they purchased and consumed.  Some examples include grocers’ showcasing the latest exotic produce that they have for sale, such as Chicago corn food, sea kale and Epps’ Homoeopathic Cocoa in the ‘Scotsman’ of  1861. What our ancestors wore can also be seen in advertisements for fashionable costume, such as the one displayed here from the ‘Scotsman’ of 25 March 1868. In the advert J. S. Green of Princes Street in Edinburgh is advising their customers that they have the latest French silk repps and spring dresses for sale. Repps described a specific type of cloth woven in fine cords or ribs across the width of the piece. If you had an ancestor who emigrated, adverts for sailing companies can help you identify which ship an ancestor may have sailed on. Extra details like these can often help break down walls in research.

The National Library of Scotland has online access to a number of electronic newspaper databases. These include the British Newspaper Archive, a full-text digital archive of over 200 newspaper titles from the British Library’s collections, and the Scotsman Digital Archive, which covers every issue of the ‘Scotsman’ newspaper from 1817 to 1950. We also hold a considerable range of newspapers, either in original format or on microfilm. Titles can be found via our online catalogue or by searching the ‘NEWSPLAN Scotland’ volume in the library, which lists all local newspaper titles and the years they were published. A further guide to available Scottish Newspaper Indexes can be found on our website.

Oral history

Posted August 25, 2014 8:38 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

One of the first things you need to do when starting your family research is to speak to your relatives, especially the older generation, to find out what they can tell you. This is also true for those doing research into local history who might need to interview members of the community. Knowing how to get the best from these interviews can make a difference to the quality of information that you obtain. Before starting your research there are a number of publications that you might benefit from reading first. These include:

  • ‘Doing oral history: a practical guide’ by Donald A. Ritchie, Oxford, 2003
  • ‘Oral evidence and the family historian: a short guide’ by Lawrence Taylor, Plymouth, 1984
  • ‘Sounding boards: oral testimony and the local historian’ by David Marcombe, Nottingham, 1995
  • ‘Oral history and the local historian’ by Stephen Caunce, London, 1994
  • ‘The handbook of oral history: recording life stories’ by Stephen Humphries, London, 1984
  • ‘Oral history: a handbook’ by Ken Howarth, Stroud, 1998

These books discuss different types of oral history project as well as giving advice on how to organise the research, what questions to ask and how to record the information provided by the interviewee.

Further information on the subject can also be found on the website of the Oral History Society, while details of UK and worldwide based oral history projects can be found on the East Midlands Oral History Archive website.

NLS at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, Glasgow 2014

Posted July 30, 2014 8:45 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

Staff from the National Library of Scotland will be in attendance at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, which is on at the S.E.C.C. in Glasgow from 29-31 August 2014. We will be at stall E18 in Hall 5 and will have staff from the Reference Services, General Collections, Maps, Manuscripts and Scottish Screen Archive departments on hand to answer your questions about the library collections. If you are visiting the show why not come along and say hello?

New World War I digital resources available

Posted July 7, 2014 11:54 am by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

The library has just made available two new World War I online resources in our Digital Gallery. The first of these is the British First World War Trench Maps 1915-1918. These 307 maps show the British and German trenches on the Western Front and record the names that soldiers gave the trenches, as well as the names of nearby farms, villages, woods, and other landmarks.

The second resource is Rolls of Honour from Scotland, containing listings of casualties and those who died while on active service. It  includes rolls for organisations, such as schools, universities, clans, businesses and churches, as well as for places all over Scotland.

Women and the First World War

Posted July 1, 2014 2:52 pm by Hazel Stewart | Permalink

2014-07-01_143351Women played a significant role in World War I, both at home and abroad, and there are a number of publications that provide further details on their contribution. Neil R. Storey and Molly Housego have co-authored ‘Women in the First World War’, Oxford, 2011, which includes chapters on their jobs in the military, in the medical services and on the land, with plenty of photographs and war posters. Susan R. Grayzel has also published the similarly titled ‘Women and the First World War’, London, 2002, but this book has a more academic bias and also discusses anti-war activity, sexuality and morality and the post-war effects on women.

‘Women Workers in the First World War’ by Gail Braybon, London, 1989, is another academic study that analyses the role women had in the workforce before, during and after the war. A more colourful volume is Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard’s ‘Working for Victory? Images of Women in the First World War 1914-18′, London, 1987, which consists mainly of black and white photographs of women working in different jobs during wartime.

For those interested in women in the medical services, Anne Powell’s ‘Women in the War Zone: Hospital Service in the First World War’, Stroud, 2009 focusses on personal recollections of female doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers who served overseas. A more secretive job for women is discussed in Tammy M. Proctor’s ‘Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War’, London, 2003, which uses personal accounts and diaries, official publications and newspaper reports to throw some light on this most unusual job.

Finally, the library holds the manuscript archive, including the photograph albums, of the Scottish nurse, Mairi Chisholm, who served in Belgium during 1914-18. You can find more information on her on the library’s Experiences of the Great War website.