General Register House, located on Princes Street in Edinburgh is one of the oldest archive buildings still in existence in the world today.
In 1752 an idea was formed to construct a house used entirely to store public records. This was seen as quite an extravagant project, however, it was also deemed necessary because Parliament House was unable to store the significant records that the people of Edinburgh were creating at the time.
Work first started in 1774, with the building being designed by much coveted architect Robert Adam, however, the funds dried up by 1779 and work was then halted. In time the site became known as the most expensive pigeon house throughout Europe as it lay unfinished for a number of years.
It wasn’t until 1785, when another architect was agreed upon, that the site was worked on again. Throughout the next 70 years there were a number of changes to the building, to accommodate the Duke of Wellington, and then New Register House was built next door to the original building in 1858. This building was made to house additional archive storage, in particular those relating to births, marriages and deaths. Before 1855 registration was not compulsory and the uptake of registration was not particularly high. Once it became compulsory vast archives were needed and this building was finally completed in 1863.
This building was constructed to be solid and as such it was made of stone, with brick vaults contained within. Flagstones were used for the vast majority of the floors with importance being given to making the building resistant to both damp and fire. The records were protected from damp via a series of flues that ran underneath the floors and contained hot air fuelled by furnaces. This allowed the floors to stay warm and meant that the basement, where records were held, was kept free of damp.
General Register House is home to a beautiful room, the Rotunda. This is a vast roof, with a dome in the roof, which stands proud above the top of the building. This Rotunda was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and allows light to flood in via a central circular window. The Rotunda has decorative plasterwork and stunning alcoves, one of which holds a status of King George III, at just 22, flanked by the robes from his Coronation.
General Register House is now home to the Scotland’s People Family History Centre, which opened in 2008, and this is always a draw for visitors to Edinburgh. As well as the new centre there is a stunning garden, located between the courtyard which is sandwiched between General Register House and New Register House. There are many unique species planted in the grounds here that have links to the heritage of Scotland.
More than 400,000 mandatory registrations of births, deaths and marriages have now been stored since the compulsory introduction in 1855. There are more than 4 miles of shelving located just in the dome of the New Register House and the top tier contains the original marriage documents, signed directly after marriage ceremonies in Scotland, as well as open census records spanning 50 years.
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