“ Address: HM General Register House / 2 Princes Street / Edinburgh EH1 3YY / Tel: 0131 314 4300 / National register of births, deaths, marriages. Ideal for researching family trees and heritage „
When I recently wrote a review for Father's Day about my dad, I got to thinking about parts of his family I knew little or nothing about.
A few years ago I had used the Scotland's People website to find information on my mother's brother, who had died as a baby. Her parents wouldn't speak about him and it was through using the Scotland's People website I was able to find out his name for my mother.
Scotland's People is the brand name for the national register and records office for Scotland, and much of the archive they hold is available to use online. However it's quite hit and miss because you can only view some excerpts which means if you are looking for a birth certificate which is less than 100 years old and several possible matches come up, you cannot be 100% sure you have the correct one.
A way round this is to visit the Scotland's People archive in the centre of Edinburgh, where you will be able to access the birth, death, marriage and divorce records for the whole of Scotland.
As my father was adopted, I decided to pay the building a visit and it turned into a fascinating day.
~~Where is It?~~
The Scotland's People Centre is located in an imposing building at the eastern end of Princes Street, just to the west of the St James' Centre and directly across Princes Street from the Balmoral Hotel.
It houses the General Register for Scotland, which was the part of the building I wished to visit, the National Archive of Scotland, the Court of the Lord Lyon and the Scottish Catholic Archive.
The address is:-
HM General Register House
2 Princes Street
~~Visiting Scotland's People~~
It is possible to just turn up and request a seat at one of the bank of terminals Scotland's People have, but you might be out of luck if it's busy.
First time visitors can do a 2 hour free "taster" session but having been for a full day I can assure you that unless you are only looking for one piece of information, 2 hours isn't going to be enough.
Instead you should consider booking a day visit which will cost you £10 and reserve an allocated desk for you for a full day - the centre opens at 9.00 am and closes at 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday.
You can reserve your desk either online or by telephone. I made my reservation online, and all you do is fill in a form which requests some information and tell Scotland's People when you would like to visit.
I sent my message in the evening and was delighted to receive a response almost first thing the next morning confirming the date I had requested.
Scotland's People will tell you where you will be sitting, right down to the desk number.
I arrived at Scotland's People just after 10.00 am and was greeted by a receptionist. When I had received the confirmation e-mail regarding my booking, I was given a reference number and also told where I would be sitting. I handed a copy of the e-mail to the receptionist and paid my £10 fee.
She issued me with a receipt and then gave me a leaflet with guidelines for the session. She also informed me that phones can only be left on in silent mode, no photography is permitted and food and drink are prohibited in the main research rooms.
She explained that my seat was reserved until the building closed at 4.30 pm that day and I was free to come and go from the building so long as I had my receipt for readmission.
I then made my way to the Reid Room, and was pleased to see some supervisors on hand to assist me in finding my desk.
To use the system, you need to have a username and password. Scotland's People give you a username on arrival, and mine was on the written guidelines the receptionist gave me. A generic password is issued to all users but you are told to change it as soon as you log in for the first time.
You must also supply some basic information about yourself - you can include all the personal information the system asks for but you must as a minimum supply your surname, the first line of your address and your country of residence to get going.
The system then is similar to the Scotland's People website, with the difference being there are far more records for you to view.
There are further charges for printing records - the current price is 50p per page. Similarly you can save records to a memory stick with this costing £1 per image. You need to see the supervisor to pre-pay for what you want to print or save.
It should be noted however that you can only print or save birth records that are more than 100 years old, deaths which are more than 50 years old, marriages more than 75 years old, old parish registers and wills and testaments. If you want to print birth, marriage and death records more recent you have to pay for a copy to be sent to you.
This can be quite an expensive business if you want to research a lot of family members.
===Searching the Records===
As I have used the Scotland's People website in the past I had a rough idea of how the interface worked.
The most important thing in any search is the surname, so if you are delving into several generations of your family, it helps to know maiden names and the like.
The search facility can be filtered so if, for instance, you were looking for a Jock McTavish and knew he was born in Aberdeen, you can filter your search to only include people born in Aberdeen. You can only search for people in 5 year blocks - so if you are unsure of when someone was born, for instance, you might find yourself going through the search several times due to this time limit. I was trying to find my great grandfather's death record and I had absolutely no idea when he died and it took me several attempts to find it due to this limit.
You can look for people purely on the basis of surname - which is something I wish I had realised earlier, as I spent quite some time trying to locate my father's birth mother's birth and death certificates, safe in the knowledge her name was Margaret - it had turned up as Margaret on other records pertaining to her and I couldn't understand why I couldn't find these records.
It wasn't until I did a search based purely on her maiden surname that I found her - she had been registered as Maggie at birth and death - a name she was never known as - instead she was Peggy to all.
Some searches will ask for a mother's maiden name to help you find who you are looking for, but I found in the case of some records this narrowed the search and made it more difficult to find what I was looking for. The mother's maiden name seems to be more important if you are looking for someone from the 1960s onwards - certainly in earlier death records I found there was no mention of maiden names in the register.
You can save records you have found to your account, which is perfect if you have several records you wish to find and print or save, meaning you can go back to them when you have finished doing all your searches. The only bad thing about this mode of searching is that if you have a record that you can't print out and you wish to order a copy certificate the numbers you will need to put on the form you use to make the order aren't shown - you will have to search again. I know if I go again and want to order copies of certificates I will take a note of these numbers before saving.
===What I Found===
I have already mentioned I was looking for more information on my father's birth mother, a woman I can only recall meeting once. I knew she had married and had a daughter and two sons, but she kept my father a closely guarded secret from them, with only her daughter having any idea that my father was actually her half brother.
I started my search with my father's birth certificate which clearly stated he had been adopted. I then decided I needed to find out more about Peggy and decided I would see if I could find her birth certificate.
As mentioned I hit a brick wall here - she was never known as Maggie so far as I had been aware, with the family using the other diminutive of Margaret - Peggy - to address her.
I decided instead to see if I could find her marriage certificate, and through putting in her maiden name found a record of marriage from 1941. One thing puzzled me about this record however - it gave another surname she had used and this perplexed me - to the best of my knowledge she had only been married once.
I knew the name of her eldest daughter and searched for her, but nothing came up. I then tried to search for children born under the other surname listed and hit paydirt - it turned out her eldest daughter had been born in 1939 under a name I didn't recognise, and a further search revealed a marriage I didn't know about in 1937.
The tragedy of this story is that Peggy's daughter's birth entry revealed her father's name - but beside it were the words "deceased".
After a little more digging, I found her first husband's death certificate, and it revealed that he had died at the tragically young age of just 23 from cancer - ten days after the birth of their daughter.
I found this discovery affected me more than I had expected it to. Peggy was always portrayed as someone "bad" by my father and my Nana, the woman who adopted him and Peggy's older sister. But for all her sins, did she deserve to have that happen to her? My own father died just six days after my daughter was born so the timing of Peggy's first husband's death wasn't lost on me.
I also came to understand why my father's half sister had a different name to that she was registered as - Peggy adapted her late husband's first name to bestow on to her and it was that name that stuck.
I found myself getting lost in this family history and could have stayed far longer, but having completely lost track of time, I had to drag myself away. I had been at the screen for 4 hours doing research and could have easily passed another 4 hours researching some more, but unfortunately I had to go and pick up my daughter from school so I couldn't hang around much longer.
I did order a copy of my father's birth record. To do this you have to ask the room supervisor for a form to fill in and you have to include the person's name, year of birth and the numbers on the register, along with your name and address. It costs £8 for each copy, which is a slight reduction on the price of £10 if you order copies online, and they will be posted to you. You can pay either by cash or card. The certificate arrived by second class post 3 days after my visit.
On this occasion I chose not to save or print records - most of the information I wanted was too recent for me to do this and I have found it easier to find the older information I needed from the website, which works on a "pay as you go" basis.
The Scotland's People Centre may be housed in an imposing old building, but there are excellent facilities for the disabled, with three entrances which are wheelchair accessible. Guide dogs are welcome and there are large screens available for those with sight issues and loops for those who are hard of hearing. There are also desks in each room suitable for wheelchair users and low level lockers too, along with toilets adapted for the disabled.
Scotland's People also have Assisted Searches, which are a good way for people who are unsure how the records work or who have limited computer experience to make full use of their time in the centre. It costs £20 per hour on top of your £10 daily search fee and a member of staff will help you get used to how the system works.
I found the entire experience a fascinating, and actually quite moving one. However there are some things I wish I had known before I went - the main one is that one piece of paper and a pen probably isn't going to be enough for you to take notes, especially if you find something out you hadn't expected - and it's quite possible you will.
Most of the people sitting near to me had netbooks they used to record the information they found, and I really wish I had brought mine. I rapidly ran out of paper but the lady sitting beside me kindly offered me some of hers as she could see I was in the midst of some major discovery I had to take note of.
I also wish I had realised just how absorbing and fascinating the experience would be. I went in on an empty stomach, assuming I could use the cafeteria on-site for lunch but having lost track of the time and having to be at the other side of Edinburgh for 3.20 pm meant I had to miss out on it altogether.
Scotland's People has a shop which is beside reception too. I glanced at it on the way in and had planned to visit on my way out but of course I didn't have time.
I would therefore recommend that if you plan to visit for the day try to get there for 9.00 am and make a whole day of it if you can. I really regret not getting there for the doors opening as I feel I wasted an hour of my allocated time.
Visiting the Scotland's People Centre was a fascinating experience for me and one I know I will repeat in the future. If you are curious about any family members you have in Scotland, or quite fancy having a look at the records of famous Scots, the Centre makes for a super way to pass the time and learn something at the same time.
For me anyway, it was a well spent £10 to go back in time and learn more about the woman who was, biologically anyway, my grandmother.