Monday 7 March 2016

“You know what I am going to say. I love you.”

“You know what I am going to say. I love you.” This, I believe was, the feeling of our entire group for the Special Collections Centre of the Sir Duncan Rice Library when we finished our visit last Friday.

Architecturally stunning, the Sir Duncan Rice Library stands out amongst the university buildings. Once inside the scale of the library can be truly appreciated. Standing in the atrium you can look up and see 7 floors above you. On the ground floor is a Welcome Desk, gallery, café and other amenities. The upper floors contain the university library and offer generous study space.

We were met by Andrew Macgregor, the Deputy Archivist, who combined a tour of the Special Collections Centre and a tour of the collections. Andrew began by showing us the Gallery which will soon be proudly displaying their set of first edition Dickens novels. You may recognise my opening quote as being that of Bradley Headstone in ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Once downstairs in one of the archive’s seven store rooms we were shown all the volumes which were ready and waiting to go on display. Rather than being sourced from a single collection, they have come from a variety of collections found in castles and private homes which have been acquired over the years: only recently has it become apparent that there is a complete set of first editions (perhaps if I look in my library I will find that I happen to have a complete set of first editions!). This is a small insight into the way that the material has been collected over the last 531 years; they now have well over a million items!

As a group of genealogists, we were keen to hear what they hold that was of special interest to family historians and how we can access it. Andrew covered the major collections that the Special Collections Centre at the Sir Duncan Rice Library. In this blog I will focus on those of particular interest to genealogists. To get a complete overview of their holdings I would suggest spending some time going through the catalogue and reading their fact sheets.

Highlights of their holdings are estate records, union records, business records, local solicitor’s records, the Scottish Catholic Archive, NHS Grampian archive, oral histories, the George Washington Wilson photographic collection and the Aberdeen Harbour Board photographic collection.

After being given an introduction to the archive by Andrew, he took us past the reading room along a corridor to the store rooms. For genealogists this is usually our favourite part of a tour, going behind the scenes and being surrounded by all the wonderful records and books. It has to be said that this archive did not disappoint and on every shelf there was something to interest us.

‘Register of Operations’
We were joined at this point by Fiona Musk, who is the archivist of the NHS Grampian Archive. Fiona took us to their section in one of the store rooms and showed us some of the amazing records that they hold. The archive includes the records of the hospitals of the north east that were taken over by the NHS in 1948; including the records such as those of the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the Royal Cornhill Hospital as well as many other hospitals and institutions in the wider area. Some of the information that they hold, particularly the 20th century material, is very sensitive and laws on Data Protection need to be followed carefully. Fiona is keen, though, to help users access records wherever appropriate. My eye was drawn to a set of volumes entitled ‘Register of Operations’. Fiona allowed us to look at an old volume. As you can see in the image (names have been obscured) the volume tells us the ‘disease’ of each individual and the nature of the operation, fascinating information which could not be found in any other record. There are patient registers for many hospitals. Whilst some work has been done to index these records, as the records are so extensive if your ancestor (or client’s ancestor) died in a hospital in the Grampian region, it would be well worth checking the catalogue to see if any records survive.


As we moved through the store rooms Andrew pulled out treasure after treasure, some of which you can see in the photos. The next stop on our tour was the conservation department, a beautiful large space where repairs are made on ancient books and documents, enabling most of the collection to continue to be available for consultation by readers.

Treasures from the Archive
The archive was now closing for the day and all the readers had left the reading room, so we now headed into that large airy space. The archive has a large collection of books on the open shelves, which is very useful as it speeds up access for research. As you can see from the photographs, it has been designed to be a light, pleasant environment. As always I had to ask the question, “Do you allow users to photograph your records?” As we have come to expect from all modern archives, yes they do. You do need to check with staff to ensure each item is suitable and obtain permission before publication, but these are standard requirements.

Even if you were not present for our visit of the Special Collections Centre of the Sir Duncan Rice Library, I’m sure you can now understand why I began this report in the way I did. We can only wish that more archives across Scotland could have such excellent facilities!

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Special Collections Centre

Friday 29 January 2016


Our first visit for 2016 was to the Search Room of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), now part of Historic Environment Scotland which incorporates both the old RCAHMS and Historic Scotland.

On our arrival we were greeted by Philip Graham who showed us to the Search Room and introduced us to the wealth of material held there. RCAHMS holdings include:

  • The National Collection of Aerial Photography – buildings, city scapes, archaeological sites - not just of UK sites but worldwide, dating back to the 1920s (needs an appointment to view)
  • Photographs - around 2.5 million – from early glass slides in the 1850s to present day, town centres to historic houses and monuments, including images taken for Country Life some of which were not actually featured in the magazine
  • Drawings – over 2 million, dating from the 17th century to the present day, including architects plans for houses
  • Digital Collections – 3D digitisation is currently being used to record Scottish world heritage sites, and scan buildings
  • Books – about 25,000 – providing information on archaeology, architecture, places, memorials etc.
  • Original Manuscripts
  • Old Maps

In his talk Philip focused especially on information that might be useful to us as genealogists, and demonstrated how, although it is not possible to search their database for a family name (apart from specific collections), some very interesting information can be found about the places that those families would have lived – old maps, photographs of buildings, changes in areas over time, family photograph albums some dating back to the 1700s (of which they have over 500, some with family names included), and drawings of monuments and gravestones some dating from the 1600s.

We were shown historic and recent photographs of the same place eg: a series of 6 photographs of the east end of Princes Street showing the changes over time in the use of the roof of the Waverley Market – gardens, car park, shops etc., and photographs of old buildings before, during and after renovation, along with architects floor plans. We could all imagine how thrilled descendants would be to see that sort of information about the places their ancestors had lived and worked, and some of the places mentioned were currently being researched by members of the group.

We were then taken to the Print Room where we gazed in awe at the old books on the shelves – eager to get our hands on them. These were not available for public browsing but could be produced if requested. There we were shown a number of fascinating items including albums of gravestones photographed by Betty Willsher in the late 1900s; a family history scrapbook belonging to Thomas Davidson (a palaeontologist in 1817) with scraps, watercolours, notes and plans; a box of photographs and drawings of  Archaeological sites – part of the Collection of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland; copies of property sale documents; and postcard collections.

Before we left we had a short time to browse the collections ourselves and left vowing to return very soon. Our thanks go to Philip for a really interesting and helpful afternoon.  

The Search Room is open Tuesday to Friday (9.30am -5pm) and there is always a member of staff available to assist. Browse 700,000 boxed photographic prints, 24,000 library books, 60 series of journals and periodicals and 3,700 maps, search the catalogue on a computer terminal, or request items which will be delivered at 12 noon on the day (or order in advance from the online catalogue). A copier is available, high resolution prints can be purchased, and licences can be obtained for their use if required (price list online).

The RCAHMS website (will be changing in April 2016) allows access to eight different databases the main one being Canmore, but also SCRAN, the Buildings at Risk Register, Pastmap, HLAmap, Scotlands Places, Britain Above and The National Collection of Aerial Photography. From within Canmore a number of photographic collections and family albums can be viewed online.

Report by Scottish Genealogist Lorraine Stewart of Kincardineshire Ancestors