General Register Building of the National Archives of Scotland – Edinburgh, Scotland - Atlas Obscura
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Edinburgh, Scotland

General Register Building of the National Archives of Scotland

Every birth, death, and marriage is recorded in these color-coded leather-bound books. 

Hundreds of thousands of books in a magnificent domed archive tell the tales of nearly 200 years of Scottish lives, loves, and deaths.

The early years of Scotland’s archives were almost as turbulent as the country’s own history, with records taken back and forth across the English border. Many were lost and stolen, while still more are incomplete. But as things grew more settled from about the Middle Ages, the country began to maintain a centralized national archives where its stories and histories could be stored.

The present-day headquarters were completed in 1863, at a cost of nearly £35,000 (£4 million in today’s pounds). But their crowning jewel is a central chamber: the fireproof Dome. Measuring around 90 feet in height, it has shelves that stretch a total of four miles.

No matter how glorious the building might be from an architectural or engineering perspective, however, its real treasure lies in the half a million volumes on the shelves. From 1855, registrars have patiently recorded the births, deaths, and marriages in Scotland—as they do to this very day. Births go in the red books of the first tier; deaths are in funereal black on the second; and marriages in the green books at the top. Above them all are original marriage schedules, signed by wedding couples immediately after their marriage ceremonies in Scotland, alongside the country’s open Census records from 1841 to 1891.

These millions and millions of pages contain MacDonalds, Stewarts, Campbells and Murrays, along with almost as many variant spellings. They may just look like names in a book, but each is a memento of a life begun, ended, or joined to another on Caledonian soil.