Friday, 23 May 2014

The National Records of Scotland - How Many Images are in the Virtual Volumes?

When you think of the National Records of Scotland (NRS), you may conjure up an image of ancient and dusty documents tied up with ribbon. Of course, that is not entirely incorrect, as there is indeed plenty of that to be found! Increasingly though, modern technology is coming to the rescue of these precious documents and the landscape now looks quite different!

When you now enter the Historical Search room you will see on your left a bank of computers, ten in total. These are the computers you use to access the NRS’ Virtual Volumes system.

The Historical Search Room
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland

For a considerable time now, the NRS have been digitally imaging a wide variety of documents from their holdings. This means that rather than producing the original documents, which can be so easily damaged, you can view full-colour images of them on a computer terminal in the search room. I have noticed that on a number of occasions recently almost every computer desk has been occupied. On glancing towards the busy searchers at the computer desks the other day a question popped into my mind: just how many images are now available on the Virtual Volumes system? Being a curious soul (I think it comes with the job description) I had to ask. Thanks to one of the NRS archivists, Dr Stefanie Metze, I can tell you there are currently the staggering total of 59,324,163 images accessible on Virtual Volumes!

What documents and books are included in these 59,324,163 images, and why have the NRS gone to all this bother?

Stairs to the Historical Search Room
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland
This figure includes some of the images of some of the documents which are available on, such as the Valuation Rolls, Wills and Testaments. It also includes some of the images available on, including historical tax records such as the Hearth Tax and Farm Horse Tax. It does not, though, include the images of birth, marriages, deaths, OPRs or census records; to view these on site you will need go downstairs to the Scotland’s People Centre and pay an entrance fee to view those images on the Scotland’s People system. The Historical Search room of the NRS is free to use for historical and genealogical searches.

Some of the most popular records which are available on the Virtual Volumes system are the Kirk Session records. The Register of Sasines is also a frequently viewed source (sasines generally record the transfer of heritable property between people) and are therefore a fundamental tool for genealogists. They often name relationships and give other useful information which might be difficult to find anywhere else, especially in early periods where fewer sources may be available. House historians and others with an interest in local history will also utilise these records to find out more about particular pieces of land. Fortunately, there is an index to most sasines which exists from 1780 onwards. Prior to 1780 most of the sasines are available as digital images on the Virtual Volumes system, but the existing indexes are still available in paper form. The archivists will show you where these indexes are and how to use them.

Entrance to the National Records of Scotland
By kind permission of the National Records of Scotland
Other records which have been digitally imaged include some of the Register of Deeds, which is again a fundamental research tool, and also the records of non-Church of Scotland Kirk Sessions, which contain substantial numbers registers of births, marriages and deaths.

By imaging records which are regularly consulted the originals can be better preserved. Another advantage is that you can view documents very quickly, as there is no need to order them and wait for them to be brought to your desk.

It can be useful to know before you go to the Historic Search Room which of the documents you wish to consult are available on Virtual Volumes, and which are not. Check the NRS catalogue: a yellow dot is usually present if the document has been digitally imaged. Click into the item details and look under  ‘Access conditions’, if it has been digitally imaged it will tell you there.

One final thing, once you find what you are looking for, hit the print button and for just 50 pence you will be given an A3 full colour copy of the document!


  1. I am not surprised. Most big international companies use virtual data rooms, such as Ideals. And I think virtual documents are better, that physical, because anyone who wants to read something can get an access to it. And we a re talking about business, virtual rooms give them a lot of possibilities - form saving time to implementation deals online.