Friday, 10 October 2014

Researching Historic Mental Health Records in Scotland

Elmhill House, Royal Cornhill Hospital Aberdeen
Our health is perhaps one of the most precious things we have. Sadly, there are still too many people who suffer without treatment, without understanding and without hope. How did our ancestors, and their families, cope with life-changing health problems?

If an ancestor had a farming accident, for example, you may find a newspaper report. In such cases you may very quickly be able to gain some understanding of what the individual and their loved ones may have experienced.

Mental health, though, is very different. Sometimes, all we know comes from that final column in the census: ‘Lunatic’! Alternatively, we may have searched the census for a missing family member, only for them to turn up in a ‘Lunatic Asylum’. It can be a shocking discovery, and cause us to ask many questions.

This doesn’t have to be the end of the story, though, as you can find out a lot more about mental health problems and their treatment in the past. Some of the stories you may have heard may even be myths. Researching the original records may actually give you answers, and therefore peace.

For example, I had always had the idea that in the Victorian era thousands of people were locked up, and then they threw away the key! From our research here in Scotland we have found this was not always the case. Yes, there were some long term patients, but there also seems to have been many thousands who were in an institution for a short time only, and do not seem to have been re-admitted.

How can you dig deeper? One place to start is at the National Records of Scotland (NRS). There is a particularly useful set of records held there concerning those admitted to mental health institutions throughout Scotland from 1858 onwards.

The first of these is a national register detailing the patient’s name, the institution they were committed to, the date of their admission and the date of their release or transfer. This register even records those already in institutions in Scotland on 1 January 1858. The NRS references this register as MC7. They have kindly granted permission for me to share some example images with you taken from the ‘National Register’: click on the image to enlarge it and you should be able to read the entries on the page clearly. This page is taken from the volume MC7/1.

Secondly, there are individual patient admission forms, giving much more detail on the individual patient and their situation. In almost all cases you should be able to find a patient admission form corresponding to each entry in the ‘National Register’ just described. These admission forms are bound into volumes, one volume for each month from January 1858 onwards. The NRS references this series of volumes as MC2. The best way to understand these records is probably to read an example case for yourself, again click on the image to see a larger version. This example case is taken from volume MC2/47.

This set of records is excellent because it should contain everyone in a mental health institution in Scotland from 1858 onwards. It is possible, though, to dig even deeper and look at locally held records. Highland Archives in Inverness, for example, hold records relating to their area and you can consult these in their search room. Once you know which institution your ancestor was sent to, and the date of admission (information which is always given in the national record sets I referred to above), then you can start with the local archive and ask if they have the records of that particular institution, or know where they are held.

The Scottish Archive Network catalogue can also be used to search a number of archives throughout Scotland. Unfortunately, though, not all archives yet have a comprehensive catalogue available online, and in many cases there is no substitute for contacting the archivist directly.

I would urge you not to hide your ancestor’s mental health issues, as some families may have done in times past. Dig deeper into the records and you can come to a deeper understanding of your family’s history.

Search our existing Scottish records for free at


  1. I was interested to read about the mental health records available for historical research in Scotland. I've used (and indexed) various series of records for mental asylum patients in Queensland, and they have solved genealogical puzzles for many of my clients.

  2. Excellent tip, thank you. I'll be checking these out next time.

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