General Register House on Princes Street is one of the world’s oldest custom-built archive buildings still in use. Today, this grand classical building is home to the National Archives of Scotland, but it was once derided as only fit for pigeons.
The idea to construct a new home for the public records was a key part of the proposals for the New Town in 1752. A grand public building was seen as suitable for the ambitious project, but it was also needed as the existing storage underneath Parliament House was totally unsuitable for such important records. To start the construction a fund of £12,000 was provided by the government, taken from forfeited Jacobite estates.
The famous Scottish architect Robert Adam was retained to design the building and work started in 1774, but it stopped only five years later when the money ran out. The unfinished structure soon became the focus of local criticism, described it as “the most magnificent pigeon house in Europe”.
The site lay unfinished until 1785 when a new architect was appointed and work began again. Over the years there have been many changes, with the front wall being pushed back to accommodate the statue of the Duke of Wellington and to widen the road, and New Register House being built immediately next door in 1858.
Robert Adam’s design incorporated special features to ensure the safety of the archives, particularly in keeping fire and damp at bay. The building was solidly constructed of stone with brick vaults, and flagstones were used on most of the floors. Individual offices had their own fireplaces but the central rotunda appropriately relied on an ancient Roman solution, underfloor heating. Flues in the floor carried hot air from furnaces in the basement to protect the records from damp.
The rotunda is a stunning room, with an impressive domed roof which rises above the building. The rotunda is 50 feet in diameter and 80 feet in height, and was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, with light coming only from the circular window in the centre of the dome. Look closely in the decorative plasterwork and you can see Roman and Greek scenes, but also Scottish thistles. In one of the alcoves there is a striking statue of King George III, which was originally in the centre room. In contrast to the popular image we have today, it depicts a youthful King George aged 22 and swathed in his coronation robes.
Behind General Register House is the Archivists’ Garden, a hidden gem created in 2010. Tucked away in the open courtyard between General Register House and New Register House, it is a unique garden planted with 57 species connected to Scotland’s history, through myth, folklore, heraldry, or association with individual famous Scots.
The opening of the Scotland’s People family history centre in 2008 drew a new audience for the archives, but the building itself is also worth a visit. Marvel at the rotunda, largest surviving room designed by Robert Adam, and enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the Archivists’ Garden, only a few steps from the noise and bustle of Princes Street.