General Register House

The General Register House

General Register House, Edinburgh

The history of General Register House

General Register House, a grand classical building is one of the world’s oldest custom-built archive buildings still in use.

The idea to construct a new home for public records was a key part of the proposals for the New Town in 1752. A grand public building was considered suitable for the ambitious project but was also needed as the existing storage underneath Parliament House was unsuitable for such vital records.

Cultural significance

General Register House symbolises Scotland’s dedication to maintaining an accurate record of its citizens’ lives. Its neoclassical facade, adorned with classical columns, exudes an air of gravitas and permanence. Inside, the meticulously organised archives contain a wealth of information including births, marriages, and deaths, providing an invaluable resource for genealogists and historians alike.

Why is it important to Edinburgh?

The building has many important features, including the rotunda which 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. Looking closely in the decorative plasterwork, 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.

Key events

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, which 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.

Additional information

General Register House was completed in 1785.
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.
General Register House is located at the east end of Princes Street, one of Edinburgh’s most iconic thoroughfares.

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