Monday 12 December 2022

The National Records of Scotland needs to reset its relationship with its user base

This morning I received my second phone call in two working days, asking me not to attend the Glasgow Genealogy Centre tomorrow, as their computers cannot connect to the ScotlandsPeople service following its recent disastrous upgrade. Whilst I do not know the specifics of Glasgow's issue, I do know that an equivalent centre in another part of the country has been unable to connect to the service because its computers are older, and not compatible with the new set up in Edinburgh. It would seem that some of the other centres have had similar issues, with no warning given to them in advance on possible compatability issues that would be created by the upgrade, which appears to have been rushed and with no extensive testing regime in advance. The ScotlandsPeople tech team has been struggling to fix a parallel mess of issues since the launch of the revamped service 3 weeks ago - you can follow its updates and the catalogue of disaster of 'small issues' (its words) at

The last two years have seen an appalling level of service problems encountered by the user base of the National Records of Scotland (, both within its archive rooms and the ScotlandsPeople service. When the pandemic started in 2020, the natural assumption was that the NRS, in its statutory duties to document the mortality rates caused by Covid, would be run off its feet with the workload. When the search rooms at the NRS and ScotlandsPeople closed, there was a support and sympathy from many in their user base who wished them well. Lots of good folk were run off their feet trying to work in the most appalling of conditions. But when pandemic restrictions began to ease, it soon became clear that the NRS seemed to be holding back. As other archives opened their doors again - with cautious restrictions against Covid - we cheered them on, and looked with increasing suspicion towards the NRS, which had seemingly gone into hibernation, and appeared to be refusing to wake up. The year long delay to the release of the 1921 census, which was actually digitised a decade ago, added further to the growing anger.

In the last year in particular, the relationship between many in the history, genealogy and academic communities in Scotland towards the NRS has broken down, with the continued lack of service provision affecting many people's incomes and academic studies. In June, genealogist Fergus Smith penned an open letter to Paul Lowe, Keeper of the Records of Scotland and Registrar General, condemning the ongoing restrictions in service - you can read this at The letter was signed by dozens of genealogists, historians, students and academics (myself included), endorsing its many complaints with suggested remedies. Several weeks later, the service finally resumed, almost a year after its equivalents did so in London and Belfast.

When folk like myself criticise the NRS, one thing has to be stated up front, loud and proud, it is absolutely NOT the staff, archivists and registrars that we are criticising, who do a Herculean job on our behalf - it is the leadership. Throughout the past year I have witnessed colleagues trying to get information from the NRS through letters, through Freedom of Information Act enquiries, letters to their MSPs, and even to Scotland's Culture Secretary. I've never witnessed anything like it in my near 17 years working as a genealogist in Scotland. It is fair to say that whilst responses were received by many, answers to the issues raised were not forthcoming, and in some cases disingenuous, to the point where even the Information Commissioner rapped its knuckles (see 

As with others, I tried to get some answers also. As well as receiving a fairly standard response from Paul Lowe over criticism of points raised, several months ago I also wrote to my MSP (an SNP MSP) to ask the Culture Secretary about future plans concerning the NRS estate, following an announcement in 2015 that it hoped to move towards a more suitable purpose built facility at some stage in the future (see Despite her valiant efforts to secure a response from the Culture Secretary, none has been forthcoming - I wrote again to her yesterday to suggest that she no longer try, as it is clear he has no interest in responding. 

From another direction, I also complained to the Archive Accreditation Standards team at the National Archives in London, asking whether the NRS was in breach of its statutory service obligation to users - only to learn in a response in July that the NRS had been given a free pass from adhering to the standards because of the pandemic (see It was no surprise to see the NRS retain its accreditation status just two weeks later (

There is seemingly absolutely no accountability at the NRS towards its user base. And there is equally no transparency about its work. Do you know what it is cataloguing just now? Do you know what it is conserving? Do you know what it is acquiring by way of deposits? Releasing the Queen's death certificate does not a transparent archive make! 

One of Fergus Smith's demands in his open letter was for the NRS 'To agree to the establishment of a user-led forum for regular and meaningful consultation with a range of researchers and other stakeholders'. I fully support that, as someone who is on a similar such forum for another national archive (PRONI), and who can see the abundance of good work that it it does in fostering a sense of community not just with its user bases, but with partner institutions. I am not seeking a role in a Scottish equivalent if one is set up - there are plenty of other good independent minded folk out there who can do so. Such a body is absolutely needed in Scotland, but it does need independent minded folk to populate it, not rubber stamps. If the NRS won't agree to do so with its user base, the user base (genealogists, historians, academics, general public, media, partner institutions, etc) should perhaps consider setting up its own 'Friends of' type body to offer constructive engagement on many fronts.

As it stands just now, the NRS gives the appearance to many of being an unaccountable clique to its user base. I've often quipped in the past that it seemingly employs 'search room feudalism', with its user base as the mere vassals seemingly required to doff their hats to their superiors in General Register House and New Register House. What is required is a new partnership with its user base, not a culture of deference. The NRS also needs to get off its comfortable Edinburgh enthroned posterior and get out and about to meet the people of Scotland, to whom it owes its income, for whom it holds the nation's records in trust, and to whom it is supposed to serve. It should take its exhibitions and services beyond Edinburgh to libraries and archives across the nation, from Portpatrick to Lerwick, from St. Andrew's to Stornoway (

But before all of that, I really think its current leadership needs to go. I'm hearing rumours from a few sources of some forthcoming changes which will be welcomed if true - but whatever is happening, the NRS absolutely needs to reset its relationship with those who fund its work in Scotland.

* NB: All of the above is purely drawn from the experience of one of many folk who were affected by the NRS service provision. Criticisms on other fronts, much more political, surround the performance of the archive with regards to its delayed 2021 census enumeration, finally carried out earlier this year. But I'll leave that one to the politicians.


My new book Tracing Your Irish Ancestors Through Land Records is now available to buy at Also available - Sharing Your Family History Online, Tracing Your Scottish Family History on the Internet, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet (2nd ed), and Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records - to purchase, please visit Further news published daily on The Scottish GENES Facebook page, and on Twitter @genesblog.


  1. Chris, whilst I don not want to wind you up anymore than you are. There are a couple of issues with your post.

    Firstly, I think that the user base outwith Scotland is probably much bigger than within Scotland, so whilst I agree that it would be nice to consider better interaction with the Scottish user base, the wider user base still needs consideration.

    The issue regarding non connectivity between the NRS and it’s hubs, is not the NRS not communicating with the hubs regarding the upgrade requirements. From a visit to my local hub last week, they have a work around in place, using laptops, because there system is still running on Windows 7. Now, Microsoft deprecated Windows 7 a long time ago, and offers no support, therefore if Archives choose not to upgrade to supported systems then it is their fault when things no longer work, not the supplier in this case NRS, if NRS had not upgraded their system, they would not have been able to deliver the 1921 census results.

    Finally, regarding poorly tested systems being rolled out. That is a system wide issue across all Software development. It seems gone are the days when development would test, test and test, but more and more things are released and the user base becomes the test bed, quicker and cheaper to let the users identify issues. As can be seen by Microsoft, Apple and many other releases of applications, having to be recalled and rolled back. How many people don’t upgrade software for six months until issues are identified and ironed out. I am speaking as a long retired Software Development Manager.

    1. Literally nothing about addressing the needs of the Scottish based user base will affect the international user base, which relies on online resources only - and I have no problems at all in the international user base being consulted/represented (on the PRONI user forum I am the 'remote user', i.e one not based in Northern Ireland, exact same thing). Completely agree that the NRS does not have any responsibility for the tech supply at local archives. My comment was focussed on the lack of communication between the NRS and the local centres in advance of the upgrade, which would be common courtesy. There have been several occasions in the past at family history centres when the system would go down without any advance notice, because Edinburgh does not inform its partners. Long standing issue. But thanks for your comments!

  2. Well said Chris, I had also complained to my MSP about the NRS I agree with every point you make.

    1. Thanks. I previously worked for a year as a caseworker for my MSP (in 2018), and would never have accepted such a lack of a response from a minister on behalf of a constituent without kicking up hell over it, which I know my MSP did on my behalf. Whenever the minister does not want to be accountable, it's easy to see why perhaps the NRS is not.

  3. As an ex-NRS person I think it is finally time to admit that the merger to create NRS has been a failure. It is a very much poorer organisation than the sum of its parts. The failures you outline on the archives and interaction with its public are more than matched by the failures in the statistical division around 2021 Census. NRS is an organisation without leadership or direction and will remain so until the fundamental incompatibility of the parts that make it up are separated and given the freedom and responsibility to address the types of issues you raise.
    I don't see that happening.
    The number of senior management posts in NRS has exploded since the merger. Turkeys won't vote for Christmas.

    1. Thanks for sharing, and I could not agree more. We used to have a GRO and an archive, now we have a civil service mess. There is a significant change coming soon at the top which has not been announced yet, but I've no idea if it will make any difference.