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The development of the General Register Office (Scotland)

Edward Higgs

Under the Registration Act, 1836 (6 & 7 Will. 4, c. 86) and the Marriage Act, 1836 (6 & 7 Will. 4, c. 85) England and Wales had arrangements for the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths from 1837 onwards. This was a locally based system but administered centrally by a Registrar General for England and Wales. The other parts of the then United Kingdom, Ireland and Scotland, had to wait some time for similar legislation.

From 1837 all births and deaths in England and Wales had to be registered with the local civil registrar. The legislation also empowered the Established Church of England to register marriages but details had to be passed on to local registrars, and marriages in other churches were to be registered by a civil registrar. A form of civil marriage was also introduced. Almost immediately there were calls in Scotland for a similar system to be established, especially by the medical profession and others interested in population statistics. As in England, registration before the introduction of a civil system was carried out by the Established Church. The kirk session clerk of each parish recorded baptisms, burials and the proclamation of marriage banns in the parish register, but there was no uniformity, and the quality and regularity of the registers varied greatly from parish to parish.

In the 1830s and 1840s there were no fewer than six bills introduced to set up a civil registration system in Scotland but none was passed. The reason for these failures included the expense and complexity of the administrative machinery required; the nomination of local registrars, and the proposal to pay them from a parochial rate; and the penalties imposed for non-registration. The fact that four of the bills were linked to measures to amend the Scottish law of marriage also figured largely in their failure. Local authorities feared the expense, whilst the kirk session clerks fought to preserve their fees. The Scottish clergy were also afraid that marriage would cease to be solemnised under the rights of the Church of Scotland if irregular marriages could be registered by the local civil registrars (Cameron).

It was not until 1854 that the Registration (Scotland) Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict., c.80) was passed, which set up a complete and uniform system of registration of vital events in Scotland. The parochial and borough divisions in Scotland were adopted as the basis of registration, and the session clerks of the Established Church were, in most cases, appointed as the first registrars under the Act. Where the parish or borough was too large, the sheriff was empowered to divide it into districts. Registers were to be produced in duplicate, and one was to be sent to the Office of the Scottish Registrar General in Edinburgh. Compulsory civil registration began in Scotland on 1 January 1855, and coverage seems to have been complete for marriages and deaths. Birth registration took rather longer to bed down but by the time of his First annual detailed report, published in 1861, the first Registrar General for Scotland, William Pitt Dundas, could claim that: "there is good reason for believing that very few births indeed now escape registration" (First annual detailed report, x).

A New Register House was specially designed to accommodate the registration records in central Edinburgh; the architect was Robert Matheson, who was also responsible for design of the former General Post Office in Edinburgh. The building was erected on its present site near the Old Register House. The site was acquired in 1856 and the building was opened in 1861, though not completed until 1864 at a total cost of £40,000.

In 1855 and 1860, two acts: the Registration (Scotland) Act, 1855 (18 & 19 Vict., c.29) and the Registration (Scotland, Amendment) Act, 1860 (23 & 24 Vict., c.85) were passed which amended some of the sections of the 1854 act. The original act had placed considerable burdens on the sheriffs of the Scottish counties, who had already played a role in the taking of decennial censuses. The amending acts lightened their burdens by appointing registration district examiners to inspect the registers. They also made revised provision for the transmission of the parochial registers up to the year 1820 to the General Register Office Scotland (GROS), and the registers for the years 1820–1855 to the custody of the local registrars. These registers were to be retained by the registrars for 30 years, after which they were to be sent to the GROS. The Marriage Notice (Scotland) Act 1878 (41 & 42 Vict., c.43) allowed the publication of notices of intended marriages on a registrar's notice board as an alternative to proclamation of banns (General Register Office, Scotland website).

The Registrar General for Scotland also helped to reduce mortality by overseeing the vaccination of newborn babies against smallpox. The Vaccination (Scotland) Act 1863 (26 & 27 Vict., c.108) forced parents to have their babies vaccinated within six months of birth, and to give a certificate of proof to the local registrar. The registrar reported the parents of unvaccinated children to the parish inspector of the poor, for legal action to be taken against them, although the law was later relaxed to allow for 'conscientious objection' (General Register Office for Scotland, 2004 Annual Review. [Outside link available on 02/01/2007].

William Pitt Dundas was Registrar General from 1854 to 1881, with a brief interlude in 1880, when he was succeeded by Roger Montgomerie. Montgomerie died after 6 months in the post. Dundas was responsible not only for civil registration in Scotland but also for the taking of the decennial censuses in the kingdom from 1861 onwards. This was also the case with his successors, Sir Stair Agnew (1881–1909) and Sir James Patten McDougall (1909–1919). In general terms, the census in Scotland was similar in form and administration to that south of the border, although there were differences in the definitions of the terms used.


Anne Cameron, 'A Long Gestation: The Delayed Establishment of General Registration in Scotland', paper presented at the Birth pains and death throes: the creation of vital statistics in Scotland and England symposium Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow, Friday 17 September 2004.

First detailed annual report of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Scotland, BPP 1861 XVIII.

General Register Office for Scotland, 2004 Annual Review: 2004 Annual Review. [Outside link available on 02/01/2007].

General Register Office, Scotland website: [Outside link available on 02/01/2007].