Dundee Society in the 19th Century

Researching the History of a House

A Guide to Archival Sources - By Grant Butters 2001

Researching the history of a house can be fun. It may be your own house, one in your locality or one that has grabbed your attention for one reason or another. This article aims to introduce readers to sources for studying the history of a house in Scotland. Its focus will be on the urban setting and on Dundee in particular. The types of sources identified both those available locally and those available nationally, will be similar to those available for other areas and so, while individual sources may vary, the main principles will be virtually the same.
The main local repositories which relate to Dundee are Dundee City Archive and Record Centre (DCA), the University of Dundee Archive (UDA) and the Local Studies section of Dundee Central Library (DCL), who hold a sizeable collection of local source material. Nationally there is the former Scottish Record Office (now the National Archives of Scotland (NRA)) in Edinburgh. There are also records of in other repositories, as shall be shown.


Every house is the legal possession of someone, either an individual or an organisation. As such details of this ownership are recorded but this may turn up in a number of sources.
The main records of ownership are the Registers of Sasines. Yes, this is plural since there was more than one register. It was through an Instrument of Sasine that property was transferred and it did not matter whether this was through financial transaction or inheritance. The main registers date from 1617, although an earlier attempt, the Secretary's Register, had been made from 1699-1609. It is worthwhile understanding these records in a national context, before trying to narrow things down to look at how they relate to Dundee.
Understanding which register a piece of property may be recorded in is far from simple. Up until 1869 the General Register of Sasines can contain entries relating to any part of Scotland, excluding East Lothian, Midlothian and West Lothian. The Particular Registers of Sasines (up to between 1868-71) contains entries about properties in particular counties. There were also the Burgh Registers, which were kept by the Royal Burghs and were set up by statute in 1681, although some in reality date from earlier, and cease at some point between 1926 and 1963, the General Register being used from then on.

The General and Particular registers are held by the NAS. The Burgh Registers may be held wholly by the NAS or in the local council archive or be split between the two. DCA holds, for example, the Dundee Burgh Registers of Sasines for 1639-1812, with later registers being with the NAS. Of course present day Dundee, like many other towns and cities, now occupies an area beyond the burgh boundaries and so it can be the Particular Register for Angus (Forfarshire) that is needed, not the burgh one.
It is worth pointing out that the date of an instrument of sasine may lag considerably behind the date of the transfer of property and this often happened after inheritance if the new owner was already resident in the property. 'If his possession was undisputed, he might not go to the expense of having a sasine executed for some considerable time. Only later would he do this, if his possession was disputed, or if he had to produce a full set of titles before he could sell the property'.

The ease of searching the registers depends particularly on the date. The important date is 1781. Before that there are few place name indexes. The only place name indexes for the General Register before 1781 is for the period 1617-75. Person indexes are greater in number but still incomplete. For example there is none for the General Register from 1720-80. However many of these have been published and are widely available in libraries. All the indexes which are available can be seen at the NAS. There are also minute books which can be of assistance where no index exists.

Burgh registers have similar index problems. For a comprehensive guide to what indexes exist, it is worth consulting Cecil Sinclair's A Guide to Local History Research in the Scottish Record Office2. From 1781 onwards things are easier. There are Sasine Abridgements with indexes. Again the place name indexes are incomplete but there are full person indexes. Again Sinclair's guide is helpful3. These abridgements are a condensed summary of the full entries and are frequently available in the particular local authority archive as well as in Edinburgh. DCA holds the printed abridgements for the county of Angus as well as handwritten abridgements which previously belonged to local solicitors Shiell & Small.

For the Burgh Registers it is far less simple. Few indexes exist before the twentieth century. What indexes there are can only be found in the National Archives and are a mixture of contemporary manuscript indexes and some later typewritten ones.
Sasines will in general tell you about the parties involved in the transfer of a property and usually point back to an earlier transaction which in turn points back to a previous one and so on. Care should be exercised as boundaries of the properties involved frequently change. In an urban context the breaking up and feuing off of local estates as towns expanded means that following a property's history by this means can take you back to a sasine concerning a very large piece of property indeed.

Additional entries within the sasines registers can also be found. Most relate to mortgages or other loans secured on property. As a means of preventing fraud, these are recorded in the same register.
References to plans within sasines as a means of delineating boundaries can also cause complications. This became more frequent from the nineteenth century. Usually the plans remained with the owner and are not, except in exceptional cases in the National Archives. They may turn up in solicitors' papers, either with the relevant firm, if it still exists, or in a local archive, if the papers have been deposited there. Solicitors' papers, as a source, will be dealt with later on.

Unfortunately many sasines prior to the late eighteenth century were written in Latin. This together with problems with early handwriting can prove daunting for the amateur historian. However there are a number of guides to Latin for local historians published, as well as texts such as Peter Goulderbrough's A Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents (Stair Society, 1985) for aiding understanding of how the document was laid out. DCA has a copy of this book available for users to consult.

Fig 1
A page from an eighteenth century sasine can be seen in Fig. 1. It begins about half way down the previous page and you can see it is almost at the end of this page before any reference to the location in question is mentioned. There are a further two and a half pages following this one. Be prepared to have to wade through a lot of what can seem largely irrelevant material to get at what you want.

The use of the abridgements, where available, therefore can aid this somewhat. Fig. 2 shows two entries from the county register. It also shows two different types of document being registered, a Trust Disposition and a Notarial Instrument.

Fig 2

Notarial Protocol Books

Some property records before the start of the sasine registers can be found here. They also run up to 1660 and so overlap the early period of the sasines. These books were kept by specifically authorised lawyers. DCA holds the Burgh protocol books for 1518-1653, the ones for 1571-1608 having been previously with the NAS.
As their age suggests, these are not the easiest records to deal with. The same points made about the earlier sasines apply. A page from the Alexander Wedderburn's protocol book for!571-3 can be seen in Fig. 3.

Register of Deeds

Fig 3
Within this register a whole number of legal agreements may be registered, some of which may relate to land and property. The essence of this register is to 'establish thebasis of a legal right before proceeding to a related legal action

There is a Court of Session Register for those deeds registered nationally, and this is held in the NAS with partial indexes8. There are county Sheriff Court Registers and Royal Burgh Registers for localities along with earlier (per 1809) Commissary Court Registers. Of these only the Burgh Register for 1626-1908 is in DCA.

Valuation Rolls

From 1855 onwards, annual valuation rolls of property have been kept by county (and by parish within it) and by burgh. All apart from the smallest of property was listed, along with the names of proprietors, tenants and occupiers. Some of the detail and layout varies over the years but only slightly. More recent change came through local
government reorganisation. But this concerned how each area was divided rather than the nature of the overall content.

Fig4 & 5

Many valuation rolls can be found as printed volumes within the local studies sections of main libraries. In Dundee this is certainly the case for the county volumes relating to Angus. However the survey books of the burgh valuation rolls from 1898 onwards are with the DCA, while earlier ones are with the National Archives. Some microfilm copies of certain years are with the DCL.
Fig. 4 and Fig. 5 show pages from a printed county valuation roll and a burgh survey book respectively.

From earlier valuation records, the Scottish Record Society published their A Directory ofLandownership in Scotland c 1770. Fig 6 shows the page relating to Dundee and most of the surrounding parishes the town expanded into.

fig 6

Maps, Plans and Surveys

There is no general rule about where maps and plans will be found locally. The maps and plans themselves will be quite varied, from those published and widely distributed to 'one offs', created for a specific purpose.
DCA has the 1860 and 1871 Ordnance Survey (1:500 scale). They also have the 1901 burgh plan. This of course does not include outlying areas such as Broughty Ferry but this is somewhat compensated by the existence of an 1810 private survey plan for Broughty Ferry. Slightly earlier the 1851 Collie survey at 25 inches to the mile. They also have Goad's Insurance plans for 1891 with additions up until the1950s12.
A greater collection of plans exists at DCL. It would be impractical to list them to any extent here but they range from full town plans to feuing plans for specific areas. A good card index is available at the library.
The UDA also hold a wide and varied collection of maps and plans, many of which are forming part of their manuscript collection and many of which came from the local solicitors firms J. & J. Ogilvie and Thorntons, though by no means exclusively. Depending on clientele, solicitors' papers can contain a lot of plans.

Fig 7

It is worth noting that many local maps have been reprinted in recent years and are available for purchase. This is particularly true of John Wood's Town Plans of the 1820's which include Dundee. Interestingly the Wood Atlas at UDA contains an alternative plan for Dundee, possibly drawn by town architect David Neave13.
Legislation also required specific surveys to be carried out. The Housing (Scotland) Act 1925 led to surveys being taken with a particular emphasis on poorer property. The records of this in DCA are thought by the archivist to possibly be unique in their survival, which was more by accident than design. The front and rear of one of the record cards can be seen in Fig. 7.

Building and Improvements

Both the records of the Dean Guild Court and the later Dundee Police Commissioners recorded changes in building, alterations, improvements and the like within Dundee. The Guildry had jurisdiction over the Royalty of Dundee, and from 1832 over the Royal Burgh (approximately that part of the city within the inner ring road today). From 1824-94 it worked in tandem with the Dundee Police Commissioners and then with the Dundee Corporation up to 1975, this latter body being formed by the amalgamation of the Police Commissioners and the Town Council.

fig 8

In the case of the Dean Guild Court, only a selection of records survive and badly need the attention of a conservator, having been victim of a fire in the former Town House. What remains is only partly ordered and covers the period 1814-84. Both textual records and drawings are contained including David Neave's plan for the Gaelic Chapel (see later).
Later nineteenth century improvements, including the major restructuring of the city centre came under the Police Commissioners. It is worth pointing out the different meaning of the word police here, the 'civil administration and of a community, the public services'15. Records, including extensive plans and lists of owners etc. affected were kept. Fig. 8 shows a list of owners and occupiers affected by the building of Commercial Street in 1870. All these records are with DCA.

Architects' drawings

fig 9

Architects' drawings are another good source but again are split between local repositories and beyond. Even for David Neave, referred to above, it is necessary to look in the local repositories and also at the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, who have a specific Neave Collection. DCA have a particularly good set of drawings from Wellwood & Leslie (and predecessors) as well as other local architects
and there are a lot of drawings within the manuscript collection at DCL. There are no shortcuts here unfortunately, other than tapping the knowledge of staff and 'local experts'.
It is worth remembering that these drawings can refer to land and property around the main subject itself as can be seen in Fig. 9, where part of David Neave's plan for the Gaelic Chapel denotes surrounding properties and gives owners' names.
The UDA contribution to the 'Drawn Evidence'18 project is will mean many of the architectural drawings in its possession will be digitised and will therefore be available in this format, where the originals, due to issues of preservation have not been.


The census has been taken every ten years since 1801. For practical purposes only returns from 1841 exist, the latest available publicly at present being 1891 due to a hundred-year closure rule being in force. It is a listing of complete households at an address at a defined date19, but address descriptions can be problematic and not totally identifiable or specific, especially in earlier returns. Later returns include more information, for example the number of rooms with one widow or more from 1861 onwards.
Both the UDA and the DCL have complete microfilm copies of the census for Dundee amongst their holdings and also have those for the surrounding parishes. The originals are with the Registrar General, Edinburgh, who also has microfilmed copies for public access.
Due largely to the upsurge in genealogy as a hobby, many indexes to the census are available and more are in progress. Due to the reason behind their creation, these tend to be listings of individuals in the main and not addresses but can still be useful to other researchers. The DCL also hold complete street indexes, but for Dundee parish only. Other indexes include the following.
There is a complete surname index for the county of Angus for 1841. A person index is in progress at Tay Valley Family History, where Dundee is about half done, though not much has been done to the surrounding parishes. For 1881 a searchable CD ROM has been produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (available at DC A) and microfiche version also available in various locations. The Registrar General has an index to the 1891 census on computer database and it is also published on microfiche.


fig 10

Directories were published for Dundee from the later eighteenth century until the 1970s. Initially they listed only the local elite, they expanded over time to include the majority of householders and also geographically to include areas Dundee expanded into and also its hinterland. Format also change, from a simple alphabetical listing to the addition of a house by house, street by street listing as well.
They are particularly good where no census indexes are available and for trying to pinpoint the main resident at an address in non-census years. The most comprehensive set of directories is at DCL but there is also a partial collection at DCA. A page from a later twentieth century directory can be seen in Fig. 10. Dundee of course also featured in national and county directories such as Piggott's or Leslie's but the detail is far less.

Electoral Rolls

Fig 11

A further source that lists names against addresses is the electoral roll DCL holds these as printed volumes. These change in format and coverage over the years, reflecting changes in legislation and a widening electoral make-up. There is not space here to fully describe the changes but a sample page from 1866-7 is shown in Fig. 11.
Later rolls do include more people but unfortunately their relationship to their address ceases to be included as does their occupations.


The best collections of local photographs are at the DCL. The Dundee Photographic Survey (circa 1916) has extensive photographs of buildings in the city, including many of architectural interest. There is also the Wilson collection and others with accompanying card indexes.
At the UDA, the Peto collection23 has some photographs of Dundee, though the collection itself is international, while the Valentine Collection at the Manuscripts and Muniments department at the University of St. Andrews is in the process of going online but is currently unavailable.

Private Family and Estate Records

This type of records may be of more relevance to property on the periphery of the town but many landowners held property in towns as well. There is no general rule of thumb as to where these records, if they have survived, are to be found. It may be thought that larger landowners records may be in the NAS, and a considerable number certainly are. Both UDA and DCA have numerous records of this type, some specifically deposited by the family or estate, more which have come through
solicitors firms. In many cases they are partial and often low budget priority when it comes to sorting and cataloguing.
Rental agreements, feu contracts, plans, correspondence, the list can be endless. Much will depend on the nature of the estate, how its records were kept and what has survived. If you are lucky enough to locate the estate papers you are looking for, be prepared to spend a lot of time wading through lists before getting anything of interest.

Other sources

Depending on the path you research takes, other sources may become relevant. Newspaper articles, including obituary and properties for sale (DCL), Testaments / Wills (NAS), specific solicitors records may all acquire significance. Solicitors' records have already been referred to in passing but are so wide and varied it is hard to make general comments. In Dundee these tend to be split between DCA and UDA, but many are still with existing firms, and changes in the partnership of these and changes in names can mean a lot of detective work is required to locate the right ones.


This is by no means an exhaustive study of the sources you may look at but merely an identification and discussion of some of the main ones. It is worth noting the crossover here with many of the sources used by genealogists and indeed the local Tay Valley Family History Society has close links with both the City and University Archives and with the Central Library. It also has its own library and research centre with extensive resources which may be of use but which has not been discussed here at all.
It is worthwhile spending some time getting familiar with the repositories, if you can, before plunging straight in. Both the staff and the finding aids will help you do this and talking to other researchers can also be beneficial. Overall enjoy your research and good luck.

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Iain D. McIntosh, 2022