Shedding a light on Scotland’s past

An aerial photo of James Brown and Co. Eskmill Paper Mill, Eskmill Road, Penicuik. � � Crown copyright. RCAHMS.
An aerial photo of James Brown and Co. Eskmill Paper Mill, Eskmill Road, Penicuik. � � Crown copyright. RCAHMS.

Whether you’re from Aberdeen or Angus, Fife or Falkirk you are sure to find something of interest on ScotlandsPlaces, writes By Kim Beasley, Projects Officer, ScotlandsPlaces.

ScotlandsPlaces is a website that gives you online access to records from the National Records of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland.

All of the records are linked by a common theme – they tell us something about Scotland’s places. Of course, in telling us about Scotland’s places we also learn about Scotland’s people, making it a great resource to learn about local history, family history and maybe even some celebrities.

Robert Burns is one of the most well-known Scots in history. He was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, and the cottage where he lived is now known as the ‘Robert Burns Cottage’.

The Ordnance Survey Name Books, an excellent resource that supplies information about the place names and points of interest in an area, describe it as follows:

“A small public-house, one storey high, partly thatched, partly slated & in good repair, James Baird Esquire proprietor. Birthplace of the Poet Robert Burns.”

It’s not surprising that Burns can be found throughout the Ayrshire Name Books, such is the county’s pride at its historic son. As well as his birthplace, the books also mark ‘The Poet Burns’ Flaxdressing Shop’, his old residences and a farm. The entry for Ballochniel states: “While residing here, the poet-Burns composed his well known tale of Tam O’Shanter”.

Other places claim to be the site that inspired a poem. The public house on Main Street, in Mauchline, is said to be, “The scene of that rant called the Jolly Beggars. Composed by the Poet Burns.”

Whilst Mongomerie lays claim to a famous hawthorn tree:

“This is the mansion alluded to by Burns in his song of ‘Highland Mary’. The Hawthorn is still to be seen and much respected a little to the north west of the mansion (60 yards) on the edge of the avenue. ‘How Sweetly grew the Hawthorn tree/How richly Bloomed the blosson’”

Burns travelled to various parts of Scotland, including the Highlands and Borders. He left quite a mark – sometimes literally when he inscribed window panes using his diamond stylus!

Using ScotlandsPlaces it’s possible to look at maps contemporary with Burns and see more modern images of the places he visited. In addition to this, aerial photography means that it’s possible to see the landscape in its full glory.

It is not just places associated with Burns that can be found in the records but also people. Burns came to Edinburgh in 1786; a statue in Leith commemorates this (images of which can be found on the website).

During his time in Edinburgh, Burns met William Creech, a bookseller who was at the centre of intellectual life in the city and who angered Burns by holding back money from the sale of his poems.

Creech can be found in the tax records on ScotlandsPlaces as having servants called Ann Mill and John Denham. The shop tax records show that in the Luckenbooth, Creech worked aside merchants, silk sellers and printers, allowing us to really picture where Burns’ poems were sold.

ScotlandsPlaces allows us to find out more about famous figures, like Robert Burns, but it also lets us find out more about our own ancestors. The Ordnance Survey Name Books record significant places but they also detail smaller sites and buildings. The tax records may give information about the wealthy but they also tell us about those who worked for them. The images let us see the things that our ancestors saw every day and the aerial photographs let us see the things that we see every day but in a different way.

A major factor in being able to access these resources is the fact that the written records are transcribed.

Transcriptions allow us to search the text which the computer wouldn’t otherwise be able to read. Currently some of the records only have 20 per cent of their content transcribed, making it harder to find information as the records are not searchable.

If you are interested in these records, or any others, you could become a transcriber (simply sign-up via our website) and help shed light on Scotland’s history.

l ScotlandsPlaces can be accessed at Follow them on Twitter

@scotlandsplaces and like the Facebook page for highlights from the site. For any enquiries please email