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Saturday 23 May 2015

Railway records

The National Archives of Scotland (NAS) holds the largest written and pictorial archive of Scottish railway history. The bulk of the collection is made up of the records formerly held by the British Transport Records Historical Records Department in Edinburgh and passed to us by the terms of the Transport Act 1968 (section 144) (NAS ref. BR).

The NAS also holds collections of more recent records deposited by the British Railways Board, British Railways (Scottish Region), British Rail Board (Residuary), Scotrail, Railtrack Scotland and Network Rail.

Detail from a Caledonian Railway Company poster advertising Central Station in Glasgow, NAS ref. BR\CAL\4\207

The company records contain minutes and reports, letter books, deeds and agreements, circulars, locomotive and rolling stock records, civil engineers records, station traffic books, accident reports, and staff records. The NAS also holds an important collection of specialised books and periodicals on transport subjects, mostly inherited from the old railway companies and dating back to the 1840s, as well as timetables, publicity material and a large series of engineering and architectural drawings.

With the exception of public timetables and publicity matter, a 30 year closure period is applied to the records of these four depositors.

Railway records in private papers in the NAS

Deposits of private collections (forming part of the Gifts and Deposits series) are also an important source for railway history. These include:

The W E Boyd collection, which includes photographs of steam locomotives (NAS ref. GD257).

The A G Dunbar collection (NAS ref. GD344).

The records of D S Macdonald, a former official of the Glasgow and South Western Railway and later the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (NAS ref. GD360).

The papers of David L Smith, author of histories of the Glasgow and South Western railway (NAS ref. GD422).

The papers of Sir Thomas Bouch (1822-1880), engineer of the first and ill-fated Tay Bridge (NAS ref. GD266).

The private diaries and papers of George Graham (1822-1899), engineer-in-chief of the Caledonian Railway (NAS ref. GD1/1160).

All railway records and publications may be consulted at our search room at General Register House. Information on our railway records is given in 'Tracing Scottish Local History', chapter 12, and the NAS publication, The Scottish Railway Story.

The NAS is represented on the Railway Heritage Committee and its Scottish and Record Sub-committees. The Committee's role is to identify and designate railway records and artefacts that merit preservation and to ensure that they will be held in good condition in appropriate locations. To find out more about the Committee's work visit their website.

Railway company history

The earliest Scottish railway to be incorporated by private Act of Parliament was the Kilmarnock and Troon (1808). Between 1808 and 1905 a total of 197 companies were incorporated, the majority by similar means, though in the late 19th and early 20th century a few obtained their powers by either a Light Railway Order, or a Board of Trade certificate. The exception was the Whiteinch Railway, incorporated in 1872 under the Companies Act (NAS ref. BT2/433). Of these 197 companies, only 167 came to fruition. Of the remaining 30, powers were not exercised or were abandoned and in one case the relevant act was suspended.

In 1923 the remaining companies were merged either into the London and North Eastern Railway (NAS ref. LNER) or the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (NAS ref. LMS), the one exception being the Campbeltown and Machrihanish which steamed on independently until it was wound up in 1935.

In fact prior to 1923, Scotland's railway operations were dominated by five companies, ie. the North British (NAS ref. BR/NBR), the Caledonian (NAS ref. BR/CAL), the Glasgow and South Western (NAS ref. BR/GSW), the Great North of Scotland (NAS ref. BR/GNS) and the Highland (NAS ref. BR/HR). These had taken over the majority of earlier companies, eg. the Ardrossan incorporated in 1827 was taken over by the Glasgow and South Western in 1854. The Forth Bridge Railway Company (though it was part of the LNER network) legally survived in name until it was taken over by the British Transport Commission in 1948. Useful information on railway company histories can be found on the Railscot website.

Railway architecture

The NAS is a major source for 19th century transport architecture in Scotland. There is a wealth of photographic material relating to railway stations and to a lesser extent railway hotels, some dating back to the 1890s or even earlier, but the majority is 20th century and includes not only snapshots taken by railway enthusiasts but officially commissioned views for publicity purposes.

The most important and voluminous source however, is the large collection of architectural drawing dating back to the 1830s. Their subject matter ranges from minor structures such as platelayers' huts, stationmasters' desks and kitchen equipment to major termini, golf courses and hotels. The drawings, now part of the Register House Plans series (NAS ref. RHP), can be consulted in the Historical Search Room. You can search for railway plans using our online catalogue.

Civil engineering

Railway construction dramatically altered the landscape of 19th and early 20th century Scotland. Photographs, drawings and calculations exist for the Forth Bridge and date from the 1880s. There are photographs and records (but not drawings) relating to the Tay Bridge - the longest rail bridge over water in Europe.

The large collection of bridge and survey plans (including parliamentary plans) dates from the 1830s to the 1970s and includes drawings of stone bridges on the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr railway, the Scottish Central and other early railways.

An important but neglected source of information are the minutes of evidence (often containing very detailed engineering minutiae) on Railway Bills before parliamentary committees (NAS ref. BR/PYB(S)/1-747). Interesting engineering specifications and schedules survive in the records of the Glasgow & South Western, the North British and Caledonian Railways.

Locomotives and rolling stock
The survival of records varies from company to company. Generally speaking there is little material for smaller and earlier companies, though the 1836 drawing (RHP42535) of a locomotive involved in an accident on the Dundee and Newtyle Railway is an exception. Useful records for the larger companies, who had their own workshops, survive in the form of diagrams, photographs and technical data, for example:

Great North of Scotland Railway (NAS ref. BR/GNS/5/1-23)

Highland Railway (NAS ref. BR/HR/5/1-13)

Glasgow and South Western Railway (NAS ref. BR/GSW/5/1-14)

Caledonian Railway (NAS ref. BR/CAL/5/1-55)

North British railway (NAS ref. BR/NBR/5/1-86)

Various privately deposited collections are available for consultation. Important collections of photographs, drawings and technical data include:

The Montague Smith papers (NAS ref. GD456)

The W E Boyd papers (NAS ref. GD257)

Papers of the mutual improvement societies of footplate men, eg. St Margaret's (NAS ref. GD1/908) and Polmadie (NAS ref. GD1/905), can yield much of interest for the social as well as locomotive historian.

Local and social history

Railway records are an essential, but often neglected source for local and social history. Timetables, for example, can reveal not only the working and leisure pursuits of populations, but may contain interesting advertisements (eg NAS ref. BR/RSR/4) and other publicity material.

Staff and related records survive for some companies.

NAS reference Description Dates
BR/NBR/15/1-94 North British Railway staff registers 1844-1948
BR/NBR/4/316/1-139 Collection of 139 original photographs of stations on the NBR system taken in LNER days  
BR/GNS/15/7-26 Great North of Scotland staff registers 1870-1935
BR/GNS/15/1-6 Registers of 'offences' committed by staff in the Great North of Scotland Railway Company  
BR/GNS/4/44 Photographs of houses for Great North of Scotland Railway employees at Inverurie Works  
BR/GSW/15/1-15 Glasgow and South Western staff registers 1900-1920
BR/GSW/4/77-88 Glasgow and South Western posters and photographs relating to its famous hotel and golf courses at Turnberry  

Labour relations in the Scottish railway industry are recorded in minutes and report from 1875 to 1963 (NAS ref. BR/LAS(S)/1-246).


In the 19th century railways were the frequent subject of major litigation in the Court of Session. Criminal litigation involving railways is far less common but there are High Court and Crown Office papers relating to early railway accidents and also to disturbances involving railway navvies.

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