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Thursday 28 May 2015

How to search for soldiers' and airmen's wills, 1857-1964

Between 2003 and 2005 the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) catalogued and began conserving two fragile series of records which had come to the NAS from the Commissary Office in Edinburgh. This work has now made it easy to search for the will of a Scottish soldier or airman, but the fragility of the documents means that access to the original wills is not possible. The wills can be viewed only by visiting the NAS Historical Search Room or West Search Room in Edinburgh, where access is to digital images of the wills. All World War II wills have been digitised and are available immediately, while advance notice is required to view other wills in the series.

(Find out more about the content of the soldiers' and airmen's wills)
(Search the online catalogue)
(Making sense of the results)
(Viewing the documents)
(If you do not find the will you are looking for)

Searching the online catalogue

You can search for the will of a soldier or airman in the NAS online catalogue, but before doing so you should read the guidance below.

It is best to narrow your search by typing 'SC70/8' as a reference for all soldiers or 'SC70/10' for Royal Air Force (RAF) men in the Reference field of the search page.

For example, if you were looking for the will of James Thompson, you would enter 'James Thompson' in the Search for field and 'SC70/8' in the Reference field, as shown below:

Online catalogue search page

Making sense of the results

A typical example of an online catalogue entry for a soldier's will appears below.

Online catalogue results page

CountryCode and RepCode
These are the identifying codes (ARCHON codes) for the National Archives of Scotland. They are not required when ordering documents.

This is the reference number of a specific will to quote when you wish to see the will in the NAS search rooms.

This gives the name of the soldier or airman; his or her service number and regiment; the place, cause and date of death (where known); and the region where he or she was serving at the time of death This information has been obtained partly from the will itself and partly from the Scottish National War Memorial. In some cases, where the information from different sources is contradictory, variant information has been included in the catalogue, subject to future revision. There may be slight variants in the soldier's name and his service number. Dates of death may appear as a date range. In doubtful cases the War Office recorded a date on or after which a soldier was known or presumed to have died. The first or last date usually matches the date given by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Scottish National War Memorial.

There are many gaps in the series where the catalogue gives some details of a soldier, but a will may be described as 'Unallocated' or similar for one of several reasons:

1. The will was withdrawn and transferred internally to the Commissary Office, or sent to a sheriff court or a solicitor for executry procedures to be carried out. This normally involved the 'recording' of the will (and an inventory of estate), in order for an executor to be confirmed and be able to deal with the estate. In practice many soldiers' estates were small enough to be settled without confirmation. However, if the estate involved heritable property, confirmation was obligatory; the permanent withdrawal of a soldier's will for this purpose was authorised by the Regimental Debts (Deposit of Wills) (Scotland) Act of 1919. Details may be found in the catalogue if the recording of a will has been identified. Others may be searched for in the published annual index known as the 'Calendar of Confirmations'. For more advice on this go to our guide on wills and testaments.

2. The will was returned to the War Office, and was transmitted later with another will which had been found. In this case there are generally two entries for a soldier, the 'unallocated' one being cross-referred to the other.

3. The will was returned to the War Office, but was not transmitted again because the War Office settled the estate on the beneficiary, and there was no need to send the will to the Commissary Office.

4. The will was returned to the War Office because the soldier was domiciled in England, Wales or Ireland.

5. The will was struck off the War Office's list of wills to be transmitted, probably for reasons similar to 2-4 above.

6. The NAS does not hold a will, and there is no documentation to indicate why the will is missing.

This is the date the will was written, or of the last will if the soldier wrote more than one will.

This is the number of individual documents, for example the outer and inner envelopes and the will.

The 'War Office' references refer to the Effects Registers compiled by the War Office, the second reference consisting of a volume and entry number with a suffix denoting the financial year. Registers, 1865-1880, are held in The National Archives (TNA), London (TNA ref. WO25/3476-3489). Registers from 1901 onwards are held by the National Army Museum, London.

The access status of the wills is 'open', which means that they are not affected by closure rules relating to Data Protection. However the fragility of many of the documents means that access to the original wills is not possible. To find out how to view digital surrogates see the paragraph 'Viewing the documents' below.

The Soldiers' Wills database exists as a separate search tool in the NAS search rooms, but all the data within it are included in the online catalogue on this website.

Viewing the documents

Images of selected pre-1939 wills (including documents in the 'Leaving it all behind' exhibition), and all soldiers' wills from 1939 onwards, may be seen without charge using our Virtual Volumes resource in the Historical Search Room or the West Search Room. The images are not available online. Owing to their fragile state, the documents cannot be produced in the search room, and the process of preparing and digitising individual wills from bundles is time-consuming. We therefore operate a limited imaging service: if a week's notice is given, a reader can request the digitisation of up to three wills for viewing in the search rooms. For more information about the Soldiers' and Airmen's wills service contact the Historical Search Room. Read advice about obtaining a reader's ticket and visiting the NAS search rooms.

If you are visiting the Historical Search Room or the West Search Room you can also use a special database version of the online catalogue. This permits structured searches using certain search terms, and provides a direct link to images of those wills which have already been conserved and digitised. It is not available online.

A selection of letters and wills were read by staff at the NAS and recorded. The recordings are available for public access in the Historical Search Room.

If you don't find the will you are looking for

You have less than a 20% chance of finding the will of a Scottish soldier below the rank of officer in the soldiers' wills series. The wills of only about 26,000 soldiers out of 130,000 soldiers of other ranks who died in WW I survive. For WW II the chance drops to about 17%.

The War Office probably settled the estates of most soldiers who died without the need for the beneficiary or beneficiaries (or the soldiers' dependants) to obtain confirmation (equivalent to probate in England and Wales). The War Office seems only to have sent the will to the Commissary Office when a case was unsettled and confirmation had not been obtained. You may be able to track down a will or testament for a soldier or airman by looking in other series of records in the NAS or elsewhere. For more advice on this go to our guide on wills and testaments.

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