Unless your head has been in the sand, you cannot have failed to notice that a major political debate is currently rearing its head concerning the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with Scotland almost certain to have a referendum on independence within the next two or three years – depending on whether either First Minister Alex Salmond or Prime Minister David Cameron gets their way on the timing of such an exercise! For this post I don’t want to dwell on whether independence is right or wrong for Scotland – instead, I want to consider what the impact would be for family historians should independence in fact be achieved, a very real and growing possibility.
If Scotland does decide to leave the union, how would it affect us researching our family history north of the border? In many ways you could argue that we in fact have a precedent for how independence would affect us, by way of the fact that a former and sizeable part of the United Kingdom has already left. A few weeks ago, the ninetieth anniversary passed almost unnoticed in Britain for the signing of the treaty on 6 December 1921 that saw the twenty six counties in the south of Ireland break away to form an Irish Free State, after just over 120 years of membership of the UK (in fact, the whole of Ireland actually broke away – but Northern Ireland almost immediately opted back into the union thanks to a clause in the treaty). Upon Partition, as it was known, separate governments were established for Northern Ireland and the Free State, and in the north a new General Register Office was established, along with a national archive (PRONI).
Yet in Scotland, there already exists a separate parliament, General Register Office and national archive, albeit the latter two now merged into the single body of the National Records of Scotland. Civil registration has always been carried out in Scotland under the authority of Scots Law, since it commenced in 1855, and on its own terms, with our records, for example, containing considerably more information than our British counterparts. Scottish censuses were initially carried out under the auspices of the Home Office in London, but from 1854 the role was transferred to the GROS, and in 1910, the earlier 1841 and 1851 Scottish censuses were transferred back from Westminster to Edinburgh following the introduction of the 1908 Pensions Act (for the purposes of providing supporting evidence for pension applications). When it comes to land records, probate records, church records and other key record sets, we again have completely different systems to those employed elsewhere in the UK, and always have had. In other words, virtually nothing would actually change on this front in terms of the future recording of such records – and for the past, most of our key records are already here.
In London, the National Archives of Kew is not just the national archive of England and Wales alone, but the archive of the entire United Kingdom. It therefore contains a significant amount of material pertaining to Scotland, albeit mainly following the union from 1707. It would of course no longer continue to gather material for Scotland if we became independent, but it would still have the material that relates to us from our shared past in our common 'British' era. It would be interesting to see if any discussions arise about access to such material – should Scotland have copies of such material, for example, and if so, who would pay for it? For Australia, a massive microfilming project took place many years back to copy records relating to the continent which were held at TNA, but then TNA is a long way from Oz! If we were to go independent, would we need such an exercise for Scotland? Would we ask for copies of all Scots military records, for example, or for the records of the former Scottish Office? If we look at Ireland again, records of British administration from Dublin Castle during Ireland’s membership of the union are still held at TNA – does that instead act as the precedent?
In most cases I suspect independence, no matter how dramatically it might affect other areas of life, would not really be much of an issue from a family history perspective in Scotland. We already have a massively different genealogical and legal infrastructure to the rest of the UK as is, though I suspect a new independent Scotland might generate further interest from the wider Scottish diaspora – and God forbid we might go down the route of issuing Certificates of Scottish Heritage in tartan folders!
Whatever the referendum outcome, our history for the last three hundred years has been one of a shared membership within the union. That won’t change, but I suspect the Scottish story within that union may be presented in many new and interesting ways by historians, some providing wonderful new insights, others dangerous revisionism. After Partition in Ireland, there was a zealous attempt to almost remove all trace of British influence in many parts of the south of Ireland, and only now is Ireland really coming to terms with its past within the union. If independence comes in Scotland, I doubt we will see anything like that here on such a scale - but who knows? Whatever the outcome of the referendum, when it comes to researching our ancestors we should never forget that they were part of a United Kingdom and all that entailed, for good and for bad, no matter how and if our own present situation changes.
Over now to the politicians for an interesting few months…!
UPDATE: The Scottish Government has just confirmed that the referendum will be held in Autumn 2014.