Scottish Handwriting

05 Dec 2012

Yesterday I talked about the potential (and likely elsewhere). The ability to read old handwriting is an important part of genealogical research. Being able to read and evaluate documents for yourself is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your research is correct.

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) was created in April 2011 through the merger of the National Archives of Scotland and the General Register Office for Scotland. NRS has created a website, , specifically to assist those in reading old documents written in Scotland from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

In the sixteenth century, a cursive business hand developed and was used in the British Isles and Western Europe through the seventeenth century. Because it was used by secretaries and other scriveners, it came to be known as Secretary Hand.


Scottish Handwriting


The website provides four tutorials to assist you in deciphering this writing. The  “1 Hour Basic Tutorial” contains six parts:

  1. What Secretary Hand looks like
  2. Key Letters – the Secretary Hand e and s
  3. Other Commonly-occurring Secretary Hand Letters: a, b, c, d, h, r and t
  4. Phonetic speling and Scots words
  5. ‘Sic braw secretarie hand’
  6. Short test in identifying Secretary Hand letters

Each section provides an explanation of the topic, and numerous illustrations from original historical documents, down to the detail of individual letters.

The Dunlop Letters section provides examples of how handwriting could change over time, especially after leaving a master. The examples are from the correspondence of William Dunlop, a seventeenth-century merchant. Each letter is accompanied with some explanatory material and a test. The test includes images from the original letter, along with a partial transcription. Several words are omitted, and readers can fill in boxes for the missing words. Incorrect transcriptions appear in red text, immediately alerting the user of a mistranslation. A link at the bottom opens up a complete correct transcription. The Glasgow Burgh Court provides similar material to help the user understand and read seventeenth-century court records.

A final tutorial deals with Testaments. This is great experience in learning about the probate system in Scotland at the time. It explains a bit about the process itself, introduces the user to the proper vocabulary, and shows examples of different types of records, using a similar testing method to the previous tutorials.

The last section of the website is a coaching document. The manual is divided into sections:

  • Before You Start (how to prepare yourself)
  • Letter Finder (a compendium of letter forms)
  • Numbers (a compendium of numerals, dates, money, and measurements)
  • Problem Solver (to assist when you get stuck in your transcription)
  • Bibliography (paleography books, Scots dictionaries, glossaries, etc.)
  • Links (other websites for paleography assistance)

All in all, is a great way to help you with your paleography skills. The tests and coaching manual can be downloaded in PDF form, as well as utilized online. You can also keep your learning up by checking back the with website for their weekly “poser” — sample documents to further your skills.