The Father of Scottish Democracy

I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause – It shall ultimately prevail – It shall finally triumph. Thomas Muir

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The large obelisk in the foreground of this picture stands as a monument to those radical reformers, including Thomas Muir, who were tried, convicted and deported for sedition in 1793.

In the wake of the French and American Revolutions Muir and his associates had been active in a widespread movement for political and social reform in Britain. The movement attracted alarm and extreme sanction from both the political establishment and conservative elements in society.

As we heard at a recent Edinburgh Reads event, Muir is not the household name he should be, something that is being addressed throughout this year, the 250th anniversary of his birth.

As part of the commemorations the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection in Central Library is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Thomas Muir: Father of Scottish Democracy consisting of seven large illustrated panels telling the story of Muir’s life, struggle and legacy.

The exhibition, which has been put together by The Friends of Thomas Muir, will be on display until the end of October.

Revealing our hidden collections

thomson scrapbookYou may have seen the big splash in Friday’s Evening News about the Thomson family scrapbooks and our successful quest to track down the living relatives of their creators.

The scrapbooks were compiled during World War One by the Thomson family who lived at Glengyle Terrace. Most of the items pasted into the scrapbooks are press cuttings, leaflets, scraps and adverts but there are some personal ephemera, such as letters and a ration book, which give personal details and an indication of the impact of war on the family.

We’ve digitized the scrapbooks so they can be viewed online but you can see the actual scrapbooks for yourself in the first of a series ‘show and tell’ sessions featuring these and other hidden treasures from our collections.

The Thomson family scrapbooks will be on show at the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection in Central Library this Wednesday (12th August) 10.30 – 11.00am.

Other ‘show and tell’ sessions are listed below:

grassmarketDiscovering Thomas Keith’s photographs

Thomas Keith was an amateur photographer whose wonderful photos of Edinburgh and other areas of Scotland were all taken between 1853 and 1856, making them some of the earliest photographs in our collection.

Wednesday 19th August, 11am – 12 noon, Central Library Boardroom


theatre programmesExplore 1950’s Edinburgh theatre programmes

Did you know that Sir Lawrence Olivier played at the Lyceum in 1952? Other big names included Michael Redgrave, Googie Withers, Sam Wanamaker and Joyce Grenfell. Come and have a browse for yourselves and share with us your own memories

Friday 21st August, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library


Whaur did yer Granny bide? Exploring the streets of old Edinburgh

Search out the street she lived in and actual historic O.S. Maps of Edinburgh from 70 years go. How did the Street name come about? What did Edinburgh look like then? Come and find out.

Friday 28th August, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library


ccEdinburgh’s sinister past: in the footsteps of Burke and Hare

Discover images and documents relating to Edinburgh’s most notorious murderers. Uncover the facts behind this macabre tale. As to the victims:

‘They were all destroyed by the same process, and almost in every case stupefied with liquor’ in The Official Confessions of  William Burke: executed in Edinburgh for murder …published in 1829.

Friday 4th September, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library

Two WW1 scrapbooks, some dogged determination and a phone call from the Netherlands

A little while ago we stumbled over two uncatalogued scrapbooks which had been donated to the library and dated from World War One.

Front cover from World War One scrapbook (vol 1)

They were compiled by a Thomson Family living at Glengyle Terrace in Edinburgh and give a remarkable insight into Edinburgh’s WW1 home front. This was all we knew about the family’s donation.

The scrapbooks are jam-packed with all kinds of ephemera – newspaper cuttings, leaflets, photographs, tokens. There are also personal articles, such as letters and a ration book, which give clues to the family who made them. Many of the letters are sent to a Thomas Thomson. At first, we assumed that Thomas must have been primary school age to have been interested in maintaining the scrapbooks for the duration of the long war, but the 1911 census confirmed he would only have been 3 years old at the outbreak. We deduced that Thomas’ mother and father must have collated the scrapbooks on his behalf.

Scrapbook page: unknown soldier, stickers & scraps

But who were the Thomson family? And what happened to Thomas? Thomas’ father was an investment secretary and actuary married to Barbara who was born in South Africa. (This explained why so many articles and news clippings in the scrapbook related to South Africa.) With the help of family historian and volunteer John, we tried various searches to try and find out if young Thomas ever had any descendants. We found out that Thomas had married Jean in 1938 but we couldn’t find a birth record for any offspring. John doggedly searched passenger lists online and amazingly found records for a Thomas Thomson, colonial administrative officer of the right age travelling with his wife and a young son to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in the 1950s. But the wife wasn’t Jean. We couldn’t be sure we’d found our man.

Thomas D Thomson, photograph reproduced by kind permisson of Thomson family.

Thomas D Thomson, photograph reproduced by kind permisson of the Thomson family.

The only way to piece the puzzle together was to pay a visit to the ScotlandsPeople Centre on Princes Street. Here we were able to view full records of entries we’d found only as indexed versions online. Over the course of a morning, everything started to fall into place. Thomas Thomson had married three times, first to Jean, then to Margaret and finally to Kathleen. However, we still couldn’t find a birth or marriage certificate for Thomas’s son, Master ‘D’ who had appeared in the passenger lists. We found Thomas’ death certificate, giving his residence in the borders, but there was no mention of any descendents. ‘D’ had disappeared.

It seemed as though we’d hit a dead end. After months of searching and having come this far, there was nothing more we could do. Except well, we could try one of those google search things…

…and bingo, buried a couple of webpages down was a link to a discussion forum. And within it – an email address for a D Thomson, who spoke about his late father’s connection to the Borders. However, it was a Dutch email address. Could it possibly be the person we were looking for?

Within hours of sending an email, we received a phone call from Dave Thomson in the Netherlands! Understandably more than a little surprised, Dave was also curious about the scrapbooks and the family history trail that had led us to him. He had been completely unaware of the family scrapbooks lying on the shelves of Central Library in Edinburgh. We’re indebted to Dave for kindly giving us permission to publish volume 1 and volume 2 of the WW1 scrapbooks on Capital Collections so that this remarkable piece of social history is now available to all.

Do you have a story lurking in the family closet? Go online and find all the local and family history resources that Your Library has to help. And if you discover something worth talking about, why not share it on Edinburgh Collected?

Post script
Dave and John are due to meet in the Netherlands later this month. Inspired by our scrapbook mystery, further family history investigation is on the agenda…


Forth Rail Bridge

March 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the Forth Rail Bridge. Currently awaiting the outcome of a UNESCO World Heritage site nomination, there is little doubt that the Forth Rail Bridge’s iconic status extends far beyond Scotland.

However, the Forth Rail Bridge may have looked very different.


In 1879 during a dreadful storm, the navigation spans collapsed on the Tay Bridge. A train had been crossing the bridge at the time and over 70 lives were lost. The Tay Bridge had been designed by Thomas Bouch, the engineer employed on the new Forth Rail Bridge and so, a decision was made to halt construction on the Bridge only shortly after it had begun.

To allay the fears of the public in the wake of the Tay disaster the revised structure of the Forth Bridge was designed to be both visually impressive and enormously strong. Work restarted on a new cantilever design by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker.


The creation of the monumental structure came at a heavy price. In addition to the high economic cost of roughly £2.5 million, more than 60 men lost their lives whilst working on the bridge. Our latest Capital Collections exhibition includes material from our Libraries’ collections and also from the Queensferry Museum. Browse awe-inspiring pictures of the Bridge in mid-construction, views from high amongst the girders and photos of some of the men who risked their lives to realise this feat of Victorian engineering.



How archives can help YOU

archiveAre you interested in finding out more about the history of your family, area or business?

Well you’re in luck. We’re hosting a series of drop-in sessions where you can pick the brains of a city archivist.

Learn how archives can help you find out more about the history of your family, business, neighbourhood or whatever it is you want to investigate.

The sessions take place in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library on the last Mondays of February, March, April and May from  10.30am – 12.30pm.

There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. If this time is not suitable, email us on or call 0131 529 4616.

Portobello Baths



Edinburgh City Archives’ Story Box 2014

The following post originally appeared on Lothian Lives

As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign 2014 Edinburgh City Archives are once again having a ‘story box’ on show to give you an idea of the kinds of records we keep and make available. Inside you will find snippets of information on the likes of Policemen, Army Recruits, Criminals, William Burke, Aliens and Disappearing Dukes!

If you fancy delving into the story box you will find one in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library on George IV Bridge, as well as one in the City Chambers main reception, on the High Street (opposite St Giles Cathedral).

The boxes will be available to look through from Monday 10th November through to Monday 17th November 2014. You will also be able to take away one of our general leaflets which gives you a bit more information on what we are all about, as well as our contact details so you can get in touch.

Happy exploring, we hope you enjoy…

The Forth Road Bridge

As the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Forth Road Bridge approaches our latest exhibition on Capital Collections looks back at the construction of the original Forth Road Bridge.

A category ‘A’ listed structure and vital transport artery for the country, the bridge was one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects in Scottish history and has cemented itself as an iconic point on the skyline of the city.

Forth Road Bridge - south span seen from south tower

Construction began in September 1958  and it took 6 years to complete the structure which includes 39,000 tonnes of steel and 115,000 cubic metres of concrete. The bridge is 2,517 metres long, making it the longest suspension bridge outside of the US and fourth longest in the world at the time of its completion. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the bridge on 4th September 1964.

In its first year, the Forth Road Bridge carried 2.5 million vehicles and opened up a vital transport route between the capital and north-eastern Scotland. The number of vehicles and passengers using the bridge has grown year on year far beyond the projections of the engineers in the 50s. Corrosion to the major wires of the bridge was found in 2005 due to the increased number of vehicles using the route and the changes in regulations of modern haulage vehicles. Measures were taken to stall the decomposition of the steel including dehumidifying the cables and replacing steel beams under the bridge bed. After this discovery it was decided that a second road crossing, The Queensferry Crossing, would be built to accommodate trade and private traffic while the existing bridge will be used exclusively for public transport and buses. The new bridge is expected to open to traffic in 2016.

Browse the Capital Collections exhibition to see more amazing pictures from our archive of the Forth Road Bridge under construction.

You may also be interested in ‘The Forth Bridges Scrapbook‘, a new and growing website where you can explore and create ‘digital scrapbooks’ of material and memories of the bridges.