A House History – a Case Study (Part 1)

Uncovering the history of your house can be a fascinating way of exploring a family or community in the past – but be aware that such a project can be time-consuming as well as engrossing.

Our example will be John Muir’s Birthplace in Dunbar, which is operated by our colleagues. We will use information gathered about John Muir’s home as a case study in using our resources (and those available elsewhere). Many of the sources are free to consult but others may require the payment of a small charge.

The first step is to consult a guide. It’s always helpful to familiarise yourself at the outset with different kinds of records and the terms used in documents both now and in the past. Several guides are available on-line (eg at the DirectGov and National Archives of Scotland sites) or as books (see here) which can be bought or consulted at the John Gray Centre.

In our case preliminary reading suggests we should consider looking up valuation rolls, decennial censuses, testaments and sasines as well as perhaps newspaper reports, yearbooks, guidebooks, almanacs, directories and (of course) John Muir’s own accounts and archive. Maps, plans, photographs and postcards will also be of use.

Already unusual words are cropping up.  A sasine is a document recording the transfer of title to a property (house or land) – an invaluable aid to researching any house; refer to your guides for other unusual terminology.

The second step is to assemble what is known already. Ask around – neighbours or family are often helpful. When you find an item of information record where it came from. Look at the building – take photographs for reference – and note any changes that may have been made or interesting details. Estimate the age of the building, record its situation whether there are others like it nearby – use a guide for other suggestions. Note any stories you’ve been told and any other information that comes to hand – documents, printed accounts (perhaps more stories, but adverts and listings as well). In our case:

We know the current address of John Muir’s Birthplace (from published information; house names and numbers and even street names can change over time), that the properties were owned by several families in the past (from oral accounts, living memories, and published information), and that part of the property housed a shop. We have several old photographs.

With our outline to hand, it’s time to take the research on another stage. We’ll do this in part two of this guide.

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