SGSAH Doctoral Internship with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service

This blog comes from Rebecca Mason, a PhD candidate in History at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD research, entitled “Wives and the Defence of Property in Early Modern Scotland”, explores how ‘ordinary’ married women litigated within competing jurisdictions in defence of their property during the early modern period, and how their access to justice and the legal process varied in accordance of their marital, economic, ethnic, religious and social status. She has recently completed a SGSAH Doctoral Internship with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service. Follow her on Twitter at @rmason717.

My PhD research focuses closely on how married women living in early modern Scotland obtained access to justice by negotiating the patriarchal structure of the law. Around one year into my research I realized that in order to be knowledgeable of the inner workings of the legal system in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Scotland, it would help to understand existing pathways to achieving justice in present-day Scotland, which in turn encouraged me to apply for the SGSAH internship with the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS). From June to August 2017 I undertook a doctoral internship with the SCTS, whose function is to provide administrative support to Scottish courts and tribunals and to the judiciary of courts across Scotland. I was based in the Supreme Courts Library in Parliament House, Edinburgh, throughout the duration of the internship, which houses an impressive collection of books and legal journals used to support the legal knowledge required to understand access to justice in the Scottish legal system.

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Outside Parliament Hall. The Supreme Court Library can be seen on the bottom left, behind the statue.

Aside from cataloguing and storing books and journals relating to the administration of justice in Scotland, the Supreme Courts library owns a wealth of historical material that has, until now, remained uncatalogued. My focus during the internship was to create an archive framework to assist the Supreme Court librarians in managing and identifying records of historical significance, and the correct procedures to be followed once the historical authenticity of a record was verified. Across Parliament House there are numerous records, both tangible and intangible, that contribute to the history of Parliament House and the history of justice in Scotland. Such records include a Scots sasine (property deed) pertaining to Jedburgh Sheriff Court from 1659, a 19th century coffin stored in the Laigh Hall, a 1st edition copy of the Regiam Majestatem (1609), Burke’s Cell, and remarkable tales of the history of the building. My job over the past few months has been attempting to trace and understand the origins of these records and to find out how they could be properly identified and recorded on an archival database.

Before attempting to understand how these historical items came into fruition, it was necessary to forge links with staff and personnel scattered across Parliament House. After meeting with SCTS staff I was fully informed in current record management policies, which helped me with imagining how the archive policy could fit within the remit of the wider organisation, whilst adhering to current practice. It also became clear that the history of Parliament House is very much alive in the minds of those who work within it, without much written evidence tracing its development across the past few centuries. For instance, I was told of the excavation of a room below the building some twenty years ago that housed mysterious items including a bedframe, clothing, empty bottles of Guinness, and a horse’s skull. It is believed that the room was used to temporarily house poor inhabitants of the city who found themselves in rent arrears during the Victorian period; however without concrete historical evidence this statement is unfortunately speculative for the time being. These objects were subsequently removed by the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) for conservation, with no official record of transmission by the SCTS or the NMS.

Sasine, 1659, Jedburgh Sheriff Court. This document (along with a 1st ed. Regiam Majestatem) was found in a drawer in Jedburgh Sheriff Court, which was subsequently donated to the Supreme Court Library.

I also liaised with external bodies to understand how archives are managed and maintained elsewhere in Scotland. Staff within the Signet Library were particularly helpful in showing me how they stored and catalogued their records. I even got the chance to transcribe a rare legal treatise on succession, marriage and feudal law penned by an advocate in the mid-seventeenth century that I happened to stumble across perchance when shadowing the archivist. A tour of the building also provided me with more frightening stories of seventeenth-century ghosts haunting Parliament House!

As well as working with the Supreme Court librarians on a day-to-day basis I was given the opportunity to join SWOP, a forum for librarians, information professionals and publishers working with Official Publications in Scotland. Here I was given the chance to meet with specialists from numerous bodies across Scotland, including staff from the Faculty of Advocates, the National Library of Scotland, and Historic Scotland. On one SWOP meeting we were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Records of Scotland (NRS); on another we were given a private tour of the Royal Botanical Garden’s archive, which included consulting a rare 1st edition copy of John Gerard’s The Herball (1598). By forging links with professionals based in institutions not directly linked to the SCTS, I was able to learn how records management is broadly conceived by leading librarians and archivists based across Scotland, which greatly helped me in visualising the overarching framework of the Supreme Courts library archive policy. It was also a pleasure to see the inner-workings of institutions that have assisted me in locating the records that I consult for my own PhD research, which helped me appreciate the amount of time and dedication that goes into managing an archive that is made accessible to the wider public.

Overall my internship provided me with a wealth of opportunities by encouraging me to foster links with a variety of organisations situated outwith academia. It required me to manage and rethink my own PhD research alongside an independent project, whilst allowing me to establish my professional portfolio within a support network that was both accommodating and encouraging. In turn the SGSAH was extremely supportive of my internship, providing me with an additional three-month stipend, travel expenses, and regular emails throughout to make sure everything was running smoothly. I would certainly recommend undertaking a doctoral internship to others wishing to take a short “break” from their own PhD research, as it provides you with first-hand experience in managing and tailoring a project broadly linked to your own immediate research.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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