The National Records of Scotland is today [18th July 2013] publishing online records from over 250 years ago that show how those who lived in larger properties were forced to pay a tax on every window in their home.
From today the window tax roll data will be made available online here at the ScotlandsPlaces website.
The rolls span a period of fifty years up to 1851 and cover the whole of Scotland, listing taxpayers in the burghs and in country parishes.
At that time, most people did not live in houses large enough to be liable for the tax, but the rolls reveal taxpayers whose dwellings ranged from the relatively modest, with nine windows, to the substantial houses of the New Town in Edinburgh, where the philosopher David Hume paid for 18 windows in 1773-4.
At the top of the scale were the huge country houses of aristocrats like the Duke of Roxburghe who in 1748 paid £14 and four shillings for 294 windows at Floors Castle near Kelso.
The window tax rolls are the latest addition to a treasure trove of historical information held on the ScotlandsPlaces website.
This brings together records from three of Scotland’s national collections:
- the National Records of Scotland (NRS);
- the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)
- and the National Library of Scotland (NLS).
The window tax was notorious in its day, fuelling talk of householders blocking up their windows to reduce their tax burden.
NRS archivists, however, consider this to be more myth than fact – for two reasons:
- Blocking up a window would save a few shillings per year, which is not likely to have been enough to force wealthy homeowners to give up their daylight – an what would their even wealthier peers have thought of them if they had?
- Many windows on the Georgian buildings in Edinburgh’s New Town may appear to have been blocked but were in fact designed that way to maintain the buildings’ symmetrical façades.
Victorian health campaigners referred to the window tax as a ‘tax on light and air’ by the time it was abolished in 1851.
The tax is thought to have been the literal original of the term ‘daylight robbery’ – even though the phrase was not recorded in use until the twentieth century.
Tim Ellis, Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland, says: ‘I’m delighted to be making available online more of the records that we hold in Scotland’s national archive.
‘The window tax rolls are a rich resource for academic research but also for anybody who wants to gain an insight into our nation’s incredible history.
‘This data can be used alongside a range of other fascinating records that we’ve made available online to enable people to piece together a picture of what living in Scotland was like two hundred and fifty years ago.’
RCAHMS Head of Education and Outreach, Rebecca Bailey, says: ‘We are piecing together an incredibly detailed mosaic of the nation’s past. The window tax rolls can tell us more than just basic facts and figures about the houses we built and lived in some two hundred years ago. They also act as a valuable guide to social and political mores.
‘When combined with the other material already available on the site – including hundreds of thousands of photographs, plans and architectural drawings of Scotland’s buildings from the RCAHMS archive – it allows for a wonderfully rich study of our history.’
Many of the window tax records will feature in Window on the Past, a free exhibition to be held at General Register House in Edinburgh, from 29th July to 23rd August. Among the exhibits is a rare tally stick, which Exchequer officials used as a receipt when sending cash from the Window Tax and other revenues.
Researchers can now get access via ScotlandsPlaces to hundreds of thousands of names in the rolls in the decades before 1800, including taxes on male and female servants, carriages, carts, saddle and farm horses, clocks and watches, and shops.
ScotlandsPlaces offers information such as maps and plans; manuscript records and printed books from millions of pages in government and private records; and photographs, plans and drawings of buildings and landmarks.
Users can search across the three national databases at once, using geographic locations such as counties, parishes or other place names to start their search, before drilling down through a series of map layers including Ordnance Survey maps, to refine their search area.
Then users can create their own detailed, interactive historical archive maps, by plotting search results within the website or by using external geobrowsers like Google Earth.
Subscription packages to access ScotlandsPlaces new resources are priced £15 for 3 months. More information can be found online at the ScotlandsPlaces website here.
All other content on the site is free for anyone to access.