Innovation Heritage: 400 years to the future

Curious about how a 400-year-old organisation can go fully digital? In excerpts from her Innovation Heritage lecture in Edinburgh, Janet Egdell — our operations director — explains how our history is informing our future.

Before official records began, the ancient ceremony of ‘sasine’ (exchanging a clod of earth) marked the transfer of land ownership – something Outlander fans may be familiar with! The ceremony later lent its name to the first official land register, created in 1617, making it the oldest national land register in the world.

Janet Egdell, operations director at RoS, and Adam Wilkinson, director at Edinburgh World Heritage, answer questions at EICC Innovation Heritage

The 17th century was also a time of new homes for Scotland’s registration information. Within 100 years Edinburgh’s Laigh Hall had become too small and in 1765, the first purpose-built record repository in the world was commissioned: Register House. It incorporated innovative features, such as isolated stone-built compartments to reduce fire risk, however the build of the repository was not all plain sailing.

Sasine ceremony stones that were exchanged to symbolise land transfer

By 1779 the building was still incomplete and roofless, and funds had run out. In 1779 Register House was even used as Edinburgh’s first airport, as the unfinished rotunda was used for the assembly and launch of hot air balloons. Thankfully, new funds were gained from the sale of confiscated Jacobite lands and this iconic building solved the storage problems.

By the mid 19th century, industrialisation led to a massive drift of the population from the countryside to industrial towns. The considerable change in land use and subsequent increase in demand for housing meant the system of property registration had to be overhauled. Recognising this, the Land Register of Scotland Act 1868 introduced important reforms. The act provided that in future, all information relating to lands and heritages in Scotland should be recorded in presentment books, sorted by county and held centrally in Edinburgh.

General Register House, at the east end of Princes Street

In 1871, search sheets – a chronological history of all transactions for a property – were introduced to reduce the time and cost of searching and producing the registers. They were controversial, and after 20 years of internal debate the final version was produced in 1905. Search sheets were handwritten up until the introduction of the typewriting machine in 1921. These improvements helped to prepare Registers of Scotland for the changes in the volume of work that were to come, as economic conditions affected the number of property and land transactions.

Even before WWII had ended, plans were being made to develop Scotland’s towns and countryside. Accurate maps were produced for the first time, which, crucially, could also be used to identify land ownership more precisely and in 1948, as a result of these changes, the government split the office into two bodies. The General Register Office for Scotland became responsible for births, marriages and deaths and Registers of Scotland became responsible for Scotland’s land and property records.

Search sheets for the County of Midlothian

In the second half of the 20th century, home ownership in Scotland rose dramatically. This was due to economic growth and the policies of the UK governments of the time, with initiatives such as right-to-buy. This meant that large numbers of home ownership titles had to be registered. The increase in the volume of registered titles meant that Register House, the first purpose-built record repository in the world, was no longer big enough and Registers of Scotland moved to its new home in 1976 at Meadowbank House.

The introduction of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979 created a map-based register of title that simplified the land registration process and later would progressively replace the General Register of Sasines. The new register established the boundary of any piece of land through survey and issued the proprietor with a certificate of title guaranteed by the state. 1981 also marked a major milestone as RoS acquired its first computer to support the newly launched land register… It was roughly the size of a barn, and took up an entire wing of the second floor!

Registers of Scotland’s current home, Meadowbank House

In the last year of the millennium, there was progressive development of the electronic systems relating to registering property transactions. The introduction of Registers Direct provided a tool which allowed online access to the land registers and provided an essential part of buying any property. In 2007, a second version of Registers Direct was launched, at the same time as a new eRegistration product, ARTL – or Automated Registration of Title to Land – which would allow customers to register their title deeds online. Further changes to legislation were brought about in 2012 with the introduction of the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act that allowed for the use of eSignatures, eDocuments and eRegistration and has led to the phasing out of the Register of Sasines.

Nowadays digital is changing everything, from how we work to how we consume services. Technology is advancing every day, and the way we live our lives is overwhelmingly influenced by the internet. Digital is also significantly better for the environment, saving tonnes of paper every year. That’s why Registers of Scotland is undergoing a complete digital transformation, moving us from a historically paper-based organisation to one that always does everything digitally as the first option.

An example of the impact of our digital transformation programme can already be seen – in the past few months we’ve introduced the Digital Discharge Service, or DDS, which deals with the discharge of mortgage securities. DDS replaces the earlier paper-based system, which was a major source of frustration for all parties involved, from solicitors to lenders. Thanks to DDS, we’ve transitioned from an antiquated process that could take months, to a fully digital replacement in which the customer journey for both solicitors and lenders can be completed in minutes.

Looking towards the future, Registers of Scotland is heading towards another exciting period of change and innovation. In May 2014, Scottish ministers invited the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to complete the land register by 2024, with all public land is to be registered within five years, by 2019. A completed land register will make property transactions easier and faster. It will be a national asset for Scotland, supporting the Scottish government’s strategic objective of making Scotland a wealthier and fairer society.

The completion of the land register goes hand in hand with one of our most exciting developments, ScotLIS. ScotLIS will be an online land and information system that will ultimately allow citizens, communities, professionals and business users to find out comprehensive information about any piece of land or property in Scotland with a single enquiry. ScotLIS will be designed with the user at heart, continuously redesigned and evolving based on the needs of our customers.

We are also currently on track to reach our goal of being a fully digital first organisation by 2020, but we’re continuing to innovate and work to provide an efficient service for our customers. To enable this, we’ve created a dedicated Innovation Centre that works with both internal and external partners to ensure that new and existing business opportunities are explored and improved.

The 400 year history of the Registers of Scotland is one that follows the social and economic landscape of Scotland.  The theme of innovation and adaptation is woven throughout our story – from the world’s first national land register via Edinburgh’s first airport to the creation of a modern and robust land and property system fit for a digital age.

Follow the team via @RegistersOfScot on Twitter and on FacebookLinkedIn and YouTube for more updates. Want to comment? Let us know below!

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