Jonathan Dowling looks at the work of an organisation dedicated to preserving our heritage
Scottish Memories MAY2007
Summer visitors to the ruins of Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.
6 Scottish Memories MAY2007
Hoarding The Past,Directing The Future
Ever wondered what that ruined building you pass by on your Sunday walk functioned as;or considered what life was like in Edwardian days or whether there are still any photographs left of the long-gone mills, breweries and coal mines of your neighbourhood? The rather grandly titled Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS for short) should always be able to answer these queries. The Commission collects, records and interprets information on the architectural, industrial, archaeological and maritime heritage of our nation and it makes all this information freely accessible to the public. Such vast archives are achieved over time in a variety of ways. Partnerships with other bodies such as Historic Scotland support inhouse, desk-based projects plus work in the field which garners millions of items. There are aerial photographs alone which amount to 1.5 million images;and also plans, drawings, manuscripts, maps, books and postcards along with much other written material that have all been collected over the years into a priceless treasure house of memorabilia. Students,academics or just the person in off the street can have easy access to these archives. Every aspect of life is covered. For instance, an inquirer can trace families through examining donated photograph albums and journals or learn about the history and development of their particular street or even family home through pictures, accounts and survey work. There is a website and database for those with a computer,including information on 250,000 archaeological sites, and an index to the archives. Some images can be viewed online. There are more than 100,000 aerial photographs of Scotland easily available, including many from the Ordnance Survey group and the RAF from the 1940s onwards.
These allow cities to be analysed and compared,so that urban expansion can be studied and changes noted. The Historic Land-use Assessment Project, started nine years ago, aims to gather and interpret information on the historic landscape to promote its future management and is starting to influence modern decision making. For example,this project has helped define the archaeological qualities of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park landscapes and has also recently influenced proposed developments round the Antonine Wall. The heritage of civic engineer and building pioneer Thomas Telford, who opened up the Highlands with his literally path defining roads, bridges and canals,is currently being studied by youth groups who are exploring their heritage. This involves workshops and a touring exhibition which is appropriate considering this is a Year of Highland Culture and the 250th anniversary of Telford’s birth. The complete archive of the famed Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence has also been donated to the RCAHMS and items from this will be the centre of major exhibitions this year. Looking around Scotland’s landscape,you will soon come across numerous half hidden sites, like overgrown mounds, moss covered walls and tumbled dykes which attest to former rural settlements;and one new project aims at working with communities throughout the countryside to raise awareness of this lost past. Teams will be given expert advice and explorations are to be organised,the details gathered being eventually encapsulated in the ever expanding archives. For further information on the work of this splendid body,just visit the website at www.rcahms.gov.uk;or e-mail email@example.com; or phone 0131 662 1456;or simply visit the search room,open from Monday to Friday between 9.30 am and 4.30 pm,at John Sinclair House, 16 Bernard Terrace,Edinburgh EH8 9NX.