I was up in Montrose recently seeing a beautiful garden for Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine. The owner told me that the Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) had surveyed it around 14 years ago and it reminded me that I had written about this government-run body which catalogues Scotland's 'built environment' a few years back for a magazine which The Herald produced about it.
I've fished out the copy and posted it below.
It has to be the worst name for a government-run organisation in history but setting that aside, if you ever get the chance to visit its HQ in Edinburgh, do, because it is a treasure trove of the highest order.
DOWN a rather ordinary street close to the Meadows in the heart of Edinburgh’s student land, sits an unobtrusive 1970s-built former furniture warehouse.
It’s the kind of place you might walk past without a second glance. Were you to happen to look sideways, you might register what looks like the entrance to a library … perhaps that impression is re-enforced by the sight of a couple of bookish-looking academics making their way purposefully inside.
You would be half-right in your supposition, but the reality is that, should you venture inside this building, you would find a treasure trove documenting Scotland’s past in infinite detail.
Just as a book should never be judged by its cover, ordinary-looking buildings occasionally deserve attention too. This one just happens to be home to one of Scotland’s most important national collections, housing four and a half million items that document in a fascinating and wholly human way, how man has made an impact on our land since the beginning of time.
Every single one of these pictures inside the offices of the Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, (RCAHMS) tells Scotland’s story.
Take just one at random …a black and white photograph tucked away in a dusty old green box in the Public Search Room marked ‘Glasgow’, which shows the residents of a long-demolished tenement in St James Terrace, Kinning Park in 1910.
Behind a crumbling graffiti-strewn wall, stand a rag-tag bunch of children, many of them shoeless. In the background, around the entrance to a door are a few beshawled mammies. Look higher and you’ll see the standard-issue Glaswegian wifey hanging out the window checking out what’s happening in the backcourt. A note on the bottom of the picture observes, among other things that for all these houses, there were 29 taps and eight WCs. One photograph – so many different tales to tell.
As illustrated by the 100 Treasured Places you will find elsewhere in this magazine, the range and scope of this collection has something for everyone. Since 1908, the RCAHMS has been collecting, cataloguing and surveying Scotland’s landscape to preserve it for future generations. Much of the collection is also available online on the Commission’s website, rcahms.gov.uk.
Not to be confused with Historic Scotland, which has a brief to manage historic properties in the care of the state, the RCAHMS collection has a mission to record Scotland’s man-made environment, by identifying, surveying and interpreting our archaeological , architectural and historical places and spaces. Both bodies are funded by the Scottish Government.
The woman responsible for the day-to-day running of the Commission is Diana Murray, a quietly-spoken font of knowledge who arrived as a fresh-faced archaeology graduate from Cambridge in 1976 and liked it so much, she never left.
In these 31 years, the Commission, which celebrates its centenary year in 2008, has grown in scope to become one of Scotland’s National Collections.
A walk through the RCAHMS offices in Bernard Terrace with Diana is a mind-blowing experience. At every turn, you are met by one expert after another and one drawing or photograph after another, each more intriguing than the last.
“Basically, we are in the business of recording the built environment from earliest pre-historic times to the present day,” smiles Diana, as she and her colleagues attempt to encapsulate the scope of the organisation.
“It is all to do with how our landscape and townscapes change. As we look to our next century, we are even more aware that we are creating a record for the future, which fits in to Scotland’s understanding of itself.
“We’re not just about buildings, archaeological sites or maritime sites, we have an international reputation for looking after biographical information that record the past too. A lot of people walk through our doors or search online for information on their ancestors.”
The RCAHMS was set up Royal Charter in 1908 following the passing of the Ancient Monument Act in 1882. As Diana explains: “There was a strong feeling at the time that something had to be done to preserve our ancient monuments. In the second half of the nineteenth century, with the growth of the railways, intensive farming, quarrying, construction and the beginnings of mass tourism, many people felt that some of our national historic and archaeological monuments were in danger of being destroyed.
“The Commission first of three to be set up in Scotland, England and Wales. The original role was to make up an inventory of historic and ancient places worthy of preservation.
“I guess it is difficult for us to appreciate now, but back then, people didn’t really know what was out there.”
The Commission, which today employs over 100 highly-experienced staff, many of whom have worked there most of their careers, literally started out with one man and his bike.
The first secretary of the Commission was one Alexander Curle, described by one historian as ‘a man of exceptional stamina’, recorded the first inventory in Berwickshire by travelling around on his bike and making notes by hand, which he then sent to a typist in Edinburgh.
His first report was published quickly and it was decided that more should follow. Much of the Commission’s early work was carried out by Curle himself. One observer describes how, in 1909, on a surveying mission, he left Tongue at 7am on ‘a most lovely day’, walked up Strathnaver, recording cairns, a broch, hut circles, covering over 14 miles and, in the evening, took a stroll with his wife to Castle Varraich. The notes he took formed the basis of half a dozen articles.
Present day recording techniques have altered beyond the wildest imaginings of the redoubtable Mr Curle and today, although RCAHMS still employs artists and surveyors who go out into the field armed with a sketchpad and 2B pencil, the latest GPS mapping and digital photography techniques are employed widely.
According to Alan Leith, head of operations with the Commission and a man with over 30 years experience at the Commission under his belt, no other organisation does exactly what they do in terms of the scope of their brief.
“We have embraced technology,” he explains, “but you have to have the experience and materials to back it all up – which we do.
“We are non-commercial and not driven by what other people want. Other more commercial organisations have access to the same source material but are driven by a different purpose. What we do here at RCAHMS, no-one else does. We have bespoke software and experts in their field working on the ground.”
It is clear that Alan still feels the magic of uncovering the past. “If you look at, for example, our drawing of Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, you can see clearly that part of the original structure was built into the newer building. Because we know what we are looking at, we can tell the people who live and work there more about their building, which is a wonderful thing.”
Two of the great wonders of RCAHMS’ recording programme, which sets them apart from their English and Welsh counterparts are its collection of architectural and building records and its aerial photography survey programme, which includes such gems as the entire catalogue of Luftwaffe reconnaissance operations over Scotland from 1938-39. These fascinating photographs even mark targets to be bombed.
“We are constantly uncovering secrets,” says Alan Leith. “It’s what sets us apart from other national collections. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world.”