As a former Keeper of the Records of Scotland, I have followed the controversy over the Scottish Catholic Archives with considerable concern about the potential risk to an important part of Scotland's heritage, not allayed by Archbishop Mario Conti's letter (Letters, August 3).
While it is good to have a clear statement of the reasons for the decision to break up the holdings at Columba House by sending pre-1878 records to Aberdeen, he can hardly claim misrepresentation by historians, not just in Scotland but elsewhere, in view of the evasions and misinformation that appear to have characterised earlier statements and the apparent stifling of debate, of which the former members of the Heritage Commission and others have complained.
Though no-one would question that Aberdeen University Library can provide first-class facilities for looking after the archives, one reason why Cardinal Gray and his colleagues decided to move them from Aberdeen in 1957 remains valid – that users would have easier access to the national collections held by the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Record Office (now National Records of Scotland).
One might add that the most important source for the pre-Reformation church is the complete series of microfilms of Vatican records relating to Scotland held by Glasgow University, far easier to access from Edinburgh than from Aberdeen.
Though Aberdeen University is a centre of excellence for Scottish history, as far as church history is concerned it cannot equal Glasgow's long record in studying and publishing material from the Vatican Archives and other sources. Although the north-east played a major role in preserving the faith for more than two centuries after the Reformation, now, thanks partly to immigration from Ireland and elsewhere over the last two centuries, the majority of Catholic population lives in central Scotland.
This fact is bound to be reflected in the archives and should be taken into consideration, rather than an increasingly remote past in the north-east. One is reminded of the reported comment by that great archivist and historian, Fr W J Anderson, that without the Irish the Church would be "a small – but very select body".
It is also hard to understand why the archives should be split at 1878. While restoration of the Hierarchy is a significant historical event, its archival significance is much less. Pre- and post-1878 records form a continuum, each important to the history of Catholicism in Scotland. As Professor Ian Campbell has pointed out, the split will not be complete (Letters, July 25). Some records will remain at Columba House, others have never left Glasgow. We are assured the records at Columba House will be open to the public, but there is no such assurance for Glasgow and less for records that will be returned to or remain with the individual dioceses where there is no guarantee their storage will be up to archival standards.
No other national body has made records more than 100 years old unavailable to the public and in most cases more recent ones are open, subject to safeguards for confidential material. The archives should not be viewed simply as church property but as a national treasure to be available for study under a qualified archivist.
Archbishop Conti is no doubt correct in presenting the decision as a unanimous one of the Bishop's Conference, but one determined individual can sway those who are indifferent or less determined. Looking back at the enthusiastic support given to Columba House by Cardinals Gray and Winning, one must hope it is not too late for the members of the Bishops' Conference to reconsider their decision, bearing in mind Cromwell's admonition to the General Assembly: "I beseech you ... think it possible you may be mistaken."
Dr Athol L Murray,
33 Inverleith Gardens,
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