THE National Records of Scotland has denied that the Declaration of Arbroath and other priceless artefacts are in danger, despite concerns from their own staff who say they have been locked out of the archives by management.

Archivists and curators working for the Government department tasked with taking care of some of the country’s foremost historical artefacts are worried bosses are putting priceless material “at risk”.

NRS has rejected the claim though admitted to The Herald on Sunday that mould had affected a “small proportion of our records”.

Trade union Prospect, which represents staff in the NRS, says the management is lagging far behind the rest of the heritage sector in opening up again. That is having a knock-on impact for academics and researchers desperate to get into the archive.

HeraldScotland:

Scotland’s most eminent historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, said he was “appalled” by the restrictions still in place, and called on the Scottish Government to intervene and “fix this inexplicable series of constraints on scholarship”.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, NRS went into lockdown closing buildings, including the historical search rooms in Edinburgh where any academic, researcher or member of the public could look through some of the vast archives held for the nation.

But months later, while most research libraries and archives in Scotland and England had reopened, the NRS remained closed.

‘Limited basis’

 

IT was only April last year when the historical search room opened on a “limited basis” with a “much-reduced capacity”. However, despite most Covid restrictions now being lifted entirely, little has changed. Archivists and curators are still not being allowed to work on the collections, Richard Hardy from Prospect has said.

The only archive material they are being allowed to see is what is requested by people using the search rooms.

But the limited access to the search rooms means they are seeing very little.

Staff are concerned that they are unable to assess whether the lack of conservation over lockdown has damaged the records.

Mr Hardy, the union’s national secretary for Scotland, told The Herald on Sunday: “We are concerned that the NRS doesn’t see the harm it is doing to Scotland’s heritage by not letting staff in to do their job. We are reflecting the views of our members who we know have expressed concerns about their ability to conserve, protect and maintain the material held at National Records for Scotland.

“While I am sure that it’s not the senior management team’s intention to put this material at risk, it is our members who are experts in the field of conservation, and their concerns should therefore be recognised and addressed.”

NRS holds one of the most varied collections of records in Europe. They include public, private and legal records spanning most of the last 10 centuries, and touch on virtually every aspect of Scottish historical life, from the wars of independence to the union of the crowns to the Cabinet papers of the devolution governments.

Professor Murray Pittock, a historian and a pro-vice-principal at Glasgow University described the NRS as an “absolutely essential resource”.

He said that as well as scholars and researchers, the archive was vital for genealogical research being carried out by visitors from Scotland, elsewhere in the UK, Europe and overseas, particularly North America.

‘Need to be open’

 

PROF Pittock told The Herald on Sunday: “It is ultimately a facility for public use and public benefit. “If access to its collections is being carried out on a markedly less adequate basis than access to collections which are held in the National Archives for the UK Government, or than those at the National Library for the Scottish Government, then it’s hard to see that as an appropriate use of resources.

“Ultimately, they are a public good and they need to be open to the public where that is possible and it has now been impossible for some considerable time.”

Prof Pittock added: “Conservation is an absolute priority and atmospheric deterioration can be a real risk, not least in Scotland.

“I would have expected that most documents would have been appropriately conserved by the National Records or will be held under appropriate conditions. However, if staff have had difficulty gaining access for a long period of time, it’s not surprising that concerns are being expressed.”

Unlike the UK’s National Archives, the NRS is also tasked with recording births, marriages, deaths, census data, and just about all of the country’s statistics.

It was formed after a merger of the General Register Office for Scotland and the National Archives of Scotland in 2011.

Professor Sir Tom Devine, an emeritus professor of history at Edinburgh University, said he was “appalled that these serious restrictions in the National Records of Scotland still apparently continue to exist”.

‘Grave concern’

 

HE told The Herald on Sunday: “As long ago as November 2020, virtually the entire professoriate in universities with research interests in Scottish historical subjects wrote to the then-Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture  [Fiona Hyslop] to indicate their ‘grave concern’ at continued closures, which even at that time were virtually unique among archives and libraries ithe UK, and appealing for her intervention.

“If these reports from NRS staff are accurate then, disgracefully, things have not much improved over the last 17 months. Large numbers of research students and academic staff will have experienced severe problems in completing their projects for no justifiable or public reason.

“Does the responsible Cabinet Secretary, Angus Robertson, not care about this important area of work on Scottish culture and history, or the plight of the many research students who have been affected so far because of managerial ineptitude? If he does, however, he needs to intervene without delay and fix this inexplicable series of constraints on scholarship.”

‘Completely safe’

 

A SPOKESPERSON for National Records of Scotland said: “NRS staff have carried out weekly inspections of our archive store rooms throughout the pandemic. The Declaration of Arbroath is completely safe and to suggest otherwise is false.

“NRS collections are kept in purpose-built store rooms and many are stored in additional protective containers, to reduce the risk of mould and, if present, inhibit its growth. Mould is a common challenge for historic collections.

“A small proportion of our records have been affected by mould, however, and the impact is superficial and entirely treatable.”

The Declaration of Arbroath was due to go on public display for the first time in 15 years in 2020 to mark the 700th anniversary of its signing.

However, the exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland was cancelled because of the pandemic.

A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland said it is “currently in discussion with the National Records of Scotland regarding a rescheduled display of the document”.

Independence

 

THE Declaration was written on April 6, 1320, after Robert the Bruce was excommunicated by Pope John XXII.

Eight earls and about 40 barons wrote to the Holy Father, asking him to recognise Scotland’s independence and acknowledge the Bruce as the country’s lawful king.

The letter also asks the Pontiff to persuade King Edward II of England to end hostilities against the Scots, so that their energy may be better used to secure the frontiers of Christendom. 

The Pope wrote to Edward II urging him to make peace, but it was not until 1328 that Scotland’s independence was acknowledged. 

However, the exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland was cancelled because of the pandemic. 

A spokesperson for the National Museum of Scotland said it was “currently in discussion with the National Records of Scotland regarding a rescheduled display”.