Academics protest at 'unjustified' Covid closure of National Records of Scotland archive

Professor Sir Tom Devine has out his name to the protestProfessor Sir Tom Devine has out his name to the protest
Professor Sir Tom Devine has out his name to the protest
SCOTLAND'S leading historian Professor Sir Tom Devine is among a group of academics demanding to know why the National Records of Scotland has failed to reopen vital archives when other institutions across the UK have managed to do so.

A total of 15 professors from Scottish universities have signed a letter to Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop voicing their "grave concern" at the continued closure of the NRS's historical search room in Register House on Princes Street due to Covid.

And they urge Ms Hyslop to investigate the matter and instruct the Keeper of the Records of Scotland to reopen access as a matter of urgency, with appropriate health and safety measures in place.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The letter says: "Most research libraries and archives (as well as the national museums and galleries and the national libraries) in both Scotland and England are open and offering limited but invaluable services. Local authority libraries and archives are also reopening across the country, as are the university archives.

"The National Records of Scotland archive has been a singular exception. We are perplexed by this, given that the challenges of running the service in the historical search room are similar to those of other institutions which have reopened."

They say despite their best efforts they have been unable to elicit a "credible explanation" for the “unjustified” closure.

And they say the latest information suggests there are no plans to reopen until “phase four” of the the Scottish Government’s routemap when the Covid crisis is over and life is back to normal.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But the letter warns: "The impact of the ongoing closure on large numbers of research students whose work relies on NRS archive sources has been and remains devastating. Academic historians holding prestigious research grants and fellowships that were awarded before the pandemic are also impacted, with consequences for our international reputation and future competitiveness.”

It adds: “The National Records of Scotland as an institution houses the premier archive collection in Scotland, embracing the records of government, its national institutions and major private and public bequests. This material is essential for researchers, as well as being unique and cannot be accessed by any means other than in-person visits.”

The letter is also signed by Professor Lynn Abrams, University of Glasgow; Professor Emeritus Michael Anderson, University of Edinburgh; Professor Callum Brown, University of Glasgow; Professor Ewen Cameron, University of Edinburgh; Professor Viccy Coltman, University of Edinburgh; Professor Robert Frost, University of Aberdeen; Professor Emeritus James Hunter, University of the Highlands and Islands; Professor Graeme Morton, University of Dundee; Professor Steve Murdoch, University of St Andrews; Professor Stana Nenadic, University of Edinburgh; Professor Richard Oram, University of Stirling; Professor Murray Pittock, University of Glasgow; Professor Emeritus C.A. Whatley, University of Dundee; and Professor Emeritus C.W.J. Withers, University of Edinburgh, Geographer Royal for Scotland.

An NRS spokeswoman said some “business critical” services had continued during lockdown and afterwards, but confirmed full re-opening, including public access to NRS buildings, was not expected to take place until phase four.

“We are undertaking feasibility planning on our available spaces to identify where it may be possible to open to provide access to both our digital and physical records, on a very limited basis.

"As our physical records are stored across our estate, there are also significant considerations on the safe transport of these records and the impact of the required quarantine procedures. This is likely to mean that we will not be in a position to facilitate wider onsite access until early 2021.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Due to difficulties with ventilation and entry and exit routes, it is not possible to effectively mitigate Covid-19 risks to allow public access to the historical search room.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We recognise the challenges that closure of onsite services have brought and have worked with NRS to ensure users can still access through a number of ways.

"Post-graduate students can access online digital records, and NRS continues to support academic researchers in the planning of their work with assistance in preparing bids and have provided evidence to explain to grant awarding bodies the reasons for delay in projects.

“The Culture Secretary has responded to the letter and asked NRS to keep the academic community updated as to progress towards reopening.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.