Sandra Dick: Shouldn’t be paywall for our history

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SEVEN words, blunt and to the point, were enough to bring Leith man John Baillie’s world crashing down.

“Baillie not accounted presumably in hospital, Hawes” sounds like a 140 character dose of Twitter gibberish, but to John Baillie back in 1915, the telegram meant his brother was among hundreds caught in the horror of the Gretna Rail Disaster.

That single tragedy, when a train full of soldiers collided with a passenger train, left more than 200 dead and around the same number terribly injured. Horrific by any standards, worse that so many came from the same area, Leith.

And yet it’s a dreadful event which few of us seem to know much about, including, surprisingly, assistant curator of Scottish history at the National War Museum, Victoria Brown. Unveiling some of the items – including that telegram – which will feature in Next of Kin, the museum’s First World War exhibition, she admitted: “I grew up in Edinburgh yet I’d never heard of the Gretna Rail Disaster until we started putting this exhibition together.”

It seems astonishing that something that touched so many lives just a couple of generations ago could be so easily forgotten – an issue that the National War Museum would appear keen to reverse by using precious personal mementoes to help hammer home the human tragedies of war in a way we can all appreciate.

However, I suspect most of those who see Next of Kin won’t be the locals whose family stories it tells, but tourists passing through, ticking another box on Scotland’s to do list.

For while entry to the National War Museum is free, you must first pay to enter Edinburgh Castle – a whopping £51.20 for a family of four – putting this carefully curated snapshot of Scottish wartime history out of financial reach for many of those whom it might interest most.

Edinburgh Castle and the National War Museum with its fascinating First World War exhibition are our history, made by the people of this country, this city and its surroundings.

And in this technological age, how difficult would it really be to introduce some kind of postcode charges system, so locals could visit at a reduced price even just once or twice a year?

By all means let the globe-trotting tourists pay for the privilege of dropping by.

However, if Castle custodian Historic Scotland genuinely wants to ensure our own children grow up knowing their history – including the Gretna Rail Disaster – making it affordable to families on its doorstep would be a good place to start.