Feud over Scottish archivesBrian Morton
- 1 September 2012
The Catholic Church in Scotland takes enormous pride in its archives, a collection of books, manuscripts and artefacts going back 800 years. But the bishops and some of the country’s leading academics are bitterly divided about the future of this rich resource
Nowhere has the mix of pride, regional rivalry, sub-cultural loyalty and modernity versus tradition been more clearly seen than in the heated debate over the future of the Scottish Catholic Archives (SCA). Phrases such as “more heat than light” and “dialogue of the deaf” have been bandied about. It is clear that the physical fate of the archives matters profoundly, and not just within a country whose Catholic population has regained a social and cultural confidence lost after the Reformation.
The SCA consists of books, documents and artefacts going back 800 years, relating to the Catholic Church in Scotland and beyond. As an archive, it is extraordinary rich and varied, with items ranging from letters sent by Mary, Queen of Scots, to parish minutes. Since 1958, the SCA has been located at Columba House, Edinburgh.
The current furore began not with the news that the archive was to be removed from Columba House but with a story last April that Archbishop Mario Conti had apparently approved a plan to sell off items from the collection to help meet shortfalls in the funding of a new Episcopal centre in Glasgow. Archbishop Conti has headed the Archdiocese of Glasgow since 2002; he will retire later this month when Archbishop-elect Philip Tartaglia is installed as his successor.
The story about the planned sell-off of historic artefacts caught the media’s imagination because it was claimed that among items to be auctioned was a letter from Mary, Queen of Scots – though this was swiftly denied. Only subsequently was it announced that the pre-1878 archive material in Columba House, and the contents of Blairs Library, Aberdeen, currently on loan to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, would be housed in a new, state-of-the art library at the University of Aberdeen. The post-Restoration diocesan archives would be dispersed to the dioceses until the new Episcopal centre in Glasgow was ready to store them.
There was a historical fittingness to having the archive at Columba House, and, as the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission has always been willing to concede, a certain valuable synergy in having the archive physically close to the National Library and National Galleries of Scotland. This has become a major plank in the debate over the archive’s dispersal. Scotland’s population and transport infrastructure is densely concentrated in the Central Belt. Edinburgh and Glasgow are only 45 minutes apart – while Aberdeen is a further two hours by train from the capital. But, as supporters of the dispersal (and there are a good number) have pointed out, the Scottish Government has always been committed to the further devolution of cultural assets and this, albeit in the gift of the Bishops’ Conference rather than Holyrood – and guided by different imperatives – seems an excellent example.
The SCA is held up as a model of centralised archiving, in contrast to other countries, notably England, where the equivalent holding is scattered around various Episcopal and other centres. Like the Vatican Secret Archives, the SCA has the twin benefits of centrality and security. Protesters have complained that, prior to plans to digitise much of the archive, access to it will involve long and costly travel away from the main centres of population.
Supporters of the move have emphasised the historic connection between the archive and the north-east of Scotland. This was the point emphasised in an unpublished letter, dated 30 May and addressed to Archbishop Conti by 11 senior academics in Aberdeen, welcoming the initiative on historical grounds. The signatories pointed to the city’s “rich Catholic heritage” and called the region “an important centre of Catholic belief throughout the early modern period”. But by virtue of position and institutional loyalty, they were vulnerable to the charge that “they would say this, wouldn’t they?”
A disturbing element of the debate has been the suggestion that Archbishop Conti has “railroaded” the decision in the face of clearly substantiated objections, using his position as president and chairman of the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission and as a member of the Bishops’ Conference. Much has also been made of the fact that Archbishop Conti is a native of the north-east and holds an honorary professorship at the University of Aberdeen.
As both the Aberdeen academics’ letter and a reference in Archbishop Conti’s published memoir, Oh Help!, confirm, the issue of the archive’s location has been under discussion since 2002, motivated by the looming expiry on the loan of Catholic material to the National Library of Scotland and by a plan by the bishops, ultimately stymied by the credit crunch, to develop Aberdeen’s former junior seminary of Blairs and its library into a multi-function visitor centre. Under this plan, the books on loan to the National Library would have been brought back to Blairs.
In his autobiography, Archbishop Conti explained that the bishops were only minded to agree to an offer from the University of Aberdeen if it represented a signal improvement in conditions and guaranteed continuing accessibility. He was emphatic that the bishops had been satisfied on both points.
As with most stories that mix idealism and contingency, heritage and rapidly changing economic circumstances, the narrative itself has become muddied. There has been, as more than one senior historian has highlighted, no clear and unambiguous explanation of the move, and there has been some suggestion that it was not motivated by any specific concern about Columba House or its continued funding. It has also been suggested that the archbishop turned down suggestions of a “Friends” organisation – the absence of one is referred to on the SCA website – that might have helped prop up any funding shortfall.
Most lay observers have little notion of what treasures the archive actually contains. There is a general consensus that the greatest value of the SCA collections may not be the most newsworthy. Gilbert Markus, a research associate in Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow, says that while items like the Mary, Queen of Scots, letters are spectacular, it is probably the more humdrum things that are significant. “Piecing together bits of information out of letters, church accounts, clerical notes about Hebridean church dedications, a bit of medieval liturgy here and there, these are the things that really matter,” he told me.
As an example, Markus mentions a notebook full of documents allegedly copied from a manuscript at Ratisbon/Regensburg, by one Marianus Brockie, which, if authentic, is one of the oldest liturgical items in the British Isles. Darren Tierney, a research postgraduate at the University of Edinburgh who is working on financial development in the post-Reformation Church, makes a similar point, identifying valuable holdings on Jacobitism, many of them originally from the Scots College in Paris.
Professor Ian Campbell, an architectural historian and theorist at Edinburgh School of Art and one of the trustees who recently resigned from the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission, is concerned that expert advice was not being considered. He identifies further specific treasures including a papal bull of 1177 relating to the Schottenklöster in Regensburg and a Book of Hours that belonged to Anne of Brittany, wife of Charles VIII and then Louis XII of France. The latter, said Professor Campbell, was one of the items that the Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust considered selling off as having no intrinsic Scottish connections.
Professor Campbell said his main interest was in the private research papers of Fr David McRoberts, a great scholar-priest and a former keeper of the SCA, whose papers are a mine of information on every aspect of pre-and post-Reformation Scots Catholicism. “These are the sorts of things no one would ever get round to digitising,” he added, “which is one of the claims being made for why it doesn’t matter if the older stuff goes to Aberdeen. I don’t know where McRoberts’ papers would go if Columba House were closed.”
The Church pleads necessity and long-term planning. The academic community fears a split and protests against a “sudden” move. The minor tectonics of regional and institutional loyalties shift. The bishops are the legitimate authority. The academics claim expertise. No one is happy and the tone of debate has sharpened and soured. What seems clear is that the struggle over the Scottish Catholic Archives is not just a ripple on the ecclesiastical and academic pond but a story that has a direct bearing on how Catholic life in Scotland and beyond is constructed, and how the past is remembered and understood.