What it means to become a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

On the 30th November 2018 I was honoured to be voted in on the ballot at the traditional St Andrew’s Day AGM of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to become a Fellow of the society. The following essay will discuss the history of this 238 year old society and its evolving purpose, as well as what it means to be accepted into its ranks. Being nominated and accepted brings great pride from being one of many Fellows who have displayed FSA Scot (with varying forms of punctuation) as post-nominals over the past two and a third centuries.

I make no secret that conservation and historical accuracy are two huge and robust pillars of what has driven me to setting up my business, Highland Historian: Heritage Consultancy & Bespoke Tour Guiding with Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot (www.highlandhistorian.com).

In pursuing this as a lifelong interest I have seen the best and worst examples – and many in between – of modern attempts to achieve these aims. But one thing has always been apparent to me; the best practices are always developed through sharing and critiquing by those who are driven to improve, without putting up blockades to prevent this improvement. This particularly occurs when personal circumstances seep into development, including visions and emotions that create an impasse. In this I include national organisations, societies, associations and individuals. In all of these there are examples where conservational and academic development has been severely limited due to a particular individual’s vision and the available evidence to suggest another possible pathway being discounted, when there is a conflict of opinion.

In terms of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Society has proven to be a breeding ground for considered historical and wider antiquarian thought, knowledgeable assessment of fellows’ output by their peers, encouragement for deeper research and continued personal improvement. Ideologically, this interaction of interested individuals is a pure form of networking and shared-betterment which is difficult to simulate in other environments. However, as with anything of this nature, it is only as good as the Fellows of any period allow it to be. Currently the society is as strong as ever with a list of over 2,500 Fellows from a wide range of backgrounds and antiquarian interests.

In 1981, the Society published a book through John Donald publishers called The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition: Essays to mark the bicentenary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and its Museum, 1780-1980. This remarkable book is a time capsule of theories in the Scotland-wide development of heritage management and conservation, in the form of a collection of eye-opening essays edited by A.S. Bell. The museum in the subtitle has since developed as part of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where the Society’s offices are now located.

A striking quotation from the Society’s founder, David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan at a meeting on the 14th November 1780, heads Part 1 of the book. In it he refers to a collection of Scottish naturalists and antiquarians from the late 17th Century:

“I suspect that the society… failed on account of their having no house in property, nor any private interests to care for their books, museum, and other necessary appurtanences; and that having met in taverns, their meetings degenerated into convivial and anamolous conversations. All these hazards I mean, with your approbation, to guard against, and ever to exclude.”

[R.B.K. Stevenson, “The Museum, its Beginnings and its Development” in A.S. Bell (ed.), The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition: Essays to Mark the Bicentenary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1780-1980, (Edinburgh, 1981) p.31]

This was clearly intended to be a society which promoted the pursuance of developments in understandings through research. This would be achieved through the recording of that research and the conservation and sharing of items and documents, which held an important role in the understanding of our past. In 1780 this foresight and interest in preservation, conservation and development of knowledge did not exist as it does today. Lord Buchan’s aim must surely be seen as a truly groundbreaking moment in our awareness of the Scottish past.

The issues Lord Buchan cites, and the negative impact of them, is something that I know only too well. We are now on a precipice in Scotland where the conservation of our most treasured, renowned, revered and, yes, profitable, historic sites is under serious threat of complete loss. In 2018 alone, Scotland has seen plans and success in plans to develop or commercially plant on the battlefields of Inverlochy, Killiecrankie, Sheriffmuir, Culloden. Many other sites of historic value are also set to be lost to housing and roadway developments. The opposition to these developments has often not come from the places it would have in the past. This has left a huge void, perhaps unfillable, in the discussions which lead to decisions on these applications in modern Scotland. Lord Buchan, I’m certain, would be appalled at what our generation is currently allowing to become of these sites.

The Society’s website states that the Society’s stated purpose is:

“… to investigate both antiquities and natural and civil history in general, with the intention that the talents of mankind should be cultivated and that the study of natural and useful sciences should be promoted.

[https://www.socantscot.org/about-us/]

This is something I firmly believe in and have put into action in my career. At Culloden I proposed and commissioned a LiDAR scan in 2015 of the entire battle site within the railway line at Drummossie Muir. This was a response to the decision not to purchase land which would have off-set the impending planning applications and given a real chance of the site north of the B9006 being preserved. As is now clear, the development in question has opened up the entire site to potential developments and is a huge loss for conservation. Thankfully the LiDAR scan has at least secured a small fragment of what we are currently losing in a digital format – if only the organisation in possession of it would allow it to be consulted and investigated academically. In a way, this situation and what led to it is a fragment of civil history and of the historiography of the Scottish antiquarian tradition that I intend to write at length about during my lifetime.

Over the past 14 years I have experienced and witnessed the difficulties in obtaining museum status; of independent museums attempting to afford their maintenance budgets; and of the unsuccessful efforts to get support to open museums within various groups, societies or associations. In each case, heritage and antiquarian tradition lost out. One of the situations I struggled with more than any other was to develop an owned collection of items, objects and documents which was intended to be properly preserved and conserved as well as being available to historians and the public. This was against the reality that companies, organisations and charities whom in the past would have leapt at the opportunity to secure items, were no longer interested and left the door open for items to be sold at auction to worldwide bidders. This is a continuing and growing problem for the antiquarian tradition of Scotland in the modern age. We have lost a great deal, as have future generations.

But there is still hope in this area. There are still people who are minded to develop the antiquarian tradition. There are still those who see the value in researching, recording and securing our past; in whatever form that may be. I would strongly argue that many of those are either already, or may yet become, Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This is very much an historic society with a very modern purpose.

Returning to the title of this essay; what does becoming a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland mean to me? My answer is one that comes from the past, present and future. In terms of the past: I am incredibly proud to become a Fellow in a long line of Fellows who have supported the antiquarian tradition and have developed our ongoing awareness and understanding of the past in their own work and time. In terms of the present: I see this as a development in my pathway to being an accurate historian and joining together with other current Fellows to assist, and be assisted in pursuing betterment of our shared aims to uphold the antiquarian traditions. In terms of the future: I hope I can be part of the change that is needed to ensure that our past survives for future generations to discover – both the fragments of the past we know about and those we haven’t yet found or understood.

Without going into too much detail, hopefully this essay has opened a small window into the Scottish antiquarian world that I have experienced so far in my career. I think in the modern age, Scotland would prosper by being more antiquarian and conservational in all areas; especially in our attempts to preserve and understand our past. I believe that the experiences that I have had can serve as a reminder of the importance of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and its Fellows in ensuring that sites, items and documents should be both preserved and conserved. If we, the current generation, do not ensure that this is possible; in the present, the past will lose its future.

Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot

highlandhistorian.com

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