Treasured Places In Focus
Finding Our Treasured Places
By Rosalyn Scott, Treasured Places Exhibition Officer
The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) holds a vast and fascinating collection relating to the nation's built environment. Material represents every area of the country, chronicling its archaeology, architecture and maritime heritage. Having started collecting back in 1908, there are now around 4.5 million items packed away in the stores.
Treasured Places opened up this hidden resource to the public, revealing material that previously remained hidden within the huge collections of RCAHMS. Our online vote set the first challenge - selecting just 100 star items from amidst the millions stored within the RCAHMS archive.
Such a large collection includes a diverse range of material, with photographs, drawings, prints, manuscript material, architectural plans and models all present. The collection is also particularly rich in historical material such as engravings, early photographs and antiquarian books.
This material reached RCAHMS via public gifts, items deposited on loan, purchases, or surveys of private collections. RCAHMS also holds many important collections of material passed over to our care. Organisations such as the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, as well as individual architectural practices such as Lorimer & Matthew, or engineering firms such as Sir William Arrol & Co, all have plans, drawings and documents stored in our archive.
In addition, other material held in the collection, such as survey drawings and aerial photographs, is the product of RCAHMS surveyors and photographers working across Scotland. This material provides an unparalleled record of the changing nature of the nation's settlements, structures and sites.
At present, the majority of the collections are located at RCAHMS main store in John Sinclair House, Edinburgh. A special cold storage area keeps the heat off photographic material, including slides, glass plates, negatives, photograph albums and reels of film; whilst works on paper are kept in special archival boxes in temperature and humidity controlled rooms, or in row upon row of plan chests and shelving in our principal storage area.
How did we choose our Treasured Places?
The 100 images selected for the online vote not only had to represent the huge depth of RCAHMS work and collections, but also reflect the diversity of Scotland's history and geography. The obvious response involved turning to RCAHMS most important resource - our own staff. Much of the knowledge needed to unlock the most interesting material (and its associated stories) lay tucked away in their heads. Staff were invited to nominate places that they treasured and find an image from the collections that best captured the spirit of the site. Additionally, staff contributed blogs to illustrate their choices.
Some blogs invoked memories of working life at RCAHMS. The archaeologist Angela Gannon remembered overcoming vertigo "with heart thumping and legs shaking" at the cliffs of Sgor nam Ban-Naomha on the Isle of Canna, whilst the illustrator John Borland's memories were of the "cramped and muddy" conditions whilst surveying Vinquoy Hill Neolithic burial cairn on Eday, Orkney.
Various staff drew upon personal anecdotes, such as Leanne McCafferty's hazy recollection of "re-enacting Top Scottish Tries of All Time" at Murrayfield Stadium, or Alan Muirden reliving a childhood spent in the waters of Dollan Baths, East Kilbride.
Others relied upon their academic knowledge to highlight the significance of sites. Tom Parnell, who worked on RCAHMS ‘Telford in the Highlands' project, praised the engineer Thomas Telford's design for the Craigellachie Bridge, and the industrial archaeologist Dr Miles Oglethorpe raised a glass to the importance of Laphroaig Distillery on Islay. All of these different tales reflected the diversity of opinion on what constitutes a ‘treasured place'.
A selection committee then formed, tasked with spending long hours debating the pros and cons of all the potential choices. Certain key criteria needed further consideration when selecting material. As far as possible, we aimed for a good balance between archaeology and architecture, and also wanted to ensure a fair representation of every region of the country. The final selection needed to cover all the main aspects of RCAHMS collections, including a wide range of survey work, donated architectural material, and historic photographs and prints.
At long last, we narrowed down the final selection. It was not intended to be a definitive representation of Scotland's built environment and we also knew that it was not going to please everyone. Instead, the online vote emphasised the idea of personal treasured places, rather than solely focusing on the great and good of archaeology or architecture. But from the wilds of the Western Isles and Shetland to the urban settings of Edinburgh and Glasgow, 100 unique sites joined together to create a picture of our nation's Treasured Places.