Appreciation: Bob Smart, former Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments at St Andrews University, teacher, local history expert

Bob Smart at his honorary graduation in January 1996 (Picture: Courtesy of St Andrews University Library)
Bob Smart at his honorary graduation in January 1996 (Picture: Courtesy of St Andrews University Library)
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Robert Noyes Smart, former Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments. Born: 4 August 1931. Died 21 July, 2020.

Robert Smart (always Bob), formerly Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments in the University of St Andrews, has died after a short illness. Born on 4 August 1931 in Dunino, his heritage was of Fife on his father’s side, and Skye on his mother’s. Spending the war years on the family croft in Skye, he attended Portree High School, and then, after the war, Perth Academy. The Gaelic he acquired on Skye in those formative years remained with him all his life. He undertook National Service in Wales in the post-war years, working on guided missile trajectories, a far cry from the archival career he would later pursue. A degree in Modern and Medieval History at St Andrews was followed by a professional qualification in Palaeography and Archive Administration from University College of North Wales, Bangor.

After four years as Assistant Librarian in the University of Aberdeen, he returned in 1959 to St Andrews, taking up a post as Cataloguer and Assistant Archivist. His association with the Manuscript and Muniment collections at St Andrews would last until his retirement 36 years later. Soon (1961) promoted to Senior Assistant Librarian in charge of the University Library’s Manuscript Collection, he was also assistant to the renowned Ronald Cant, then Keeper of Muniments (the University’s institutional archives) and Reader in Scottish History.

Cant, as teacher, mentor and friend, was of immense importance in shaping Bob’s archival and historical endeavours. When Ronald Cant retired in 1974, Bob became Keeper of Muniments, as well as Keeper of Manuscripts, posts which he held until his own retirement in September 1995. It was entirely fitting that in January 1996 he was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University that he had served so wholeheartedly.

But the bare details of his employment do no justice to the immense contribution which Bob made to the University, to St Andrews, and to the various fields of study in which he engaged throughout – and following – his professional career. He was, for instance, a much admired teacher of palaeography to generations of history (and other) students; he was an authority on many aspects of local history, and on the history of photography, and lectured to societies and conferences across Scotland; he taught extra-mural classes and adult education classes on local history and other subjects, appeared on both radio and television discussing the history of the university and its collections; he mounted and contributed to numerous exhibitions – local, national and international.

The riches of St Andrews’ manuscript collections are due in no small part to the enthusiastic and ambitious acquisition activities pursued by Bob Smart. They encompassed personal, business and many other records relating to the local area and the University, and were achieved through careful, diplomatically sensitive negotiations. The crowning glory must be the magnificent collection of historic photography, founded upon St Andrews’ own pre-eminent place in the early history of Scottish photography. Bob’s work in rescuing entire archives (including the huge collection of photography of Dundee firm James Valentine & Sons) from potential destruction became legendary within the Scottish archival community. His successor had a hard act to follow, but benefitted immensely from Bob’s generously shared knowledge of the University and its collections.

Bob’s CVincludes a long list of publications, intricately researched articles on aspects of the history of the town, the University, its collections, or photography. In retirement, however, he burst into life with tireless work on the alumni of the University of St Andrews. In 2004 the first fruits of that work – building on research he had been undertaking since the 1960s – was published in the magnificent volume, Biographical Register of the University of St Andrews, 1747-1897. With copious detail of almost 12,000 students, staff and others associated with the University, it was a monumental achievement which has proved (both in print, and now also in electronic form) an invaluable source of information for researchers across the globe. It was followed in 2012 by a companion volume with similarly detailed treatment of the period from 1579-1746, and at the time of his death Bob was in the final stages of preparation of a third volume, covering the earliest period, from 1410-1578. It was this last period which (with typical modesty), he once declared he would not attempt to tackle, because it would be impossible! It is to be hoped that it will indeed be published posthumously.

The influence of Bob’s colleague and mentor, Ronald Cant, could be detected in his academic and professional career. Like Cant, he seemed rarely to forget anything once learnt, and many years after retirement could still provide information in response to queries, with minute detail, about the whereabouts of snippets of information in the collections. Also following in Cant’s footsteps, his knowledge of the history of St Andrews and beyond was boundless, and always generously shared.

It was thus appropriate that when Ronald Cant died (on Hogmanay, 1999) Bob became a founding Trustee of the Strathmartine Trust, set up under the terms of Cant’s will, to encourage the study of Scottish History. He succeeded as Chairman of the Trust in 2005, and guided its affairs judiciously until retiring from the Trust in 2013, after which he continued to visit the Strathmartine Centre almost every week to maintain the cataloguing of its library, until only a few months before his death. It is another institution which owes a huge debt to the quiet, modest, hard work of Bob Smart. In messages received following the announcement of Bob’s death, there is a common thread of appreciation of his generous spirit, and of his deep and eagerly shared knowledge – “an old-school archivist – in the very best sense of the word”.

Bob was also a loving family man, and will be greatly missed by his wife Veronica, his daughters Anna and Mary, his grandchildren and other family members.

Norman Reid & Barbara Crawford