Oh, Mum! The face was lit up. The eyes were shining. “It was… “ Big intake of breath… “A-mazing!” This outburst came from my eldest daughter following her first day on “work experience” in a historical archive – and given that the average teenager is not a creature given to outbursts of publicly demonstrated enthusiasm I had to take her expression of unalloyed delight pretty seriously. Not that I was surprised. The archive she was talking about wasn’t any old archive. Dr Caroline Brown had given Millie permission to have a stint helping out with some sorting and filing at the extraordinary treasure trove that sits beneath the floor of the main Tower Building at the University of Dundee.
Caroline and her fellow archivist Jan Merchant and the team run a crack operation down there in the basement – an impeccably organised and arranged wealth of material that takes in historical documents recording the city’s development and change, an internationally regarded photographic collection and a whole swathe of pictorial and hand written and drawn and typed and printed paperwork, records and drawings of national, cultural importance. Millie was excited because she’d been able to “wear the white gloves” as she put it, on her first day on the job to handle some 18th century correspondence between an artist and librarian and file it away in acid free paper. I saw, in her expression and delight at performing this simple but important task, how the seeds for historical research and the imagination had been lit up all at once – she’s now a university student studying history at Edinburgh – at the touch of papers and documents preserved from another age.
I was thinking about all this because last night I was down there myself with Caroline and Pat and fellow teachers and students on our writing programme at Dundee celebrating The Carnoustie Golf Club 1842-2017, a detailed and riveting account that tells of the history of golf clubs in Scotland and their replication across the world. Riveting? Golf clubs? Really? Golf anything, for that matter? After all, this is one reporting on the fact who has no interest whatsoever in any sports – less still a game that involves hours of trailing around artificially created versions of countryside versions following a clutch of – mainly male – participants in argyle jumpers themselves in pursuit of a small white ball. Yet riveting and detailed the book is. For, written by sportsman Donald Ford in association with the archive team, it’s an account made dramatic, given legs and clubs, if you like, given…character…by the wealth of factual material that sits at its base. Here is a story written from, created out of, an archive – that shows in itself how that process of discovery, delving into papers from the past, might be a narrative in its own right. I may have no interest in golf but to be down there amongst the history of the book, surrounded by its ballast, was to feel oneself being drawn into its world. The “amazing!” factor again, you see. That “white glove” feeling.
What a resource! No wonder our writing students love nothing more than their sessions down there in the basement with the archive team. I’ve lost track of the number of stories and poems that have all started with an afternoon being introduced to the past by way of material that exists in the present. We should surely tour the Eastern seaboard in America, promoting golf and the university archive at the same time. For this is just one of the many, many stories waiting to be brought to the surface in a good essay or novel or drama or historical account.
Scotland is one big archive of course. Our tourist industry is largely there to serve a constituency of far-flung Scots – those who regard themselves as such, no matter how many years they’ve lived abroad in places like Canada and Australia and New Zealand and America – as well as those vast numbers from the same countries who can trace back a great great great granny who was once from one part of the Highlands or Islands or Lowlands or another. The idea that we might make resources such as the one that we have at Dundee available to visitors is intriguing in its simplicity. Surely the research factor is as attractive an element on the tourist trail, as sell-able on the tourist trail as the Loch Ness Monster and Distillery Open Days? Imagine if we could promote the concept of “Archive” as part of the Scottish experience. So you like golf? Well, don’t just come to St Andrews, find out where it started down here in the stacks in Dundee! Think your father’s family in Fife might have once had a mad uncle in the attic? Look into the history of the local asylum and put facts into the fiction. Really, the whole idea has investment written all over it.
And talking of valuable local treasure, and staying in Dundee, word on the street is that the historic Queen’s Hotel – just across the road from the university as it happens – is up for sale. Not the Queen’s! That grand Victorian building with its turrets and towers and wide high ceilinged hall and central stair, its bedrooms with double windows that look out across to the Discovery ship and down the length of the Tay… Here is a singular establishment that reaches back in its bricks and mortar and manner to a Scotland of another time. How many tourists have I seen stopping to pore over the letter sent by Winston Churchill to the hotel after one of his many stays in one of the second floor suites – more heritage there, you see. More of that past that we’re so very good at celebrating and revering.
Or are we? The worry is that if the Queen’s Hotel is sold, its character will change. Its current director, owner Gordon Sneddon, with his team of dedicated and deeply committed staff – from front-of-house receptionist Julie Knox – who, to my mind, with her organisational skills and sheer sense of proactive insight, could run the whole country – to manager Sean Auchterlonie, who is the definition of thoughtfulness and professionalism, both…They and everyone who works there has a feeling for the place as being distinctive, with a particular sort of period charm that you simply can’t replicate.
If I was in the tourist industry – and having written this piece this week I rather wish I were – I would create a whole gorgeous package for visitors based on a stay at the Queen’s, meeting Sean and Julie and everyone, and spending days down in the archive across the road, researching what could be a best-selling novel set at the height of the jute industry.
Then I’d send them off to buy a copy of Donald Ford’s history to take home to Connecticut to show to their golf-playing friends and tell them that they ought to come to Scotland too. Forget all that moaning about the cheviot and the stag and lack of black, black oil. We’ve just got to look a bit harder at what lies beneath our feet.