Catherine Salmond: Time to bring Scotland's past into the present

EXACTLY 690 years ago to the day, a gathering of Scottish noblemen drew up what remains the most celebrated and stirring document this country has ever produced.

The Declaration of Arbroath needs no introduction. Despite the decline in history teaching in recent times, every school child still knows, surely, about this article of faith in Scottish independence.

Like the United States' Declaration of Independence, this defiant refusal to accept the yoke of subservience to England takes pride of place in our national history.

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But there the similarity with its American counterpart ends.

For unlike US citizens, most Scots have never so much as glanced at this historic document, save in reprints in books, or on postcards, T-shirts and ties.

Buried in the depths of the National Archives of Scotland, in Edinburgh, the original letter is seldom put on public display. It is a state of affairs that rankles with some historians.

"In the US, the Declaration of Independence is on show," explains historian Owen Dudley-Edwards, from Edinburgh University. "There is even a plan that in the event of nuclear war, the director of the (US) National Archives building will press a button and the document will recede into the earth. There, the Martians will find it many years later.

"We could make a point about the Declaration of Arbroath here – it, too, should be on show in Scotland."

Similarly, in Dublin, one of Ireland's great treasures, the original of the ancient Book of Kells, is on public display, in carefully controlled conditions, in Trinity College Library.

The Declaration of Arbroath, though, is far from alone when it comes to Scotland's historic treasures being difficult to see.

There are thousands of precious historical artefacts hidden away for safe-keeping, rarely seeing the light of day.

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The National Galleries of Scotland has about 31,000 items of historic interest in its stores, while a further 1.8 million artefacts are held by the country's many universities, most of which have never been viewed by the public.

Even more pieces of historic significance are held in government buildings and by state-owned banks, including Royal Bank of Scotland.

From priceless works of art to relics from our scientific past, the list is staggering,

so could archivists do more to make sure the public can more fully enjoy Scotland's heritage and understand more about our country's past in the process?

Mr Dudley-Edwards argues yes. "Preservation always has to come first, but we are talking about raising Scottish consciousness here," he says.

For some people, the thought of coming face-to-face with such central pieces of Scotland's past is the stuff of dreams.

Among these items, stored deep in the archives of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, is a letter Mary, Queen of Scots wrote just six hours before she was beheaded.

In her own handwriting, it is possible to read her address to Henri III, King of France, in which she explains that she is dying a religious martyr and begs him to ensure her servants' wages are paid after her death.

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In another of the library's secure boxes, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible – one of the first ever printed books, thought to be worth 20m – can be found, while the original handwritten order for the 1692 massacre at Glencoe sits in another.

"The reality is preservation has to come first," says Bruce Blacklaw, of the National Library of Scotland, where 15 million pieces are stored and exhibited. "For items that are made from paper, there can be many problems. Prolonged opening of a book is not good for its spine, for instance. Letters can also be problematic so, if there is a risk of harm, exposure of original items is not always possible."

It took a team of specialist scientists from Heriot-Watt University to create a sealed display case for the Declaration of Arbroath before it was allowed out for a short public showing in 2005.

The case was filled with a low-oxygen atmosphere to ensure no damage was done to the document as it went on show in the Scottish Parliament for a week, along with the 14th century Ayr Manuscript and the Lbeck letter, issued by William Wallace in 1297.

It shows that wider viewing of these precious artefacts is possible, albeit potentially costly and challenging.

RBS hoards a vast, multi-million pound collection of art, bought in the bank's heyday, comprising 4,000 pieces.

Now, following the government's rescue of the bank, RBS has promised to exhibit its collection to the public in a wide-range of venues. Among the pieces is the 1759 portrait of banker John Campbell, the bank's chief official during the 1745 uprising, which has been offered as a loan to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for its reopening in 2011.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was just the first step into a glorious exploration of our wonderful national heritage?


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• The Declaration of Arbroath (1320): National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh

• Mary, Queen of Scots' last ever letter (1587): National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

• Contemporary portrait of banker John Campbell, the Royal Bank of Scotland's chief official during the 1745 uprising: The Royal Bank of Scotland

• Robert Burns' original manuscript for Holy Willie's Prayer (1785): National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

• The Articles of the 1707 Union: National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh

• The original handwritten order for the Massacre of Glencoe (1692): National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

• Copperplate map of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island produced for the 1895 memorial 'Edinburgh edition' of his works: National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh