Splitting up Catholic archives is a disaster for historians

OVER the past ten years or so, I have been a regular user of the Scottish Catholic Archives at Drummond Place and a frequent depositor of archival material, researching the history of the Scotland as it was affected by the Catholic community.

At Columba House it is possible, for example, to examine how extreme Protestants disrupted the Eucharistic Congress at Edinburgh in 1935 and how the people of the city reacted. Some of my research was also into the Irish community in the Cowgate and I discovered exactly how Canon Edward Hannan at St Patrick's took a group of young Irish footballers and turned them into what would become Hibernian Football Club.

At Drummond Place I had the privilege of meeting scholars from Scotland and from many other parts of the world and discussing their work, learning from them and exchanging information.

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Imagine my surprise the other day to learn that the respected Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission (SCHC), that "advises the Bishops' Conference of Scotland in the preservation of all aspects of Scottish Catholic Heritage at home and abroad", had decided to sell the ground under my feet, split the wonderful collection of documents dating from the twelfth century and disperse it, half to a new facility still to be built at Aberdeen University and half to a recently converted Glasgow convent in a leafy suburb south of the Clyde. Is this preservation or demolition?

How could the SCHC who, I understood, always valued and supported the work of Columba House, get it so wrong? Had they forgotten what happened fifty years ago when four men – Mgr David McRoberts (born in Wishaw), Fr William Anderson (Glasgow), Dr Lesley McFarlane (Aberdeen) and Dr John Durkan (Glasgow), all eminent historians and members of the Scottish Catholic Historical Association, made a hard-headed decision, based not on sentiment but on logic, to move the Catholic Archives from Aberdeen to Edinburgh as being the place where they had to be located for the SCA would now be within walking distance of the National Library of Scotland, the Scottish Record Office and the National Archives of Scotland and could create fruitful partnerships with these bodies.

And this soon proved the importance of keeping the national Catholic collection together as some of the rarest manuscripts and books were placed for safe-keeping in the National Library of Scotland.

If I could speak to the members of the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission, I would. But I don't even know who they are. We have no idea how the anonymous members of the SCHC arrived at their dangerous conclusions.

Now we are only a few months from the demolition and dispersal of the historic collection out of Edinburgh and Scottish historians can only shake their heads as they stare into the abyss.

• Michael TRB Turnbull, author

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