Friday, 29 January 2016

SGN Visit to RCAHMS


Our first visit for 2016 was to the Search Room of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), now part of Historic Environment Scotland which incorporates both the old RCAHMS and Historic Scotland.

On our arrival we were greeted by Philip Graham who showed us to the Search Room and introduced us to the wealth of material held there. RCAHMS holdings include:

  • The National Collection of Aerial Photography – buildings, city scapes, archaeological sites - not just of UK sites but worldwide, dating back to the 1920s (needs an appointment to view)
  • Photographs - around 2.5 million – from early glass slides in the 1850s to present day, town centres to historic houses and monuments, including images taken for Country Life some of which were not actually featured in the magazine
  • Drawings – over 2 million, dating from the 17th century to the present day, including architects plans for houses
  • Digital Collections – 3D digitisation is currently being used to record Scottish world heritage sites, and scan buildings
  • Books – about 25,000 – providing information on archaeology, architecture, places, memorials etc.
  • Original Manuscripts
  • Old Maps

In his talk Philip focused especially on information that might be useful to us as genealogists, and demonstrated how, although it is not possible to search their database for a family name (apart from specific collections), some very interesting information can be found about the places that those families would have lived – old maps, photographs of buildings, changes in areas over time, family photograph albums some dating back to the 1700s (of which they have over 500, some with family names included), and drawings of monuments and gravestones some dating from the 1600s.

We were shown historic and recent photographs of the same place eg: a series of 6 photographs of the east end of Princes Street showing the changes over time in the use of the roof of the Waverley Market – gardens, car park, shops etc., and photographs of old buildings before, during and after renovation, along with architects floor plans. We could all imagine how thrilled descendants would be to see that sort of information about the places their ancestors had lived and worked, and some of the places mentioned were currently being researched by members of the group.

We were then taken to the Print Room where we gazed in awe at the old books on the shelves – eager to get our hands on them. These were not available for public browsing but could be produced if requested. There we were shown a number of fascinating items including albums of gravestones photographed by Betty Willsher in the late 1900s; a family history scrapbook belonging to Thomas Davidson (a palaeontologist in 1817) with scraps, watercolours, notes and plans; a box of photographs and drawings of  Archaeological sites – part of the Collection of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland; copies of property sale documents; and postcard collections.

Before we left we had a short time to browse the collections ourselves and left vowing to return very soon. Our thanks go to Philip for a really interesting and helpful afternoon.  

The Search Room is open Tuesday to Friday (9.30am -5pm) and there is always a member of staff available to assist. Browse 700,000 boxed photographic prints, 24,000 library books, 60 series of journals and periodicals and 3,700 maps, search the catalogue on a computer terminal, or request items which will be delivered at 12 noon on the day (or order in advance from the online catalogue). A copier is available, high resolution prints can be purchased, and licences can be obtained for their use if required (price list online).

The RCAHMS website http://www.rcahms.gov.uk/ (will be changing in April 2016) allows access to eight different databases the main one being Canmore, but also SCRAN, the Buildings at Risk Register, Pastmap, HLAmap, Scotlands Places, Britain Above and The National Collection of Aerial Photography. From within Canmore a number of photographic collections and family albums can be viewed online.

Report by Scottish Genealogist Lorraine Stewart of Kincardineshire Ancestors

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