Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Archives exhibition at the Scottish Parliament - report

Holyrood rebranded (temporarily!)
Yesterday I had the great pleasure to participate at an exhibition in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, organised superbly by Ben Bradshaw and Victoria Brown on behalf of the Scottish Council on Archives ( The exhibition was a private event held in the Members' Lobby of the building, for the perusal of MSPs and other parliamentary workers, and was designed to raise the awareness of, and to celebrity the rich diversity of, the vast range of materials and resources to be found across Scotland's archives.

Over the three days of the exhibition (Tuesday-Thursday), there are three major themes being tackled by the SCA team - Ancestral Tourism, Business Archives and Digital Continuity. A few months ago I was asked to become one of the directors of the Scottish Archive Network, and so partly in that capacity, but mainly with regards to the main day job as a genealogist, I was asked to come along to act as an 'expert' on the exhibition booth on the Ancestral Tourism day - basically to answer questions asked by anybody willing to ask! There's a great deal of potential in the ancestral tourism area within Scotland just now - in 2012 we had 800,000 visitors to Scotland, but that is expected to rise to 4.3 million in the next five years, with a dramatic projected increase in revenue from £100 million to some £2.5 billion. Yes, people do want to come to Scotland for a game of golf and a wee dram - but increasingly they also want to find out if their ancestors did the same! To help them do that, the archive sector is crucial, because it is the nation's guardian when it comes to personal heritage. It quite literally has all the answers - or at least those have survived the last few centuries.

Irene and Gerry
The day had been carved into a series of two hour slots, and I was involved in the last one from 3.00pm-5.00pm, alongside the major force in the Scottish archive world that is Dr Irene O'Brien. Many will know Irene as an archivist at Glasgow City Archives, but she also works hard on behalf of the Scottish archive community as the chair of the Scottish Council on Archives. We arrived to take over from George Mackenzie, former Registrar General and now chair of the Ancestral Tourism Steering Group, and Natalie Summers, ancestral marketing manager at Visit Scotland. Also present when I arrived was Dr Gerry Slater, who had previously given great service to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, and who now acts as policy advisor to the SCA - and who gave me some great background information at one point about a recent find in my research at PRONI concerning letters between one of my lot and the first PM of Northern Ireland, James Craig! It transpired the slot prior to ours had been a bit quiet - mainly because Nicola Sturgeon had just announced the nationalisation of Prestwick Airport, keeping our elected representatives busy! - but there had been a few members popping over to say hello.

Ben and Roseanna Cunningham MSP
The first hour or so was fairly quiet - a small number of MSPs walked out of the chamber at one point, with Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon telling us she would pop back when she had a chance! We spoke to several parliamentary workers, and then none other than Roseanna Cunningham MSP for Perthshire South and Kinross (and Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs) suddenly appeared to have a look at the exhibits and a chat. It transpired that Roseanna had quite an interest in things historical, and had in the last few days visited Innerpeffray Library near Crieff, which she waxed lyrical about - she was particularly impressed with the Borrowers Register there listing all of those who had borrowed books from the facility between 1747-1968. She is also a huge fan of Blipfoto, and takes images every day to place online on her site, so Ben and Roseanna in particular had some fun trying to choose the best image for her daily entry - see the result at (she enthusiastically tweeted later that the SCA had been "blipped"!). It transpires that both Roseanna and Mike Russell are keen users of the Blipfoto site, and she told us how she was planning at the end of the year to get a book printed with images from each day of the year as a form of photographic archive and journal for herself - great idea.

The main flood of interest emerged though when MSPs returned to the chamber in the evening to vote. Although we were due to finish at 5pm, the voting session was just ending, so we stayed for a bit longer - and then they came out, enthusiastic MSPs in attack formation! With the day's business out of the way, several members came over to have a chat. In particular I had a great conversation with Paul Wheelhouse MSP for the South of Scotland, who has been keenly pursuing his family history for some time. He told me how impressed and helpful the Hawick Heritage Hub ( had been with his ancestral research, and how useful ScotlandsPeople ( had been also, and continues to be. He also mentioned that he had a bit of a situation in Northern Ireland to resolve, with a family member who had moved over from England to there in the 19th century. If only a Northern Irish born family historian was to hand...! I gave him a few steers, but the key thing I got from the conversation was just how appreciative he was of the various developments happening in Scotland just now - particularly with the integrated hubs linking registrar's offices to archives, such as that at the Burns Monument Centre in Kilmarnock and at Hawick. It is truly one of the key ways forward to help develop the growing ancestral tourism market here, by the further integration of access to resources for visitors (and not forgetting us living here!), and it was great to see the recent initiative to do this being so well appreciated.

Thanks Jean!
Eventually we finished just after 5.30pm, with the job done for the day. Special thanks must go to Jean Urquhart MSP who has sponsored the event in her name, and to all those who have helped so far and will be continuing to help for the final two days. It was a privilege to be able to help out, and I look forward to the growing success of our country's efforts to help get the message out there!

If you are a business wishing to find out more about ancestral tourism plans, check out my blog post at for details of a series of workshops coming shortly across the country from Tourism Intelligence Scotland, a partnership of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and VisitScotland.

(With thanks to Ben Bradshaw, Victoria Brown and Gary Cocker)

UPDATE: George Mackenzie and Irene O'Brien both have articles in today's Scotsman on the theme of ancestral tourism and archives - for George's visit, for Irene's visit


My latest book, Discover Scottish Civil Registration Records, is now available from (print) and (ebook), whilst Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet is available at My next Pharos Scottish course, Scotland 1750-1850: Beyond the OPRs, starts Nov 13th - see

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