What Madeline Smith Did in the Bushes

March 1, 2001

Lured by the offer of mince pies and wine as well as revelationsas to what Madeleine Smith did in the bushes, about 80 people attended the talkby Dr Ishbel Barnes, Managing Director of the Scottish Archive Network, on‘Automating Scotland’s Archives – Extending Access to Scotland’s LegalHistory & Records of Government’.

Scotland owns a magnificent archival heritage. Amongst its mostimportant records are those relating to government and the process of law. Theseenshrine traditions of democracy and access to justice and ensure that suchtraditions can be handed on to future generations. IT is now to play anincreasingly important role.

Every year more and more people visit archives in Scotland. In1999, 12,500 people consulted the National Archives in Register House inEdinburgh, a 7% increase on the previous year, and others visited or madeinquiries of many of Scotland’s other archive deposits elsewhere. But accessto information is often hampered because of a lack of knowledge of whatinformation is available, because much of it is centralised in Edinburgh, andbecause existing hard-copy catalogues can be difficult to use.

Since August 1999, work has been going on to create an onlineresource to overcome such difficulties and to make information about archiveholdings more readily accessible. The Scottish Archive Network, under thedirection of Dr Barnes, has been working to produce standardised electronicversions of top-level finding lists (the catalogues or lists that describe theoverall holdings) initially of all participating 48 Scottish archives, and laterof archives outside Scotland holding Scottish material. Each top-level finding aid will be marked up to show whether moredetailed level catalogues are available and in what form. Where participatingarchives already have a Web site, hypertext links will be provided at this levelto their own electronic search rooms.

The Network will also provide online a Knowledge Base onScottish History and Archives distilling the knowledge of the staffs ofparticipating archives, a Book Shop, Exhibitions, an Electronic DiscussionForum, Notice boards, etc.

SCAN is also working on The Testaments Project with the aim ofautomating the indexes of the Register of Testaments or Wills from 1500 to 1875and to link the index entry to the electronic image of the will to which itrefers. There are approximately475,000 index entries of persons, places, occupations and dates which willbecome searchable electronically. There are about 3.3. million images to bedigitised. Copies will be providedelectronically or on paper, for a fee.

Few people can easily read 16th or 17th century documents, soSCAN is developing an online palaeography course and may, indeed, considerdeveloping an associated legal Latin course. Other candidates for digitisationof interest to the legal profession are the Register of Sasines (conveyancingdeeds) and the Books of Council and Session (register of deeds and probativewrits).

The work of SCAN is being carried out with a grant of £4m fromThe National Lottery Fund and with the support of the Genealogical Society ofUtah who are contributing 13 people to the digitalisation programme.

With Freedom of Information just around the corner, archiveservices across Scotland are set to play a vital part in providing the citizenwith access to essential evidence about central government, local authoritiesand other public bodies. The SCAN project comes at precisely the right time tofacilitate this. It has become a world leader in digital imaging and archivenetworking. It has been accepted as the prototype for the proposed UK archivenetwork and has been given half a million pounds by the European Commission todevelop a basis for a European Archive Network.

Alas, and alack, as happens at all the best presentations,gremlins dogged the speaker as she tried to take us live into that part of thesite which, had we gained entry, would have revealed what Madeline Smith did inthe bushes. Could it have been any worse, we asked ourselves, than what she didin her notorious cups of cocoa? And, now you come to mention it, had those mincepies, at the start of the evening, a slightly funny taste to them?

For further information about SCAN, go to www.scan.org.uk;for more about The National Archives of Scotland, go to www.nas.gov.uk.John Sibbald is Chairman of SSCL.