The Church’s vast records could not always be taken for granted. Today, Catholics around the world can enjoy access to the world’s largest collection of records – from parish births to the founding documents of nations.
Scotland’s, however, were nearly lost twice: once to the fires of the Reformation and another to the waters of the Seine.
Scotland’s priests, which one can imagine had acted in a panicked haste to save them from destruction, had managed to move many of the Church’s documents out of Scotland during the Reformation. Quite the risk, they found safety across the water in France where the Scottish Church had a college.
That safety was jeopardised during the French Revolution. In a bout of anti-Church sentiment common during the uprisings, Paris revolutionaries chucked Scotland’s records in the river. Again, panicked priests had to wad through the water to save them.
After the return of the Scottish hierarchy in 1878, the records could return to their home. For close to a century, it would not be civil upheaval which would threaten them, but wood lice, damp, or ordinary wear-and-tear.
‘Some of them were in terrible condition,’ said Donna Maguire, the archivist for the Scottish Church, with many books being ‘held together with gaffer tape which had to be painstakingly take them off.’
A large part of the archives’ work is the gruellingly slow process of digitalising their incredibly vast collection. Without it, much of Scotland’s Catholic history would be lost.
And its not just Catholics who would have suffered if that were to be the case.
“There’s a huge amount of Scotland’s social history here,” Mrs Maguire said.
Currently, Mrs Maguire is collecting the records of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SSVP), which have already given great insights into the history of poor-relief in Scotland.
The records of Celtic-founder Br Walfrid are held there also. It is not common policy to host the documents of religious orders – but the alternative was sending them to England.
For Catholics, though, there is a wealth of family history that should not be overlooked. This process of digitalisation means it not only will not be lost, but will become far more accessible for ordinary Catholics through a partnership with Find My Past.
The work to create the archives began in 1954, when Fr William Anderson began to collect the Blairs College archive. The historical collections – prior to the hierarchy’s restoration in 1878 – are currently on a 30-year loan to the University of Aberdeen, and include letters from Robert Burns and Mary Queen of Scots.
Scotland sets a precedent for record keeping in the Church. The Scottish Catholic Directory, in fact, is the longest continually-running in the Catholic world.
Perhaps a victim of its own success, the Edinburgh premises have long been too small to host such a vast collection. The archives are in the process of moving to Orr Street, Glasgow, which will hopefully be completed in August.
If you would like to use the Scottish Catholic Archives visit here.