The State that Looks After Its Past

Ring of Brodgar

The stone circle at the Ring of Brodgar is a popular place for locals and tourists alike; entry is free.

My local newspaper, the Orcadian, recently ran an article about possible plans for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) to hand over the operation of the 33 HES sites in Orkney (including the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae) to the care of local Council as a result of funding problems. This was, of course, strenuously denied by HES, though they did say:

We are exploring options for managing site access at Maeshowe, as visitors currently have to cross a busy main road to get to the site and the safety of our visitors and staff is paramount.

Our board recently considered a proposal, and wish to discuss the project further with Orkney Islands Council when our new chief executive arrives in September.

We are reviewing short-term options at present… Any short-term impact on access to the site will not have any effect on jobs in Orkney or anywhere else in Historic Environment Scotland’. (HES Spokesperson, quoted in The Orcadian, 11.08.16, page 1).

This little story, albeit hidden within the pages of a very local newspaper, rings alarm bells with me.

Historic Environment Scotland is a new organisation formed from the merger of two previously existing organisations: Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. On the face of it little has changed: the key function is still to care for the remains of the past in Scotland (whether architectural or archaeological). But there are subtle changes, in ethos, if not in name. The HES website assumes that you know much about them already: their front pages invite you to explore the past and to shop, as well as download the corporate plan. Information ‘About Us’ is further down the menu, though there you learn that they are ‘the lead public body set up to investigate, care for and promote Scotland’s historic environment’.

Caring for the historic environment is, of course, the key element. Archaeological and historic remains are a fragile resource and looking after them is not easy. There are many competing demands on any modern society, for this reason, in most cases, the state sets up a body to make sure that the needs of ancient sites are not overlooked in the rush to provide for the world of today. It is a question of balancing competing demands. This is important business, and for it to work, a significant element must involve maintaining key sites for people to visit and learn about our past as well as providing opportunities for people to engage with the past in other ways. Only if we understand the past can we value it and maintain the collective desire to ensure the wellbeing of the traces of our ancestors.

It is not cheap, however.  There is a financial cost to looking after the past. Part of this lies in the time of expert staff, part in straightforward maintenance and monitoring costs. Something is required to help us understand the remains and something to learn how best to look after them.  Finally, we may need to compensate those whose daily activities can be affected, even curtailed, when priority is given to the needs of archaeology.

Sources for these funds can be hard to identify. In the long run it falls back on us, the nation, either through direct contributions or through taxation. One possible contribution comes through the entry fees paid by those who wish to visit those sites that have been laid out and interpreted. On the surface this seems to be an obvious ploy, but it is a dangerous one. Few sites generate enough income to cover the costs of staffing and maintaining them. Many sites are, in fact, free. If we start to expect that a site should pay its own way, should we then close those that do not? Should we leave them to the mercies of the elements and modern development?

Of course I am biased but my answer would be, emphatically, no!

In Scotland, the state still plays a key role in the care and presentation of the past and, in general, the system works very well. If this role were to be passed to local councils then we need to make sure that it is adequately resourced for the long term. To my mind this support can only come from the state; passing the practicalities to any other body will only increase the layers of management and, therefore, cost.

My fears are deeper though.

The remains of our past are important. Without them we lose our sense of heritage, our understanding of our place in the world. Without a past our cohesion as a community (or nation) is diminished. They understood this 5000 years ago in the Neolithic and for this reason they built great monuments to house and venerate the bones of the ancestors. They looked after these sites and occasionally they enhanced them. Today we might need the help of the state to recognize and maintain the remains of our past. But a state that does not look after its past is a frightening scenario.