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Sally Chalmers - Community Archive Conference, Stornoway

Sally Chalmers, Outreach and Engagement Trainee, Midlothian Council

On 13 June, I joined the group of intrepid archivists boarding the tiniest plane in Edinburgh and we made the quick journey north to Lewis for Tasglannan Coimhearsnachd: Cothroman agus Dùbhlain (Community Archives: Opportunities and Challenges).

The conference took place over two days. We spent the first at the amazing Lews castle; A recently renovated Victorian mansion house which now houses the museum and archive in a newly build extension.

The day began with John Chambers, the Chief Executive of ARA giving us an introduction to the Community Archives and Heritage Group. Though possessing an unfortunate acronym CAHG does amazing work connecting and advising community archives and is growing its presence in Scotland. We then heard from other inspiring speakers discussing their projects involving archives and communities. Amy McDonald and Naomi Harvey told us more about the Scotland Sounds project. It was fantastic to catch up with Naomi and hear about her interesting work as she was formerly the trainee at Midlothian Council Archive and I still occasionally get referred to as ‘the new Naomi’. Next up was Annie MacSween from Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society). A consummate story teller, Annie captivated us with the origins of the Comainn Eachdraidh movement, the work of CE Nis and its incredible achievements. We then heard about a regional ethnology study being conducted in Dumfries and Galloway. It was particularly enlightening to hear about the study from the perspective of a volunteer. Dr Jan Merchant then gave us a talk on the oral history work conducted at University of Dundee.

After an incredible lunch including a particularly notable inspiring platter of #archivecake we heard from our hosts Seonaid McDonald and Shona MacLellan. It was great to hear more about the varied outreach work Shona has been doing and the ways it has benefited the development of the archive service. We then heard from a fellow Skills for the Future Project at National Galleries Scotland. A group of six trainees are working with NGS to digitise everything from fragile books to giant artworks. Last but not least was a presentation by Highland Archives on the work of Am Baile and an overview of digitisation.

On the second day, we all boarded a coach, tea and pastries in hand and drove out to visit the Commun Eachdriedh Nis in the north of Lewis. The CE Nis has its own community owned site with an archive, museum, cafe and shop. We were given a quick but knowledgeable introduction to the archive and tour of the museum by Annie MacSween. I was particularly impressed with a selection of artworks inspired by world war one photographs the CE Nis had commissioned from a local artist. They were really something special to see. Then with Annie at the lead we all piled back onto the bus and she took us for a whistle stop tour of Ness which included the lighthouse at the butt of Lewis, and the obligatory black pudding stop. We headed back to the CE Nis for an amazing afternoon tea. The afternoon included a tour of Lewis sights including the beautiful Gearrannan Blackhouse Village where we got to see a live Harris Tweed making demonstration and the mysterious Callanish Stones. The tour ended with a Gaelic sing along.

This was a fantastic event that not only demonstrated the amazing community and archive projects happening across Scotland but also clearly showed the ways in which the people of Lewis had sought to make their heritage accessible to the community from the grassroots activity of the CE Nis to the new heritage centre at Lews Castle. I left inspired to work more with our community archives. Since returning from the conference I have been to visit a local community archive and we are planning a box making workshop to help our local history societies manage their collections. I hope we can work with and support more community heritage projects in the future.