Scotland secures historic ‘crown jewels’


A major collection of historic documents regarded as one of Scotland’s ‘crown jewels’ by record keepers, has been secured for the national archive, Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop announced today.

The Melville papers containing around 11,000 records that span 150 years in Scottish history, has been acquired on behalf of the public by the National Records of Scotland (NRS).

The papers had been on long-term loan to NRS since 1951, until the Melville family decided to offer them for sale.

The purchase of the papers was funded by £725,000 from the Scottish Government, and £625,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The £1.35m overall cost includes a discount agreed with the Melville family.

Ranging from 1775 to 1830, the core papers include the private records of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811), and his son Robert, 2nd Viscount (1771-1851). Both were – in all but name – Secretaries of State for Scotland and had a strong involvement in the government of India, and in the administration of the Admiralty and the Royal Navy.

The Dundases, Viscounts Melville, were the dominant political family in Scotland for 50 years until 1830. Their most famous and controversial member was Henry Dundas, whose statue still stands at the top of the column in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh.

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, said:

“This collection is of enormous importance and value to Scotland. It provides rich detail about the history of our people and our place in the wider world, and gives a fascinating view of Scotland’s government and politics at a critical period in our history.

“There are very few important politicians and military and naval men of the time who did not have dealings with the Dundases. Their influence over the government, politics and society of Scotland was extensive – and their legacy lives on Scottish public life today, in our street names, our statues and now, in this public collection.”

George MacKenzie, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said:

“Today’s announcement secures the long-term future of this incredible collection. Had we not acquired it for Scotland’s archive, the papers would have been sold at auction at a price beyond the public purse and broken up and dispersed across the world. We are enormously grateful that the Melville family offered us the first chance to acquire the collection when they decided to sell it.

“The Melville papers have been extensively used by the public since they were first loaned to us, and now that they’re in public ownership, we’ll be working hard to make them even more widely available.”

Colin McLean from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, said:

“This is wonderful news.  As such prominent political figures, the archives of both the 1st and 2nd Viscounts Melville offer a fascinating insight into some of the 18th and 19th centuries’ most monumental moments in our history.  Charting the American Revolution and War of Independence and the nation’s struggle against Napoleon, the trustees of National Heritage Memorial Fund felt this archive was of such historical importance it must be safeguarded for future generations.”

Related information:

National Records of Scotland is a Non-Ministerial Department of the Scottish Government.  It holds and gives access to the nation’s archives, oversees the registration of births, marriages and deaths, produces statistics on Scotland’s population and conducts the Scottish Census. It is a centre of expertise on data handling, record keeping and archives.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) is the ‘fund of last resort’ and receives annual grant-in-aid from the UK Government. It was set up in 1980, to save the most outstanding parts of our national heritage, in memory of those who have given their lives for the UK. NHMF will receive £20m grant-in-aid from the Government between 2011 and 2015 allowing for an annual budget of £4m-£5m.

Highlights from the Melville papers include:

  • Correspondence showing the ways in which the Dundases tried to control the Scottish electoral system, 1775-1830.
  • Henry Dundas’s view of the significance of his job as ‘Manager’ of Scotland, and his system for running it.
  • The reaction of the Dundases and their allies to the attempts by the Scottish people to reform the political system, including a letter discussing the massacre at Tranent in August 1797. 
  • A letter of Adam Smith, author of the Wealth of Nations, 1779 advocating free trade with Ireland.
  • A copy of the journal of Admiral George Cockburn with a full account of Napoleon’s last journey into exile on St Helena, 1815.
  • Correspondence and papers concerning Henry Dundas’s government of East India, 1784-1801, including the extraordinary story of his mixed-race niece, Mary, born in 1769.
  • The last letter Henry Dundas ever wrote, on the eve of his death, 1811.

Supporting quotes from historians:

Professor Daniel Szechi, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Manchester, said:

“News of the acquisition of the complete archive of the Melville papers by the NRS will delight historians of Scotland.  The Dundas family were at the heart of Scottish and British politics for most of the eighteenth century (that most critical period in the history of Scotland), and Henry Dundas, the most famous, successful – and notorious – of the Dundases, was the Grand Manager (to his enemies, the Great Tyrant) of Scotland for nearly thirty years.

“Henry Dundas also dominated the East India Company and used his power to open that most lucrative theatre of empire to ambitious young Scotsmen, massively expanding Scotland’s connection with India and locking the nation’s fortunes into Britain’s global empire.  The NRS is to be heartily commended for acquiring this superb historical collection.”

Professor Richard Finlay, Professor of Scottish History at the University of Strathclyde, said:

“This is a major coup for the NRS. These papers are not only of great historical significance for our understanding of Scottish history, but will also be invaluable to scholars researching imperial and diplomatic history. The papers cast a considerable amount of light on the expansion of the British state and empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by giving us an insight into the activities of one of the key architects of the projection of British world power in this era.

“Henry Dundas was a man who was at the centre of a web of patronage that cast itself around the earth. The Dundas dynasty was Scotland’s greatest and most powerful political family since the Stuart monarchy.”

Dr Andrew McKillop, Department of History, King’s College, University of Aberdeen, said:

“As an academic working on the political and imperial histories of post-Union Scotland, I am delighted to hear of the news that the National Records of Scotland have acquired the Melville Papers. The Scottish Government, and the National Heritage Memorial Fund are to be congratulated for their generosity and foresight in helping to preserve in Scotland the papers of a family who are absolutely central to the modern History of Scotland, Britain, and indeed many other countries across the globe that then comprised Britain’s empire.

“It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of both the Dundas of Melville family and the historical record they have bequeathed. This is no ordinary collection of family papers, but a historical treasure trove of genuinely international significance which brings scholars from all over the world to the National Records of Scotland.”

Dr Alexander Murdoch, Senior Lecturer in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“The National Records of Scotland, the Scottish Government and the National Heritage Memorial Fund have helped ensure that the major holdings of the papers of Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville and his son Robert remain in Scotland.  Henry Dundas’s importance in the cabinets of William Pitt, as a crucial figure in history of the expansion of British influence in India and in the foundation of what became the British empire are unquestioned.

“The archive demonstrates the global significance of Scots in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and makes possible further research into the influence of this on the development of both Britain and Scotland in the nineteenth century.  Acquisition of this collection for the nation confirms and enhances the National Records of Scotland as an archive of major international importance.”