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Beyond the Physical

Future-proofing Scotland’s Heritage in the Digital Age

Welcome to Historic Environment Scotland Archives’ Digital Projects 2021 Showcase! Join us in celebrating the end of a four-year project through which we have preserved and made available online over half a million items. Beyond the Physical will take you on a photo-illustrated journey through some of the newly available collections, presented under three themes: Preserving the Historic Environment, Under the Soil, and Hidden Treasures. We exhibit here some of our personal highlights, and explore how they help us interpret Scotland’s rich heritage from the early twentieth century to the present day. We also expand on one of our favourite collections, and along the way discuss the methods we have employed in our efforts to future-proof our heritage.

 Further images can be found in our related Canmore galleries, handpicked by the Digital Projects to support our Showcase: 

Discover the hidden treasures of Scotland’s historic environment, from archaeological surveys on the Outer Hebrides and excavations in East Lothian, to the vast power stations and estates dotted across our landscape, and everyday life in villages, towns and cities across Scotland. Uncover how methods of preservation have changed, and how archaeological practice has developed in the past century, through our Showcase material.

First, however, read on to hear personal insights from the Digital Projects team and discover their behind-the-scenes work!


Showcase Contents:

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The Digital Projects Team in Context

Digital Projects was formed in 2017, comprising a small team of HES Archives staff, with the dual aim of making HES Archives' collections accessible for all and strengthening our long-term preservation practises. We had two key remits: 

  • To digitise our at-risk physical collections that were previously uncatalogued or only available for consultation via our search room in Edinburgh.
  • To catalogue and make available our digital archive material deposited with us for inclusion in Scotland’s National Record for the Historic Environment.

This was in the context of major technological developments and an increasingly digital world. Archive material is now frequently ‘beyond the physical’ - the tangible forms of paper and vellum many associate with archives are now increasingly accompanied by digital surrogates created through digitisation, and digital is becoming the de facto format for contemporary records. Depositors are favouring optical media, flash storage and online transfers. How do we adapt to the changing nature and scale of Scottish heritage material? How can we use technological developments, such as digital photography and image scanning, to protect and share our collections?

With an awareness of the developing expectations of archive users in the 21st century, to overcome geographical boundaries by making archive material accessible online, and a desire to reduce our ‘invisible’ archives, we set to work.

Since our formation we have digitised 534,340 photographs, processed around 425,000 items and added over 377,600 items to the Digital Archive. In doing so, we have increased our archival material on Canmore by over 107%.

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A Timeline on Future-proofing Scotland’s Heritage

See our Timeline to take a peek into the past, to see what we’ve made available now and for the future. 

Come with us on a journey through time to learn more about the work of the Digital Projects, situated in the history of digital collections management at HES and its predecessor bodies. Our remit to record and preserve the historic environment began over one hundred years ago, in 1908, and we continue that work today. Our capability to catalogue and preserve our digital collections is enabled by the hard work of staff who advocated for, developed and implemented digital preservation processes and procedures over the last three decades. The continually changing nature of technology means digital preservation is never ‘solved’ and we are excited to keep improving and developing our digital collections management, to ensure our collections are as accessible as possible for as long as possible. 


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Preserving the Historic Environment

Processes, Practices and Procedures


HES and its predecessor bodies have been committed to the preservation of Scotland’s architectural, archaeological, maritime and industrial history for decades. Through listing, scheduling and other designations; the provision of grants and funding, advice and guidance; and through conservation, survey, recording, analysis and research, HES have protected and preserved Scotland’s historic environment for posterity. This work is driven by the dedicated staff whose skills, knowledge and expertise have ensured continued access to Scotland’s history through its historic sites and records.

The collections processed by Digital Projects show insights into this work, providing a peek into past conservation processes, acknowledging the time and effort from various staff and contractors over the years.

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Facing both the challenges and opportunities presented in the management of archival material in the 21st century, the Digital Projects team worked to ensure the preservation of our records. The digitisation of our collections reduces the need for physical consultation, and therefore helps maintain their longevity. Preparation for movement and digitisation also provided the opportunity to undertake any conservation work required on physical collections, facilitated by our in-house Conservation staff.

Alongside this, the team processed born-digital material submitted to HES Archives for inclusion in the National Record of the Historic Environment, which is material that is created in digital form, rather than converted from an analogue format. Through careful cataloguing we have better intellectual control over our born-digital archive holdings, and via ingest into our secure digital repository system we ensure the material is accessible for years to come, avoiding corruption and obsolescence. 

Check out our Preserving the Historic Environment Gallery to see staff at work at locations including Inchmahome Priory (SC 2075269), Brodie Castle (SC 2055342), and St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh (SC 2096478).  

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Under the Soil

Archaeology Then and Now


Our archive has collected archaeological records since 1908. We hold over 1.6 million items that record excavations, surveys, and research into Scotland’s historic environment. Over the past four years we have made a wealth of these archaeological records available online. We have digitised black and white photographs of excavations in Orkney and processed complex scanning data gathered in the 1990s. These records reveal Scotland’s history, hidden under the soil.

Our project has helped to document and show, through digital means, the changing nature of archaeology over the past century. We have digitised the records of women archaeologists such as Dr Mary Harman and Dr Joanna Close-Brooks. These archaeologists played a significant role in a profession often perceived as dominated by men, and their work helped shape our understanding of Scotland’s landscape.

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New technologies are transforming our picture of Scotland’s historic environment. Archaeologists now use techniques such as radar and 3D modelling to expand the understanding of our shared history. Preserving a digital archive requires new skills and expert knowledge. The project has collaborated with industry leaders to preserve these digital records for generations to come.



Our gallery includes some famous faces from the world of archaeology. Vere Gordon Childe, one of the best-known archaeologists of the twentieth century, can be seen sitting with a group of workmen during excavations at Skara Brae in 1930 (SC 973449). There is also a delightful image of Stuart Piggott and colleagues at Traprain Law (SC 1552203). Stuart Piggott published influential surveys of Scotland’s pre-history, and was recently portrayed by Ben Chaplin in Netflix’s The Dig. Visit the Under the Soil Gallery to see these and more.

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Hidden Treasures

Uncovering Stories in our Archives


Throughout our project we were able to dive deep into our archival records, both physical and digital. We worked with a wide variety of collections and project material, which enabled us to identify rare, unique and intriguing items in our archive.

Did you know – or can you remember – that Edinburgh hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 1972? It took place in the Usher Hall and marked the fourth Eurovision in the UK (the first in Scotland). As you can see in this amazing snapshot, the jury was housed in Edinburgh Castle. It may come as no surprise that photographs from this exciting occasion have made it into our Historic Scotland Photographic Library!

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In the intertidal zone on the island of Fuday, Barra, lies a mesmerising and elusive wreck. Most of the time the wreck is covered by white sand, only re-emerging in roughly 10-year intervals. In 2008 it re-emerged, this time exposing itself to a greater extent than locals had ever seen before. This led to Headland Archaeology Ltd heading out to do a survey and assessment of the wreck, and we subsequently have added much of the material from this activity to our Digital Archive. The wreck may be of Dutch origin and was provisionally dated to 1500-1650 at the time. We were struck by its beauty.



Our built environment is constantly changing around us – buildings are being constructed, renovated, changed and demolished. HES Archives holds numerous images that record these changes. For example, we were delighted to find an image within our Joe Rock collection that shows the construction of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh (SC 1932982). We also found images of the Macallan Distillery taken during a historic building survey by AOC Archaeology Group. The survey captured the now-redundant buildings before the current distillery was built.

To see more of our favourite discoveries, head to our Hidden Treasures Gallery.

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Case Study: The Scottish Development Department Collection

How the Public Helped to Enhance our Collection Knowledge


One of the biggest collections we digitised was that of the Scottish Development Department (SDD). This enthralling collection contains 69,000 photographs of both urban and rural areas throughout Scotland, providing a fascinating insight into life in the 1970s and 1980s. Images range from crofts in the Highlands to farms on Orkney; large estates in Fife to tenement buildings in Glasgow. Pub interiors, fashion trends and interior design choices are also documented. 

They’re an excellent resource, but until this project, only accessible with a physical trip to our search room in Edinburgh. In year two of our project the majority of the SDD collection was sent to an external unit nearby for digitisation, which had facilities to undertake the task at scale. Shortly after the return of digitised images we began adding them to our archive, making them viewable worldwide.

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Many of the photographs came with supporting information – ‘metadata’ – which allowed us to identify and title over 90% of the images, in the form of handwritten record sheets. Yet we faced a problem: over 5,000 of these photographs had no metadata. Where to go from here?

In May 2020 we launched a campaign to encourage members of the public to help us identify these unidentified images. To date, over 1,600 of these images have now been identified – and we are very grateful to all who helped us achieve this feat! We’ve also enjoyed the comments from our contributors, including: 

·         ‘Seeing photographs of days gone by can be so evocative, and take one on a trip down memory lane’

·         ‘By amazing coincidence I knew the man at the bar drinking a pint’

·          ‘Can I just add how much we are enjoying these photo mysteries'

·         'My Dad will be very pleased he could help!’



We have three galleries showcasing our SDD collection: HighlightsUnidentified Images, and Recently Identified Images.


For further information:

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Notable Collections Now Available

Collections digitised during the project:

  • Buildings of the Scottish CountrysideThis collection comprises of approximately 25,000 prints, taken during a survey of buildings of the Scottish countryside. 
  • Properties in Care Photo Library - This is a vast image library containing more than 250,000 images, which was used to manage photographs taken while caring for our properties over the twentieth century. We chose the best 50,000 images for digitisation.
  • Scottish Development Department - As part of their work, SDD investigators took photographs of the historic buildings and sites of Scotland. We have digitised more than 69,000 of these images. We have collated some highlights from this collection, which you can view in our online gallery.
  •  Aerial Photography - A predecessor of HES began taking aerial photographs of Scotland from 1976. We now have over 150,000 aerial images available.
  • List C Survey - Following changes in listing, a survey was carried out to record all the C-listed buildings. We have made these 25,000 images available.
  • Mounted prints relating to a number of archaeological collections including excavations at The Howe, Jedburgh Abbey and Machrie Moor.
  •  Estates Exchange Catalogues - At the end of the nineteenth century many large estate owners started selling off their land and houses. These catalogues are a record of these estates, and the people who lived and worked on them.
  • Scottish Power photographic albums - This is a collection of 201 photo albums, showing the construction of power stations around Scotland.
  • Ordnance Survey Record Cards - These formed the basis for all our site records and contain useful information, as well as drawings and photographs. Around 117,000 cards have been digitised, which will be made available by the future Digital Archives team.
  • Property Services Agency photographs - This collection comprises approximately 80,000 negatives. They record buildings in Scotland that were managed by the UK government. These are still to be made available.


Notable born-digital projects now archived include:

  • 551 5/16/24 Archive from archaeological works at Macallan Distillery, Craigellachie, Moray
  • 551 359/104 Archive from Carpow log boat excavations at Carpow Bank, Perth and Kinross
  • 551 5/10/156 Archive from standing building survey and watching brief at Vaults, East Market Street, Edinburgh
  • 551 104/32/9 Archive from an archaeological survey of a wreck on the Island of Fuday
  • 551 437/4 Archive from Roan Head Boom Buoy Vessel Project, Scapa Flow, Orkney

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Want to Know More?

Upcoming Events


Further Reading

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Reflections from the Project Manager

The Archive Digital Projects has greatly enhanced the National Record for the Historic Environment, significantly increasing the volume of digital archive material available online. Over half a million photographs were digitised as part of the project. The team has also processed almost 80,000 born-digital archive records from archaeological and architectural deposits, reducing the backlog of material awaiting ingest and thus decreasing our 'invisible' archives.

The achievements of Digital Projects have only been possible through the dedication and determination of the team. Changing circumstances mid-way through the project meant a rapid rethink to our aims and objectives. Despite this the team continued to deliver on all project goals. Not only have we more than doubled the size of the Digital Archive, the team has been instrumental in new developments for how users can view and engage with this material online, implementing a new image zoom function, full page view, image rotation and volume viewing capability for bound volume material. Engagement in our material is also at an all-time high. After our hugely successful SDD collection campaign in May last year, asking the public's help to identify locations in our archive images, Canmore users rose significantly, and project-related content remains some of the highest viewed pages on Canmore.

Not only has the work of the Digital Projects team improved accessibility of our digital archive material, it has also helped to inform our appraisal and disposal policies, our in-house catalogue description standard, and our digital preservation programme in conjunction with the core Digital Archive. Although the Digital Project in its current format ends in March 2021, we have been able to retain some resource to continue this great work into the future, further increasing the volume of digital material available online and supporting our commitment to making heritage accessible for all.

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(Noun): A new item or collection of items, from the same source, accepted in to the HES Archives collection.

(Verb) Accessioning: The process of formally accepting archive material under HES Archives guardianship.

Digital material that has been created in digital format, opposed to created using paper or other analogue formats and converted to digital.

(Noun): A list of archive items from a collection, organised in a systematic order to facilitate search and retrieval.

(Verb) Cataloguing: The process of listing, classifying and describing archive material to create a catalogue for an archive collection.

The archive material which has been transferred over to HES Archives by a depositor.

Digital Surrogate
The digital copy of analogue material, usually a photograph.

The creation of a digital copy of analogue material.

A set of information or data that gives information about another set of data. 


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