The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded on the 18th of December, 1780.
The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland is the oldest antiquarian society in Scotland, founded in 1780 by David Stewart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan. Today, according to its website, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland “pursues the study of the antiquities and history of Scotland through various means, including high-quality publications, lectures, local, national and international conferences, workshops and seminars, and by providing prizes, grants and other awards”. Indeed, a commendable endeavour.
The Society was first discussed on the 14th of November, 1780, when the Right Honourable the Earl of Buchan invited “the following Noblemen and Gentlemen [there’s a list on the website] to his house, where he explained, in a pertinent discourse, the general plan and intention of the proposed Association”. Of the thirty-seven invitees, only fourteen made it to that first meeting. However, at a subsequent meeting, held on the 28th of November, “a considerable number of Gentlemen” met at the house of the Earl of Buchan and agreed to meet again on the 18th of December in order to found “a regular and permanent body, under the designation of The Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland”. The planned December meeting went ahead and on that day the Fellows elected the Officers of the Society.
The Right Honourable the Earl of Bute was elected President and mine host, the Right Honourable the Earl of Buchan was made 1st Vice-President. There was a 2nd, a 3rd, a 4th and a 5th Vice-President, who were: Sir John Dalrymple-Hamilton McGill, Baronet; John Swinton of Swinton, Esquire; Alexander Wight, Esquire; and William Tytler of Woodhouselee, Esquire, respectively. Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, Baronet, was made Treasurer and Mr James Cummyng was Secretary. The Society was incorporated by Royal Charter and after the Royal Warrant received the Privy Seal on the 29th of March, 1783, the Charter was read to a General Meeting of the Society on the 6th of May. William Smellie wrote an historical account of the Society’s beginnings for the opening pages of the first volume of its ‘Transactions’, which was called ‘Archaeologia Scotica’ and published in 1792.
Smellie’s introduction began with an observation on the unfortunate consequences of Scotland’s ‘desolating and depredatory’ wars with its neighbour: “Like other nations of Europe, the political and hiftoncal monuments of Scotland have not only been injured by the natural operations of time, but by many other caufes. Our defolating and depredatory wars with England continued for ages. The demolition of ancient buildings, the deftruction of public archieves, and of private documents, were refults of thefe unhappy contefts. When the two nations were partially united, by the fucceffion of our James VI. to the throne of England, a temporary peace was eftablifhed, and promifed great and mutual advantages. But, not long after this aufpicious event, fanatical and feudal diffentions arofe, and produced effects equally pernicious to the objects of the Hiftorian and Antiquary. Though thefe and fimilar caufes have long ceafed, yet, by annihilating our principal materials, they deprefled the fpiric of inquiry, and made us negligent of thofe which had efcaped the general devaftation”.
Commenting on the formation of the Society, he was careful to point out that “…till we were cordially united to England, …in loyalty and affection to a common Sovereign, it was not, perhaps, altogether confident with political wifdom, to call the attention of the Scots to the ancient honours and conftitution of their independent Monarchy”. Smellie’s ‘history’ goes on to suggest that the model was, of course, the Antiquarian Society of London and that the formation of the Society was proposed by several “Gentlemen of eminence and learning”. Those learned Gentlemen considered it an object of national importance “to bring all thefe, either in their original form, or by accurate tranicripc, into one great repofitory”.
Originally, the meetings of the Society were held every month during the vacations of the Court of Session and every fortnight when that Court sat, which it did five months in the year. From the institution of the Society until its first ‘report’ in 1792, not a meeting passed, but that donations were received and “difcourfes, or ancient papers, read” to the Fellows. The Society had, up to then, been presented with about 16,000 articles from no less than 1130 donors, many of which were “exceedingly curious and valuable”. They consisted chiefly of “ancient weapons, dreffes, charters, hiftorical papers, poems, and an immenfity of coins of all ages and nations” a descriptive account of which would of itself make a large volume.
The Society is now a charitable organization, which is registered in Scotland and whose purpose is set out in the first of its Laws. That states its purpose as “...the study of the antiquities and history of Scotland, more especially by means of archaeological research”. The Society promotes research into and the understanding and conservation of the archaeological and historic environment of Scotland for the benefit of all. It actively supports research in the field and promotes the results of its research and that of others to the widest possible audience.
Apart from being instrumental in the founding of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, David Stewart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, helped change the method of electing Scottish representative peers. And, amongst other writings, he published an ‘Essay on the Lives of Fletcher of Saltoun and the Poet Thomson’. He also commissioned a bridge over the River Tweed at Dryburgh, but it collapsed within months as did a second twenty years or so later. It wasn’t until 1872 that a more permanent suspension bridge was erected. Thankfully, the Earl’s embryonic Society has had a longer life than his bridges.