History of the Society
The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was founded in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829), and was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1783. It is the oldest antiquarian society in Scotland and was born during a period of intellectual energy in Scotland, and many of those contributing to that energy were already, or would become, members (then Fellows). A succinct account of the inauguration and early history of the Society written by William Smellie (1740-1795) can be found in the first of our Proceedings, then known as Archaeologia Scotica the Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
The purpose of the Society is set out in the first of its Laws:".... the Study of the Antiquities and History of Scotland, more especially by means of archaeological research"; the Society today is actively concerned with every aspect of the human past in Scotland.
The original members began to donate material to the Society from its inception, and in 1781 it bought a property so that the donations it received could be properly deposited. After several moves, the Society rented accommodation in the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts (later the Royal Institution) at the foot of The Mound in 1826 (now the Royal Scottish Academy). A detailed account of the history of the Museum was written by RBK Stevenson, former Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and President of the Society, in The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition, edited by A S Bell and published to mark the bicentenary of the Society and its Museum in 1981.
In 1841 there were over 4,000 visitors, including the Queen and Prince Albert, to the Society Museum to view the thousands of objects. By 1850 free admission to this collection was attracting 17,000 visitors per year, which led in turn to the accelerated expansion of the collection as donations flowed in, and to the publication of a 150 page catalogue. In November 1851 the signing of a Deed of Conveyance made the Society collections National Property in return for fit and proper accommodation at all times, for the preservation and exhibition of the collection, and also for the Society's meetings, free of all expense to them. By this time the collections were housed in 24 George Street (see also our Accommodation Page for further details), but were moved back to the Royal Institution (see above) in 1858 as part of the Conveyance. This transfer also freed the Society to invest in the initiation of the yearly Proceedings. The Society has since moved, accompanying the collections, to Queen Street and thence to Chambers Street.
In 1949 the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries recommended to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State that the museum should be given, "definite status as a National Institution with a Board of Trustees appointed ad hoc on which the Society of Antiquaries should be strongly represented". This resulted in the appointment in 1951 of the Philip Committee to investigate the scope and status of the museum, which resulted in The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland Act 1954 transferring the powers and duties relating to the Museum, previously vested in the Society of Antiquaries and the National Galleries, to a new Board. The Society was thus relieved of the charge and management of the Museum, but this did not affect the other relations including the mutual arrangements represented by the library and the housing of the Society. The Society is presently housed, free of rent, with the National Museums Scotland on Chambers Street and Society meetings make use of NMS facilities. Over the centuries various organisational structures have been employed by the Society to further its ends, including the employment of a Secretary, relatively recently transformed to a full-time Director.
Members have, since 1823, been known as Fellows of the Society, and there are now thousands of Fellows around the world, as well as Honorary Fellows elected for their outstanding scholarship. Fellowship is by election, held annually on St Andrews Day, 30th November; it is open to all with an interest in the history and archaeology of Scotland. Fellows may use the post-nominal 'FSA Scot'. The Library in the NMS contains a unique collection of books dating back to the foundation of the Society, and it continues to receive periodicals from around the world, in exchange for the Proceedings. Fellows enjoy the privilege of consultation and borrowing books from the Library.
As the senior antiquarian body in Scotland the Society has an important role in the cultural life and heritage of Scotland. We provide a forum for ideas and the presentation of new information through our lectures, seminars and workshops, as well as local, national and international conferences. We also educate through our publications and news items on this website. Our prizes and grants encourage and reward excellence in the fields of archaeology and history. We draw on a wide range of experience through the Fellowship and Council, and provide an impartial voice independent of the opinions of Government, University, or Agency. The Society is often consulted on different matters relating to heritage, and it is represented on many committees, boards and councils. Membership of the Society enables Fellows to play an active part in safeguarding the Scottish past.