Inside Stories 8
Archie Rennie, Elizabeth Laidlaw
On Wednesday 30 April 1947 I ended my work as a Temporary Experimental Officer in the Admiralty's Minesweeping Research Division based at Port Edgar, near South Queensferry.
On Thursday 1 May I set off from my digs in Albany Street to walk to St Andrew's House - just less than eight years since the building had opened.
As I entered the great bronze doors I was impressed, as I was meant to be, by the grandeur of my new workplace. I was even more impressed by the contrast between it and the temporary huts and hastily converted storehouses in which our research workshops and offices had been housed at Port Edgar.
The senior staff of the Department of Health (DHS) I joined were a mixture of the old hands, inherited from the Boards that had been replaced by DHS in 1928, and the relatively few who had entered the service as Assistant Principals (APs) after that date and before World War II began, when recruitment to established posts was suspended.
These Young Turks and the old hands formed a powerful combination of qualities, with sometimes discernible tensions; but among both groups there were several of outstanding ability, good models for a young entrant. Stuart Murrie, who by the time I joined the Department had long been in Whitehall, Douglas Haddow and Norman Graham showed the way to the later AP entrants. The old hands were good mentors. Old hand George Henderson, who as a general inspector had written the report that led to the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930, was the head of the Department.
Among the HEOs with whom I shared rooms on the east wing of the first floor I remember with affection and respect some of my most helpful tutors, one of whom, Miss Dunlop, had occasion to reprove me and my fellow AP Brian Fiddes for swearing. We in the Town and Country Planning Division were busy overseeing the work of the local authorities learning how to go the very new Planning Act, and their letters apparently caused Brian and me to take the name of the Lord in vain rather frequently. We moderated our language.
Because of the six-year suspension of recruitment there were for several years unusually large influxes of APs through the Reconstruction Competitions, conducted under the Civil Service Commission by the new Civil Service selection boards modelled on War Office officer-cadet selection systems. As one of this intake I quickly came to know others in DHS and in the other departments, and our shared experiences in our new jobs fostered a camaraderie among us which lasted right through our service.
Later, my contacts in this cohort were strengthened through the rotation of APs from the different departments through Ministers' private secretary posts. Life in private office was seldom boring, and our exchanges reinforced the links and made subsequent interdepartmental exchanges both friendlier and more effective.
The four departments of the Scottish Office that shared the building for many years (Agriculture, Education, Home and Health) saw themselves as separate and distinct Departments of State, reflecting in this something of the structures they had replaced in 1928. Each had its own Establishment (personnel) and Finance Division, and the Secretary of the Department (ranking as a Deputy Secretary in Whitehall terms) was its Accounting Officer.
Under the four department system, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State (PUS of S) with his small private office was in effect the last embodiment of the old Scottish Office. PUS of S was a distant personage of whom the lower orders saw almost nothing at all, and whose functions were narrowly circumscribed by the independence of the departmental heads. Like the Ministerial team, while Parliament was sitting he commuted to London weekly. The sleeper trains between Waverley and Kings Cross saw a lot of Scottish Office traffic.
The Home Department, long under its redoubtable Secretary, Charles Cunningham, acted as the residuary legatee of the old Scottish Office, taking over all the functions that had not been specifically allocated to one of the other departments. The functions of the old Fisheries Board (later to be discharged by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries) had been assigned to the Home Department, probably to even out the workloads among the four. One of the Scottish Office links that the Home Department jealously guarded was departmental communications with the Lord Advocate over such subjects as penalty clauses in bills.
As I came to know St Andrew's House better, the quality of its design, finish, and workmanship - with one regrettable exception - came to impress me more and more. The division I first joined worked closely with the architects and planners, who were brigaded for functional reasons with DHS. Among the up-to-date young architects it was fashionable to decry Thomas Smith Tait's design. He has been described as a "classical-modern designer", which I suppose means using modern building technology in the design of buildings with classical features.
Alan Reiach, one of the Department's young architectural stars, who had left to form his own practice just before I joined, once described the building to me, using the French pronunciation of "style", as being in the "style Mussolini". He was well placed to make this comment, having travelled to Italy shortly before the war on an Art College scholarship and seen a good many of Mussolini's railway stations. Certainly the fasces of ancient Rome are reflected in the massive gate posts of the railings.
In the years since St Andrew's House was built we have seen many large public and private buildings erected in Edinburgh, and have perhaps come to appreciate better what we have on Calton Hill. (I scarcely need mention New St Andrew's House.) My friend Jimmy Hume has mentioned our pet hate, the increasingly ill-fitting steel windows. The expedient of closing their widening gaps with a plastic compound did make some improvement, and I believe further measures have subsequently been taken since I retired in 1984
To mention only two of what to me are special features of the design, I do like the stylised thistles on the balusters of the great staircases, themselves very important in the design; and I do not think we shall see repeated in a publicly-financed building the wall of polished Creetown granite blocks - massive enough to resist a gale-driven sea - whose function is merely to separate the forecourt from the pedestrians on the pavement of Regent Road. The stylised thistles are possibly the feature that shows most overtly some Art Deco influence in Tait's design.
Others have mentioned the office canteen and its importance as a meeting place. May I add something to Kenneth Mackenzie's recollection of a Conservative minister using the canteen after the 1970 change of administration. One Labour minister in Willie Ross's team in the 1960s was the genial and cultured Norman Buchan, who lunched in the canteen fairly often with Ralph Law of the Home Department. On the one or two occasions when I shared their table I greatly enjoyed the exchanges, commonly on matters Scottish but never official. Meeting with colleagues in the other departments on these occasions was just one of the features of office life in St Andrew's House that made us truly a collegiate society.
One unobtrusive feature of the building which was valuable for oiling the wheels was the clear glass strips in the doors of the rooms. These enabled you to find out, merely by glancing through and without interrupting anyone, whether someone you wished to call on already had a visitor. In contrast, the solid wooden doors of New St Andrew's House required a knock and an intrusion. Another handy feature of the old building was that the enormous - and thus few in number - lavatories provided opportunities for informal exchanges of information with a wide range of people. In contrast, the much smaller - and therefore more numerous - loos in the new building brought fewer people together in this random way. I can of course not speak for the ladies.
Most people who saw the building in its original form were impressed by the long central corridors of the main block, now interrupted by fire doors. The one on the first floor was once presented as a golfing challenge to Scott Robertson of the Solicitors' Office. Scott was famed as a low-handicap man. He and a colleague were working through lunchtime one Saturday morning on urgently-needed papers for a bill.
They were able to leave for the golf course about 2 o'clock, carrying their clubs and quite reasonably believing the building to be empty. Scott accepted his colleague's challenge to drive a ball from the corridor floor at the east staircase by which they were leaving the building - no security then - to the west end, without it touching the walls or the ceiling. Using a number one iron, with his little sponge pouch as a tee, Scott drove. The ball flew straight and low. It reached the corridor beyond the west staircase before beginning to ricochet between the walls. At this point a door there began to open and our heroes hastily decamped. History does not record if this event ever came to official notice; but I think it does deserve a place in the folklore of St Andrew's House.
In the days when I was heavily involved in the hospital building programme my architect colleague Robert Scott Morton instructed me that the qualities essential to a good building had been defined as "firmness, commodity and delight". In this context the word "commodity" sounds oddly to the modern ear but it clearly means "fitness for function". Though I do appreciate that its critics do not rate St Andrew's House highly on the delight side, I think there is a great deal in the building to repay study and give pleasure, and I personally give it high marks under all three headings. It sits well in the Scottish building tradition.
I arrived in St Andrew's House (SAH) in mid-summer 1942 after having spent two and a half years in my first civil service posting as a clerical assistant in the DHS Pensions Issue Branch in the Grassmarket (the old Corn Exchange building, now a hotel). The building had been condemned prior to WW1 and we needed to put buckets out every time it rained!
When young new starts were shown round SAH on arrival the condemned cell was always included in the Grand Tour as a warning.
The set-up in my new section - Nursing Branch located in R102/103 - was very different and a complete revelation to one who had been a very small cog in a very large wheel. The section consisted of an Executive Officer (EO), two Clerical Officers (CO), and me as Clerical Assistant (CA). We were responsible for the arrangements in connection with organising and servicing the Emergency Hospital Service. Apart from some like Peel Hospital at Clovenfords, Stracathro in Angus and Ballochmyle in Ayrshire, many of these were in mansion houses and other similar buildings gifted or taken over by the Government during wartime and were staffed by experienced doctors and nurses transferred from main hospitals supported by members of the Civil Nursing Reserve.
We originally worked from 9 am until 4 pm and the men enjoyed that because they could be on the golf course by 5 pm. Then the war intervened and working hours didn't matter, you just got on with it. There was no overtime and we finished at 6.30 pm, sometimes later.
My main duties in Nursing Branch consisted of record keeping of movements and details of all the staff in these Emergency Hospitals, taking drafts to and from the typing pool as well as working for Miss Margaret Colville Marshall, Principal Matron of the Scottish Emergency Hospitals and of the Civil Nursing Reserve and later Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland (a very formidable lady!), and her deputy, Miss Robinson.
The atmosphere at SAH was much more relaxed than in the Grassmarket. Shortly after I arrived there was a birthday party for our Assistant Secretary, Mr Sharpe. This was a grand affair, the highlight so far as I was concerned being the reciting by Mr Law (on loan to us from SED) of Tam O'Shanter - a first for me and probably also for Mr Sharpe who was English! One of the other ladies in the room who worked in another section always had her dog under the desk which was petted by all.
As it was wartime, if anybody had 'extras' they were shared around and I learned to drink coffee instead of always tea. Security was tight during the war and we had to sign in. This was relaxed in the 1950s when anybody could walk in and didn't really change until passes were introduced in the 1970s.
I enjoyed my spell in the Nursing Branch and learned such a lot which has stood me in good stead. I moved on to work in the Housing Division on promotion to Clerical Officer (CO) in 1945. I was still in St Andrew's House but now working in Room 8.
A great deal of our work at that time was in the allocation of the temporary houses that were going up all over Scotland. These were pre-fabricated of aluminium construction (Prefabs) and were expected to last for ten years. In the event, many lasted for a lot longer and were much loved by those to whom they were allocated. My main duties were the drafting of letters and providing endless 'statements' of the ever-changing housing situation in Scotland. One of my EOs in that section was a fervent Nationalist and I among others was invited to sign a petition for Home Rule for Scotland.
In August 1945, I and a number of others were given the opportunity to work for a month in London as staff for a Conference of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNNRA) the predecessor of the UN which was charged with providing relief to those areas that had been occupied by Axis forces. We were based in what was then the London Country Hall and were there when VJ was declared - that was exciting. As a result of my involvement I was again invited to help the following year in 1946 in Geneva and that was another great experience as well as being my first trip abroad.
After six weeks in Geneva I returned to my Housing Division post which I continued to enjoy until my next move in 1947 to the Planning Division recently set up under Sir Robert Russell. My move to Planning Division (working in Room 208) took place on Trafalgar Day 1947 with Nelson's famous signal flags flying on the Nelson Monument opposite our window.
I shared a room with my new EO, Miss Nicolson, and two APs, Messrs Archie Rennie and Brian Fiddes. Sir Robert Russell and Mr AP Hume, our Principal, had both recently returned from the Colonial Service and were charged with implementing the new Planning Acts. Our main concern at that time was the scheme to remove many of the old colliery and other bings so that the land could be restored for possible agricultural use, housing etc. As this was meant to provide employment, the Press had a lot of fun suggesting that teaspoons should be issued to assist the workers in their task.
Some time later this small section was incorporated into the area that dealt with the Highlands and Islands. I stayed there for 5 years and found the work interesting and exciting, particularly the contacts with architects and planners, all of whom were dedicated to planning and preserving Scotland. The annual Planning Party held in the Edinburgh Suite of the Assembly Rooms was one of the highlights which was a get together for all concerned and I landed up on the organising committee which was great fun. The ladies always wore their long dresses and nobody got drunk!
In 1952 I moved back to Nursing Branch but this time as part-time PA to Miss Robinson now Chief Nursing Officer (CNO). Apart from the usual drafting and filing duties, I spent most of my time setting up and organising a filing system for the CNO. Up to then, her 'system' had constituted a drawer in her desk into which she put all the papers with which she had been dealing ever since her appointment. This gargantuan task took me a year but the end result was much appreciated. Some time after I moved on I met my successor and she was very grateful for all my efforts.
An edict was issued in the post-war era because some ladies were wearing trousers due to the clothing shortages. It was made absolutely clear that ladies were not to wear trousers unless it was as part of a trouser suit.
In 1956 I moved again, this time to York Buildings to the section dealing with the setting up of the New Towns in East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Livingston and Cumbernauld. The Division was dealing with service requirements and planning appeals and it was while there that I received my promotion to EO. My promotion led me back to St Andrew's House, this time to Room 14 and to the Welfare Services Division - another complete change.
The Welfare Services Division consisted of a Principal, HEO, EO (myself), CO and CA with Miss Marjorie McInnes as Welfare Officer. We were responsible for the whole of Scotland and dealt with the welfare of the elderly, those who were blind, deaf or otherwise handicapped, and old people's homes which were regularly inspected by the Department's inspectors. Later, the care of those mentally handicapped was added and this addition brought another HEO and Welfare Officer. As well as the foregoing, Welfare Services were responsible for burial, cremation, and the Anatomy Act, with the CO being 'technically' the Anatomy Officer for Scotland. The Burial Act of 1855 had still not been updated due to a lack of Government time. During my time in that section the Younghusband Report was published and this led to the Social Work Services Act. The present system whereby all the welfare functions listed above are dealt with by local authority social work departments derives from this Act. As a newly-promoted EO I learned a great deal from my experience in Welfare Services which has been of great benefit to me ever since.
On my next posting I remained in St Andrew's House and worked in the Dental Section in Room 130A, complete with my faithful armchair which had travelled to and fro with me for some considerable time. This proved a very interesting and unusual post. My main duties consisted of dealing with appeals to the Secretary of State on behalf of patients and/or dentists who were dissatisfied with the treatment proposed or provided under the NHS. Arranging for the hearing of these appeals meant contacting the Dental Estimates Board representatives and referees from a panel appointed by the Secretary of State, the appellant, patient or dentist and myself and finding a suitable venue, usually a local office of the Department.
As these hearings were usually held at night, much travelling around Scotland was involved. After some time, it was suggested that I should consider learning to drive rather than travel by train, and eventually, after many lessons and many ups and downs, I passed my test on 1 April 1968 - at the first attempt! This certainly made life a lot easier travel-wise. After the hearing I had to draft the referee's report and in due course intimate the decision of the Secretary of State to all concerned. I met so many people from all walks of life and had so many interesting experiences and adventures. I am always grateful for the opportunity to learn to drive (supported by the Scottish Office) - something I had never thought of doing and which I am still able to enjoy today. Early in 1972 I was asked if I would like to become the Secretary of the Medical Practice Committee and that was my next appointment.
The Medical Practice Committee was responsible for the appointment and general oversight of all matters concerning General Practitioners in the Scottish Health Service and consisted of the Chairman, three practising GPs from various parts of the country, a representative from Fife Health Board, a QC and myself as Secretary to the Committee. I was seconded from the SHHD for the duration of the appointment. This led to some interesting situations whereby on occasion I was required by the Committee to pass on their views or instructions for action by my previous boss.
Once more, I was travelling the length and breadth of Scotland, for example to Orkney in connection with the appointment of a doctor to North Ronaldsay. This entailed meetings in Kirkwall and visits by sea and air to the various islands including the shortest flight from Westray to Papa Westray. We also visited the island of Hoy, the home of the Longhope Lifeboat which was tragically lost with all hands while on a rescue mission in 1969. The resident doctor pointed out a row of houses where, in that terrible disaster, every one had lost a husband, son, brother or father, some more than one. On the way back to Kirkwall our pilot kindly flew us round the Old Man of Hoy which was quite exciting. In contrast, on another occasion the Committee were required to visit Borgue in the very south of Scotland.
The Committee were invited to various local authority conferences held in such places as Peebles and Aviemore and were responsible for organising meetings with the chairman of the committee's opposite number in the English administration on his annual visit to Scotland.
This exciting and interesting posting came to and end as a result of yet another 'reorganisation'. It was decided that the responsibility for the Committee should be transferred from the administration of the Secretary of State/Scottish Office to that of the National Health Service with the result that I was now redundant. As I did not wish to transfer from the civil service I was replaced on the Committee and on 12 March 1974 I found myself in the Scottish Education Department.
This was strange territory, as all I knew of that Department was that their files went from front to back, the opposite of what I had always been used to!
Once again, as a result of departmental reorganisation, the role of Her Majesty's Inspectorate was being revised. Instead of inspectors working mainly from home or local offices, a new group called the Central Support Staff, under HM Chief Inspector Kenneth Forbes, was being established and I was appointed to set this up. Two people new to the civil service (an ex-nurse and an ex-hairdresser who had recently passed the civil service exams) and myself comprised the staff of the Unit. We were given accommodation on the third floor of St Andrew's House and literally started with a table and chair. Fortunately, because of my long experience, I knew where to go and who to speak to for all the necessary equipment and we were soon in business.
Our remit consisted of co-ordinating and liaising with all the inspectors, maintaining records of their duties and responsibilities, checking inspection reports, and maintaining and constantly updating a list of these duties and moves (known as List E). Special telephones were installed whereby we took incoming calls and transferred them to the particular inspector based in SAH.
Another interesting facet was the induction of newly appointed HMIs - quite a number of whom were being recruited at that time. CSS was their first point of contact and it fell to us to introduce them to 'the system'.
CSS was also responsible for arranging and attending Inspectorate training courses and conferences at various colleges such as Queen Margaret, Dundee, Hamilton and Craiglockhart (now part of Napier University).
My time in St Andrew's House came to an end on completion of New St Andrew's House when the inspectors and CSS were transferred to the new building working from the fourth floor. The highlight there was the official opening by HM The Queen in 1975.
I remained in that post until my retirement in 1982.