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Historic Scotland takes 3D Scanning to The United States – Comment piece by Michael Russell, Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution

13 July 2009

The word “iconic” is much over-used, but there really isn’t any other word that does when sitting underneath Mount Rushmore and considering the world wide reach of this extraordinary place.

I was lucky to spend the weekend of the 4th of July – the great American patriotic holiday – as a guest of the American National Park Service at Mt Rushmore, where I was able to announce a historic partnership between Scotland the USA which, in part, will allow the image and the message of Mount Rushmore to be preserved for future generations.

The 3D laser scanning technique which has been perfected by Historic Scotland, working with the remarkable Digital Design Studio (part of the Glasgow School of Art) places our country at the forefront of a  science that one day may allow us to experience the “holo-deck” which up until now has been merely a Star Trek  fantasy!   Put simply, it permits perfect reproduction of buildings or artifacts, which can be displayed on screen or even projected.    

The inventor of the technique is an American of Iraqi birth, who is now devoting his resources to the recording and preservation of historic monuments world wide.   Ben Kacyra’s  “Cyark’ Foundation has a list of 500 priority sites, and on it are the five Scottish world heritage sites in  St Kilda, New Lanark, Edinburgh, Orkney and on the Antonine Wall.   

When I met Ben in April in Scotland we started to talk about how Scottish expertise might help achieve his aim.   In conversation the idea of the “Scottish 10” was born – matching our own work on each of our sites, with work on one of the sites on his list, and passing on our expertise as we did so.

I had not expected that the first request would come so soon, and from such an unexpected quarter, but Mount Rushmore needs recorded now, not least because the granite will deteriorate over time.   My trip was to seal the deal and the work will start in September.

But I had time for some other reflections too.   Although the famous 4th of July fireworks were held behind a very Scottish curtain of mist, the head of Lincoln was visible for some of the day.   It is of course the 200th anniversary year of Lincoln’s birth, and celebrations like our ones for Burns’ 250th anniversary are being held year long.

Lincoln was a Burns enthusiast, carrying a volume about with him as he toured the legal circuit in Illinois in the 1820’s – only a couple of decades after Burns’ death.    And looking at Washington, I recalled that Burns celebrated him too, writing an ode in honour of his birthday, exhorting the “sons of Liberty, Columbia's offspring, brave as free.’

Woodrow Wilson once said that ‘every line of strength in American history is a line coloured with Scottish blood.’  And Senator Jim Webb, a modern day political support of Scotland in America has estimated that there are more than twenty million Americans who can count themselves of Scottish or Scotch-Irish descent.  When Barack Obama took the oath of office this past January, he was the thirteenth President in American history whose roots reach back to Scotland.

But the ties of kinship are matched by the ties of ideas.   Mount Rushmore is a self declared monument to democracy and its biggest day of the year is Independence Day.   In my own speech to the 30,000 or so people gathered there, I mentioned something well known to most of them – the fact that over half the signatories of their Declaration of Independence had Scottish connections or roots.   

But I also mentioned something many of them did not know.   In 1320, a group of Scots wrote in our Declaration of Arbroath  that ‘It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself’ – and  over 400 years later that sentiment and those words were in the mind of Thomas Jefferson  when he drafted America’s founding document, pledging “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.’

The ties went on enduring after that.   Though Lincoln never fulfilled his wish to see Burns’ birthplace, his friend, the famous escaped slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass travelled to Scotland in 1846.  Douglass took his surname from Sir Walter Scott’s hero in ‘The Lady of the Lake’ and came in order to raise money for the anti slavery cause.   Whilst here he visited Burns’s sister, saying that in Rabbie, he found ‘a true soul.’

And almost one hundred years after Douglass stood up at a Burns supper in New York and credited Burns for teaching him that ‘a man’s a man for a’ that,’ another great American freedom fighter discovered Burns on a dusty road in Arkansas.

Civil rights leader and award-winning poet Dr Maya Angelou discovered  Burns’s work as a child and grew up believing that ‘Burns belonged to me.’  In fact, when reflecting on his work, she said ‘It is because of my identification with Robert Burns, with Wallace, with the people of Scotland for their dignity, for their independence, for their humanity, that I can see how we sing, “We Shall Overcome”.’

The Park Superintendent  at Mt Rushmore, Gerard Baker, is the most senior Native American in US Government Service.   He had as my fellow guests last Friday the last remaining group of Navaho Code Talkers – 2nd World War American heroes who are revered across the country.   Over dinner one of them introduced me to his wife, and their daughter told me that her mother knew that many generations ago a red headed man with a beard – a Scot – had lived with their tribe and married one of her ancestors.  “I have Scottish blood in me too” she said.

Scotland is everywhere in the USA.   Our relationship is strong and growing stronger.    Perhaps it is time to repay the independence compliment, and learn from the success of a free nation.

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