Inside Stories 2
James Hume, John Graham, Sandra Buckle
I first became aware of "St Andrew's House" (the words, not the building) in the late 1930s. While scanning my father's "Scotsman" I saw that apart from gloomy news from the capital cities of Europe, there was a little local controversy right here in Edinburgh about possible names for the new Government building being erected on the Calton Hill. Eventually it was decided to name it after Scotland's patron saint.. This did not concern me at the time, but it lodged in my mind; and the memory was revived in the summer of 1947 when I entered the building on appointment as an assistant principal in the Department of health for Scotland (DHS).
My first job was in one of the Housing Divisions. As I settled down to learn about files, minutes, procedures and policies I got used to at least some parts of what was a very large building - the long corridors, the high ceilings, the wide staircases and the lifts, hand-operated by messengers. No-one was subjected to any kind of check on entry; you walked in past messengers at the door, posted then it seemed to help rather than hinder. Anyone from the street who was self-confident enough could similarly have waked in and had a look at papers on an unoccupied desk - not that I recall any reports of this having been done. We lived in a more respectful and in some ways easy-going society in those days; and it was years later before all staff were issued with official passes which to to be presented on entry to the building.
I soon became a patron of the canteen on the 6th floor. Though the lunchtime menus reflected the austerity of the times (at one stage for example whale steaks were on offer) there was at least a choice, and we were served in traditional style by waitresses. In the afternoons tea, cakes and biscuits were available on a self-service basis. Apart from providing sustenance, these visits to the 6th floor gave an opportunity to meet colleagues from other parts of the building.
When walking occasionally past the conference rooms on the 3rd floor I was intrigued by what I read on the indicator boards above the doors. These demonstrated the wide range of subjects dealt with in St Andrew's House from the prosaic "Local Government Finance" to "Wild Birds" or the (to me) puzzling "Non-accidental injuries".
On my first foray into a conference room I saw a book on the mantelpiece. A quick look showed this to be a Bible. Was this used at the beginning of meetings to set a certain tone? I soon learned that it was used by a group of staff who like to precede the working day with a prayer meeting.
As the years went by there were some visible changes inside the building. Fire doors were erected in the corridors - though they were kept open unofficially by the strategic placing of the hand-operated fire extinguishers to allo free movement of messengers' trolleys. Steel-frames 1930s style windows began to buckle and let in draughts (One winter, as an assistant secretary in and east-facing room with normal functioning central heating, I sat wearing my overcoat on top of a three-piece suit for days on end).
There were changes too just outside the building. I had been told that the empty concreted areas at the back were car parks. As petrol rationing became less severe, these areas began to be occupied, at first by elderly or what one colleague called "hand-knitted" cars. It did not take long before there were too many cars chasing too few spaces - which gave rise to new problems.
The austerities of the immediate post-war period did not affect so far as I could see the standard of dress in the building. Smart suits for the men; skirts, twin-sets or summer frocks for the ladies. True, some of the older men looked far from smart in the privacy of their rooms. On arrival in the morning normal jackets were removed and they would don "office jackets". These were usually old and some quite decrepit. Ladies, on the other hand, always seemed to be smart; and the prospect of any ladies wearing slacks was far from anyone's imagination.
Judging by the chat in the corridors, golf seemed to be the most popular leisure activity. Indeed for some colleagues it seemed to be not so much a game as an obsession. Office golf clubs had outing to well-known courses, including Muirfield, even more exclusive then than it is now. In fact, there were probably more gardeners, willing or unwilling, and there were occasional flower shows. DHS office dances were gracious affairs held in the Assembly Rooms. Formal dress was de rigeur: black ties (or even white ties) for the men and long dresses for the ladies. Sadly, all that disappeared many years before I retired.
What about the work? While the number and size of Departments increased as the Secretary of State's responsibilities were extended, the essential nature of the work did not change down the years. Individuals were of course promoted and had increased responsibilities; they moved to different fields. But information continued to be collected, minutes to be written, letters sent, meetings held, outside bodies to be consulted, persuaded or occasionally instructed.
There was one exception to all this "plus ca change, c'est la meme chose" - the use of mechanical aids of varying kinds. At first these did not extend beyond typewriters, telephones and Roneo machines to copy documents: no photocopiers, word processors and of course no computers. While more and more technology did affect the work, particularly of typing staff, I never saw a computer or computer screen in St Andrew's House. The Scottish Office Computer Service (SOCS) which was established to serve all the Secretary of State's departments was housed in another building.
Having started my St Andrew's House career in a housing division, I moved down the years to various other fields of work - a ministerial private office; secondment (though I do not think we called it such) to various outside bodies; civil defence (which became very active in the cold war period); sabbatical tours abroad; after which I returned to and Under Secretary post in the Scottish Education Department. Between these periods I was employed in different fields of health service work in what had become the Scottish Home and Health Department, finishing there as an Under Secretary.
The NHS is a large organisation. Much of the work concerned staff or buildings, finance loomed large and we survived almost annual crises (can the NHS survive?). The non-medical administrator, especially at senior level, works closely with doctors, nurses and other professional colleagues on issues broad and narrow. - the provision of services for the treatment of major diseases such as cancer; ministerial correspondence about the misfortunes of individual patients; campaigns to reduce tuberculosis and smoking. An increasing number of these policy questions concerned subjects barely mentioned before in polite society - sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, contraception, artificial insemination. Public interest in the NHS and health generally increased steadily and my later years the staff of the Scottish information office were among my most frequent visitors.
In pre-war days "The Scotsman" had introduced me to a little local difficulty about the new building on the Calton Hill. When I retired what went on in that building was seldom out of the newspapers.
My first memories of the building are of going as a child on a Saturday in September each year to the Department of Health for Scotland Horticultural Society's annual show, which was a fixed point in the family calendar. It took place in the canteen. There as children we got to know the names of the staff who grew the finest carrots and potatoes, and we followed the intense competition for the trophies for the roses, in which some of the senior managers were keen participants.
Oddly I have only worked in the building once, in my first post as a trainee, but I remain happily married to the trainee I met in the same canteen 35 years ago.
The first Private Office Christmas party after devolution was to take place later that evening at the Balmoral Hotel and the First Minister's office were indulging in some pre-prandial drinks before the event. Donald Dewar came through from his room to enjoy a quiet glass of wine with his office. He was going to the party and during the conversation he enquired of Sandra if she was going.
Sandra replied that she was unable to attend due to a prior commitment to go home and see to her wee dug who would be missing her and wondering where she had got to. This seemed to puzzle the First Minister of Scotland and he suggested to Sandra that her dog would be thinking no such thing. Sandra, who had partaken of some strong liquor by this point in the proceedings and was mortally offended by this suggestion, vehemently challenged the First Minister
"Just because you're the First Minister disnae mean you ken what ma wee dug thinks!"
Taken aback at the strength of the riposte and slightly cowed, the FM whispered an aside "I think I had better retreat" and withdrew back into his room.