Seeing is believing: new project tells the story of Edinburgh’s blind people

Posted on 29/07/2014 by


rnibA Heritage Lottery Fund project that will bring to life the stories of people with sight loss in Edinburgh and the Lothians a hundred years ago is being launched today.

‘Seeing Our History’ will offer a unique but often grim glimpse of a time when the blind and partially sighted were consigned to the margins of society, almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of others.

Sight loss charity RNIB Scotland has received £55,700 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to begin the 12-month project.

The aim is to compile a 60-page booklet – in hard copy, braille and ‘talking-book’ formats – to accompany a series of six programmes to be broadcast on the charity’s award-winning Insight Radio station.

The project is indebted to former RNIB Scotland Chair and long-time community activist, campaigner and Councillor Jimmy Cook whose passionate interest in the history of blindness ensured that records survive today.

Dr Catriona Burness of RNIB Scotland said: “We are very excited to have received the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund for this unique project.

“Historical and cultural studies have mainly neglected the experiences of blind and partially sighted people. ‘Seeing our History’ will address this by showing what it was like to have sight loss in Edwardian Edinburgh and Lothians before the First World War. Adults and children endured harsh lives, usually dependent on subsistence work or welfare relief that was conditional on religious conformity.

“This was an era before sight-saving eye-treatments, disability benefits, computer screen-readers and audio-books. If to be poor then was to be at the margins of society, to be blind and poor was to be at the margins of the margins. People had to rely upon poor relief, charitable aid, and meagre supplementary earnings from activities such as hawking, knitting, teaching or playing music, selling tea or keeping house.

“‘Seeing Our History’ will give up to 12 research volunteers, including some with sight loss, an opportunity to develop heritage interest and learn new skills, while also taking the history of blindness to a wider audience who might not previously have given disability much thought.”

The project will base its work on the 1903-10 register of ‘the outdoor blind’ (ie, those not resident in institutions) recently donated by RNIB Scotland to the Lothian Health Services Archive. Details include names, address, place of birth, age when sight was lost, cause of blindness; marital status; how employed; weekly earnings before losing sight and weekly income after, and date of death.

The 1,170 entries in the register will be supplemented by other materials such as census returns, poor relief records, and family papers and wills for the wealthy to enable the project to reconstruct some of the stories of blind and partially sighted people’s lives across social class, gender, occupation, and locality.

Colin McLean, head of HLF Scotland, said “We are delighted to give this innovative project our support. As well as exploring a fascinating and so far largely undiscovered part of our heritage, the project provides opportunities for participants to learn new skills, expand their knowledge and produce a valuable resource for others to learn from, enjoy and be inspired by.”