‘We will meet again’ – Homage to the Signet Library

For over two centuries and through two World Wars the Signet Library has never closed its doors, except for Christmas Day, New Year and other holidays. Robert Pirrie WS, chief executive of the WS Society, reflects on the temporary shuttering of this exceptional place in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being an employee of the WS Society is a huge privilege as well as a great responsibility. There is an acute awareness of all the challenges faced and overcome through the years, the many people, some celebrated and some completely obscure, who have given their time and endeavour to the society. There is nothing quite like working late at night alone in a monumental 200-year-old building to feel the presence of history. The sounds that the old building makes, the Edinburgh wind whistling through the sash windows, the smell of Brasso and polish, the lights in the Advocates’ Library opposite, the wide quiet space of Parliament Square with the crowds and the pipers having long since headed home.

Those of us who work in the building often reflect that the air seems to behave differently in the Signet Library. It appears more at peace with itself, giving the atmosphere a serenity and grace that infuses even the busiest times. The quiet in the Upper Library minutes before the society’s Annual Dinner, with the team making the last checks before the guests arrive. The ever-changing light in the Lower Library in the still morning moments before Colonnades opens. Bustling activity behind the scenes before a conference. Hundreds of people may pass through the door in a day. Evening events bring more people, staging, lights, flowers, decoration and fine hospitality. Before guests arrive, there might be a violin tuning up or a soprano exercising. Yet, early next morning, walking into the hum of the cleaners’ vacuums, with the party and performance long over, the building reveals again its own gentle yet enduring personality and brings an involuntary smile of recognition. Like the great city of Edinburgh, there is a sense of time and continuity rolling from one day to the next, down through the months and years and decades.

Perhaps there are some common expectations of what a Grade A listed building will represent. Somewhere to be visited once, to take the guided tour and hear its history, learn about the people who lived and worked there, or the family to whom it once belonged, who may perhaps still own it, living in an apartment in one of its private wings. Architectural character of exteriors and interiors is to be expected, examples of fashions, tastes, aesthetics and building techniques worth appreciating. But the Signet Library is so much more. It is a living, breathing, working building and this inheritance bequeaths its beauty with deeper meaning. It is a place where experiences take place, where memories are made. Where the past, the present, and the future reside.

A frequently voiced opinion in these strange times is, “Will we ever go back to office life the way it was before we had even heard of social distancing?” With IT allowing much legal business to carry on from people’s homes and Zoom enabling large meetings and even conferences to take place, it is not an unreasonable question. Working from home, the office bearers and employees of the WS Society continue to hold their regular meetings on society business, charity and trust administration continues, library and research services are available and CPD planned to go virtual. The expert group working on the proposal for the society to apply for registered charity status is also meeting online and its work is on schedule. A new Instagram account has increased our online reach beyond Twitter and the website. But there is a huge component of what makes the WS Society so special temporarily removed from the daily lives of so many people, from Writers to the Signet and other lawyers, to researchers, academics and students, to events and restaurant customers, to wedding celebrants, to employees, chefs and waiting staff: the Signet Library and a sense of time, space and life.

All those who know and love the building recognise why the society and those admitted to the society cherish this unique and enduring embodiment of its values. Frequently mentioned by those visiting for the first time is the fact that, despite the grandeur of the halls, the towering white columns, the vast spaces, the high ceilings, and the rows and rows of bookcases, the Signet Library is somehow not an intimidating place. This is due not only to the grace of its design, but also to the personalities that imagined it, built it, filled it with books and archives and through the years worked to ensure it would endure with its own unique personality and purpose. Understandably those charged with custodianship of such a building can become almost entirely preoccupied with worry about the costs of repair and caring for such a monumental piece of history. These are not duties the society would ever overlook. Yet thinking about the library today, it has given the society so much more than a duty, and in a currency so valuable it can never be repaid. That gift is there on the lustre of the portraits, the brown leather spines of the books, the patina of decades of use and polish, the wear of two centuries of footsteps on the stairs. It is the gift of an idea that seems to hang in the air, that history and learning and law are what made us and what binds us. Thinking about the Signet Library in these unprecedented times, and with the consciousness that it is home of the Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet, it is surely fitting to quote HM The Queen in her recent broadcast to the nation and assure all those who know and love the building: “We will meet again”.