Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh Oral History Project

Louise Neilson, LHSA Access Officer


In May 2019 I began an eight-month part-time project to conduct and catalogue oral history interviews with people familiar with the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE) when it was based at Lauriston Place. The project was funded by the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), who plan to move in to the old hospital building.


The project has built on work previously completed by Kathy Dodworth. In 2018 Kathy conducted nine interviews with members of staff from the old RIE site and she also worked alongside Bill Jenkins, Ellen Stewart and Niki Vermeulen, to compile a scoping study: ‘Engaging with the past in the Edinburgh Futures Institute’. The scoping study explored the archival material available here at LHSA.


This project has allowed us to showcase the history of a building which was often at the forefront of incredible advancements in medicine and we hope that it will provide information for EFI to allow then to draw from the past in order to develop the future.

Since taking on the project I have conducted 28 interviews with a total of 36 people and this includes 1 patient, 1 volunteer, and 34 members of staff. I have spoken to people from across the huge spectrum of hospital occupations and this has included consultants, technicians, clerical workers, medical students, a board member, therapists, and nurses.


All of these recordings are now part of Lothian Health Services Archive and are available for research use. Excerpts are currently available on Media Hopper and more will be made available in 2020.


The beginning…


I recruited volunteers through distributing postcards detailing the project, by placing adverts in local newspapers, by attending a coffee morning for retired NHS staff, through word of mouth, and through social media posts. The most successful of these was Facebook where we already have a strong following from both past and present Infirmary employees. The engagement I had with each call out was fantastic, and, as well as gaining participants for the project, it allowed me to very quickly get a sense of just how important the building is to staff, patients and to the wider community.


Those who were interested got in touch with me and I provided them with further information about the project. This included: what was involved in taking part, what would happen to the recording and who would have access to it, what steps we had taken to ensure ethical clearance, and why it was important to conduct this type of project. I ensured everyone I spoke to that the interviews would be relaxed, and people had the opportunity to bring their colleagues along for joint interviews.


After each recording the participants were given three forms to sign: agreement form, deed of gift, and accession paperwork. These forms are essential as they allow us to ensure we are providing people with access to recordings in line with the wishes of the individuals who took part. They gave interviewees an opportunity to request restrictions on the content of their interviews.




Several themes were prevalent across the recordings including:


People spoke about the harsh side of working in a hospital such as the physically and emotionally demanding nature of their work, and people remembered specific incidents that were particularly upsetting for them. There was also discussions on the strict rules and regulations that had to be adhered to, especially for both trainee and staff nurses.

In contrast to the negative aspects of working under severe pressure, people spoke about the sense of community that was felt by the staff who worked there, with many referring to their colleagues as their family.


“I think for me it was the people that made it… that’s where the kind of real warmth and feelings of sort of belonging were from…”


“The hospital was just a great place to work. You know, there was a real sense of community in the hospital between all the different departments…”


People also spoke of the pride they felt in working for the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. They spoke of the reputation that the hospital has both within Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and completing training there meant you were held in high regard by others.


Across many occupations there was discussion on the huge technological advances that staff witnessed during their careers. People remarked on how this impacted their role and the effect that these changes had on the building, especially the need for more space. Although people spoke of the irreplaceable character that the Lauriston Place building had, it was obvious to most why the hospital had to vacate the building and people’s feelings around this are captured in many of the interviews.


End of Project Event…


An event was held on the 12th December 2019 to thank those involved in the project. Attendees heard talks from myself as I discussed the project and thanked attendees, LHSA Archivist Louise Williams who discussed the history of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, and Patricia Erskine who discussed the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the future use of the site. After the talks there was a display of LHSA archival material for people to view and food and drink to enjoy (not in the same room as the archive material… of course!). It was also a chance for interviewees to meet each other – some met for the first time and exchanged memories of their time at the Hospital, and for others it was a chance to reunite with old colleagues and friends.




In July 2019 I organised a creative writing event that focused on the history of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. As well as physical records, oral histories were used in a series of writing exercises. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and plans are already in place to hold similar events in the future based around recordings. Social media posts will also continue to be used to promote the collection and direct people to find the online recordings.




High resolution images were ordered through the University’s Digital Imaging Unit. The images were taken from items in our Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh collection and include architectural plans, photographs and brochures. They will be available for research use and will be uploaded to the University of Edinburgh Image Collections website ( These items were selected for digitisation because they are  complementary to the themes highlighted within the oral histories and can be used in the future by researchers, and for outreach and engagement activities.


Why is this project important?


LHSA answer many enquiries each year about hospitals across the Lothians. We have an extensive collection of clinical and non-clinical records and we are able to provide people with information on the history of healthcare as well as details of individual patient and staff records when appropriate.


Oral histories are essential for collecting and preserving social history and for increasing our understanding of health care in the mid to late 20th century. Personal experiences, such as those captured in these interviews, provide evidence and a perspective that we cannot gain from paper records alone. These oral histories will help future researchers understand the relationship people had and still have with the building.


I had a wonderful time leading this project. It allowed me to gain valuable knowledge and skills in conducting, cataloguing and promoting oral histories which is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and I look forward to building on this experience in the future.