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I was asked a couple of years ago if I’d speak at an event in the Scottish Borders about my ancestor who was a pioneering breeder of Dandie Dinmont Terrier dogs. The event was going to include a walk around Kelso, seeing some of the places associated with my ancestor.

Sadly due to the Covid pandemic the 2020 event was postponed. And then by the time of the 2021 event it was (1) still too risky for immunosuppressed me to attend, and (2) not feasible anyway because of how much my progressive neurological disease had worsened.

Amazingly the event went ahead, despite the ongoing pandemic situation. Events covered three days, at the Haining near Selkirk, Abbotsford near Melrose (little Dandie Dinmont dogs racing!), and Oxnam and Kelso.

I’d recorded a talk about my ancestor and this was part of today’s Kelso events. I put together the slides in PowerPoint on my iPad, working on keeping it tightly focused, while having interesting illustrations. I found it really interesting combining the family history with the breed history. I’ve given a lot of academic talks, but never one quite like this before! Then I recorded it on my Mac laptop using a lapel mic, which worked really well. Luckily I was able to record the 12 minute talk in one go, which was fortunate given how weak I am now.

Here is the YouTube version of the talk. Subtitles are available if required.

I recently read this book, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company. It’s a compact paperback, 171 pages long.

Titled “Scottish Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond”, its emphasis is very much on the latter aspect, introducing the reader to less commonly used material which can be rich in information for people researching their family trees. The author draws on over fifty years of experience in this field, and is well qualified to write on this topic.

After a brief introduction to the basic Scottish genealogy records (birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, and old parish registers) it turns to the other less known records. Examples covered (and these are just some of them) include other church records, gravestone inscriptions, statistical accounts, tax records, sasines and land registers, maritime records, burgh records, tracing specific occupations, covenanters, military records, education, poor law records, and emigration. It really is quite an extensive list. In each section there is a brief introduction to the type of record, and then a look at key archival sources (including document references) and published (usually in print, not online) guides and indexes.

The approach of focusing on archival and published material is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it alerts the user to the existence of these records that they may not otherwise know of, and points them towards the original manuscript documents and relevant index material. A weakness because the book sometimes misses newer resources and indexes, particularly online, and because it doesn’t always direct the reader to the most efficient way of searching.

For example, the military records section directs the researcher to paper records at Kew etc but fails to mention the voluminous digitised and indexed versions of many of these records available through subscription services such as FindMyPast and Ancestry. These have revolutionised research into many military ancestors, including identifying records through the new indexes that could not be traced practically before. Likewise the emigration section fails to mention the considerable number of digitised passenger lists, which, particularly for the Victorian period onwards, allow us to newly trace post-1800 migration of ancestors and relatives in a way that was never practical before. Again available through subscription genealogy sites as named above.

The biggest omission for me was that there was no mention of the Scottish Indexes website. This, for many years now, has been providing free access to a growing number of indexes – all directing the user to original manuscript records with reference numbers, usually in the National Records of Scotland. These indexes cover many aspects of Scottish genealogy. As I write this review, the website’s Scotland’s Criminals Database now includes 178,654 entries (including 38,872 prison register entries), its Mental Health Records Index has 117,882 entries, and its Scottish Paternity Index contains 41,178 entries. These indexes cover many parts of Scotland, and facilitate access to manuscript records impractical to search before.

Such omissions are of particular concern because often the family historian, especially if at a distance as they often are, really needs good advice on how to search most efficiently and effectively for ancestors. With the mass of resources available now this is often best done using a mixture of online and offline resources.

Another niggle for me is the testamentary records section. This allows six pages for a very extended list of local testamentary index books (published, in print). Examples of index entries from each commissary court are given, but there is no guidance about the detailed content you might find in an original will or testament document. For example the sort of detailed information you can get on debt and credit, legacies, sometimes lists of personal possessions etc. That would have been a much more helpful use of space. It’s also worth noting that most Scottish genealogists now will search these records using the indexes online at ScotlandsPeople, not through the earlier published print volumes.

Nevertheless, and despite the above concerns, most of the book is extremely useful stuff, and is especially good as a reference source. I particularly enjoyed the sections on maritime records, burgh records and tracing specific occupations. I should also praise the emigration chapter, which draws on the author’s own rich experience in this (reflected by how many of his own useful indexes he refers to). Although as noted, this chapter has some weaknesses in its post-1800 advice. And its depth of coverage of the historical background for emigration feels somewhat indulgent compared to the briefer coverage of other topics elsewhere in the book that could be equally deserving.

A key question is who the book is for? I’ve already commented that I think it’s an excellent reference resource, albeit not totally comprehensive. In terms of practical use the book offers the greatest potential to someone able to conduct research on the spot in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh in the National Records of Scotland. Yet even for Scottish descendants at a distance it provides a good introduction to a large range of lesser used Scottish genealogical sources, and pointers to many published indexes, albeit missing many useful online resources. Although many of the manuscript records the book directs the reader to will still involve research in Scotland, and so it may be necessary for someone at a distance to hire a professional researcher.

So yes while I may have some concerns certainly regarding coverage and applicability, my assessment is generally positive overall. I’m certainly glad that I read this book.

I recently resumed learning Scots Gaelic and Russian. I’ve been studying the former intermittently since 1990. Russian is a more recent project. Both are self study, using text books. And both have to fit around my fluctuating health.

I was very good at French at school, and picked up dozens of computer programming languages before my progressive neurological disease struck at age 22. Among many other symptoms it significantly affects my memory, and increasingly so, far more than would be expected in someone my age.

Memorising vocabulary and grammar rules is very hard for me, though Gaelic seems to “click” better in this respect. I don’t find conversational learning approaches work well for me – I forget things too quickly, and am happier learning the written language and grammar. It’s also why Duolingo and me aren’t the best match. I need to be able to refer back visually to words and grammar to remember them. A grammar-based approach also fits well with my goal of learning to read, above all, the two languages. Not to speak them so much.

Russian is more of a challenge, unsurprisingly, given its dramatically different alphabet, making words very unfamiliar visually. There’s definitely more of a hurdle to overcome. Again I’m finding the grammar approach works best for me, though it does get hard very quickly! But I do make the best progress with this.

The biggest challenge practically with the Russian learning in particular is I need to sustain the momentum of my learning, and keep it moving forwards in a cumulative way. That gives me the best hope of dealing with my language memory problems. But it isn’t something I’ve been able to do for over a year, as my neurological disease was badly out of control throughout 2020. I’m doing better now though, after a belated adjustment of my daily drug doses.

So fingers crossed! I have my tuition books ready, and hope to make sustained forward progress. I’m definitely still more confident about the Gaelic than the Russian. But I can see forward progress in the latter too, and it’s fun.

Gaelic and Russian language learning books

A recent piece of great news for Scottish family historians and also academic historians was the launch online of Scottish kirk session records. Kirk sessions oversee a local parish and its congregation, including in the past in particular disciplinary matters, and also poor relief payments. As a result the kirk session minutes and accounts are a goldmine for historians.

I’ve used these records on and off for 40 years. Some are included in the parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, where the kirk session minutes were mixed up with these. But most kirk session records are held separately. For a long time they were in Edinburgh, in the National Records of Scotland (or Scottish Record Office as I long knew it). But increasingly now the manuscript original records are being transferred, where possible, to local archives.

Some years ago the kirk session records were largely digitised, and made available on computer to visitors to the National Records of Scotland, or visitors to a number of satellite archives around Scotland. But this still did not open the records in a widespread way to researchers who could not visit in person. Instead the model was still essentially based around going to Edinburgh.

Now, thankfully, that has changed, with earlier (pre-1870 ish) kirk session records now largely viewable online at ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk. The digitised images can be viewed for free, but are not indexed by name. There is a charge (2 ScotlandsPeople credits = 50p) to download and save a page image to keep. Though often this would not be necessary, especially when browsing.

The user interface is a somewhat mixed bag. Even getting to the kirk session material can be a slight challenge, finding it in the ScotlandsPeople website alongside all the other records – most of which are indexed and searchable by name. Once in the right section there are various search options for the kirk session material, to find the right record set. Though again these are somewhat problematic, e.g. searching for place “Hawick” doesn’t find Wilton parish (the northerly part of Hawick town) which is named in the system as “Wilton (Hawick).

At the moment the biggest downside with the system is that not all available kirk session records from the target period are online yet. More are being uploaded over time, but at the moment you often search, and find no records, or very incomplete ones. Note however that there is also the issue of patchy survival of kirk session material full stop, so often the manuscript originals are lost.

On plus when you do find a parish with records the documents can be extremely rewarding, though this does vary by place. For example for Melrose parish, which I have researched extensively in the 17th and 18th centuries, there is kirk session material online going back to 1642.

Opening a page to view it will vary in what it shows. Often you are presented with two manuscript pages side by side. Luckily there is a zoom function, though it took me a while to find it! It is a little clunky to use, zooming you in greatly initially, then often you will need to zoom out a bit and pan around sideways to find the part you need. Only then can you start properly reading the bit you want.

Of course the real joy is in the content in the records. Genealogists can uncover ancestors’ irregular marriages and get clues re illegitimate births, with mothers typically called in for questioning, and often the father’s name revealed. You may also strike gold re an ancestor getting entangled in another kind of disciplinary dispute with the censorious session members.

For academics the records have immense potential. For anyone undertaking an academic study of a given area any kirk session records from the same place and time are well worth a look. More generally the records give a powerful insight into social conditions, and are a rich source of information on topics such as migration, welfare and poverty, weather, family structures, social values and morals, and the impact locally of wider events.

I can’t write this without commenting on the issue of accessibility. For nearly two decades I have been too ill from my progressive neurological disease to travel to the archives in Edinburgh, or to spend time in local archives. The early digitised version of the kirk session records were effectively cut off from me and anyone else who couldn’t travel to access them. This new online access is transformative, and for me personally will open up multiple avenues of academic research, as well as family history research. So thank you, NRS/SP, not least for making these free to view! I just hope the range and depth of records will continue to grow.

Recently I read the second in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy of novels. These books provide the reader with a vividly immersive glimpse of Tudor life, a subject that has fascinated me since I was very young. I still have to read the third novel, probably later this year. But to keep me in the Tudor world for a bit longer I turned to another book, this time non-fiction.

Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, was Henry VIII’s uncle, illegitimate half brother of Elizabeth of York. Lord Lisle is mentioned occasionally in the Mantel books, sending a dog to queen Anne Boleyn. But very much as a background character.

Throughout much of the 1530s Lord Lisle was Constable of Calais, then under English control. Later he was suspected of treason, and his correspondence was seized. And this cache of letters, ones written to him and his wife, and copies of letters from them to others, survives to this day. In 1981 a complete transcribed version was published, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Reading this, even in transcript, would be quite a challenge. More accessible is the abridged version, by the same editor, first published in 1983. I was able to nab a low-cost secondhand copy of the Folio Society edition of this, and have been slowly working through it.

The letters are presented in chronological order, together with explanatory notes about them. Many of the letters concern daily business of governing Calais, but others are letters to/from the royal court in England. The canine gift to Anne Boleyn crops up, as do other letters about gifts of animals.

Read in sequence the letters provide a different view of Tudor court life, seen at a distance and from a somewhat different perspective from usual, let alone as in Hilary Mantel’s popular fiction. For example Thomas Cromwell does not come across well in the letters, frequently acting as an unmovable obstacle to Lord Lisle’s frequent and seemingly reasonable requests for help.

It is also astonishing from a modern perspective to start to grasp the sheer enormity of correspondence and paperwork represented by these letters, many related to the high-level management of one English dependency at the time. It is also somewhat amusing to see the polite and diplomatic – and also extremely verbose – courtly letters nevertheless reveal true feelings and often frustrations, albeit always expressed in the most careful way.

Of course another joy of reading lengthy and detailed correspondence is the insight they give into the personalities involved. Lord Lisle comes across as largely well-meaning, conscientious in his appointed rule, and often frustrated in the difficulties he encounters day to day. His wife Honor is more opaque, but clearly a lady of fashion, trying to keep up her standards, buying things by mail order from London. You do rather feel she feels very cut off where they are.

So a fun set of letters, well presented, in an accessible edited abridged edition. If you want a different glimpse of Tudor life I highly recommend reading these. I believe the book is out of print now, but secondhand copies (both hardback and paperback) are readily available to buy.

A while back I discovered that there is a nice list of subscribers in the back of a book of poems from 1811 by Borders poet Andrew Scott (1757-1839). This seemed well worth analysing further. Indeed it’s the sort of thing that I did as part of my history PhD researching reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820.

I thought it might be interesting if I jotted down some thoughts about the process, before I start. The ultimate aim is some form of publication, possibly another academic journal paper.

Surprisingly little is known about the poet Andrew Scott. He was a native of Bowden in Roxburghshire, and spent some years fighting for the British army in the American Wars of Independence. Later he returned to his home parish, and for the rest of his days worked as an agricultural labourer, and also church officer (“beadle”). He died at Bowden in 1839.

His poems are fun, as indeed are the songs also included in the 1811 publication. They are mainly written in Scots, indeed more specifically Border Scots. Many are about the local area, or people he knew. There is a particularly touching poem mourning the loss of his young son.

The list of subscribers appears at the back of the book. It was common at this time for a book to be published by subscription. About 600 names appear, many from the nearby Scottish Borders area, others from elsewhere, including just across the Border in Northumberland, so relatively nearby of course.

Looking at the list of subscribers I am struck by the strong presence of women. Even married women with husbands still living, such as my 6xg-granny Mrs Usher at Melrose. Often in records of reading, including subscription lists, women are largely invisible, concealed behind the names of male relatives, if at all. This book does not seem like that.

For the men in the list in particular many occupations are given, which definitely merit further analysis. Addresses are also given for subscribers, allowing a geographical analysis, including by type of settlement.

My immediate task is to transcribe the subscription list. This will then provide the basis for the analysis steps. I may also want to research some of the subscribers more fully, perhaps using genealogical records. Much to do anyway, and a process I should enjoy very much.

Alice in Wonderland in Border Scots book cover

I’ve long been a fan of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical Alice books, loving them since a very young age. I recently discovered that there are many modern translated versions, published by Dundee-based publisher Evertype. These include a large number of Scots translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, covering different parts of Scotland. And for Borderer me there is even a Border Scots version. I bought a copy, and have been reading it.

The book thankfully retains the original Tenniel illustrations alongside the text in translation. Border Scots has quite a lot of variety within it, from dialect spoken in the Tweeddale area, through Berwickshire, and the somewhat stronger twang of the Hawick and Jedburgh areas. Fortunately for me from Hawick the translator of this edition is a fellow ex Hawick High School pupil, and the language used includes many words and expressions familiar to the area.

Having said that I’m not the strongest Border Scots speaker myself, yet the book has much vocabulary that I recognise. It reads well, though may be a trickier read for those less familiar with the dialect. As for how best to read it, I found reading fast in my head worked well, especially if I made an effort not to dwell too long on individual words, which could break the flow.

Some vocabulary did take me by surprise. Like ‘hink’. But checking in Douglas Scott’s comprehensive and encyclopaedic Hawick Word Book it is a bona fide local word. Other vocabulary was clearly bang on, such as ‘how’ for ‘why’, and ‘teesh’. I was also highly amused by the translator changing the treacle reference at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to the much more quintessentially Scottish foodstuff tablet.

I greatly enjoyed reading this, and admired the work by the translator Cameron Halfpenny. It’s a lot of Border Scots for a reader to read, but an even bigger task for a translator to produce! I think the book would be enjoyed most by Borderers or those with Border connections. For Scots elsewhere I would perhaps suggest that you might like to try the translated version of Alice for your area.

Best of all I now want to read more Border Scots. Evertype can we please have some more translations?

I am also now about to dive into Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, that I’ve long wanted to read, and the Border Scots Alice reminded me of. There may be a review forthcoming of that other Alice book in due course.

I was invited to speak at the Scottish History Society AGM today. Which normally would be face to face in Edinburgh, but this year – of course – is online, by Zoom. I was speaking about a forthcoming publication I have with them – transcript plus accompanying essay – about a poem recording events at the local court in Melrose in 1682. A poem written back then.

It went very well. I’ve been so extremely ill with my progressive neurological disease lately, and am still recovering from that flare in symptoms, that I was worried I wouldn’t be strong enough, especially if I’d had little sleep beforehand. When my brain shuts down it’s quick and sudden, with initially slurred speech then rapid confusion. And that could have struck at any point through my 20-minute slot (10/15-minute talk, plus time for questions after).

But I made it through. The audience enjoyed the talk, and are looking forward to reading the full piece when it is published. I was able to field the many interesting questions and discussion. The other talks were stimulating and interesting, and I was able to participate in their Q&As too. And best of all I felt engaged in and part of the academic community in a way I haven’t for ages.

Meanwhile though back to sleep more …

It’s International Women’s Day, and the Books and Borrowing 1750-1830 project I’m involved with blogged today about women borrowers in libraries.

I studied such records as part of my PhD examining Scottish reading habits between circa 1750 and 1820. Women are largely hidden as readers in historic library borrowing records, especially in libraries which restricted access to men. But sometimes they show up as borrowers directly, or it is recorded that a book was borrowed on their behalf. Other female members of the family may potentially have read any other book borrowed from the library.

At Haddington’s Gray Library which I studied female borrowers make a prominent appearance, and their borrowing patterns can also be compared with male borrowers at the same time. For example it’s possible to detect that they were borrowing on different days of the week from men, and that they also tended to choose a different pattern of books. For full details see my Journal of Scottish Historical Studies paper on this, which is available free in open access form.

However for this blog post I want to focus on one female Haddington borrower in particular. Jean Veitch (ca1770-1804) was my 5xg-granny, the daughter of a watchmaker in the town, and granddaughter of a Border laird in Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire. Jean first appears in the Haddington library’s borrowing records in June 1785, when she was about 15, and her father William started to borrow books for her. Over the following months he borrowed several volumes of Fielding’s Works for Jean. At this time the library asked that anyone borrowing especially for someone else note that when they took out the book. This rule may not always have been followed rigidly though, and it is possible that William borrowed some other books for his daughter over the following years.

In December 1790 Jean is first recorded borrowing a book in her own name, a volume of Cook’s Voyages. A week later she borrowed a volume of Pope’s Works. This was the last mention of her in the record.

Jean married in 1794, to my 5xg-granddad Richard Somner. For more on her life story see my blog post about her.

Also potentially of interest is my blog post about her grandfather James Veitch of Glen and Bowhill, including the extensive library of books he left when he died. I don’t know if any of these passed down to his watchmaker son in Haddington.

I thought it might be nice to look back at the books I’ve finished in the previous 12 months. Others are still in progress, but there are 75 titles I finished reading in 2020, accounting for over 21,000 pages. For the full list see my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge page, which the following image shows a snippet from.

Books read in 2020

Here are two charts showing the numbers of books finished and pages finished per month during 2020.

Books finished per month during 2020
Pages finished per month during 2020

I find this reading total astonishing, given how ill neurologically I was for much of the year. It’s clear I battled to keep reading, almost always with my utterly gigantic Ladybird book style font in my Kindle. There aren’t many words visible on each screen with such a huge size font, but I gobble up books this way. Reading gives me enormous comfort, and despite the circumstances in which I have to read, unable to generally read conventional print books, or even library large print editions (I find they have too much text on a page for me to concentrate on comfortably), I read eagerly and substantially, as the page count figures show.

The most popular subject for me in 2020 was fantasy (20 books), followed by sci-fi and non-fiction (18 books each), historical fiction (14 books) and children’s books (10 books) – the last including many classic texts. These categories overlap though, so should not be viewed as distinct. Also sci-fi is a little misleading, particularly the multiple Doctor Who books it includes, which fall under sci-fi by default, but in many cases are much more than that. Though to be fair I did read some “hard” scifi this year, with I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, two Star Trek books, and a partial reread of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Only 9 of the books I finished this year were rereads, for example the Hitchhiker’s books, some Sherlock Holmes, and my favourite reread every year for the run up to Halloween, Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October.

I’d like to briefly mention a number of books which were particular highlights for me in 2020. A non-fiction I enjoyed immensely was Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. This is an account of trips around Britain to visit Roman sites, recounting the history in a thoroughly readable manner. Erudite, educational, but also a page turner and a thoroughly well-written work.

My standout fiction highlight was a classic that I’d never read before, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I didn’t know the story from seeing the film in the past, if I ever did. Reading the novel was an eye opener. I think it does dip a little mid way, as the location shifts and the cast expands suddenly. But it picks up again, and as a fiction read I found it astonishing. I learned about a period of French history I knew little of, and was wowed by the combination of genres (revenge plot, social intrigue, crime etc.) and rich characters and vivid descriptions throughout. Apart from Dickens this must be one of the longest fiction books I’ve read for a very long time, but I’m sure I will reread it in future.

The last two books that I want to mention are both classic time-slip novels for children, which I’m surprised I hadn’t read before. First up was Alison Uttley’s time-slip children’s novel A Traveller in Time. This sees a 20th century girl slip between her time and the late 16th century, getting caught up in intrigues with the doomed Mary Queen of Scots. I saw the TV version in 1978, and still remember scenes from it. The sense of place and the historical period in the book is strong, but against that I found much of the book a little too convenient, for example how easily the people in the past accepted the modern girl appearing suddenly in their midst. A stronger example of the time-slip genre for me was the other read this year, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch in Time. Again a modern era child makes links to the past, though more subtly handled. I found it quite unsettling in places, but in a good way. By the end I was rather wowed.

So yes, rather a packed year of reading, despite huge health problems, particularly between March and October. I’m really pleased to have been able to keep reading. On to more books in 2021!