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Posts Tagged ‘historical research’

In the 1590s my 12xg-grandfather Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig hired mathematician and occult practitioner John “Logarithms” Napier to hunt for hidden treasure in Fast Castle in Berwickshire.

I wrote a text adventure based on this true story, filling in the gaps in the record creatively, and entered it into the Spring Thing 2020 interactive fiction competition.

Today I wrote up some thoughts about the development of the game.

The game is freely available online to play via browser or download.

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I’m pleased to say that the article based on my postgraduate Masters research into Melrose’s court is now newly published. It’s in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and is currently the featured article, so can be read and downloaded freely by anyone without subscription. I had much fun doing this. I completed this research long ago, before my separate history PhD. It’s been a delight to revisit the work, and consider what else I can do with it.

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March 31st 2020 will mark exactly ten years since my successful history PhD viva. I thought it might be nice to reflect on how the subsequent years have gone, and where things stand now for me, in academic terms.

I live with a severely disabling neurological disease, which struck in 1994 when I was just 22. It’s gradually progressive, and prevents me from working in any paid capacity in academia or elsewhere, and limits what I can do. The last decade saw me continue to battle a major relapse in my disease, including needing high dose chemotherapy infusions in hospital throughout summer 2012. Fortunately this treatment helped stabilise my condition, although it is still progressive.

Nevertheless I have continued to be active as an academic, publishing new peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters, and presenting conference papers and participating in other ways.

In the early stages post PhD my primary focus was on publishing work from my PhD thesis. Increasingly I have moved onto new research and new topics, and have a number of interesting new research projects underway.

An unexpected more recent change of tack saw me switch from my usual eighteenth century interests to jump back into the seventeenth century. My pre-PhD MPhil (taught PG Masters) dissertation studied a rich set of seventeenth century Scottish local court records, and I felt strongly that these merited publication as well as my later PhD research. In addition I discovered a poem about the court in 1682 – written then too! I have an annotated transcript and accompanying essay about the poem due to be published soon. This might sound straightforward, but the seventeenth century context is far outside my comfort zone as a historian. Yet I have derived much pleasure working in it, and learning the historiographical ropes. Encouragingly I also think there could be more publishable outputs possible from this MPhil dissertation research.

I have also combined my historical interests with indie computer game development, specifically traditional text adventure games, or interactive fiction as they are more commonly known nowadays. Two games have been entered into competitions, one about Border Reivers in 1490s Liddesdale, the other an occult treasure hunt in 1590s Scotland based on a true story in my family history. I plan to write more in future. It’s a creative hobby that gives me much pleasure.

Another area I would like to explore more is digital humanities. I’ve always used large scale computer techniques in my historical research, probably inevitable given my previous background as an academic computer scientist. Yet I would like to do more, for example building online portals to some of the databases and resources I have built in my research, and using spatial analysis and visualisation to further explore Scottish book history and urban history.

One thing that has declined over the last decade is my participation in academic conferences. This has had a strong correlation with my neurological disease progression, and the increasing practical challenges of attending conferences given these circumstances. However I do still occasionally speak at conferences, or attend. I was due to speak at a conference in May, but then Coronavirus happened. Hopefully the event is just postponed, rather than cancelled.

Something else that has declined over the last decade is how frequently I have been able to attend Dundee University history research seminars for the university’s history academic staff and postgraduates in particular. There are various reasons for this, but my progressive disease is definitely a major factor. I was delighted recently when I managed to attend a history seminar, the first in a very long time. Many familiar faces to see and catch up with, as well as new folks to meet. Yet even largely home based I don’t feel completely cut off as an academic historian. Twitter is a particular boon, connecting me with fellow academics and historical researchers with shared interests, all over the world. I also have a good number of lecturer friends I can call on for advice if need be. Ever since my PhD I have had an honorary research fellowship in history at Dundee University, which has also been a huge help, and is very much appreciated, giving me ready access to electronic journals and other resources, so vital to allow me to continue to keep up with research in my academic fields.

I don’t know what the next few years are going to bring. But for now I look ahead with optimism, and hope to continue to build on the good progress I have made as an academic historian in the last ten years.

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One thing I really miss with my neurological illness is being able to walk around a place and explore. I used to love wandering around St Andrews as an undergraduate, and Hawick and other Borders towns when I was even younger. When the illness started in 1994, when I was just 22, it didn’t stop me walking right away, though there were issues. Walking difficulties have increased over time, especially after my major relapse in 2004.

I now always use two sticks out and about, and can hardly walk any distance. Often I have to use my wheelchair. I have had a Blue Badge since 2001 for good reason. It does mean that when we go on overseas trips I am extremely restricted. I have to sleep most days anyway, but even on other days I need the help of taxis or similar to get any distance away from the hotel. In Venice I had a huge struggle walking to the nearest water bus stop. And when I go back to Hawick I can’t explore as I’d like to. On trips my husband becomes my roving eyes, exploring a city on foot, with digital camera in hand, on the days I have to sleep. That helps me “see” a bit more of a place. But there’s still a great sense of loss. And I know I will never recover this. My disease is progressive.

It’s particularly frustrating for me as an urban historian. So much of my academic research in the last 20 years has been on towns, and town development, especially in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Luckily even with my disability I can make progress with a lot of documentary records – including digitised ones that I can access at home – and old maps and town plans. But there’s no real substitute for exploring a town on foot on the ground.

So yes, it’s sad, but I’m still able to explore my interests intellectually and academically. And life is still rewarding. Albeit not very mobile!

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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Earlier this year I researched the history of this building, the first time I’d done that type of historical research. And I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences of doing it.

I did have some advantages going in. My postgraduate taught Masters degree was partly in urban history, taught by architectural historian Professor Charles McKean. So I picked up some tips. As well I had my academic historical research experience, and 35+ years as an amateur genealogist. So I was well used to researching people in the past, and the main sources that can help. But this was still a new challenge.

I was prompted to do it when I spotted that 2018 was the 200 year anniversary of the building where my husband works, now the HQ for the space technology company STAR-Dundee. They are a Dundee University spinoff company, and the building used to be university owned. Earlier its history was much less clear, though it was believed to have been a merchant’s house originally, and built for a man called James Gray.

So not too much to go on, when I wackily emailed STAR-Dundee boss Stuart in early April and offered to trace the history of the building and is inhabitants over two centuries. I wasn’t optimistic about what I’d find.

One of the first things I did was to check the architectural records held by Historic Environment Scotland. The Canmore database listing for the building mentions it was called Grange House. Well, I found that was wrong, probably from someone – quite possibly even my PhD supervisor Charles! – misreading the original architect plans, that, miraculously, the HES search room holds, as part of a volume of plans by the building’s architect David Neave. That sort of survival just doesn’t usually happen for buildings of this age. I was able to order digital copies of the original plans, and get permission from HES to reproduce them in my finished report. The plans show how the building, which went by the name Graybank for much of its history, was laid out in 1818 as a house, including the use of each room. The 1818 plans also included front and rear elevations of the house, which gave a lovely insight into what the building originally looked like – remarkably similar to now.

Alongside that I was able to quickly check records from core sources. Most were readily available online. For example the National Library of Scotland has a marvellous digitised collection of local directories, showing the occupants over time. Likewise ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk has all the 19th century census returns, digitised valuation rolls, wills and inventories, and much else besides. As a disabled academic, being able to access so much material online, conveniently and easily, was a real benefit, and speeded up the building research process enormously. For example from ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk I was able to download digital copies of the detailed lengthy wills and after-death inventories of many of the house’s owners, allowing me to transcribe them conveniently at home, and add much useful information to the finished report. This included the original owner, James Gray, whose inventory recorded the many ships he was a part owner of. We now have a confirmed vision of him watching for some of his ships from the vantage point of his new riverside house!

Perhaps most surprisingly – although maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised – was the wealth of material found in old newspapers, searched by keyword search on the British Newspaper Archive website. These provided much rich detail about the house and its occupants. There were a number of sale or rental advertisements, describing it at different points. But there were also lots of marvellous obituaries for the various members of the family, and also mentions of family celebrations. One particular delight concerned a resident’s time before he moved into 166 Nethergate, revealing that he’d given a talk at Dundee University on the history of the solar system. A marvellous find given that the building is now the home of a space company!

We also managed to trace the family grave of the original owner in Dundee’s Howff cemetery, and my husband photographed it, to go into the report. A nearby Flowerdew family gravestone can’t be read any more, but we were able to find a record of its original inscription. Overall we were able to manage to find lots about the families who lived in the building for its first 130 years – Gray, Flowerdew, Lowson, Buist, Moodie plus some others in between – even in some cases tracing family photos and home movies from the 1930s.

The university connection was valuable from a research point of view. As a university property, a wealth of paperwork was preserved relating to the house from the late 1940s through to its sale to STAR-Dundee in 2011. This included more architectural plans, but also original surveyor reports, correspondence relating to the sale and use of the building, and even a duplicate old key lurking in the paper files! All of this information filled out the picture immensely.

In the end, in just about 10 weeks, I was able to compile a detailed report about the building and history, 48 pages long, in A4 format. We arranged for this to be printed and bound, and copies were given to STAR-Dundee, and posters about the building’s history put up for employees to look at. Copies of the printed report were deposited with Historic Environment Scotland’s archive in Edinburgh, and Dundee University Archives, so people can still access the research in 50, 100 or more years time.

Would I research a building’s history again? Yes, probably, though almost certainly with more modest expectations of what I might be able to uncover for another case. I think this first one rather spoilt me in terms of being so rich in source material, and, yes, those original plans. Enormous fun anyway.

Photo of 166 Nethergate

Photo of 166 Nethergate

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I’ve various academic history research projects on the go, and one of these, still in the early stages, is to look at 18th century Scottish shop tax records. My taught postgraduate Masters degree at Dundee was in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, and I also worked as a Research Assistant on a pilot study of small towns in Scotland circa 1750-1820. So to study shops and their development in this period is perfect given my background.

Fortunately for me these records have been digitised at ScotlandsPlaces.gov.uk, and so are conveniently accessible. As a disabled academic, with a severely disabling neurological illness, this access is particularly important, meaning I can work on these records at home. You used to have to go to Edinburgh to look at these records in manuscript form, which I certainly can’t do any more.

The shop tax records that survive for Scotland only cover years 1785-1789, but cover many towns across the country, large and small. The amount of detail varies. Sometimes you just get names and no details of shops. At other times you can see what the shops were. For example the image below shows part of the 1787 Haddington shop tax list, including my 6xg-grandfathers Dr Richard Somner (surgeon and apothecary, shop type not specified in the tax records) and William Veitch (watchmaker, recorded in the tax record).

Such a high degree of variation means that the shop tax records aren’t all suitable for study. Indeed a core question is how much of these records are detailed enough for adequate analysis. But more interesting, I think, is to see if we can use these records to explore how developed the shopping hierarchy was in urban Scotland by the 1780s, including how shops varied between different towns. This ties into the work of my PhD supervisors Professors Bob Harris and Charles McKean, whose Saltire prize winning book on Scottish towns addresses this to an extent, and especially so re the provision of luxury goods.

At the moment I’m still in the early stages of this research project, currently part way through looking through the records systematically, to see which towns have detailed shop tax records at specific dates.

Then I want to consider which types of towns can be analysed, e.g. large cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, versus manufacturing centres like Paisley, Hawick etc., or elite centres like Dumfries or Montrose. Towns in Scotland fell into many types, and it’s important to consider what type each town was when analysing its records.

Thinking along these lines will give me a target list of towns, whose shop tax records I can then transcribe and start to analyse. I will need to formalise my list of research questions more fully, but such questions ought to come partly out of the records themselves, and partly out of the academic literature.

Anyway it should be fun! I would aim to publish the results, but also aim to report back here on progress and findings, as well as any final results.

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Mainly as a prompt for myself, to encourage me to get it all done, I thought I’d blog about some writing projects I want to finish off in the next year.

First up is a rewrite of a conference talk, which I want to submit in print to a new academic journal. It’s almost finished. I just need to tidy up the last few bits. And some sections are time, or more pertinently date, critical. So I need to get on with it. That should be done soon.

Secondly I have a brand new journal paper combining urban history and book history, the topics of my PG Masters and PhD. It needs more work, but I’m really pleased with it as it stands. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve written, and it’s a topic that probably only I could do, given my combined background. The trickiest bits are sorting out illustrations for two case studies. For the first, a town, I can probably work from a published town plan, if I can pick a suitable one, and get permission to use it. The other case study, a regional case study, is possibly going to need a new map. I’m not good at drawing maps! So I’m still pondering what to do re that. It definitely needs some kind of cartographic illustration, to explain unfamiliar geography to the reader. But if I can crack the mapping issues I ought to be able to submit this journal paper in the first quarter of 2018.

Slightly more straightforward is developing an already accepted manuscript publishing proposal for the Scottish History Society. This concerns a poem from the 17th century, which I have transcribed, and will be published in annotated form. The key work to do is to add numerous annotations and expand the introductory essay. Annotations will be added for people’s names, places, events, anything else needing explaining. This should be largely straightforward, but will be somewhat time consuming, and may hit tricky patches. The introductory essay needs more on the possible provenance of the poem and its mystery writer. I may need to consult an academic specialist on poetry of this period for that. I expect that I can finish this by summer 2018, but have a much longer deadline option available if need be.

I also have a short journal paper in progress, concerning a 16th century poet ancestor of mine, a royal courtier, whose family history as published eg in DNB is very wrong. I thought I might write a note putting on record a corrected version, based on my research. This is in progress, in Scrivener on my iPad, but isn’t urgent to finish. It can wait until all the more important and heftier items are out of the way. So while it might be nice to submit it in 2018, in practice it may be done later. Not least because of how ill I am, with a severely disabling MS-like illness.

I have other academic writing projects in the air, but for most I need to do more research in primary source materials, i.e. documents, first.

As well as the academic writing projects I have two fun recreational things that I hope to submit in 2018. I am writing a number of interactive fiction (IF) or text adventure games in Inform 7. And I may be ready to submit two of them to IF competitions in 2018. One of my games, a 15th century set game about the Border Reivers, is about 80% finished at the moment. I need to add further refinements, and improve interactivity, and it still needs thoroughly playtesting. But that could easily be completed well in advance of the 2018 IFComp, the main annual competition for interactive fiction games that takes place each autumn. The other historical game I’m writing, about mathematician John Napier and a treasure hunt he was employed on for my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, around 1590 or so, is much earlier in development. But I expect I should be able to get an opening portion ready to submit for IntroComp, for the opening sections of games, if that competition runs again in 2018, most likely in the summer.

So those are my writing goals. Submit two journal papers, complete another already accepted publishing piece, and submit two interactive fiction games to competitions in 2018, all going well. Let’s see what happens!

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When I did my history PhD at Dundee University (“Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820”) I was plugging a big gap in the research. All PhD research should make a contribution, but it’s rare for a subject to be quite so little studied before as this one. Scottish reading habits and book history more generally had been little researched since Paul Kaufman in the 1960s. Some PhDs had been completed, but usually by librarians, without their own graduate students to inspire. And so, although Scotland has a mass of useful sources (library borrowing records, evidence of book ownership etc.), its reading and book history was largely little researched when I started my PhD in 2003.

Of course the downside of having a big gap is that there’s always a chance someone else will come along and fill it. During my PhD there was a panic moment, when I learned of another PhD student, Mark Towsey at neighbouring St Andrews, looking at many of the same sources, with a very similar PhD topic. We met up, and established our respective approaches. We still had overlaps, but not enough to jeopardise getting our PhDs. And we both completed successfully.

That was some years ago, but more recently reading history has become more popular among Scottish researchers, almost fashionable to an extent. And in the last few years I’ve watched with interest new PhD students starting to work on Scottish reading habits, for example Maxine Branagh-Miscampbell looking at childhood reading in 18th century Scotland, and Jill Dye studying Innerpeffray Library and its borrowers. It’s a slightly strange feeling seeing the field come alive like this, but in a rather wonderful way. And it’s always exciting to see new researchers approach things differently, in terms of their theoretical framework and methodologies, and in terms of the core research questions that they explore.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results of these and other upcoming Scottish PhD projects in the next few years. It’s exciting to see these developments, if still rather strange at the same time!

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I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

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