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Posts Tagged ‘historical research’

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.

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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 …

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I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiences of school history of late. Prompted in part by the musings of other academics, but also as I think about how I view history and what it means to me.

I was at secondary school, at Hawick High School in the Scottish Borders, between 1984 and 1990. I studied history for the first four of those years. I’d like particularly to reflect on the Scottish history content, or more often the lack of it.

For the first two years all pupils studied history, alongside many other subjects. In many ways this was the highlight period for me in terms of a strong representation of Scottish content. In one of those years we studied Scotland in the period before and during the Scottish Wars of Independence, using a published textbook written by several of the Hawick teachers. I particularly relished its case studies, for example a detailed examination of nearby Melrose Abbey and how it related to the surrounding countryside. Even better for genealogist me was an extremely detailed examination of the complex genealogical puzzle over who should inherit the Scottish crown after the death in 1290 of Margaret, Maid of Norway. We also covered in detail the stories and battles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, alongside wider discussions of Scottish society and its people at this time.

Also in my first two years my history teacher Ian Landles was determined to teach us history of his beloved home town Hawick. So we learned all about where we lived, its history, including the famous textile industry, key events and people, and along the way guided walks taking us out and about to learn more on the ground. All very much appreciated.

In S3 and S4 (third and fourth years of Scottish secondary school) in my day Scottish pupils studied O-Grade courses, cutting down the range of subjects, to those we would sit formal school qualification exams in. My school year was the last before Standard Grade qualifications were introduced.

I chose history as one of my O-Grade subjects. Sadly S3 was an awful experience, with a teacher who could not control disruptive elements in his class. We battled to learn early nineteenth century British history despite this, but were eventually transferred to another history teacher’s class, thankfully Ian Landles again.

I remember we learned a little history of the Scottish Highland Clearances. But that was a rare Scottish element. I did enjoy the World War One content, and if I remember correctly Mr Landles tried to include Scottish elements. But it was still British history, with an emphasis on learning facts, names, dates, places, rather than the process of doing history per se.

I did well in the history O-Grade exam, but was disillusioned by the approach of school history, learning facts about things I often had little interest in. So I didn’t take Higher History. It’s such a shame, because for me history is such a fun subject, but the school courses, at least the syllabus I encountered in O-Grade, didn’t capture that at all. The magic for me lies in the process of discovery, working with primary sources and other evidence. These were all things I had learned to love myself through my own genealogical and family history research since primary school. This also led me to visit historical archives from age 12 or so, and quickly become hooked on the process of historical research. But again none of that appeared in S3 and S4 history, even if there were elements of it in S1 and S2.

When I went to St Andrews University there were two subjects I would have loved to study for an honours degree. Firstly computer science, which I applied to study, but also Scottish history, which I had to pass on. In the end I got to the Scottish history after all, after I fell ill with a progressive neurological disease aged just 22, and started studying history very part-time, to take my mind off the gruelling medical treatment I was undergoing. Over the following years, increasingly part-time, I picked up three history degrees, BA(Hons), taught MPhil, and PhD. But this was all done despite school history failing to grab me.

Now some might view the presence or otherwise of Scottish history in school history syllabuses as a political one, e.g. nationalism versus unionism, Scottish versus British. It’s certainly true that I’ve been a pro-SNP independence supporter, ever since my teenage years. However for me the issue seems deeper than that, more about learning about where you live, that has worth in learning about, and crucially is something that you can relate to. Luckily I became fascinated by history from age 5 onwards, but what I picked up re Scottish history was almost all due to my own private study from that, not from what I learned in school.

I also feel strongly that teaching facts to be learned by rote is not what history teaching should be about. It’s certainly not the aspect of history that hooked me. It’s also counter intuitive if the facts you are mechanically learning have no emotional resonance for you. Far better I think if you can teach the process of doing history i.e. how can we investigate a given topic? What sorts of evidence can we use? How can we handle inconsistencies between sources? And indeed what does the concept of a “fact” even mean in history anyway?

I have read that Scottish school history syllabuses are better in these respects now. I really hope that is the case, and that they continue to improve. Because if school history doesn’t teach youngsters a country’s history, it is letting them down and the country too. It’s also vital that it teaches the fun of history, and the buzz of enquiry, which should never be purely about learning so-called facts, but more how we can discover things for ourselves.

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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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