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Posts Tagged ‘scotland’

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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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 recently been working through an 1820s Scottish trade directory, for a journal paper I’m developing. On the way through, while looking for book trade references, I spotted other interesting things. For example Prestwick in Ayrshire had a “florist & bird stuffer” – what a combination of jobs!

But two of the most interesting people, for me anyway, that I spotted were early telescope makers. One was listed as such in the directory: James Veitch, maker of telescopes, microsopes etc. at Inchbonny, Jedburgh, Roxburghshire. As a Borderer with an interest in the history of science I’d heard his name before, but hadn’t looked into him too much. But doing a little more online research discovered that he made wood tubed telescopes, and his customers included fellow Borderers Sir David Brewster and Sir Walter Scott.

The other telescope maker I found listed in the 1820s directory was in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. Not only did Thomas Morton build telescopes to sell, but he had even built in Kilmarnock what was described by the directory as “A very fine observatory, some valuable machinery, and excellent telescopes”. He was still making telescopes as late as circa 1860, and his had very impressive looking metal tubes. The National Museum of Scotland has quite a collection of them.

I wonder if there were other telescope makers working in Scotland in the 1820s.

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Yesterday I attended the second day of this conference held at Perth Concert Hall. It was held in honour of my former PhD supervisor, Professor Charles McKean. Originally it had been hoped that he would be there, but sadly he died a few weeks ago. But it went ahead in his honour, in a positive manner.

Sadly due to my MS-like illness I could never attend both days, and had to choose one over the other. This meant that I missed a very moving appreciation of Charles by James Simpson, as well as Charles’s son Andrew talking about his father’s research. But overall I think I chose the better day for me, partly on timetabling terms, partly on subject matter. I am not a Renaissance or architectural historian, and the second day’s talks fitted better into the wider social and cultural context I could relate to.

The venue was good. I’ve never been there before, but I was impressed. I was using my wheelchair, and it was level access, and a good sized room for the 70 or so attendants (hardly any chairs free!). Catering was also good, including a nice buffet lunch. My husband accompanied me, to help me manage my wheelchair, and he was made very welcome.

The second day started with the second batch of coach tours to nearby castles. I didn’t go on these, partly for wheelchair reasons, but joined the conference at the first coffee break, before the first main papers session. And it was a good one, looking at castles and tower houses in the wider context of landscape, and European culture. I was particularly struck by Shannon Fraser’s presentation about Fyvie Castle and some of the architectural research that has been done there by the National Trust for Scotland. And Marilyn Brown’s presentation on Edzell Castle – I really must go there! It is not too far from me in Angus – and the iconography and imagery used, and still visible, in the Renaissance garden there. The way she was able to identify likely original European prints that were used as the basis of the designs still visible today was highly impressive. Indeed every time anyone mentioned the use of books by castle owners I would scribble frantically – book/reading historian in full mode. That included books on architectural design, garden design, military manuals, and so on. I also liked it when the speakers could say that the owner owned a particular book, which may have influenced the design of their home.

The second session, after lunch, looked more at interpretation of old castles and houses. This included a thought-provoking talk by Michael Davis, on whether the quest for authenticity is at the expense of castle preservation. I think he gave us lots to think about, and in an era where many Scottish castles are in dire need of preservation, but also people who can afford to pay for the work to be done, it was an interesting thing to muse over. He was followed by Fiona Fleming from Historic Scotland, who talked about how her organisation works with academics – historians, architectural specialists etc. – to understand the buildings that they look after, and to present an image of what they were like in the past to visitors. She closed with a recently created artist’s impression of a Renaissance feast, and there was Charles, in the front, depicted in hose and the rest, raising his tankard to the viewer. Quite a few of us nearly choked up at that point, but it was a lovely thing to close the session on, before the closing reflections by Professor Konrad Ottenheym, with the image of Charles plus tankard staying on screen.

If I have one criticism of the event it’s that quite a few speakers over-ran their time slots, quite considerably, 10/15 minutes, which with 20 minute slots and a fairly tight schedule caused timetabling problems. The pity was that it ate into the time for discussion and questions afterwards, in one case obliterating it, and I wish that hadn’t happened, because I think it’s at those times that the speakers and audience could have had a particularly productive discussion about taking the research forward that Charles has inspired so much.

That’s my one criticism, but in other respects it was a superb day. I’m really glad that I went, I want to learn more about Renaissance architecture and studies now, and I think it was a lovely tribute to Charles, and a very positive way of celebrating an active research area, that I hope will continue long after his time. I also thought it was lovely that so many of the speakers I saw included personal recollections of Charles in their talks, echoing memories for many of us.

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I’ve been learning Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic) on and off since about 1990. At the time I was prompted to start learning it by my appreciation for Gaelic music groups such as Runrig and Capercaillie, and wanting to understand their lyrics better. Even just listening to their Gaelic songs you start to absorb the language by osmosis. I bought myself a copy of Maclaren’s Gaelic Self-Taught. What I didn’t realise at the time was my future husband, from England, was doing exactly the same thing for the same reasons!

Sadly I fell ill in late 1994, with what would turn out to be a progressive neurological disease, similar to multiple sclerosis. This causes huge difficulties in learning new languages, particularly vocabulary, because of the memory problems from the brain damage. For example I signed up for a Latin course with the Open University about a decade ago, and was doing very well in the tutor marked assessments, but each time I was effectively having to start from scratch, being unable to learn and remember the grammar or vocabulary from the previous time. It became increasingly difficult to continue, and I dropped out.

Maclaren's Gaelic Self-Taught

But I still want to learn Gaelic. And I am going to give it another go. I’ve dug out my old self teaching book, and set myself the challenge this week of having a go at it for 3 days for 15 minutes each time. And I started today, in the coffee shop in the Angus Gateway above Monifieth. And it went very well. I was able to remember a lot of the things I had learned before my disease struck, and worked out a way forward. I am going to skip for now the less useful chapters like subjunctive cases, and jump ahead to those chapters that are of more use to me. Fingers crossed it works.

Gaelic learning in nearby coffee shop

I am still inspired by Gaelic songs when it comes to learning Gaelic. I recently bought a bargain copy of Anne Lorne Gillies’s book about Gaelic songs, which includes the original melodies in sheet music form, as well as the Gaelic lyrics and a parallel English translation.

Songs of Gaelic Scotland

And I am also looking forward to an upcoming book about understanding Gaelic place names. I was prompted to search for this on our recent drive home from Inverness to Dundee, the scenic route down the west side of Loch Ness and then across country. I was delighted to find a perfect book was due to be published in February. I have it on preorder, and am looking forward to getting stuck into it. But maybe I can improve my basic Gaelic before then.

Reading the Gaelic Landscape

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My husband and I recently returned from a trip north to Inverness. I was attending an academic conference, and giving a talk there, and we used the opportunity to have a break in the Highlands and a small holiday. On our way back to Dundee we called into Culloden, and then drove down the west side of Loch Ness for the scenic route.

Culloden battlefield lies to the east of the city. It’s near a small village of the same name, so there are a lot of modern houses around. But the battlefield itself is undeveloped, and stands as a permanent memorial to the lost in 1746. In 2008 a new visitor centre was opened at the site. It’s not the prettiest building by any imagination, but it’s very functional, and I was impressed at how it houses the exhibitions and information for visitors.

Once inside there’s a shop to the left, and a cafe with free Wifi, and then you are at the tickets desk and on your way in to the exhibition. There are scooters and wheelchairs available for people to use who need them, especially when going out onto the battlefield, but they could also be useful for people with mobility problems when going through the long winding exhibition.

The exhibition is based around a series of linked corridors, with display cases and exhibits in the centre and on the walls, and the two side walls telling respectively the stories of the Government forces and the Jacobites. This covers the background to the battle, the run up to it, with the Jacobites marching south into England, and then the time before Culloden itself, the battle and the aftermath.

It’s a very difficult story to tell. It’s complex, there’s a lot to take in, but I was impressed with the information boards and displays, and felt that they communicated things pretty well. I also liked the exhibits. As well as lots of maps and for example Stuart family trees there were clothes from the time, of course weapons, medallions, Jacobite emblems, books, basically lots of interesting personal items that made you feel close to the time.

It took us quite a while to work our way through this section of the visitor centre, taking in the information. Both my husband (English) and I (Scottish Borderer with Jacobite ancestry) drifted inevitably towards the Jacobite side each time. My main emotion was anger, growing all the time, at the inept decision making of Bonnie Prince Charlie which led to the huge sacrifice. We both learned masses. I also wondered if my Border Jacobite ancestor James Veitch was at the battle. He was apparently a life guard for the Prince, so may have been there.

After working through the visitor centre we reached the back door, where you can walk out onto the battlefield. There are regular guided walking tours around the battlefield, and one was about to start as we got there. I passed on this – due to my MS-like illness it was never going to be that feasible a thing for me to do, even if I’d used a scooter. Instead we went outside ourselves, and made our way up to the custom-built viewing area on the visitor centre roof, that gives you a 360 degree view of the battlefield. On the downside there were no seats there – I suggested afterwards to the visitor centre that they might like to add some. But we spent some time there, taking in the landscape. I also bought a guide book to study at home.

I’m very glad I went there. It’s horrific, and highly moving, but an important site. And I think the new visitor centre does an excellent job of communicating the history to visitors.

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Early this morning I sent off the revised version of an accepted journal paper to the editor. So that’s taken care of. Good. But I thought for my own benefit I’d make a note here of other things I’m working on, as an aide-memoire.

I’ve agreed to write a book review for a Scottish history academic journal. I was approached for this, because of the specific book, and my research interests. So that’s next on the list. I have the book in the house – my own copy actually – and just need to read it, and pull together some thoughts. That shouldn’t take too long, fingers crossed, and should be fun. The review is needed by the end of this year, but I should easily finish it many months ahead of then.

In September I’m hoping to go to a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth, and have offered to give a short talk about my Cavers one-name study. I’ve jotted down some ideas in a mind map already, but need to finish writing it, including the PowerPoint presentation I’ll use.

I’ve a series of articles ongoing that are a cross between historical pieces and roleplaying game ideas, and need to resume writing these. They were put on hold, as I battled the illness and completing other things. I’ve done seven articles so far, and am part-way through one on Montrose, with more planned. I’m hoping to publish them as a PDF booklet, once completed.

My interactive fiction game work in progress needs to be picked up again. I’d completed the prologue, and was at a point where I was going to start coding up the main middle section. I should be able to make good progress with this. I find writing the dialogue and interaction quite hard, but the coding side, in Inform 7 – a natural language programming language – is much easier for me. It’s funny, I can’t do much computer programming now, since the brain damage got really bad. But I get on well with Inform 7 – yay!

I have two other academic articles currently with journal editors and reviewers. One was derived from part of my PhD, the other from my MPhil. And I could hear back about those at any time. With luck I’d be offered some sort of revision, even a revise and resubmit would be good. But even if these editors reject the pieces outright I’d want to revise them myself before submitting them to a different journal. So I need to allow a little bit of space to be able to work on that.

I need to put together a proposal for the Community Libraries: Connecting Readers in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850 project. I can’t attend the colloquium in Chicago, about digital approaches to library history. But I hope to be able to attend the London colloquium in 2015, which is looking at libraries in the community. I could put together a good discussion piece for that, based on what I did for the library in Haddington, researching the readers using a huge range of genealogical and historical records, to be able to contextualise their borrowings properly. I’m also planning similar research in future for the Balquhidder Parish Library in Perthshire, and to that end am currently in the middle of a small-scale pilot study of another set of library borrowings. But I need to put something together for the London meeting, and submit it before the September 2013 deadline for abstracts.

I recently blogged about the 17th century poem I’m transcribing. I’d like to publish the transcript in an academic journal, with a suitable introduction and text contextualising it. So that’s another paper idea I’m working on. But I need to finish transcribing the poem first. For the record it’s massive. Three pages of two columns of tight text. Many many lines of poem.

I have another couple of paper ideas in progress, but they are at early stages, and unlikely to reach editors anytime soon.

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