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Posts Tagged ‘scotland’

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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2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. I originally intended to write a blog post about this in the anniversary month of April, but illness prevented this. But I can do it now, better late than never, and still in time before the end of the 700th anniversary year.

The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter of April 1320, from the Scottish barons to Pope John XXII. It asserts the independence of Scotland, in particular with regard to the threats from England, and asks the Pope for his support and assistance. The letter was drawn up probably at Newbattle, but then written at Arbroath Abbey, the chancery or royal writing house at the time. A particularly famous part of the letter is the following, which is oft cited even to this day, especially in the context of moves for Scottish independence.

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself

The number of men who signed the letter is problematic. 39 names are definitely included in the document itself, and would have had their seals attached. Seals are also attached for an additional 7 names which can be identified. It is thought that there may have been as many as 50 seals originally. So 39, 46 or 50? The number is tricky to pin down. However historians tend to agree on the core 39, plus the additional 7 names with seals attached and identifiable. So that was the list of “signatories” that I chose to work from.

Picture of Declaration of Arbroath, showing the seals attached to it

Given this list of signatories I wondered how many I could confidently identify as known ancestors of myself. I’ve traced my family tree for nearly 40 years, and my ancestry includes numerous noble and royal lines, including King James IV of Scotland and his antecedents, as well as other genealogical links back to the earlier Stewart kings. So it was worth a punt.

I started from the list of 46 names, to see what I could find. Some names jumped out as ancestors immediately, others needed more digging. My source material is primarily published genealogies about Scottish noble families, such as James Balfour Paul’s Scots peerage volumes. There are problems with published peerages and genealogies. In particular they tend to miss daughters, and can be vague on younger sons, both things I’ve found myself where I’ve researched landed families to plug gaps re ancestors, e.g. the Douglases of Drumlanrig, and Scotts of Woll in the 16th and 17th centuries. Published genealogies are also sometimes dodgy on wives. Not ideal! But they’re the best I have, so I saw where I could get with them. It’s probably more likely I am underestimating the number of my ancestors among the signatories than overestimating them.

From the list of 46 known names I could identify 22 as (probably, bearing in mind the published genealogy issues) g..granddads or brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. I was initially intending just to include direct g..granddads I found in the list. But then I thought again, and realised just how much I value g..uncles and their stories in more recent parts of my family tree. And if a g..uncle signed the Declaration of Arbroath I’d be interested in knowing that too! In practice the majority of my ancestral signatory identifications were g..granddads, 17/22. The other 5 were g..uncles, brothers of g..granddads or g..grannies. Those g..uncle “ancestors” below have asterisks (*) after their names in the list of 22 here.

  • Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray
  • Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March (or Earl of Dunbar)*
  • Malise, Earl of Strathearn
  • William, Earl of Ross
  • Walter, High Steward of Scotland (son-in-law of King Robert the Bruce)
  • Sir James Douglas, Lord of Douglas
  • David de Graham of Kincardine (grandfather of Robert II’s Queen)
  • John de Menteith, guardian of the earldom of Menteith
  • Alexander Fraser of Touchfraser and Cowie
  • Gilbert de la Hay, Constable of Scotland
  • Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland*
  • Henry St Clair of Rosslyn
  • David Lindsay of Crawford
  • John de Fenton, Lord of Baikie and Beaufort*
  • William de Abernethy of Saltoun
  • David Wemyss of Wemyss
  • Eustace Maxwell of Caerlaverock*
  • Donald Campbell*
  • Alexander Seton
  • Andrew de Leslie
  • Edward Keith (later Marischal of Scotland)
  • John de Inchmartin

This list includes 4/8 earls who signed the Declaration of Arbroath, and numerous other lords and barons. In the second group are Robert the Bruce’s son-in-law Walter, High Steward. Other post holders include the Constable of Scotland, Gilbert de la Hay, and the Marischal of Scotland, Robert Keith. 20 of the 22 ancestor names are from the 39 names of men whose names appear as signatories directly on the original document. Only 2 of the 22 names – Edward Keith, later Marischal of Scotland (and brother of Robert above), and John de Inchmartin – were among the extra 7 names not written in the document, but whose seals were attached.

How do I feel about knowing that my ancestors signed this iconic document in Scottish history? I think I do feel a stronger sense of connection with this past, on a personal level. It makes it less abstract as a concept, and something that I can envisage more through the people involved.

What I don’t have in this, and I must make absolutely clear, is a sense of unusualness. Many, indeed probably most, Scots will be descended from signatories to the Declaration of Arbroath. The only difference is that I know my ancestry back to each of these people, whereas others don’t. It’s also true that many ordinary Scots would share this descent from signatories. Scotland in the past was an extremely fluid society in terms of mixing between social strata. It’s not strictly a case of us and them, but very much we are all them.

On a more practical level I now want to learn more about the period and people involved. I’m reading Ted Cowan’s book on the Declaration of Arbroath for starters, and will see where I go from that.

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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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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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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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