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Photo of part of Dundee University campus including an Oor Wullie statue

Autumn 2021 will mark exactly two decades since I started as a postgraduate history student at Dundee University. I thought it would be nice to reflect back on my experiences then. Not least because it was a life-changing step for me.

Originally I was a science student at St Andrews University, and started an EPSRC-funded computer science PhD in 1994. But at the same time I started to develop a progressive neurological disease, aged just 22, which would mean that I had to drop out of the science PhD.

After then I fought for proper diagnosis and treatment, which I got in 1997. The treatment which started then – and has continued – was for many years extremely gruelling chemotherapy, leaving me feeling nauseous and vomiting for much of the time. To take my mind off that I started studying part-time with the Open University. From 1998-2000 I studied history and classical studies, picking up a BA(Hons), helped by credit transfer from my first degree, letting me effectively jump straight into second year. But what to do next?

The Open University offered a taught postgraduate Masters, but one I couldn’t study more quickly than over three more years. Given my life-threatening disease I wanted to get on with things quicker. At the same time full-time study was totally out of the question, given how ill and increasingly disabled I was becoming. This ruled out postgraduate taught history study with St Andrews University, who in 2000 (and shockingly still in 2021) only offered full-time study options.

Fortunately Dundee University – another local university for me (we lived in Cupar at the time) – offered a part-time or full-time taught MPhil degree that could be studied part-time over two years. This course was timetabled to support part-time students, being based around Wednesday afternoon taught seminars for the first year, helpfully followed on the same day by the weekly departmental history research seminars attended by staff and postgraduate students. Over the summer months full-time Dundee history MPhil students would work on their research projects and dissertations, while part-timers were allowed the next year. The overall subject matter of the Dundee history MPhil was Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, using the idea of the city or town as a “laboratory” to explore cultural and other themes. A particular emphasis was placed on Dundee as an example, but other Scottish towns and cities were covered, as well as places in England, mainland Europe, and North America. Good stuff.

The course – and particularly its teaching lead Charles McKean – was a warm and welcoming experience. Also intellectually stimulating, introducing me to the field of urban history, which I found fascinating. For the assessed essays and mini projects I would often draw upon examples from my own family history or local history from the Scottish Borders, my home area. For my year-long dissertation I worked on 17th century Melrose local court records, which involved my ancestors, even a g..uncle judge. I worked from voluminous already transcribed records, building a huge computer database of thousands of court cases, and wrote an analysis of these for my dissertation.

Part way through my MPhil I started working – again very part-time – as a research assistant on Bob Harris’s new Scottish small towns project. My contract was for a year, doing the research locally in Angus and in Edinburgh for the pilot study. Sadly my neurological disease relapsed hugely just after that year, so I couldn’t continue working on the project in its main phase. But the experience deepened my appreciation for urban history, introduced me properly to the fascinating period of change 1750-1820, and also led me to the topic reading history I would research for a part-time history PhD, again at Dundee University.

I’ve blogged before about my experiences as a history PhD student, so won’t cover all the details again. Suffice to say the Dundee history department continued to be a nurturing and stimulating environment to conduct postgraduate research in. My supervisors Bob Harris and then Charles McKean were phenomenally supportive, and as a disabled student – indeed one who was becoming increasingly housebound and disabled as time went on – I felt the university was extremely helpful, making adjustments throughout my PhD and vital practical measures for the viva. Winning AHRC funding part way through my part-time history PhD also helped hugely. By the end I was studying for no more than 5 hours total a week, just way too ill. But I completed the PhD within the 6 years allowed part-time. No extensions were needed, and just a 5-month official medical break, which helped hugely when I was going through a major health crisis and couldn’t study at all for that period and needed total time out.

Although I couldn’t work in academia after my PhD – just way too ill and increasingly disabled – the Dundee history postgraduate study established me confidently as an independent academic. I’ve since had numerous published journal papers and book chapters, and continue working on new research projects. For practical reasons I focus very much on research and writing that I can work on at home, but the wide-ranging training I got at Dundee, and especially in the taught MPhil course, gave me the skills and confidence to continue to flourish as an academic, in both familiar and less so subject areas. I am also very grateful to have been awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship in History by Dundee University in the years since my PhD, which facilitates my academic research, especially in terms of publishing new papers.

My gratitude to Dundee University and particularly its history department is immense. Thank you so much for giving me a fresh chance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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My former PhD supervisor has died. He was a renowned Scottish architectural historian, and professor at Dundee University with many relevant books and journal papers to his name. But I wanted to write about my own memories of him, which primarily concern the support he gave me over many years as a part-time postgraduate history student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Charles over the last few weeks. I’d known he was seriously ill for many months. But after an article published in The Courier recently, recounting his young days, including Beano and Dandy reading, I hoped for a better outcome, not least because he was talking about his hopes for better health, and mentioning some of the places he would like to visit. It was not to be.

I first met Charles in 2001. I’d recently finished my Open University history and classical studies degree, and wanted to go on to do a postgraduate history Masters. I initially signed up for the OU’s Masters degree, but was frustrated that it had to be studied over three years: with my medical condition, and uncertain future, I wanted to finish sooner. But I couldn’t study full-time, which I knew ruled out St Andrews University’s history MLitts which didn’t (and possibly still don’t) offer part-time as an option. But then I learned of Dundee’s new taught postgraduate Masters in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, which sounded wonderful, and could be studied either full-time in one year or part-time over two years. I emailed Charles to make tentative enquiries, and he emailed me the course book back, and I was sure it was for me, so signed up.

Dundee’s history MPhil (they couldn’t call it an MA because it was a Scottish PG, and it would be a few years before it was renamed to MLitt) was taught weekly on Wednesday afternoons, with seminars on the second floor of the Tower Building at the University of Dundee. Charles led these, but there would often be other members of the history staff coming along to share with us their specialist knowledge. And we were encouraged to bring in primary source material, and discuss them. It was a wonderful time, and Charles was an inspiring teacher. I remember his unconcealed glee as he told us about the Beggar’s Benison club in Fife, and likewise how excited he got when talking about architectural history, such as the changes to the built environment in Enlightenment Scotland. Through him I gained a new appreciation for the importance of urban history: something I had vaguely dabbled with before, but had not studied properly until now. At the end of a year of lectures and essays the full-timers did their dissertations over a few months, while us part-timers had a year to complete. My dissertation was on Melrose regality court (local court) records in the late 17th century, and when the results came in I was the first Dundee history MPhil student to achieve a distinction in the Masters. Charles was delighted for me. I remember meeting him in the city centre by chance, and him saying that my MPhil dissertation was the best-written one he had ever read. I was ever so proud.

After that I started a part-time history PhD, studying reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820. Bob Harris was my supervisor, but a few years later he moved from Dundee to Oxford. Initially I carried on with him acting as my supervisor, long-distance, but there were some drawbacks to this, and at a Thesis Monitoring Committee meeting – the system at Dundee to keep a check on how research postgraduates are getting on, and deal with any problems – Charles volunteered to take over as my supervisor. I was delighted, and accepted his offer gratefully. Although it was not his specialist area he was well able to supervise the topic, based on his knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scottish society and culture.

Initially it was a slightly difficult supervisor-supervisee relationship. Charles’s brain thought about historical problems in a different way from mine, indeed I had more in common thinking-wise with Bob. And Charles was also keen, at least initially, for me to do a lot of new research, for example looking at an extensive collection of pamphlets and chapbooks. But I was far through my part-time PhD, and didn’t have time for this, especially alongside my disabling neurological disease. However, together with advice from my former supervisor, Charles and I found a really good working way forward, that was productive, and still inspiring. Discussions at supervisor meetings would still leap about unpredictably, as Charles’s quick-thinking brain would latch onto new, unexpected ideas. But we were making forward progress, and both knew what we needed to do – and in particular what I needed to do – to get me to the end. He was my supervisor for the last three years of my part-time PhD, essentially the writing up period, which also saw me finish off necessary research using primary sources. And he was wonderful at helping me through the difficult writing stage, always giving constructive feedback on chapter drafts, and keeping me going.

I will always remember the coffee that Charles served in his office: usually flavoured, often slightly peculiar, but still nice. And he always had a wonderful collection of biscuits on offer: always unhealthy but ever so tasty! He was also always lending me books. His office was a tower of piles of books – I was never quite sure how he found anything – and he often had something new (or old, sometimes very) to show me, and often lend me. Best of all I always felt inspired and motivated by the supervisor meetings, ready for the next challenge ahead.

Most helpful were his penetrating questions about my research. He was never backward in asking “So what?!” about what I’d done, forcing me to put the research into the broader context and explain why it was important. And he made a big contribution to the analytical side of my PhD thesis by suggesting a higher-level subject categorisation method that I could use throughout my thesis to produce some numbers for relative weights of entertainment, improvement and religious reading, and thus permit meaningful comparisons between different pieces of evidence for reading habits and reading choices.

After my successful viva I had a meeting with Charles where we discussed my plans for the future, and in particular ideas for publication. He was keen for me to aim for extremely ambitious journals: some of which have paid off since, others not so successfully. But all of his suggestions were good, and worth trying. And we kept in contact ever since. The last time I saw him for an extended length of time I was in the university on an off-chance, and after visiting the library I ended up in College Hall, then thought I’d phone his office just in case he was around and free, so I could come and have a chat. And he was welcoming as usual, said come on over, and served me biscuits and coffee, and we nattered for an hour.

It’s impossible not to be sad about his passing, but I’ve been trying really hard over the last few weeks to remember good times with him. For example during our MPhil course he took the students on a walking tour around historic Dundee, at least the city centre parts. I had to use a wheelchair for the walk, with my husband Martin pushing, and we went up the most amazingly tiny wynds. Enormous fun, and we all learned so much. There’s now a Dundee Heritage Walk website based on the tours he did.

I’m also inspired again to pursue some of the interests he fostered in me. For example I’ll continue to photograph interesting examples of old architecture around Dundee and further afield: I’d never noticed them properly until he taught us so much architectural history. And I want to do more urban history research, following both the Masters he taught, and the year’s Research Asssistant work I did with Bob Harris on his pilot small Scottish towns study. And even simpler things, like eating houmous and pitta bread. I’d never tried houmous until Charles suggested I might like it, and I did. Even that brings back pleasant memories.

I am so sad that he has died, and my thoughts are with his family at the moment, and their great loss. But I am honoured to have known him, and am grateful for the difference he made to my life. A kind, wonderful human being.

For more information about Charles, including his research interests, see (at least for now) the history department web page about him.

There is an upcoming conference to celebrate Charles’s contribution to Renaissance architecture research: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies. This is to be held at Perth at the end of October. Originally, of course, Charles intended to be there. Now that can no longer happen, but we go ahead in his honour, celebrating what he did.

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