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No, really. I’ll feel much better.
The final three days of this week have and will continue to be focused on the PTVER training course at the University, which is a kind of research introduction for postgraduate students from different Scottish colleges, all convening on Edinburgh for the course of a barrage of seminars. This has been purported to be a whirlwind tour of all the various resources of the city, of which there are massive loaves, but really it’s just a bunch of tired Scottish History students shambling zombie-like through the archives and bumping into each other before slowly changing course and continuing to bump into other, harder things. People talked at us a lot. And we saw lots of books and stuff.
And then we went to the pub for lunch, followed by more sleepy reasons that the libraries and archives are your friends…followed by another trip to the pub, and a nice wine reception in the departmental offices afterwards.
This group is in deep shit, I think. But as far as I can figure, it’s part and parcel of the station of the department, which has always been the bastion for this Cause. Oh, sorry…that would be Deep Academic Research and Deeper Cups and Libation. We’ll call it DARDCL. I think it’s even in the prospectus.
The highlight and importance of the PTVER was frantically using the online catalogues and archival indices while they were flapping at us, jotting down relevant passages to be drooled and reveled over at at a later date. And meeting up with my peers from Aberdeen and Dundee and St. Andrews was wonderful, finding out what they’re doing and sharing a common passion for historical folly, discussing it all over drinks, and coming to the freeing conclusion that they’re all just as behind as I am. I’ve been enjoying the breadth of fine people in the department, and we seem to have a common respect and admiration for each others’ projects and interests, and not a few invites for drinks, dinner, and social gatherings have been offered and suggested over the course of the course. Of course. We’re all part of the Club, now. If my visiting new friends come back to Edinburgh for research purposes or otherwise, they’ll always have a place to stay. That’s just how it is here.
The better part of today was spent in the National Library of Scotland, which gets a copy of every publication in the British Isles (that’s 6,000 books every week) and proudly owns a massive collection of manuscripts and charters, all browsable and lickable by researchers only. So again we were talked at, and then we had nice tea and biscuits and chatted, and then out came a sampling of the sources. I’m going to tell you briefly about what I saw today. It’s worth it, I promise.
We flipped through a perfectly preserved binding of a history of Britain, written by an Italian visitor in Latin, from the year 1548.
I picked up and gingerly weighed in my greedy palm a leaden bullock dangling off a papal parchment from the 13th-century reign of Alexander I. The paper was so fine, and smooth, and lovely.
Spoke with one of the archivists who has a hand in transferring old documents into searchable electronic form–a researcher’s dream of ease. Come over and take a look through some thick and endless printed catalogues and you’ll see what I mean. I recently found some inconsistencies with the NLS’s electronic version of The Lyon in Mourning and wanted to be sure to alert them to the issue, and offer my help in perhaps volunteering with the monumental task of transferring some of the 120,000 planned documents to searchable database. So not only might I have a hand in futzing around with a fun job like that, but the director asked for suggestions as to future texts to be posted. I have some ideas…
And a bit farther along the table, a little to the right of where we were standing, lay a large volume of listed names and origins, compiled in an official-looking fashion. Upon closer inspection, I found it to be the Governmental Records of all the Jacobite prisoners captured after Culloden in 1746. This is the fucking Holy Grail of my studies, right in front of my face. You could trace your finger down the list, reading off hundreds of names and regions, only beginning to get a sense of how big an affair it really was. And each name was a person sent to trial, and hanged, or exiled, or tortured. Few were released. Not everyone had a name; one space I spied simply stated “dumb man,” for the hapless prisoner clearly would not–or could not–talk. It is those little gems of history that we fall so in love with, those very human moments that single-handedly pull us into the past.
The archivists then brought out a manuscript from the Blaikie collection, and within I found more gold: A letter from Sir John Cope, in his own hand, claiming that “They” had no knowledge of his movement, and signing off with “I am in luck.” That was just before his force was smashed at Prestonpans, a bit east of Edinburgh, and his reputation never was to be recovered. I got to touch it, and feel it, and smell the browning parchment, tracing shaky ink lines with my thumb. Behind this was a letter carried by John Home to Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun. He touched it, and so did I. I’ve been researching Home’s later-published and much acclaimed History of the 1745 Rebellion, and here was a letter that he carried, decades before he ever became known for his treatise. It makes me feel a part of it all, this closeness…this intimacy.
I found another account of the victory at Falkirk, written as soon as the news fell, with jubilation and not an once of mistrust from the dubious source. I imagine that the region must have been abuzz with rumor and conjecture, but all that mattered was that Hawley was routed on the rainy hill above the town, and no one could ever doubt a friend of a friend who was there, or who “actually saw” the event transpire. This was inflammatory revolution, after all.
And finally, a two-page lamentation from Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, to his son after his own capture at the end of The ‘45. Being finally caged in the Tower of London, the slippery old man had long been on the hitlist of the Hanoverian administration. He must have known that his execution was imminent, but with grace and pride, he still put forth a stirring offer for his progeny to conduct himself well, as his boy’s life was surely all that would continue. The letter was composed well, and it was clear the level of education a landed peer such as Lovat was treated to, as his handwriting was immaculate and cultured, his language evocative and proper, especially when compared to Cope’s chicken scratch, ironically a field commander in His Majesty’s army. I brushed my hand over Lovat’s signature, knowing that this might have been the last bit of communication that Fraser the Younger ever received from his condemned father. Being able to experience elements of history like handwriting and language adds an entirely new perspective that a researcher simply cannot get with ordinary secondary source material, or even primary source recollection. These are the original documents, penned at the time, all available to us.
It brings all these faceless, timeless names alive again, regenerating dessicated skin and articulating separated bone to create a tangible picture of the past that is accessible to everyone with a heart and a mind with which to feel and grasp it.
I spent time with Home, Wade, Cope, and Fraser today. Murray and Tweeddale are next on my list. We have much to speak on.
And thank you, so very much, for not laughing too hard at this. Even if you don’t get it, I know that you get it. 🙂
7 Responses to “Call me a Geek.”
October 23rd, 2003 at 11:38 pm
Call me a Geek.
Well, okay. You are a <big>geek!</big>
How's that? 🙂
October 24th, 2003 at 1:08 am
Thanks. I needed that.
October 24th, 2003 at 4:23 am
If you happen to find anything on
Jean (Jenny) Cameron
Lady Anne Macintosh (also known as Anne Farquharson of Invercauld and Colonel Anne)
Lady Margaret Oglivy
Margaret Murray (or Fergusson)
or indeed any of the other women involved in the '45 can you let me know, please?
October 24th, 2003 at 1:26 pm
In my copious amounts of free memory in between massive and endless lists of prisoners, conspirators, and detainees, I promise to keep a sharp lookout for any and all mention of these underhanded and obviously dangerously subversive chickadees.
In the meantime, if you haven't looked into it yet, I would heartily recommend:
M. Craig's Damn Rebel Bitches, which can be found here: <a href="http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1840182989/qid=1067026740/sr=8-6/ref=sr_8_6/103-4342951-3876608?v=glance&n=507846” target=”_blank”>http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1840182989/qid=1067026740/sr=8-6/ref=sr_8_6/103-4342951-3876608?v=glance&n=507846
October 24th, 2003 at 9:19 pm
Geekiness — me too!
>a papal parchment from the 13th-century reign of >Alexander I. The paper was so fine, and smooth, and >lovely.
You aren't enough of a geek not to refer to parchment as paper — bad bunny! 😉 [That's *me* reverting 30 years and being a librarian geek!] But seriously, of *course* you're excited about actually handling the Real Stuff! That's why you're a historian and not a gardener or something. It's an incredible privilege which USA-ans hardly ever get, being as our country's so new and all. Just like you get to walk the ground of Culloden, you lucky whatsit.
Speaking of the NLS, did you know it received the collected papers of both Dorothy and Alasdair Dunnett? I trust you have at some time dipped into the Scottish-related novels in Ms. Dunnett's oeuvre. (Does the name "Francis Crawford of Lymond" ring any bells? Sixteenth-c. educated mega-mercenary with personal problems politicks his way through the known world…)*Her* research papers must have filled several vans.
October 25th, 2003 at 12:35 am
I get it.
There is nothing so magical as touching what was once cradled in the palm of the past.
Your thoughts on your inimitable experience are beautiful, darling. Thank you, as always, for sharing them with such intensity and passion. I cherish these exquisite glimpses into your life.
October 25th, 2003 at 3:12 am
Re: I get it.
Wanna touch my parchment, baby?
Thank *you* for reading, and moreso, for Getting it.