Dust to Dust…

This term was destined to be spent mostly in the National Archives of Scotland researching some primary source documents for my impending dissertation. I knew that going into this period of the year. But man, are there some fierce amounts of material to look at. I imagine I could be there every day for the next month – all day long – and only get a cursory smattering of understanding regarding the items that I’ll be working with. It truly is like searching for a needle in a stack of…well, paper.

I rarely see the light these days, anyways…but as the period of sustained daylight ‘round these parts becomes longer, I’m sure that I’ll see even less of it. If I was a plant, I’d be craving some serious emotional photosynthesis. But what is this isolation and inhalation of huge amounts of dust traded for?

Prestige? Certainly not.
Knowledge? Perhaps.
Smug satisfaction? Getting warmer…

I trade in my time and my youth for the unflagging grin that etches itself on my face, the small gasps of realization that come unbeckoned when I make the connection that the letter I hold in my hand was owned, pondered over, and written by one of a cadre of faceless ghosts that lays quietly somnolent, undiscovered within the Gifts and Deposits collection, sleeping in plain brown boxes or bundled amid long-forgotten reams. They once were relevant, and through their legacy, still are. Nobody cares but the historian. Nobody understands except the people who care. And that is enough to rouse their sprits, and cohere with these people who played their parts dearly in the history of this country. This is what the meat and bones of research is about, however overwhelming and soul-taxing it can be. The only thing that it stimulates is the mind. But that’s not entirely true.

It also stimulates a latent ability for those that are alive to truly connect with those long dead. All of this is a subtle but sobering reminder of the finite nature of life, and studying these documents and understanding them deeply brings the dead back to life. It gives us hope for our own futures, when our bones no longer stir and our own letters and journals lay quiescent in countless plain brown boxes or bundles amid long-forgotten reams. If we are that lucky.

Today I read Kilmarnock, who was executed for his part in the Rebellion.
I studied the hand of Lord Milton, in correspondence with the Duke of Argyll as the conflict was getting underway.
I examined the journal of a Government officer sent to flush out and hang any skulking rebels in the Isles near where Charles landed.
And in a personal coup, I scrutinized a rather defensive letter from a Frenchman called de Valignie writing to Wm. Hamilton, only to figure out that it was actually a pseudonym for one of my own heroes of the conflict, Lord George Murray. I transcribed the entire twelve pages myself, even though it can be found published elsewhere.

And the quote of the day, if I may geek out for a moment, comes from his own hand:
“…it gives me much satisfaction to know that some of my fellow countrymen who were engaged with us, have escaped the jaws of the voracious wolves, though I am apt to believe it was more owing to their oversight than mercy. Be that as it will I wish from the bottom of my heart more were in the same situation, and that I were myself the only sufferer, which would make me bear my own private loss without a grudge.”

2 Responses to “Dust to Dust…”

  1. spiffington Says:
    January 15th, 2004 at 4:55 am

    a wee torch
    > I rarely see the light these days
    Hmmmmm?
    Maybe the more time you spend in those deliciously darkened archival caves, the more will be shed upon you…
    🙂

  2. Anonymous Says:
    January 15th, 2004 at 10:35 am

    You lucky, lucky person!!!
    Hi there,
    More later but I just have to say, Real Archives, wahoo!!! I *know* what you mean about touching people over time. (In a paleography class, for an all-too-brief moment, we got to transcribe a teeny little parchment from the Bancroft Library, basically saying "I Lord Whosis give and convey the following piece of land to John Whatsit, witnessed by these local blokes…." When you looked up the regnal year, it was something like 1480….If I coulda beena paleographer..!)
    Many hugs for the Lord George Murray thing!!
    Love, Kirsty

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