In this blog post, our EERC colleague Kenneth Veitch reflects on the written sources gathered during the Dumfries & Galloway Study. These can be accessed in full on the Study website.
Account books, diaries, journals, letters and other personal documents are a rich source of material for ethnologists, historians and others interested in studying everyday life. Separately, they provide first-hand, detailed information about individuals, communities and occupations rarely found in other historical sources, and offer an opportunity to investigate life at the level of the parish, town, workplace or family. Collectively, they show the great variety of everyday life and how its rhythms, forms and customs differed not only across time and place, but also between occupations, social groups and genders. They are particularly useful for studying the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period that lies beyond the reach of first-hand oral reminiscences but when increasing levels of literacy meant that a wide assortment of people were recording their daily affairs. The founder of the EERC, Professor Sandy Fenton, recognised their value for ethnological research and in 1994 launched the Sources in Local History series to promote them more widely. This endeavour has found new purpose in the EERC’s Regional Ethnology of Scotland project, one of the main aims of which is to collect and publish new primary source material. The results from the first of the project’s regional studies, which took Dumfries and Galloway as its focus, were extremely encouraging, with volunteers from across the region and beyond identifying and transcribing a wide range of documents. As the EERC turns its attention to elsewhere in Scotland, it is timely to provide a brief overview of the transcriptions that have been uploaded to the project’s website so far.
The Minute Book of the Lochmaben Curling Society, 1823-1863, edited by Lynne J M Longmore
Societies were a prominent feature of local life in nineteenth-century Scotland, and catered for a wide range of cultural, political, religious and social interests. An increasing number of sporting societies were also established over the century, not least for curling, which for a time was played by more people in Scotland than any other sport. It was particularly popular in the south west, and in places such as Lochmaben the curling society became an integral part of parish life and identity. The Minute Book of the Lochmaben Curling Society records the early years of one of the burgh’s two societies and, as would be expected, there is much in it to interest historians of the sport. Its carefully set out minutes and regulations, for instance, show the extent to which societies organised and formalised the local game in the early nineteenth century, while details such as the decision of the Lochmaben curlers to incorporate their rules with those of the Duddingston Curling Society highlight how societies also helped to create both an awareness among their members of curling as a national game, and the organisational framework for it. That the curlers of Lochmaben repeatedly voted against adopting the two stone rule is a reminder that the creation of a uniform, national game was nonetheless a gradual process, with regional variations persisting even after the founding of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in 1838. Indeed, the minute book reveals that at the beginning of the 1860s the rinks from the neighbouring parishes of Lochmaben and Dryfesdale were playing different forms of the game. There is much here to interest ethnologists as well. The extent to which local societies helped to shape and promote communal identity in the nineteenth century, for example, is evident in the preamble, with its list of opponents vanquished, recollection of local curling worthies and invocation of the ‘Invincibles of Old Margery’. The tone turns martial when an account is given of the spiels with Lochmaben’s greatest rival, Closeburn:
The curlers of Closeburn, as renowned upon the banks of the Nith for their prowess upon ice, as those of Lochmaben upon the banks of the Annan, resolved during the ice campaign 1819-20 to try which party should bear the palm, accordingly they sent a challenge, which being cordially accepted of, the combatants to the number of eighty met upon the Kirk Loch and after a keen battle the game stood as follows – victory remaining with Lochmaben.
Ethnologists interested in charting the gradual shift from communal to civil society in nineteenth-century Scotland will likewise find evidence for the intermediate stage in this process in the Society’s constitution and rules, which characteristically formalised and regulated a well-established activity. Insights into the fraternal ethos of the Society, and how the conduct of its members were guided, are offered by the regulations of the curling court, the rules and rituals of which can be compared with those of the many other mock serious courts that appeared in various settings in Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The custom of giving nicknames not only to notable curlers (here ‘Bonaparte’ and ‘the Tutor’ stand out), but also to memorable stones is in evidence. To the curlers of Lochmaben, the names ‘Wallace’, ‘the Hen’ and ‘the Craig’ would have evoked heroic feats on the ice and prompted the retelling of well-known anecdotes. To later generations, they would have recalled an age when the highly individual ‘channel stane’, sometimes of prodigious size, had yet to give way to the standardised round stone.
The Chronicles of Muckledale, being the Memoirs of Thomas Beattie of Muckledale, 1736-1827, edited by Edward J Cowan
Thomas Beattie, a successful sheep farmer in and around the parish of Ewes, began his memoir in 1788, at the age of fifty-two, and updated it intermittently thereafter. It provides a detailed and highly personal account of one man’s life from childhood to old age, and is a mine of information about life in a close-knit rural community at a time of notable economic, political and social change. That community is shown to be more complex and varied than statistical accounts and similar surveys suggest, with Beattie describing dances, livestock sales, political meetings, public beddings, trials and more, and recording encounters not just with fellow farmers, shepherds, dealers, ministers and schoolmasters, but also with butchers, fiddlers, lawyers, servants, soldiers, quacks, and numerous robbers, confidence tricksters and other rogues. Among the latter was Annie Greg, a notorious pickpocket ‘descended from a hardy and handy race of thieves’, one of a number of women in the memoir who managed to relieve Beattie of his money in one way or another. Candid pen portraits of those closest to him bring individuals into even sharper focus, and populate the landscape with recognisable faces. Beattie’s description of his mother reads:
She was a woman about middle size, had as fine a foot and handsome leg as I think I ever saw, yet altogether she was not handsome as she was broad shouldered and short neckd, her features were large and rather masculine, yet she had a composed, sober, grave look. Her hair was black and she had two large very expressive eyes, dark grey, inclining to black. Her speech and manner was slow, sober and grave, her voice clear and strong. She never read anything but Divinity and upon that she poured very often …
The two other women closest to Beattie are shown to have led unhappy lives: his sister was shamefully mistreated by a drunken and brutish husband; and his wife suffered from regular bouts of insanity. Interestingly, the nature of his wife’s delusions was sometimes influenced by her reading habits, with the Arabian Nights and the Book of Revelations inducing the ‘most extraordinary notions’. Beattie’s decision to write his memoirs was prompted by further personal tragedy, the death of his daughter, his moving account of which contradicts the assumption that people of earlier ages were habituated to child mortality and somehow less distressed by it:
All the time of her sickness I was in anxiety and distress ineffable. After I saw her in strong convulsions my only hope and wish was a quiet passage for her to the Grave [but] even that was denied. After her death I was insensible for some time of any pleasure or even satisfaction in anything; my wish was to ly interred by her, often even in company I could not refrain from tears when I thought of her.
Amidst its hardships and daily toil, Beattie’s life was not without its diversions. Memorable among them was a staging of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd in the yard of the George Inn, Langholm, the proceeds of which went to funding a local lad’s studies at Edinburgh University. Beattie provided the prologue, which he modestly noted ‘was received with such applause as perfectly astonished me’. The memoirs are also important for showing how national and international events impacted on local society. Beattie records, for instance, the support that the French Revolution gained among ‘the Lower Classes of the community’ and its consequences:
Langholm was so deeply tainted with this mania that upon some accounts arriving of the success of the French arms, a great number of republicans assembled at the Cross and lighted a great bonfire and drank a great many republican toasts with repeated Huzzas, such as ‘liberty and equality’, ‘the sons of freedom’ (meaning the French), ‘George 3rd and last’ (for there was to be no more Kings), ‘the rights of man’ and many more. They likewise despatched a number of boys and blackguards to compel people to illuminate their houses and whoever would not, they were ordered to break their windows.
Beattie was among the local justices who sentenced the leaders to up to six months confinement in the town’s tollbooth, which, he laconically noted, ‘rather abated the spirit of the Republicans a little’.
Sir William Burrell’s Northern Tour, 1758, edited by John G Dunbar
William Burrell, a member of a prominent landed and mercantile family from the south east of England, travelled through Dumfries and Galloway as part of a wider tour of Scotland in 1758. Like many English travellers, he was vexed by the state of Scottish inns, expressing particular dismay at the dirty and flea-ridden room he was offered in Newton Stewart: ‘It was our dineing room and bedchamber and probably at other times performed the office of stable and hogstye conjointly’. He escaped the fleas only to be annoyed ‘by a greater and more savage beast, the landlord, who cheated us most enormously’. Elsewhere, his sensibilities were further affronted by a ‘Scotch chicken broth’ that he was obliged to taste. For many of the people Burrell encountered in the south west, such a dish would have been a rare treat, and his comments are a reminder that many travellers at this time judged local conditions by the standards of their own class. Even so, these and other observations often preserve details about daily life that locals would have considered too mundane to be worth recording, but which are now of great interest to ethnologists and historians. In Burrell’s case, this included mentioning ‘an odd custom peculiar to that part of the country of bringing boyled eggs and Cheshire cheese to accompany tea at breakfast’. He also observed that the houses of the rural poor were ‘built entirely of mud, without chimneys or windows, unless holes in the wall deserve the appelation’, and that ‘the inhabitants scorn the confinement of shoes and stockings and therefore go without either’. He further remarked that the crossing to Ireland from Port Patrick was both quicker and safer than that from Holyhead in Wales, but that travellers chose to use the latter due to the poor accommodation and roads in Galloway. Similar comments provide the opportunity for comparing conditions in the south west to those elsewhere in Scotland. In Ayr, for example, he ‘observed more people of the poorer sort with shoes and stockings … than in any other part of Scotland I had yet seen’; and if natives of Newton Stewart are offended by his description of their town’s historical hospitality, then at least it was spared the indignity of his description of Kelso: ‘The streets are filled with human excrement from one end to the other, which renders walking unsafe and disagreable’.
A Letter from a Kirkcudbright Grocer, 1814, edited by Peter Didsbury
In May 1814, James Caven of Kirkcudbright wrote a letter to an acquaintance in Dumfries apprising him of ‘the provincial news’. As its editor, Peter Didsbury, remarks, ‘it affords … an interesting insight into the milieu of a small-town tradesman in south-west Scotland two hundred years ago’. Among other things, we learn that a D. Sharp has returned from Edinburgh ‘a little proud and selfish’, and that Caven attended the ‘hearty wedding’ of Captain Conning and Jean Wilson. Caven does not refer to the recent improvements to Kirkcudbright, which included the construction of new roads and houses, but the burgh’s growing reputation for gentility is confirmed by his mention of a dancing school and a singing school, although he admits to being ‘quite ignorant of both these polite accomplishments’. His letter ends on a melancholy note, with a list of those who had recently died in the town and its neighbourhood, which, he stated, ‘will farther evince you of our transitory and uncertain state here’.
The Pocket-Books of a Dumfriesshire Drover, edited by Willie Waugh
By the end of the eighteenth century, the cattle trade with England was a well-established and important sector of the Scottish economy, with an estimated 100,000 beasts being sent across the border every year. As well as encouraging the spread of commercial cattle rearing throughout the pastoral regions of Scotland, it had given rise to a new professional class of drovers. Not content with simply driving other people’s cattle, they also bought and sold on their own account, recording their day-to-day transactions in pocket-books. Two such books belonging to John Waugh, a drover from Dumfriesshire, are reproduced in The Pocket-Books of a Dumfriesshire Drover, which provides a rare and valuable insight into the cattle trade and its place in the economic and social life of the south west of Scotland. They reveal that Waugh dealt extensively with local farmers and graziers, and that he bought their cattle for particular droves. After gathering at Dumfries, these droves mostly headed south to St Faith’s, Hempton Green or one of the other major English cattle fairs. One drove mentioned by Waugh, however, was bound for Dornoch, a reminder that Galloways were sent north for breeding as well as south for beef. Lowland dealers also obtained Highland cattle in bulk at the great cattle trysts held at Falkirk, and Waugh can be found there in October 1809 buying fifty-nine beasts at a cost of £275 13s. He listed the expenses he incurred bringing them home from Falkirk, which included fees for watchmen and numerous tolls. He also appears to have hired experienced Highland drovers at Falkirk to help transfer the cattle home, a common practice among Lowland dealers. Whether Waugh is roughly jotting down in pencil the purchases he has just made at Falkirk, or carefully recording in pen a financial agreement newly reached in a Dumfries coffee-house, there is an appealing immediacy to the entries in his pocket-books. Some afford a glimpse of his wider world and outlook: a tantalising fragment of an account of a journey north shows that an appreciation of Highland scenery was not confined at this time to the Wordsworths and other tourists seeking the picturesque; a list of fish brought to Dalswinton reveals that the local diet, which would have consisted mainly of oatmeal, was enlivened and enriched with salmon and perhaps trout; while a half-remembered snatch of a Psalm is a reminder of the central part that the Christian faith played in the everyday life of Scots.
The Journal of Robert Heron, 1789-1798, edited by Edward J Cowan
Edward Cowan’s second contribution to the series finds a Galloway man at large in Scotland’s capital, participating in and being shaped by the Enlightenment. A native of New Galloway, Heron was in Edinburgh studying for the ministry but the journal reveals that much of his time was spent on various literary projects, most notably contributing articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For this, he studied a wide range of scholarly texts and these he duly noted in his journal along with the other books he was reading, including fashionable novels such as Moore’s Zeluco, making it a valuable source of information about reading habits. He also recorded his other daily activities, and while we often find him at his desk, we also meet him reading the newspaper in a coffee-house, buying quills from a stationer in Parliament Square, borrowing books from Sibbald’s Library, reading Rousseau on Blackford Hill, preaching at Ratho, and enjoying (or not) the company of his friends. Among the latter was the Reverend Dr Thomas Blacklock, a distinguished poet from Annan and an advocate for the education of his fellow blind, with whom he would regularly drink tea or walk around the Meadows. The entry for 22 July 1790 suggests a liking for simple pleasures – ‘Supped on turnips, and a tumbler of rum and water’ – but Heron had extravagant tastes and frequently spent money he did not have, and during his journal he was thrown into jail for an unpaid debt. Heron was all too aware of his faults. Indeed, the reason why he started the journal was so he could ‘review my conduct with a stricter eye’. As such it provides a compelling insight into his inner life. Self-loathing and self-doubt were to the fore, often expressed in the ‘man of feeling’ confessional style currently in vogue, but underpinned by a persistent Calvinist fear of damnation. His entry for 6 February 1790 was typical:
… have told many lies, uttered many oaths and obscene expressions, and committed various acts of unchastity since discontinuing my journal. My levity and folly have also arisen to a greater pitch than before. I am approaching nearer to death, and becoming less prepared to meet it.
His inner torment continued, and the journal ends with a simple, but heartfelt: ‘God pity and help me!’.
The volunteers who have transcribed these and other manuscripts for the Regional Ethnology of Scotland project are to be congratulated on their endeavours and thanked for giving so generously of their time and expertise. More material from Dumfries and Galloway will be uploaded in the coming months, to be joined in time by examples from throughout the rest of Scotland. Proposals for additions to the series are most welcome, especially from the project’s next destinations, East Lothian and the Borders. For more information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.