Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Conservation at the National Library of Scotland

When we reach for a book our primary thoughts are likely on the contents. Whether we're reading for pleasure or study, it's probably the title of a book that made us pick it up.

There are groups of people, though, who pick up books with a different perspective. One such group can be found on the fourth floor of the National Library of Scotland (NLS). The conservation department have a mission to preserve and protect the holdings of the NLS and they do so with great diligence.

Their aim is to ensure that items are able to be viewed by the public, and in some cases digitised so that we can all view them online. This brings in a great variety of skills, and their remit is wider than we may at first imagine.

The conservation team are not only responsible for fixing damaged items (and preventing damage) but also caring for items when vital maintenance is taking place on the buildings in which they are stored. We all enjoy the NLS exhibitions, but have you ever considered how long it takes to prepare the items? The items need to be able to be viewed in a display case, but without careful preparation, such a display could cause damage.

Talking to the team yesterday, they told me that one item could take a day to prepare. They may need to wash the paper, conserve damaged areas then design a method of keeping the item stable while on display. It could be a matter of attaching a piece of paper to a board, or designing a made to measure book stand so you can read it easily in a display.

The team are constantly working to improve conservation methods too. For example, a recent project to preserve a vellum book gave the conservation team the opportunity to develop a new method of flattening pages. The traditional method wouldn't work due to the severity of the damage to the book. In the end, they used a wet solution then laid the book on a suction table, gradually increasing the suction to flatten the pages, how ingenious!

This visit will certainly make me think differently the next time I see a library or museum display. I suppose though the question for us is, what can we do to help them, and help preserve books and documents that we consult while tracing our family tree?

There are obvious things, handle with care. Use a cushion or other support for books and don’t open them too far. If you open a book and hear the spine crack that’s the glue and thread ripping apart and YOU are shorting the life of the book.

 © Copyright Kim Traynor
I asked, if there is one thing to remember, what would it be? The answer, use clean hands. How simple, we can all do that, can’t we? When a celebrity goes to an archive on a TV programme they are invariably given white cotton gloves. In reality however we don’t often wear them. While they may stop oils from our skin transferring to the books, they actually increase the possibility of tearing the book or documents, especially if the paper is fragile. If we wash our hands, though, this will also limit the transfer if oils from our hands to the documents.

My tour was part of the conservation workshop. Keep an eye on the National Library of Scotland’s website for future tours: they are free but do need to be booked in advance. If you are part of a group that would like a tour, contact the NLS and they would be happy to arrange one for groups of up to 15 people.

Monday, 13 October 2014

A Hawick Man's Brush with History

Winnie and Bob at home in Hawick
All of our ancestors played a part in history. No matter what they did, where they lived or who else remembers them we want to find out more about them, and the mark they made on their community or the wider world. Sometimes, though, there are certain discoveries that make you stop dead in your tracks.

This happened to me a few days ago. I was researching the Grieve family of Branxholm Braes, near Hawick. If you follow us on Flickr or Facebook you will have seen a lot of photos, postcards and even letters which belonged to this family. I have been going through the family archive and in the process I have come across three identical postcards (see front below) sent by Robert Grieve to his young wife Winnie in 1908. We’ll have to presume that the hotel only had one postcard on offer, either that or our Bob wasn’t very imaginative!

These precious postcards are dated January and February 1908 and posted from Celerina (Schlarigna) in Switzerland. Bob writes about curling matches in which he had taken part. On a postcard dated 15 February 1908, he writes ‘We have had a great victory to-day’. This made me curious, what competition was going on?

I headed to the British Newspaper Archive to search their large collection of newspapers. It didn’t take long to locate a reference to the championship. I found in an article in the Dundee Courier of 6 February 1908 (page 3) that our very own R. Grieve was playing in the International Bonspiel. 

There were several other results so I continued my search. Again an article in the Dundee Courier caught my eye, this time it was dated 4 February 1908 (page 6). Entitled ‘Scottish Curlers in Switzerland, Bonspiel at Celerina, Opening Day’s Play’, it begins:

“The great International bonspiel commenced this morning at ten o’clock. His Imperial Highness the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir-apparent to the Austrian throne, threw the first stone amidst the enthusiastic cheering of the curlers. The ice was in excellent condition.”

Another search revealed an article from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer dated 4 February 1908 (page 8):

“The fourth annual international curling bonspiel commenced on the Cresta rink here to-day. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, who is staying the the same hotel with the curlers, consented to throw the first stone, which he did with great accuracy and speed amid cheers from Scotchmen and Engandiners (sic).”

Today of course we are all too familiar with who the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was and the influence his death would have on the world.  Did ‘our’ Bob see him, did he meet him? We may never know, but this simple research shows that by reading family letters and postcards carefully and comparing these to other sources, such as the newspaper, you can build up a far more exciting picture of your family tree. 

He didn’t win by the way!

Friday, 10 October 2014

Researching Historic Mental Health Records in Scotland

Elmhill House, Royal Cornhill Hospital Aberdeen
Our health is perhaps one of the most precious things we have. Sadly, there are still too many people who suffer without treatment, without understanding and without hope. How did our ancestors, and their families, cope with life-changing health problems?

If an ancestor had a farming accident, for example, you may find a newspaper report. In such cases you may very quickly be able to gain some understanding of what the individual and their loved ones may have experienced.

Mental health, though, is very different. Sometimes, all we know comes from that final column in the census: ‘Lunatic’! Alternatively, we may have searched the census for a missing family member, only for them to turn up in a ‘Lunatic Asylum’. It can be a shocking discovery, and cause us to ask many questions.

This doesn’t have to be the end of the story, though, as you can find out a lot more about mental health problems and their treatment in the past. Some of the stories you may have heard may even be myths. Researching the original records may actually give you answers, and therefore peace.

For example, I had always had the idea that in the Victorian era thousands of people were locked up, and then they threw away the key! From our research here in Scotland we have found this was not always the case. Yes, there were some long term patients, but there also seems to have been many thousands who were in an institution for a short time only, and do not seem to have been re-admitted.

How can you dig deeper? One place to start is at the National Records of Scotland (NRS). There is a particularly useful set of records held there concerning those admitted to mental health institutions throughout Scotland from 1858 onwards.

The first of these is a national register detailing the patient’s name, the institution they were committed to, the date of their admission and the date of their release or transfer. This register even records those already in institutions in Scotland on 1 January 1858. The NRS references this register as MC7. They have kindly granted permission for me to share some example images with you taken from the ‘National Register’: click on the image to enlarge it and you should be able to read the entries on the page clearly. This page is taken from the volume MC7/1.

Secondly, there are individual patient admission forms, giving much more detail on the individual patient and their situation. In almost all cases you should be able to find a patient admission form corresponding to each entry in the ‘National Register’ just described. These admission forms are bound into volumes, one volume for each month from January 1858 onwards. The NRS references this series of volumes as MC2. The best way to understand these records is probably to read an example case for yourself, again click on the image to see a larger version. This example case is taken from volume MC2/47.

This set of records is excellent because it should contain everyone in a mental health institution in Scotland from 1858 onwards. It is possible, though, to dig even deeper and look at locally held records. Highland Archives in Inverness, for example, hold records relating to their area and you can consult these in their search room. Once you know which institution your ancestor was sent to, and the date of admission (information which is always given in the national record sets I referred to above), then you can start with the local archive and ask if they have the records of that particular institution, or know where they are held.

The Scottish Archive Network catalogue can also be used to search a number of archives throughout Scotland. Unfortunately, though, not all archives yet have a comprehensive catalogue available online, and in many cases there is no substitute for contacting the archivist directly.

I would urge you not to hide your ancestor’s mental health issues, as some families may have done in times past. Dig deeper into the records and you can come to a deeper understanding of your family’s history.

Search our existing Scottish records for free at