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The Atholl Papers: An Introduction to the Project

Posted on 27.07.2021

It was, perhaps, with some trepidation that I stepped aboard the Steam Packet for the Isle of Man, back in March, possibly making a foolhardy decision to relocate to an unfamiliar land to start a new job whilst the world was, and still is, in the grip of a pandemic. It also did not help that I had to spend the first two weeks here on the island in self-isolation, occasionally being allowed out to have nasal swab tests by the nurses at the TT Grandstand, who I think by that point had fully embraced their inner chimney sweeps (one of the taxi drivers, who drove me to and from the venue, gave a more apt description of experiencing a nasal swab, remarking: “she stuck it so far up my nose, I thought she was going to pull out childhood memories!”). But here I am, and happy to be so!

It was by coincidence that I began my new post at the Manx Museum on 19th April, when the island was released from its last lockdown, and I was introduced to the archive that I would be working on for the next two years: the papers of the Dukes of Atholl (2nd to 4th Duke of Atholl). The papers, dating mostly between 1736 and 1830, are a rich source of information on the social, economic and political life of the island during this time, going beyond just details of the dukes’ lordship, and later governorship, of the isle; but providing insight into the character of the Manx people, their living conditions and how they subsisted. Plonked in the middle of the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man was not isolated from the social trends, and economic and political issues, which arose throughout the rest of the British Isles in this period, and you will find papers covering topics as diverse as: Irish marriage abductions, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, and smuggling; all of which will be topics of future blog posts.

An entry from the Customs duties for 1756/57 (AP BK 123)

I am not the first person to have worked on the Atholl Papers. When they arrived at the museum in 1954, a volunteer and member of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, Neil Mathieson, prepared an inventory of what was present in the numerous record bundles, which make-up the majority of the archive. He then used that inventory to undertake the mammoth task of creating a card index, which was the main source of reference for researchers until the 1990s, when a copy of the original inventory was introduced into the museum’s reading room. Over the past 10 years, in several phases, a team of dedicated volunteers have inputted the contents of the inventory onto Excel spreadsheets, with the intention that these spreadsheets would eventually be uploaded onto our database, Mimsy XG, and published through to iMuseum, which gives free online access to Manx National Heritage collections, and also on Archives Hub.

Neil Mathieson (PG/12203)

This all begs the question: what is the purpose of my role? Well, my task is twofold. Firstly, to create a hierarchical structure for the papers, which they currently lack, and in the process produce a navigable finding aid that will (hopefully) make the archive more accessible to researchers. As part of that task, I shall be editing, refining and expanding upon the item-level descriptions of Mathieson and our volunteers. As much as my work will be indebted to the efforts of Mathieson, undertaken all those years ago, I cannot shy away from the fact that some of his descriptions are inaccurate, incomplete, and in some cases, absent of any information that sheds light on the contents of a record. Furthermore, I shall be integrating the archive’s manuscript volumes, printed material and maps with the record bundles, which are missing from the inventory, and writing item-level descriptions for two bundles of papers that are also absent. Once the catalogue is complete, it will be added to the iMuseum website and other online archives portals, such as Archives Hub for researchers to use.

An example from Neil Mathieson’s original inventory from 1954

The second aspect of my role is to raise the profile of the archive, which is largely unknown outside of the Isle of Man, and definitely deserves more attention from researchers, both casual and academic. There will be regular updates to this blog on the iMuseum website, and from next year, a number of talks and other activities will be held on the island; COVID-19 permitting, activities will also take place in the rest of the British Isles. I would encourage you to regularly check back with the Manx National Heritage’s website and its various social media accounts for announcements on upcoming events.

In terms of my current progress on the papers, I’ve spent the first few months analysing the work of Neil Mathieson and the volunteers, and determining the overall subject matter of each record bundle, which has helped to inform my decisions when it comes to the overall hierarchy of the archive. The vast majority of the record bundles naturally split into one of the three dukes represented in the papers, therefore this is how the top-level of my hierarchy will be arranged, and each duke will be treated as a mini-collection in themselves. I have an overall arrangement for the 2nd Duke’s papers, and I am now in the process of editing and expanding upon the item-level descriptions of his records, which I expect to finish sometime in October, when I should be able to move on to the 3rd Duke.

The next blog post will be at the end of August, and will introduce the three Dukes of Atholl represented in the papers, and their relationship to the Isle of Man. Until then, feel free to look at the collection-level description of the archive on the iMuseum website: The papers of the Dukes of Atholl relating to their administration of the Isle of Man

Gareth Pugh
Manx National Heritage Project Archivist (The Atholl Papers)
email: gareth.pugh@mnh.im

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