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The Atholl Papers: Project Update

Posted on 23.02.2022

How the past ten months have flown by! It only feels like ten minutes ago that a not-so-gentle nurse, with her trusty nasal swab, gave me an eye-watering introduction to the Isle of Man. But as the half-way point in the project fast approaches, it acts as a stark reminder that time is very much the enemy when engaged in a fixed-term project. The things that you hope to achieve, fuelled by the exuberance of the unknown, are soon tempered by the need to balance the requirements of the project with what time will allow, which ultimately leads to hard decisions and diminished expectations. However, it is not all doom and gloom! Spurred on by a looming deadline inevitably leads to the fulfilment of goals, and the Atholl Papers Project has reached its first one: the 2nd Duke of Atholl’s papers are done! Though I often find myself still undoing errant typos and grammatical aberrations, which seem to sneak through however often and carefully I proofread my work, their catalogue records can now be found here on Manx National Heritage’s iMuseum website. But that is not all. For all intents and purposes, the 3rd Duke’s records are also ready to be released, and will be done so at the end of March; I just need to read through my work one…last…time…. I also intend to release both the 2nd and 3rd Dukes’ records onto Archives Hub in early April, in order to further broaden their exposure, and bring the first year of the project to a close.

Letter from Comptroller, John Quayle the Elder, to James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, 20 April 1737 (MS 09707/2/904). [Click images to enlarge & read.]

As some of you might be wondering what I have been doing with myself for the past ten months, other than feed an unhealthy and slightly worrying mint humbug addiction (I ate a full bag while writing that first paragraph), I will give you a brief outline of the work I have undertaken and some of the issues I faced.

Other than the obligatory background reading and examination of the accession records, which all archivists will perform, if only to figure out what they’ve got themselves into, the preliminary stage of the project was focused on going through Neil Mathieson’s inventory (see first blog) of the file bundles, which make up the bulk of the papers, and assessing how it matched up with the actual contents of the files. It is here that I found that two of the files were missing from the inventory, though mysteriously their contents were present in the old index card catalogue. As well as producing an item-level listing for those two files, so I knew what was in them, I created a file-level listing that documented the following: what I thought the overall contents of each file related to, such as the 2nd Duke’s correspondence; preliminary dates; initial conservation concerns; and which duke I thought a file likely related to. It was clear that most of the files leaned towards one duke or another, which helped govern my decision-making when it came to establishing the top-level arrangement of the papers’ catalogue hierarchy, which would separate the material by duke. The Atholl Papers also contain printed material and volumes, which have been arranged with their relevant duke, along with maps, which for now I intend to keep as a separate series within the papers.

Castle Mona, east elevation showing tower and lantern, c. 1804, by George Steuart (AP M-33). [Click left-hand image to enlarge.] Castle Mona, plan and elevation of lodges, c. 1804, by George Steuart (AP M-34). [Click right-hand image to enlarge.]

Once the preliminary work was done, I could finally move on to the 2nd Duke’s papers. I re-examined the files, printed material and volumes that I had initially identified as being part of his era, and I found that they separated themselves into three main categories, which would be subsequently sub-divided as the papers were further arranged. These three categories are: Lord of Mann claim/rights and Isle of Man governance papers; correspondence; and financial and legal records. The first category has merged two subject areas together, because that is how the files in that series have governed it, and contains material on a wide variety of topics. The correspondence series makes up the vast majority of the 2nd Duke’s material, accounting for 977 of the 1319 item-level records in his papers, and for me, it is where the real ‘flavour’ resides. The financial and legal records series contains annual accounts, customs books, files concerning the leasing of mines, and other legal documentation (though quite a number of financial and legal records relating to the 2nd Duke’s era have been assigned to the 4th Duke’s papers, as they are copies from his period).

As part of the arrangement work for the 2nd Duke’s papers, a decision was also made regarding how both his and the subsequent Dukes’ material would be numbered. Because the files and other items were being rearranged into a particular sequence, the reference numbers they held were no longer appropriate. Originally, I was going to go with the traditional long reference number (e.g., MS 09707/1/1/1/1/1) that archivists, and those that use archives regularly, will be familiar with. But as there was a concern that the reference numbers could become too long and confusing, which I suspect will be the case once I get to the 4th Duke’s papers, an alternative was sought. It was decided that the British Library’s additional manuscripts referencing system would be used, slightly adapted to account for the papers being catalogued down to item-level, rather than file-level, which is how they do it there. Essentially, this removes all the various sub-levels found in a catalogue’s hierarchy (sub-series, file, sub-file) that are represented in the traditional long reference number, and merely keeps the series (e.g., Lord of Mann claim/rights and Isle of Man governance papers) that an item belongs to and the item’s own number, so going from MS 09707/1/1/1/1/1 to MS 09707/1/1. The files and other sub-levels in the hierarchy are assigned number ranges for their reference numbers. The images below will give you a better illustration of how the referencing system works.

Images taken from the MimsyXG collections database demonstrating arrangement and reference numbering. [Click images to enlarge.]

Once the preliminary arrangement for the 2nd Duke’s papers was done, I began editing the item-level records, which were in spreadsheets produced by volunteers (see first blog), and here I undertook a number of tasks. I fleshed out the descriptions for records that still had Mathieson’s legacy issues, such as correspondence being merely described as ‘general,’ ‘trivial,’ ‘business routine,’ or ‘unimportant,’ along with providing a description for other documents that only had a title, date and possibly information on its creator, but had nothing in the ‘scope and content’ (description) field. I also attempted to identify individuals found within the papers, in order to aid researchers, as it is not always clear which William Murray, John Stevenson or John Quayle may be represented by a particular document, given how many people there are in the papers who share the same name. To help researchers further, I referenced related documents together in their respective descriptions (see the example of my description for MS 09707/2/170 below). Something I found myself doing once I got to the correspondence files, was reunite letters with the documents that originally accompanied them, but had subsequently become separated from one another within a file, and later listed individually by Mathieson. This involved merging the descriptions of two or more documents into a single item-level record, which for me, just better represented how a letter and its associated document(s) came to be in the hands of the Duke or one of his officers.

It was once I got to the stage of working on the item-level records that a number of issues arose, particularly in regards to the dating of material. Firstly, Mathieson had had a tendency to date eighteenth century copies of earlier documents, say copies of originals from 1590 or 1666, incorrectly, which I had to undo quite a lot of and in turn changed the date ranges of some of the files quite dramatically. Secondly, I was faced with original documents created before 1752, when England still used the Julian calendar, rather than the present Gregorian calendar, which meant the New Year fell on 25th March, instead of 1st January. Simple enough, you say, but this was complicated by the fact that Scotland adopted the 1st January as its New Year in 1600, which was something new to me upon taking up this project. Therefore, a letter between two Scots, of which there is quite a number, could be dated 9th January 1749, and your first thought would be that it is from 1750, but is in fact from 1749, and you would only know that to be the case if you had been following the narrative threads from previous correspondence.

Eighteenth century copy of a warrant from the English Treasury to the Earl of Derby for export from and import to the Isle of Man, original dated 17 August 1691 (MS 09707/1/33). [Click image to enlarge & read.]

Perhaps the biggest issue for the 2nd Duke’s papers, and it is the main reason why it took me so long to get through them, was the fact that the descriptions for the correspondence were rather incomplete, and I’m afraid both Mathieson and the volunteers (sorry volunteers) were guilty in this department. There has been a tendency to only reference maybe one or two topics found within a letter’s contents, perhaps the first paragraph, in its item-level description. However, on average, the governors wrote letters that were four pages long, covering numerous subject matter. Thus, as a consequence of what has been done in the past, a huge amount of information has been left undisclosed to researchers, and also means narrative threads for various topics, which can span years or decades, have been hidden, either partially or in full. As an example, I provide three versions of a description for a letter from Governor Lindesay to the Duke of Atholl (MS 09707/2/170): Mathieson’s original, a volunteer’s version, and my own attempt.

Neil Mathieson’s original description:

General. The newspapers are very welcome. They come regularly to Liverpool but are held up there so that a month’s issues sometimes reach the Island at once, or else some are missing, there being no regular conveyance ‘since Woods was lost upon the coast of Galloway, carrying provisions to Fort William last winter.’

A volunteer’s version:

Lindsay concurs with the Duke’s observation that payments from 1745 exceed the current year, he endeavours to explain this.  in a postscript, he writes that the newspapers are very welcome; they come regularly to Liverpool but are held up there so that a month’s issues sometimes reach the Island all at once, or else some are missing.  There being no regular conveyance, ‘ … since Woods was lost on the coast of Galloway, carrying provisions to Fort William last winter.’  Lindsay’s letter Number 27.

My version:

A manuscript letter from Governor Lindesay, responding to one from the Duke of Atholl, dated 25 November 1746 [MS 09707/2/167], concurring that payments out of the revenue from 1745 exceed the current year, but until all receipts and payments are examined as part of the audit, he is unable to say whether this is due to poor administration; Lindesay then reports on the work of the commissioners for the Manx clergy, regarding their dispute with the Earl of Derby over the impropriations, and he reaffirms that no money from these tithes will be paid to the clergy [as ordered by the Duke back in November 1744]; he also comments on appeals from the Isle of Man, specifically one between [Arthur] Colcote and Stephenson [Stevenson]; in a postscript, Lindesay states the newspapers received are very welcome, though they are sometimes delayed in Liverpool.

Part of a series of numbered letters from Lindesay to the Duke; No. 27.

I haven’t necessarily gone into great detail with every letter; sometimes it is just enough to list what topics are present, so a researcher knows there is potentially more information that is relevant to their work. But as a consequence of what I have done to try and disclose more fully what can be found within them, it has meant that I have entirely re-written the vast majority of correspondence descriptions, which was not what I intended to do when I first started the project.

This update was only supposed to be brief, therefore, I will conclude it here, though I hope I have given you a little insight into what archivists do (for the uninitiated). However, I will add that the 2nd Duke of Atholl’s papers are a fantastic resource for people interested in both Manx and wider British Isles history, between 1736 and 1764. The 3rd Duke’s material, which I have yet to touch upon, are likewise a significant source of information for the Revestment, and the fall-out from the Isle of Man’s sovereignty being vested back into the British Crown, which will be the focus of my next blog in March.

State of the proceedings in the House of Commons on the petition of the Duke and Duchess of Athol[l] against the Smuggling Bill 1765 (MS 09707/4/33). [Click image to enlarge & read.]

Read The Atholl Papers Blog:

The Atholl Papers: Captain Dow and the Dutch Dogger
The Atholl Papers: The Jacobite Rising of 1745
The Atholl Papers: The Case of Carolina Elinora Mahon
The 2nd Duke of Atholl’s Inheritance of the Isle of Man
The Atholl Papers: An Introduction to the Project

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

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