The Orrocks have had a great deal of property stolen and their house is simply wrecked, not a whole panel in any door. The navy men seem to have run amok. It would have been much better had it been burned. Doubtless Lord Leverhulme will see to his agent’s better housing when he comes… Stornoway, 6th March. 1918

Extract from letter from Mrs Gibson to Jean Gibson 6th March 1918

This week, Mrs Gibson writes to Jean regarding further news of the Stornoway fire. One of the residents of the building unfortunately had some furniture stolen, and potentially misplaced some of Lady Matheson’s jewels. The weather continues to be extremely cold in Stornoway. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Dear Sheann,

We see from your p.c. received this morning that your mump remains the same. We hope to hear soon that it is less.

Meantime we are much gratified at hearing from you daily. Good lil’ Sheann!

Papa beamed over your osteology mark. You maun be gran at the banes. He is off just now to the school literary Society. He is very hard wrought these days and school is not so comfortable as it ought to be – still no fires in Francis St.

Barrie and I were out gardening this afternoon but it was too cold for him and he seized the first opportunity to bunk inside.

Mr. Orrock has been very much upset by the fire. It seems he had some of Lady Matheson’s jewels – certain curtailed ones – in a strong room at his office. For safety he took them out and gave them to Mary to take to a safe place and when the fire was over she had no idea where they were. She had done better than she knew for she had taken them to Ossian Robertson to put in the bank safe. She had no recollection of having done so. The Orrocks have had a great deal of property stolen and their house is simply wrecked, not a whole panel in any door. The navy men seem to have run amok. It would have been much better had it been burned. Doubtless Lord Leverhulme will see to his agent’s better housing when he comes.

Maud’s Ma sent down again for coal last night, and the weather so cold too!

Much love to Sheann, from her Ma.

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L37

Transcribed by Hazel Tocock, Museum Visitor Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on The Orrocks have had a great deal of property stolen and their house is simply wrecked, not a whole panel in any door. The navy men seem to have run amok. It would have been much better had it been burned. Doubtless Lord Leverhulme will see to his agent’s better housing when he comes… Stornoway, 6th March. 1918

Papa has gone out to a meeting of his library comtee to see what can be done in the circumstances “to carry on”. He thinks they ought at least to get temporary premises and continue the reading room. He also is anxious to know what is to be done for a home for the poor Stevens… Stornoway, 4th March. 1918

Extract from letter from Mrs Gibson to Jean Gibson 4th March 1918

News of the fire in Stornoway continues in Mrs Gibson’s letter to Jean this week. Mr Gibson has been at a meeting to try and see what can be done to help the situation. Mrs Gibson also reports to Jean on how it is thought the fire may have started. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Dear Sheann,

Just a line to ask you how “the mump” goes on and how you are putting in the time. We are wearying to hear from you again.

Papa has gone out to a meeting of his library comtee to see what can be done in the circumstances “to carry on”. He thinks they ought at least to get temporary premises and continue the reading room. He also is anxious to know what is to be done for a home for the poor Stevens. The parents and the little boy are with the widow Murray and the girls some where else but of course this cannot continue.

Mrs. Orrock told me yesterday that they had a small cask of whisky which had come by the steamer for Mrs. Platt and which at her request they were giving house room for safety. Some bad boys – the Sy. apaches I suppose got this and broached it and made themselves tipsy and sold the remainder at 1/- a bottle in Cromwell St. Mr. O. is in great trouble about his papers (estate) some of which are missing. If only they had just sat still in their house and carried the office contents in there they would have been all right. But everybody seems to have lost his head and small wonder. It seems the fire started in the big hall. Some one went in and lighted the stove, I suppose as usual and came away. Something must have gone wrong and the fire was well caught before observed by Mr. D.J. Macleod.

Love to the dear little invalid from her Pa & Ma.

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L36

Transcribed by Hazel Tocock, Museum Visitor Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Papa has gone out to a meeting of his library comtee to see what can be done in the circumstances “to carry on”. He thinks they ought at least to get temporary premises and continue the reading room. He also is anxious to know what is to be done for a home for the poor Stevens… Stornoway, 4th March. 1918

Mamma and I had had tea early & were getting ready to go down to the reading- room to have our usual look at the pictures, when from one of the front windows we saw some smoke rising over the house roofs…we were just in time to see from the lavatory window the flames rush up and wrap the little clock tower. Through the flames we could see the hands still pointing to the time, then they dropped. Then the dial dropped bodily, and a minute or two afterwards the tower toppled over sideways… Stornoway, 3rd March. 1918

Extract from letter from Mr Gibson to Jean Gibson 3rd March 1918

The Gibson’s have unfortunate news for Jean this week. On the 2nd March 1918, Stornoway suffered a great fire in which the municipal buildings (where the modern Town Hall stands) were completely burned down. The building was only opened 13 years earlier so this was a big shock for Stornoway. In his letter, Mr Gibson also refers to a couple of families who were made homeless as a result of the fire. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Poor old Jean,

We are very sorry that you are laid up, but glad to know that you are keeping yourself cheerful and that you have an appetite.  Mamma says you had mumps already, so she doesn’t think it can be that, especially as she is sure that if you had mumps you would be sick with it. Meanwhile, keep us posted.  We got your second letter this morning before going to church, and learned from it what the Dr. had said. Also one from Maud (good lass!) who wrote to reassure Mamma as to how you were.  I also do what I can to keep her cheery about you.

It is, we know, a great disappointment to you to lose your English exam’n. just when you were ready for it; but you mustn’t mind that. These things that come, over which we have no control are to be accepted, as far as we can make ourselves able, with an even mind.—”It is ful fair a man to bear to bear him evene,

                             For all day meeteth men at unset stevene’

and Chaucer never said anything truer.     We were interested to hear about the “As You Like It”, and other doings, including Fred Terry.


We had just been wondering about how your Spenser essay got on, and congratulate you on having kept the field. Also in having done your sonnet well, even though Mr Lamont did score two marks more – that of course was a natural sequel to his wearing his hair long.

About your Nat. Phil. enter your name and pay your fee, and then if you are not fit to go out to the exam’n. you can send Mr. Thom and the Prof. the reason, and not worry further about it.   The main business is to get well, and bed is the best cure, whether it is mumps or not you have, always supplemented of course by a cheerful mind.

Now, to tell you about Stornoway’s great misfortune.  The municipal buildings were completely burned down yesterday evening. It is sad to see so much good work of many hands through many months destroyed in a few hours, and with it the result of much thought and effort over years.

Mamma and I had had tea early & were getting ready to go down to the reading- room to have our usual look at the pictures, when from one of the front windows we saw some smoke rising over the house roofs.  A girl who came to the door with a parcel told us the town hall was on fire and we were just in time to see from the lavatory window the flames rush up and wrap the little clock tower.  Through the flames we could see the hands still pointing to the time, then they dropped.  Then the dial dropped bodily, and a minute or two afterwards the tower toppled over sideways.    By the time we got down the town, the town-hall was gutted & the roofs of the offices and library on both sides had caught, and from these the fire worked down storey by storey.   The Stevens got out safely but little of their furniture or effects was saved.  Carn House caught at the roof once or twice but was saved. Unfortunately, however, the furniture was all thrown out and ruined, the windows broken, and in the meantime the Orrocks are homeless like the Stevens.   By ten o’clock the destruction was complete.   To-day only the walls stand and one or two rooms of the Estate Office.   Fortunately there was no wind to speak of, and the fire did not cross Point St. or Cromwell St.   If it had, there is no knowing where it w’d. have stopped.   Such a pity it all is, and at a time like this, when material and labour are unobtainable. _ _

_ _ _   Dear ’lil Small we are sorry about your poor “mump” and hope it may soon reduce itself. You certainly had the real mumps when you were wee so I don’t think this can be them again. But whatever it is, rest and warmth and nourishment constitute the treatment and just don’t give exams a thought. It was very nice of Maud to see you so promptly and write to me and I am most grateful to her.  Meantime be sure to let us know often how you are going on and we hope you may soon be quite yourself again.

Love to Sheann from her Pa and Ma who of course are thinking about her a great deal these days. 

Your loving Ma

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L35

Transcribed by Barry Shelby, Museum Visitor Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Mamma and I had had tea early & were getting ready to go down to the reading- room to have our usual look at the pictures, when from one of the front windows we saw some smoke rising over the house roofs…we were just in time to see from the lavatory window the flames rush up and wrap the little clock tower. Through the flames we could see the hands still pointing to the time, then they dropped. Then the dial dropped bodily, and a minute or two afterwards the tower toppled over sideways… Stornoway, 3rd March. 1918

Last night about seven when we were just finishing tea Maud’s Mother came to borrow some coal. It seems there is none in town and no peats to be had either… Papa says they have only one day’s supply in school. And to cap it the weather has become bitterly cold with gales from the north bringing snow and hail… The Claymore used to bring some coal but she has gone ashore on Goat Island with 2000 barrels of fresh herrings in her and can’t be got off… Stornoway, 28th February. 1918

Extract from letter from Mrs Gibson to Jean Gibson 28th February 1918

In her letter to Jean this week, Mrs Gibson reports on the local shortage of both coal and peat for the fires. This is particularly bad news as the weather seems to have taken a turn for the worse again. She also mentions some recent troubles with the “Claymore” – a steamer that used to distribute goods, including coal, to the islands from the mainland. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Dear Sheann,

Glad you had such a nice week-end; it sounded “a little bit of all right.”  Yes, it is true that the Americans are at Kyle but they are not to be trained there; it is to be used as a port of disembarkation only.  Passengers and mails are still being carried by the railway but no goods.  I suppose the Americans must go somewhere but we would have been glad if they had avoided the Minch.

It is now 9 p.m. and I have just finished my ironing (“running round the neck” etc.).  Papa did not come to tea till six 15.  Then he had to rush back for his drill class and now he is just in again.  He is “having a ’ard time” just now and no mistake.

Last night about seven when we were just finishing tea Maud’s Mother came to borrow some coal.  It seems there is none in town and no peats to be had either.  The N.G. and another girl came down for it later.  Papa says they have only one day’s supply in school.  And to cap it the weather has become bitterly cold with gales from the north bringing snow and hail.  We are fortunate to have the peats as a stand by.  The Claymore used to bring some coal but she has gone ashore on Goat Island with 2000 barrels of fresh herrings in her and can’t be got off.  It is most unfortunate.

Miss Lily Morison leaves today and Miss Lilian Macleod tomorrow.  The latter is going three weeks sooner than she thought as the young man is likely to be sent to sea soon.  Speaking of weddings someone was telling me that Gia’s uncle Mr. Albrow is being married again to some one in Eyemouth, not to Gia’s pleasure I am sure.  This will be his third wedding.

I was over for an hour yesterday seeing Annie Macleod.  She is not well at all just now and is confined to bed.  Mrs. Macleod is on foot again but not looking the better of her accident.

Uncle Alick is out on strike although they were working on the warship.  Isn’t that bad?  It seems they get 4/6 a week too little as compared with the other trades.  He was saying they hadn’t had even one meeting since coming out, and it made him think of the following story.  “What are you striking for Pat?” // “Faith oi don’t know that same but be jabbers we won’t go in till we git it.”

Now good night Sheann and we hope the swot isn’t “too mich” but “a merry heart goes all the way, a sad tires in a mile O”  So cheery does it.

Love to Sheann from us both, your loving Ma.

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L34

Transcribed by Barry Shelby, Museum Visitor Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Last night about seven when we were just finishing tea Maud’s Mother came to borrow some coal. It seems there is none in town and no peats to be had either… Papa says they have only one day’s supply in school. And to cap it the weather has become bitterly cold with gales from the north bringing snow and hail… The Claymore used to bring some coal but she has gone ashore on Goat Island with 2000 barrels of fresh herrings in her and can’t be got off… Stornoway, 28th February. 1918

British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part three

Blythe House. By Docben via Wikimedia Commons

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

The first couple of days of my Knowledge Exchange were jam-packed with interesting consultations, and I was starting to build up a picture of the departments, activities and plans of the British Museum. My third day was to involve a complete change of scene!

Day at Blythe House with the Storage and Display team

The British Museum’s main public site at Bloomsbury is world famous, and enormous – especially for someone like me who is more used to the small scale of Museum nan Eilean. But only approximately 80,000 of its eight million (!) objects are on display in Bloomsbury; most of the remainder of the collection is held at its storage facility in Olympia where it is kept for preservation and research purposes. So I hopped on the Piccadilly line to take me to Blythe House, where I would spend the day with the Storage and Display team. Blythe House is an early twentieth century building in the Edwardian Baroque style – beautiful red brick with a glazed brick interior; it had originally been the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank. Due to security considerations, I was not able to take any photos inside the building – but hopefully my descriptions will paint evocative word pictures. Some of the non-secure areas and exteriors of the building have been used for film locations, for productions such as 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is certainly a beautiful and striking setting; some of the rooms have even been named by staff after actors who have filmed there!

The British Museum Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC)

Elaine Hunter, the Museum’s Collection Storage Project Manager, explained the vision behind this major undertaking. Blythe House had been acquired by the Government in 1979 as a storage facility for the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Science Museum. However, in 2015 the Government announced the sale of Blythe House and the funding of alternative facilities. The British Museum has therefore commissioned the establishment of a new combined storage and research facility, the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection (BM_ARC). The new complex will be located outside Reading, and is being developed in partnership with the University of Reading. Not only will it be purpose-built and therefore fit for purpose, but it will additionally offer benefits such as study areas, a logistics centre for touring exhibitions, and opportunities for local community involvement. Its emphasis on improved public access accords with the British Museum’s long-term masterplan, the Rosetta Project, which seeks to review the care, organisation and interpretation of its objects, whilst improving inclusivity and decolonising its collections. In readiness for the move from Olympia to Reading in 2023, an extensive programme of review, recataloguing and packing of objects is in progress.

Archaeological assemblages; curatorial and collection management

Beccy Scott, the British Museum’s BM_ARC Project Curator, provided me with an overview of the history of archaeology and concepts of prehistory. The three-age system (of the stone, bronze, and iron ages) was developed by mid-nineteenth century Danish antiquarians, as a chronologically-informed methodological concept. It built upon ideas of naturalism and primitivism of earlier Romanticism and was subsequently informed by developments in underwater excavations of, for example, alpine lake dwellings. Early archaeologists aimed to facilitate, via their discoveries, unmediated relationships between audiences and objects, by liftin interpretative scholarly veils. Beccy illustrated her history by showing me some fantastic examples from the archaeological assemblages, such as jewellery and tools – and made them come to life be pointing out nuances in construction by which different usages could be inferred. Some examples of Iron Age jewellery can be seen via the British Museum’s own blog.

Beccy than passed me over to her colleague Becky Vickers, Archaeological Assemblages Project Curator. Beccy was also a participant in the British Museum’s Knowledge Exchange – she visited Museum nan Eilean. If she had half as interesting time at my home museum as I did at the British Museum, she will have had a brilliant experience! Beccy told me about the assemblages she is working on: they are from Mucking in Essex, which is a multiphase site ranging from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, and which was originally excavated during the 1960s and 1970s. Not only were the Mucking finds themselves interesting, but so was their documentation. This had been digitised during the late 1970s and early 1980s – but unfortunately, although this was a fascinating early adoption of this technology, the format had been superceded and is now inaccessible. Fortunately, printouts have survived – as well as lessons in awareness of digital obsolescence.

I next met Cara Coggan, Collections Manager for Storage and Moves.  Cara explained issues arising from cataloguing the large numbers of objects in archaeological assemblages: the workflow is not well accommodated by MuseumIndex+, the Museum’s collections management system. Therefore, existing assemblage records, requiring revision as part of the pre-relocation audit, are downloaded from Museumindex+, updated globally (for instance, with details of the grid reference of the find site) in a spreadsheet, and then uploaded back into the system. The documentation audit aims for data consistency and a hierarchy of description, to include details of the archaeological site, the material of the object, the find site grid reference, and an object’s registration number. This consistency of approach will aid future object retrieval and research. Practical considerations in repacking are also part of the audit: objects are repacked into boxes clearly labelled with their registration number and site origin, plus indication of weight (for health and safety compliance – so that museum staff avoid getting bad backs!). Alice Foreman, Assistant Collections Manager of Storage and Moves, also explained how the British Museum’s Archaeological Working Group includes both conservators and curators – to consider new methodologies informed by both preservation and documentation.

Archaeological archives

Having been shown amazing examples of archaeological assemblages and how they are audited, documented and packaged, I then spent some time with Elissa Menzel, Project Curator for Archaeological Assemblages. Elissa is auditing documents generated by excavation processes during curatorial fieldwork. She explained that a crucial distinction is made between working documents such as field notes, and subsequent works relating to excavations, such as conference papers about a site. Only the former will accompany assemblages to their eventual new home at the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection; all other archives will join the central Bloomsbury collection (which I subsequently visited later in the week). The fieldwork archives are crucial for adding context and further information to the assemblages themselves. To this end, cataloguing is undertaken to professional standards (using the General International Standard Archival Description), and accreditation from the UK’s Archives & Records Association is aspired to. This was a very good example of how the allied professions of archaeology and archives come together to best tell the story of individual objects.

Non-collection curatorial and large objects

My next meeting was with Henry Flynn, Project Curator for Collection Documentation. Henry confirmed how the relocation audit is providing an opportunity to harmonise collections data. For instance, assignment of object registration numbers had previously devolved to discrete curatorial departments. With the aim of fully integrating museum-wide object data into one collections management system, this meant that there is the problem of the legacy of duplicate registration numbers – so the audit involves the assignment of new unique identifiers.

Henry was cataloguing casts dating from the early nineteenth century; he provided a fascinating account of the history and cultural inheritances of plaster casts from this era. Subsequent to increased interest in classical antiquity deriving from the rise of grand tour culture, demand grew for copies of antiquarian artefacts. This market was fuelled both by the new museums, and by wealthy private collectors. The replica industry enabled contemporary knowledge exchange, and has also benefitted twenty-first century scholarship: casts made of antiquities two hundred years ago preserve and record the state of objects which have since deteriorated, thereby providing surrogates of lost versions. Henry also described the detective work involved in matching poor quality existing catalogue records with objects. A catalogue entry had mystifyingly mentioned a cast of a “horse lump”! By examining published images of the Parthenon frieze, Henry had been able to deduce that the catalogue referred to a particular section of the relief featuring horses. This then led to a discussion of whether artificially intelligent pattern-matching software might in the future be employed to undertake this kind of sleuthing.  I’d previously been interested in these kinds of applications with regard to the evolution of optical character recognition (of print) into handwritten text recognition within archival contexts – so it was interesting to ponder how allied fields might make use of similar technologies.

Henry’s colleague, Gregor Wittrick, Project Curator for Collection Documentation, also showcased the practicalities of relocating large objects such as friezes and statues to their new home at the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection. Special crates are custom-made for individual objects and will also serve as permanent storage for them in their new home; the literally colossal scale of these undertakings was hugely impressive.

Textiles

My final consultation of the day was with Tim Stanton, Assistant Collection Manager, Storage and Moves. In contrast with some of the other collections held at Blythe House, the textiles collections whose audit he was overseeing was already pretty well catalogued. However, definitions of what constitutes a textile can sometimes be challenging; previous concepts of derivation from organic materials have been confused by the twentieth century invention of synthetic fabrics – the collection therefore includes, for example, some recent t-shirts with political slogans. Tim showed me some stunningly beautiful examples from the ethnographic textile collection. These included a barkcloth mask from Panama which incorporates both a boar skull and tusk, and which was ornamented with crimson seeds originally thought to be from the deadly abrin plant – fortunately this proved to be a misidentification. Next came a magnificent Ethiopian royal jacket: made from purple velvet, silver thread ornamentation, and fur trim from a (poignantly) extinct lion, this garment posed conservation challenges due to its mix of materials. Condition state was one of the pieces of data captured during cataloguing – specialist fields to describe textiles included ones for hazards (such, as already considered, poisons!) and multiple dimensions (such as the length of a garment both with and without its fringe). These were nice examples of how the collections management system is adapted for different curatorial departments. We also considered vocabulary used for cataloguing textiles – whether very specialist terminology for rare textiles could be meaningful for lay audiences via the museum’s online public interface – and if they could be sensibly augmented by more generalist descriptions. Finally, Tim showed me textile fragments from Paracas in Peru:

These were originally the decorative hems of mummy shrouds and had been torn off to sell to tourists. Fortunately, the same dry and dark conditions which had facilitated mummification had also preserved these truly amazing embroideries – although being over 2,000 years old, their vibrancy and fine detail was breath taking. The textiles depict flying shamans, and are of such significance that they were featured in the BBC’s seminal series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. I felt immensely privileged to round off my day at Blythe House with a viewing of these globally significant treasures.

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An Iron Age Atlantic Roundhouse: Dunan Ruadh, Pabbay

Atlantic Roundhouses

There’s something unique about the archaeology of the Iron Age in Scotland: the Atlantic Roundhouse.

These are unique to the landscapes of NW Scotland, a dry-stone structure (which means no use of any type of mortar or binding material) with a circular plan.

Here in the Western Isles, the most usual type of roundhouse is the Wheelhouse. They have an outer wall within which a circle of stone ‘piers’ forms a base of lintel arches that support the roof. Its shape resembles a wheel. Dunan Ruadh is a great example.

Dunan Ruadh, Pabbay

Dunan Ruadh dates back to the first millennium BC. It’s located in a heavily eroded promontory just north of Rosinish, in the Isle of Pabbay, a small island between Mingulay and Sandray.

Due to its location and the potential of destruction, a rescue excavation started in 1996 with a following two seasons until 1998. It was part of the Sheffield Environmental and Archaeological Research Campaign in the Hebrides (SEARCH). The myriad finds recovered help us to reconstruct how the people lived in the Iron Age.

The finds and what can they tell us about the past

The assemblage is part of the archaeology collections of Museum nan Eilean, and I’ve been working on it for the last few weeks. Here are some examples of what’s in it and what can they tell us about the Iron Age.

The pottery assemblage

Usually, pottery is the most represented find in archaeology. And that’s the case on Pabbay where we have a rich iron age pottery assemblage.

The decorated sherds only make up 8% of the whole pottery assemblage. However, this still shows us a typical iron age ‘wheelhouse’ pottery decoration. The main decoration types used are incised, applied and impressed.

The most common is the linear incised decoration, which uses a sharp tool to create an incised design on the vessel, such as chevrons, tramlines, lattice, and parallel or vertical lines. There’s also a type of decoration that consists of applied cordons around the body of the vessel, making different designs. Finally, the less common decoration is impressed, creating a design using dots, fingers and even ring stamps.

The worked bone

During the Iron Age, all resources were considered important and very little went to waste. The reuse of consumed animal bones into tools was a common practice.

The worked bone assemblage from Dunan Ruadh is dominated by functional objects: knife handles, chisels, points, a spoon, and toggles, but also an undecorated pin.

Spindle whorls and discs

Spindle whorls are small perforated weights from wooden drop spindles. Usually, they’re made of stone, bone, or repurposed pottery sherds. Spindle whorls are the best evidence of textile making on a site and enforce the interpretation of animal exploitation, in this case, wool from sheep.

In Dunan Ruadh, we have three spindle whorls, two of them made from sandstone and one made of pottery.

The faunal remains

Sample of small bones, probably birds

The site of Dunan Ruadh in Pabbay has an extraordinary assemblage of animal bones, helping us understand animal exploitation during the Iron Age. There was a reliance on sheep husbandry as expected, cattle were used for dairy products while pigs were exclusively kept for meat. A small proportion of wild species provided extra meat, and deer antlers were used to create tools. Additionally, seals were hunted for their skins and cetacea for their bones. Seals, whales & dolphins would have been exploited for meat and other products.

Curiously, researchers point out that the assemblage might suggest a community with sustainability problems based on the age of death of the adult animals, the low proportion of pigs and the few wild species represented. Looks like it was hard to keep domestic animals in a small area, and fishing must have been essential to survive. Had Dunan Ruadh, a dietary preference for fish? From the fishbone evidence, saithe were likely caught, processed and stored for later consumption or even trade. 

Summary

The small, but rich assemblage of Dunan Ruadh gives us an insight into the life of a wheelhouse during the first millennium AD. These finds are a real treasure and an important asset to Museum nan Eilean’s archaeological collections

If you want to know more about the research carried out at the site during the excavations, visit the references here, and if you’re researching the Iron Age on the Western Isles please get in touch to see how we can help you.

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British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part two

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

I’ve described how the start of my exchange programme got off to an exciting start – and day two continued in the same vein.

Community partnerships

I started the morning with two staff members who oversee public participation – but in quite different ways. Firstly, I met with Kayte MacSweeney, the British Museum’s Community Partnerships Manager. Kayte’s team liaises with approximately 600-700 London-based community partners; these range from small local groups to large organisations such as charities. The key concept with these collaborations is partnership – participants are not volunteers but rather, co-curators and community consultants (and as such are paid). The British Museum does not currently have any permanent community galleries (though this is under review by its forward-planning Rosetta project) – so the Community Partnerships project-based work is crucial in giving voices to traditionally under-represented sectors. Projects have pre-defined tangible outputs, such as a display, event or a piece of research; they aim to disrupt traditional museum practices, and include liaison not only with the British Museum curators, but with other professionals such as conservators. Kayte can be heard discussing concepts of participatory practice in this Wonderhouse podcast.

Volunteering

I next met with Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation and Volunteers. Stuart provided an overview of volunteering processes and operations at the Museum. Over 500 people currently volunteer in both front and back of house activities. These might include tour guiding, staffing hands-on desks where the public get to handle artefacts, or helping curators with cataloguing; volunteers never undertake core staff duties but instead add value to the British Museum’s activities. I was gifted a copy of the Volunteer handbook which outlines support available to volunteers, as well as their responsibilities:

Stuart’s remit overlaps with that of Community Partnerships to some extent; for example, both are committed to increasing diversity and inclusion. Examples include youth projects, and establishment of tours where blind and partially-sighted visitors can explore objects through touch. Working on Hebridean Connections entails me coordinating and supporting our team of volunteers who undertake data input – so it was immensely interesting and useful to compare notes with Kayte and Stuart on aspects such as outreach and recruitment, training and moral support, managing expectations, and legalities, rights and responsibilities. A hot topic post-pandemic is how to provide volunteering opportunities via remote working; Hebridean Connections has of course been doing this for years! And at the heart of discussions was the key concept of mutual benefit – that community partners and volunteers gain voices, empowerment, enrichment and upskilling, and the Museum gains commitment, new insights, and expertise. Stuart also went on to explain his allied role of overseeing interpretation at the British Museum. This of course informs the tour guiding work undertaken by volunteers, and also forms integral parts of the exhibition and publication processes of the Museum. For instance, exhibition planning will include objectives, messages and structures of new projects; these in turn can form legacy content for museum publications such as exhibition catalogues and guides. These details supplemented the overview of British Museum research publications as explained to me the day before by the Museum’s Editorial Manager.

Digital Heritage

My next Knowledge Exchange appointment was with Dan Pett, former Digital Humanities lead at the British Museum, where he designed the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (which I was to find out more about later in my Knowledge Exchange programme). Dan is now the Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, so our meeting was by video conference – but it still gave us chance to talk about digital archives and exciting developments in the digital heritage fields. I explained that Hebridean Connections is undergoing substantial technical review, aiming to improve interfaces for both researchers and for data input – this led to a consideration of designing information architectures and workflows to match users. Dan also pointed me in the direction of other interesting projects, for example, Towards a National Collection (TaNC). TanC is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and over a five year research period, aims to identify how machine learning and citizen-led archiving can dissolve barriers between collections – thereby opening up research access. Definitely an initiative to keep an eye on!

Contrasting Island Communities

My final consultation of the day was with Gaye Sculthorpe, Head of the British Museum’s Oceania curatorial department. We compared notes about capturing the heritage of island communities. Whilst Hebridean Connections mostly documents the intangible cultural heritage of the Western Isles, with its focus on genealogy, local history and folk traditions, Gaye’s recent research has been specifically artefactual: surveying collections for her recently published work, Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums:

The book considers not only the objects themselves but the originating makers and communities, and the collectors, networks and institutions which dispersed and curated them. Complex and challenging histories and relationships are explored, and provoked me to consider the relationships between producers and consumers of the information held in the Hebridean Connections database.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything

I rounded off my second day at the British Museum with a completely self-indulgent treat: a visit to its temporary exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is probably best known for his print, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, popularly known as The Great Wave:

Copyright: British Museum

This exhibition featured 103 recently acquired drawings, produced in the 1820s–1840s for an illustrated encyclopaedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. These artworks throw light both on Hokusai’s techniques and on nineteenth century Japan’s worldview. Should you find yourself in London I recommend catching the exhibition before it finishes on 30th January 2022; it provided me with a beautiful end to a thought provoking second day of my Knowledge Exchange.

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To a person like you with the “ancient and fishlike smell” (See “The Tempest”) of Stornoway so familiar Fishery Problems should come as almost old friends. Identification you’ll be able to practise at the head of No. 2 Wharf when you come home. Prices are very high still, 7d. per lb. for cod and ling, when they can be got. A new Fishery Problem for Dr. Fulton – to say how it can be reduced! … Stornoway, 24th February. 1918

Extract from letter from Mr Gibson to Jean Gibson 24th February 1918

In this week’s letter, Mr Gibson is pleased to have had all the latest on Jean’s classes and discusses them with great enthusiasm. He provides Jean with updates on several lads who are away at war, and there’s also a mention of the problems with the local fishing industry and the current high price of fish. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Jean dear,

We got your letter on Saturday afternoon – an unusual time, but the steamer had not got in until 12 noon.  We enjoyed your account of things, and accepted with respect your parallel between the Romans and the Lowland Scots.  We have taken it to avizandum and consider that there is much to support it – the hard-headedness of both, the suppression of demonstrative sentiment, their effectiveness, their persistence, their unwillingness to accept defeat, their law-abidingness, even the defects of their qualities.  It will stand thinking about, Sheann.  I wouldn’t even consider it at all unlikely that after the long occupation of Valentia and Northumbria by the Romans, there had been considerable intermarriage of the Romans with the Celts and some

interfusion through them of Roman blood into the Anglian stock.

Glad to get details of your classes – that is better.  Yes, the Elizabethan Drama before Shakespeare is quite interesting but some knowledge of even its best, as you’ll get when you come to Marlowe, will still leave you unprepared for the height of Shakespeare’s head and shoulders.  We are glad to see that you are growing keen on the literature.  That will make easier for you the “swot” of the language side.  I felt that way about it in my days of att’ce at the class of English.  There is not doubt that three classes make things a bit crowded, but as you say there’ll be some relief after March.

The Nat. Phil. ticket will be safe (since the Prof. draws the line bet. 4 and 5 %) for all you I sh’d. think.  See note on a separate paper of two or three small things that may come in useful for your electromagnetics.

To a person like you with the “ancient and fishlike smell” (See “The Tempest”) of Stornoway so familiar Fishery Problems should come as almost old friends.  Identification you’ll be able to practise at the head of No. 2 Wharf when you come home.  Prices are very high still, 7d. per lb. for cod and ling, when they can be got.  A new Fishery Problem for Dr. Fulton – to say how it can be reduced!

I am glad to hear that you are to have the benefit of Dr. Rennie’s lectures.  I sympathise with the sentiment that all the classes w’d. be thoroughly enjoyable if the lecturers did not have the bad taste to set exam’s. at the end.

So the Dramatic materialises & you have been promoted from Snug to Bottom.  But that greatness is attended with the penalty of having a good deal more to learn.  I’m glad it is to be Shakespeare, and such a nice one as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  I am sending one of the little red copies.  It is easy to carry and can be marked as you please.  How many practices are they going to put in, and who is to act as stage manager?

We were much interested to see about the Univ. movement encouraged by Prof. Harrower, to have lectures on Art.  Will you be able to take any advantage of them?

On Friday afternoon after school we had our farewell cup of tea to Miss Lillias Morison.  She leaves this next week.  Mr. Macrae is expected home on leave about the end of the week.  Afterwards we had some time in the reading room, and later in the evening Mrs. & Mr. Clark and Mr. Finlay Smith, from Duncarloway, came in and sat chatting for a while.  Mrs. Clark said Bessie had been ill for three days – food not staying in her stomach.

I had a letter from Mr. Jas. P. Anderson.  He is at Ripon and Mrs. Anderson and the little Alister are there too. He has sleeping-out leave and is able to have his evenings with them.  That is much nicer for everybody.  Had a letter also from Norman Macleod (“Minerva”) who is now a 1st Class Craftsman (Naval Air Service).

Heard also from Max Murray this morning.  He goes in a day or two as an R.E. Cadet to the Signalling School at Bedford.  He had recently seen Aleck Mòr (Alex. M. Mackenzie) who is on a patrol boat from Granton, Mary Burns, and Murdo K. Macleod.

Had another letter from Willie B. Macdonald.  He proposes to go on with the Training College work.  I am not sure which Centre yet, but if at Aberdeen he’ll be another addition to the Nicolson family.

Mamma is still busy with Morley’s “Gladstone”.  Barrie has just come up to the study and is busy with his toilette – il est content! to quote the little book.

Our love to Maud.

With best love, from Both.

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L33

Transcribed by Barry Shelby, Museum Visitor Assistant

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British Museum Knowledge Exchange: part one

Copyright: British Museum

Background

During November 2021, Caroline Brick, who co-ordinates the Hebridean Connections digital community archive at Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean, spent a week at the British Museum in London as part of its Knowledge Exchange programme. This professional programme is funded by the Vivmar Foundation and forms part of British Museum’s National Programmes activities, which brings together collections, best practice and expertise. The Knowledge Exchange programme aims to develop skills, relationships and insights across the heritage sector.

Caroline writes:

I was so excited to learn that I’d been awarded a place on the British Museum’s Knowledge Exchange Programme – a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the home of internationally renowned collections and meet experts in their fields. My application had involved explaining which of the Museum’s departments I’d like to visit, what I hoped to learn, and what experience I might share with British Museum staff. As a librarian co-ordinating a digital archive, within a museum setting, I’m interested in cross-sector practices and technologies and how they impact on an institutions communications, professional practices and culture. Georgia Mallin, the Knowledge Share Programme Manager, had put together an amazing schedule for me, including visits to the British Museum’s archives, inhouse libraries, and curatorial and publishing departments, to name but a few. Over the next few days I’ll share highlights of my amazing visit to the British Museum and reflections on what I learnt.

Day One:

My home workplace, Museum nan Eilean, is a local gem, showcasing the heritage of the Western Isles – but is on a very different scale from the British Museum. My rendezvous point for meeting different members of staff was usually the Great Court, the heart of the museum which incorporates the famous 1857 domed Reading Room – it was enclosed in 2000 by a design by Lord Norman Foster. The resulting space is breathtaking – and sets the tone of wonderment which infused my week-long residency.

Introductory gallery tour
To provide context about the British Museum and its history, Knowledge Exchange participants from Museums Worcestershire and myself were treated to a personal galleries tour by Chris Weston, a volunteer with the Interpretation and Volunteers team. Chris shared his wealth of knowledge by starting off with a visit to the Enlightenment Gallery:

This space reflects how the founders of the British Museum attempted to understand and interpret their mid-eighteenth century universe by direct observation and study. This informed their collection practices – the Enlightenment gallery takes a look at contemporary understanding of the natural world, the birth of archaeology, art and civilisation, ancient scripts, religion and ritual, and trade and discovery, and classifying the world. As a librarian I was especially interested in the early classifications – for example, object cataloguing by type, material, date or purpose. Chris explained that the Enlightenment Gallery contrasts historical ways of thinking with the British Museum’s vision for the future – a revolutionary plan to depart from its previous Eurocentrism. The Rosetta Project strategises the redisplay, re-interpretation and revision of collection practices of British Museum objects; its concepts informed all aspects of my Knowledge Exchange programme.

Also included on our tour was this stunning Rapa Nui ancestor figure – evoking histories of ecological collapse, its message about sustainability seemed very timely for the second day of COP26 – a good example of how stories told by museum artefacts can remain relevant.

This moai, or statue of a deified ancestor figure, was created by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, whose civilisation collapsed due to deforestation and climate change during the seventeenth century.

I can’t leave out an image of a personal favourite of mine from Chris’s tour: a wall painting from about 1350 BCE from the the tomb chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun. The painting depicts Nebamun and his family hunting in the marshes, and includes his cat catching birds:

The gold leaf on the cat’s eye is the only known example of gilding on wall paintings in Theban tomb chapels – indicative that the cat is not just a hunter but a representation of the sun god Ra. I loved this image not only because it gave a glimpse of how Egyptian theology merged with everyday activities, but because it reminded me of my own two moggies back home in the Hebrides – cats have been part of human family life for millennia!

Museum information systems
On a more serious note, my first day at the British Museum also included a really useful consultation with its Research Services Product Manager, Julia Stribblehill. She explained some of the functionality and uses of the museum’s collections management system, MuseumIndex+ , which is used for cataloguing artefacts. Julia mentioned the adaptability of the system: how it can be tailored for differing levels of expertise (data is input by both volunteers and professional staff), and how she consults with different groups of specialist staff (for example, coin curators have needed a special Denomination database field, whilst ceramics curators need one for Wares). The system also provides digital “fingerprints”, indicating who has been creating or editing data – this is really useful for an institution with hundreds of staff who need to be able to keep track of each other’s work. Julia also explained how the British Museum uses Collections Information Integration Middleware to harvest the data from MuseumIndex+ for output via the public Collection Online interface. This lets anyone explore the British Museum objects – for example, its iconic Sutton Hoo helmet:

Museum and Tasglann nan Eilean, and Hebridean Connections, aspire to improve the systems we use to catalogue and describe our collections, whether they are objects or digital archives – this helps us to do things like monitor the physical care of objects, respond to research enquiries, and allow virtual exploration of Western Isles heritage for anyone who can’t actually visit the Outer Hebrides. So it was really exciting to see under the bonnet of the British Museum’s information systems and how technology can bring heritage to life.

Museum publications
My final consultation of my first day at the British Museum was with Sarah Faulks, Senior Editorial Manager for research publications. The British Museum publishes both popular and scholarly books, and also uploads digitisations of research such as journal articles into its new online research repository.

Sarah took time to explain lots about the British Museum’s publication processes, such as commissioning authors and harmonising design aspects to match the museum’s distinctive branding. As a librarian, I obviously found all these planning aspects fascinating. It was also potentially useful, as Museum nan Eilean might have future ambitions to publish books such as catalogues or guides for special exhibitions. Sarah explained how text written for exhibition displays can be augmented and reused in museum publications; in these times of sustainability and print-on-demand, it was useful to confirm the feasibility of integrating such projects.

My first day of Knowledge Exchange at the British Museum was full of wonder, fun, and useful facts. Look out for further blog posts about the rest of my visit and other treasures uncovered!

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We are having some dreadful storms here with a fine day between. Yesterday I was out working in the garden for an hour in the afternoon. This morning there was a thin layer of snow and tonight the wind and rain are powerful. Poor Mrs. Maclean, the provost’s wife, was buried today and the people must have been drenched. It was a huge funeral. Poor Mrs. Maclean had a long time of suffering and utter weakness and must be glad to be at rest. She was a nice kind woman and will be much missed I am sure… Stornoway, 21st February. 1918

Extract from letter from Mrs Gibson to Jean Gibson 21st February 1918

This week was the funeral of the Provost’s wife, and Mrs Gibson reports on a large turnout for her despite the poor weather. Mr Gibson had a visit from one of the local lads who is currently home on leave, and Mrs Gibson is very pleased to have heard from Jean’s Stornoway friend Bessie. The next in our series of letters from the W.J. Gibson collection held by Museum nan Eilean. Please get in touch if you have any comments: archives@cne-siar.gov.uk

Dear Sheann,

The post girl was so late yesterday that the paper was here before her.  I, as usual, thought no letter was coming and at once began to frighten myself.  You see how foolish I am!  Glad to hear about the Dramatic Society and the Saturday evening Socials and all the other interesting things that go to make a little of sack to accompany so much of the dry bread of learning.  Your spotter Zoo. mark was quite a pleasant surprise for you I am sure;  it was for us.  It is to be hoped you won’t have the fishery problems in the parasitology exams before Easter.  If you do you may just do what you can at them and never mind.

We are having some dreadful storms here with a fine day between.  Yesterday I was out working in the garden for an hour in the afternoon.  This morning there was a thin layer of snow and tonight the wind and rain are powerful.  Poor Mrs. Maclean, the provost’s wife, was buried today and the people must have been drenched.  It was a huge funeral.  Poor Mrs. Maclean had a long time of suffering and utter weakness and must be glad to be at rest.  She was a nice kind woman and will be much missed I am sure.

John Mc. D. Smith was in school the other day.  He is home for 7 days leave.  Papa says he is 6ft 1in and just as gay and jolly as ever.  He was asking after you and the other girls.  He hopes to spend part of his next leave in Aberdeen and so will have a chance to see you all.

I had a long letter from Bessie this week enclosing a very nice photo: I suppose you got one also.  She had not much news and did not speak of any thing except her anatomy at which she has been working hard.  She has been learning to dance which is nice and will give her much pleasure.

Mrs. Menzies is better now.  Papa saw her one day last week but I have not seen her since the day I was down long ago.  She had two ministers for the communion last weekend which was not good for her.

Miss Tolmie and Miss Angeline Macallum were in yesterday to invite me to Lilly Morison’s farewell tea tomorrow afternoon (she does not leave till next Thursday) and were asking very kindly for you.  Did we tell you that Isabel is leaving at Easter and thinks of going to London.

Papa is very busy just now.  Today the teachers had their usual meeting to decide in council those who were to be presented for the intermediate.  From now on till the summer holidays it will be exams and inspectors all the time for him.  You must be just very nice to him when you come home to cheer him on the way.

I am now at Vol 2 of Morley’s life of Gladstone, a most fascinating book.  Gladstone was a tremendous worker as well as a very able man so you may be sure he has my respect.  Curiously enough he wasn’t keen on popular education although he was premier when the 1870 bill was passed.  He was a great enthusiast for the Church of England and was more concerned to safeguard the interests of her schools than to develop new “board” schools.

Love to Sheann from both her “parients”

Ref: 1992.50.64ii/L32

Transcribed by Barry Shelby, Museum Visitor Assistant

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on We are having some dreadful storms here with a fine day between. Yesterday I was out working in the garden for an hour in the afternoon. This morning there was a thin layer of snow and tonight the wind and rain are powerful. Poor Mrs. Maclean, the provost’s wife, was buried today and the people must have been drenched. It was a huge funeral. Poor Mrs. Maclean had a long time of suffering and utter weakness and must be glad to be at rest. She was a nice kind woman and will be much missed I am sure… Stornoway, 21st February. 1918