Friday, 29 March 2019

Creative Writing and Archive Records!

In this week's post Access Officer Louise shares her experience of hosting a creative writing workshop...

Last month, as part of the Festival of Creative Learning, I helped run a creative writing workshop that invited students to learn about the history of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and to write poems and short stories using archival records as their inspiration.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on the day by Ellen and Natalie from the University of Edinburgh’s creative writing and publishing society PublishED. Ellen and Natalie were a tremendous help and took over when it came to the creative aspect of the day by producing a series of tasks designed to get everyone in the creative mindset.

We started the day by asking groups to list words that they associate with asylums and had an open discussion about what they perceived to be the treatment of mental illness in the Victorian era.

I then provided some context and discussed what we can learn about the conditions and treatment of patients within the Royal Edinburgh Hospital from the collection held within our archive.

We looked at a variety of records including photographs of the building interiors/exteriors, patient photographs, letters and clinical records as well as extracts from the patient magazine the Morningside Mirror.

To kick start the creativity Ellen and Natalie led two short exercises designed to get everyone writing (including myself and our recent intern Emma). The first of these was to write a bad poem in one minute using nouns picked out from the following picture showing a hallway within Craig House:

A number of people were brave enough to share with the rest of the group what they had written (and it was at that point that I realised that only I had written a truly bad poem).

As well as sharing out loud with the group some people were also kind enough to leave their writing behind and I have included some extracts below:

Others shoot and hit, yet I am always falling short,
not cut out for any sport which follows precise lines.
I take comfort in the ice the brilliance of crystals
perched against one another, stacked close,
like cell mates joined in the suspended flow.

Asylum Photographer

Stand still. Please allow me to capture you,
Let me take those harrowed eyes, that sour frown,
Move not, lest you blur in time and in mind,
Suppress those shivers; please dull down your twitch,
Talk not, the shutter retains no sound

My friends,
The time has come. The days are short and the odds are long but let me be clear: there will be no miracles here. We have long been told that change is coming, long held out for change that is coming, long put faith in change forthcoming. Change will come when we create it. A system built to subdue and divide us cannot stand if we do.
They want to keep us hidden because we do not conform to their definition of “normal”. Because we do not conform to what is acceptable. Who are they? The rich? The educated? The powerful? Why should they be the gatekeepers of society, of what is normal, of what is allowed.

The feedback from the event was very positive and as it was my first writing event I asked people to comment on what worked and what didn’t work so that we can put on a similar and even better event in the future!

Friday, 15 March 2019

Hospital for the future

This week, Archivist Louise has been thinking about the architecture of healthcare...

On Tuesday, staff members from the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections (of which we're part) were lucky enough to enjoy a guided tour of Historic Environment Scotland. The organisation came into being after the merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in 2015. Nowadays, you are probably more familiar with seeing the Historic Environment Scotland logo on the many historic properties it manages around the country, but few people realise that the organisation also holds a substantial paper, photographic and artefact record of our shared built heritage - and that you can access these fantastic resources both in person in their searchroom on Bernard Terrace and online through their impressive set of resources. I often use Canmore, an online database of records about buildings, archaeology and maritime history, to search for images of now-demolished hospital sites, for example. This week has seen the anniversary of the death of John Astley Ainslie, whose fortune later helped to establish the Astley Ainslie Hospital, which opened in 1923. We don't have many images of the hospital, but I can look up a range of views on Canmore, here.

Wartime patients at Astley Ainslie, from our own collections, which tend to focus more on the hospital's atmosphere than its architecture!
During the tour, our group was ably led by Archivist Lesley Ferguson, who guided us up from the strongrooms to Historic Environment Scotland's impressive digital imaging and scanning facilities. We also were able to view a range of items from the archives in the public searchroom. One of these was a watercolour of a now-demolished building by David Bryce, Craigends House.

David Bryce, of course, also designed the Royal Infirmary building, which opened in 1879 on Lauriston Place. It replaced the eighteenth century Infirmary in High School Yards, designed by William Adam. We have quite a few images of both buildings, which you can compare below.

William Adam Infirmary, opened in 1741

David Bryce-designed Royal Infirmary, opened in 1879
Just as the William Adam Infirmary was no-longer fit for purpose as the nineteenth-century wore on, the Lauriston Place site was struggling to keep pace with modern medicine as the twentieth century drew to a close. In the 1990s, plans began to be made to move to a new hospital in Little France to the south-east of the centre of Edinburgh, which would combine services from many of the city's nineteenth century local hospitals. When a building like the Bryce Infirmary closes its doors, Historic Environment Scotland spring into action, and in 2003, the (then) Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland surveyed the interior of the buildings, and we hold copies of the photographs from the survey in LHSA collections. Back then, the future of the building was uncertain, so it was important to record the building at the end of its life as a hospital.

During its lifetime, the Lauriston Place Infirmary was extended, and more pavilions were built in order to accommodate more patients and different specialisms. We have plans of these changes (and of the original Bryce designs) in our collections:

Proposed elevation for the Lauriston Place Infirmary
We are lucky to hold such a substantial record of the physical appearance of the Lauriston Place site, particularly since so much of it has been either recently redeveloped or demolished, since not all later additions were listed. While many of the surviving buildings form part of the Quartermile development, the listed old hospital building remained unoccupied.

The clock tower in the 1980s
Now, though, the Infirmary is about to see a whole new life. The University of Edinburgh has purchased the building, and it is to be developed into an interdiscipliniary teaching and learning space, where partnerships with the local community, organisations and enterprises can be explored. LHSA has been involved with these changes from a fairly early stage, as the University is keen to reflect the building's heritage in its future use as the Edinburgh Futures Institute. For example, as in the motto written above the Infirmary's door - patet omnibus - the new Edinburgh Futures Institute will be open to all.

LHSA Manager Ruth was also out and about this week, and on Monday attended a tour of the Infirmary site as it is being developed into the Futures Institute.The tour was also attended by former nurses who trained and worked at the Infirmary - members of the Pelican League. The exterior of the building is being given a thorough overhaul, as can be seen by this shiny section:

Ruth also saw the workings of the Infirmary's clock up close:

The old Bryce Infirmary is an iconic building in Edinburgh not only for its architectural merit, but for its place in people's lives, as it witnessed births, deaths and opportunities for a second chance within its walls. This past is being acknowledged in the building's redevelopment, with the original, Nightingale wards (wards with plenty of space for air circulation, with big windows and long walls along which beds were placed):

A Nightingale ward in the process of transformation

Friday, 1 March 2019

...intern Emma discusses 19th century language!

Hello again! I’m coming to the end of my internship at LHSA and after cataloguing and rehousing the collection of John Home’s letters I have spent the last few weeks transcribing them, which has been an interesting and immersive experience.

As well as the challenge of familiarising myself with some occasionally illegible 19th century handwriting, I have been learning about transcribing practice. When transcribing you should replicate the material exactly as initially written, including all spellings and punctuation, although expanding contracted words or indicating misspellings to assist the reader is common practice. It soon becomes clear that built in auto-formatting, which can be so useful, is not your friend when it comes to transcribing. The concentration required is considerable as is the degree of double and triple-checking required. Thank goodness for tea!

But what if once you’ve deciphered the handwriting, you still can’t understand the content? Although most of the letters are written in English similar to that used today, I also came across phraseology that was of its time or particular to John Home’s profession. He was a Writer to the Signet and so was familiar with legal terminology that probably wasn’t widely used then or now. It took quite a bit of time and internet research to work my way through all of the letters to fully understand their meaning.

As anyone who knows me well will confirm, I am a huge fan of a quiz, so I couldn’t let an opportunity pass to set a few questions to the readers of this blog on whether they would have found the letters easier to understand than I did. Answers at the end, no prizes though I’m afraid!

1. What is a roup?
2. And a tapis?
3. What kind of judge is a ‘Puisne’ judge (and how do you pronounce it)?
4. When would you use ‘yclept’?
5. If something is ‘clamant’, what does that mean?
6. What is someone who is ‘bounden’?
7. Where would you find a ‘po’?
8. And finally, what are ‘whole parts pendicles privileges and pertinents’?

Looking at the collection as a whole, there were 174 letters from John Home to 68 different recipients including seven to unnamed individuals, Grouping them by theme, the letters addressed members of the legal profession, business associates, romantic interests, friends, newspapers, publishers, medical professionals, family members and there were 19 letters specifically to Dr Thomas Clouston, the Medical Superintendent at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum at the time of John Home’s residence there.

The letters to family members and to Dr Clouston frequently took an insulting tone , which veered from mild irritation and jibes to what he would have himself described as ‘most unparliamentary language’ and fairly serious threats of physical violence. He had a colourful and creative turn of phrase, particularly impressive considering the context and content of the letters.  I’ve included a few of his more entertaining insults below.

GD16/2/6/1/44 - John Home to Mrs Edmondstoune

“… and when I leave this cursed place I shall hire a bad woman to follow you about and insult you as I intend to do with you the wife of the wooden headed non entity who presides here”

GD16/2/6/1/105 – John Home to Miss Rintoul
“I intend to prosecute Clouston both civilly and criminally and to hire a man to thrash him. He is the most infernal liar and the most utter scoundrel and blackguard that ever drew breath. Entre nous I believe he drinks like a fish. His wife also I fancy is not better than she ought to be”

GD16/2/6/1/49 – John Home’s account of his experiences
“a very weak brother who never had any private practice and whose Cousin sells pots and pans….”

John Home’s use of language has made working with the collection a real joy, as well as interesting and informative. From eight weeks immersed in his writings, I now feel as though I know something of his character and will be sorry to leave him behind.

Quiz answers

1. A roup is an auction, commonly relating to property sales.
2. A tapis is a tapestry or richly decorated cloth, used as a hanging or a covering, or a small carpet.
3. A Puisne judge is a junior judge, without distinction or title.
4. Yclept means, ‘by the name of’, e.g. a man yclept John
5. Something that is ‘clamant’, is something that urgently needs attention.
6. Someone who has a ‘bounden’ duty has a responsibility or obligation, e.g. to help.
7. A ‘po’ is another word for chamber pot, so could be found in the bathroom or bedroom.
8. ‘whole parts, pendicles, privileges and pertinents’ – these are terms from Scots Law in relation to parts or things pertaining to a property and are used in transfers of land or property.

Friday, 22 February 2019

F-rust-trating rust...

Our conservation intern Nat finished up with us just before Christmas but wrote a last blog post before she left. (You can see what she was working on in her two previous posts: 

While she was rehousing the Ernst Levin Collection, Nat removed a lot of rusty paperclips in her efforts to provide the best possible care. Her final blog for LHSA reflects on this most untRUSTworthy means of holding sheets of paper together!

It is thought that a paper conservator’s worst enemy is sellotape (, but it has a rival...using metal staples and paperclips is pretty destructive as well. I am sure everyone has had to use them – they are so convenient and easy. The long-term effects they have on paper, however, are not very promising. Metal paper fasteners cause a lot of deformation that usually becomes the reason for more permanent damage such as tears, but this is not the full extent of the problem: they tend to become rusty over time and this has an ongoing damaging effect on paper.

Here's an example of the kind of damage I found in the Ernst Levin Collection that was caused by the presence of metal paper fasteners that had degraded over time. 

Rust, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is a reddish- or yellowish-brown flaking coating of iron oxide that is formed on iron or steel by oxidation, especially in the presence of moisture. The metal ions react with cellulose polysaccharide chains (in the paper) and breaks them down. When the chain breaks, unstable radicals are present which, in turn, are involved in another similar oxidation-reduction process and the effect of the overall reaction gets multiplied. It only needs 10% of the cellulose chain links to be broken for the cellulose fibre to be completely destroyed. And to add to it all, other corrosive products, which may be acidic, are also produced which go on to further damage the paper surface.

It doesn't stop there though...the effect is ongoing until all of the metal ions have reacted with the cellulose and even though you think you may be looking at old rust on your paper documents, and that the damage has already been done, this isn’t always the case.

Removing all the rust requires complicated conservation treatment if you really want to deal with it, so isn’t it better to avoid clips and staples altogether?

And if you think that you only use them occasionally, you might not realise how often we are tempted to reach for that paperclip! Here you can see just some of the metal paper fasteners that have been removed from the LHSA collection.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Students and the archive

Archivist Louise looks at two examples of how some of our collections have been used by students this week....

Based in the University of Edinburgh, we're always delighted to be showcasing our collections to student audiences. Sometimes this means adding sessions in the archive to the curriculum, sometimes suggesting source material for a research project, and sometimes delivering one-off events for student groups.

For example, we've been working with Dr Gayle Davis, Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine, for some years now. Gayle is a real ambassador for our collections, and is always keen to include a trip to the archive in the courses that she teaches about the history of psychiatry. If you're at all familiar with the material that LHSA holds, you'll know that we've world-class collections on psychiatric treatment and care, covering psychiatric hospitals ('asylums') in Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Scottish Borders. Gayle decided that she'd like to introduce the undergraduate students in her Madness and Society class to some of the sources that LHSA has to offer from two local psychiatric hospitals: the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and Rosslynlee (or Midlothian and Peebles District Asylum).

For many students, this was the first time that they had come into contact with archive material - even for those following a history course, the use of original archives isn't always guaranteed to be included in their studies. Small groups of students were given different archival documents from the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and Rosslynlee, and asked to respond to them without prior knowledge of what was in front of them, assessing how easy they were to understand and if the documents would be good sources to tell you about what life may have been like in the hospitals.

For example, there were pictures of patients from the nineteenth century - sometimes from case books, used to identify individual patients for treatment and in case of escape, sometimes those collected by the heads of the hospitals (Physician Superintendents) in a belief that people's physical characteristics could inform on their mental condition.

Image of patients from Rosslynlee casebook (top, 1890s) and from the collection of the Physician Superintendent of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, collected to illustrate particular illnesses (bottom, 1880s)

A notebook made by John Willis Mason was also one of the items on the tables - Mason was a long-term patient (formally a writer to the signet) who wrote poetry, edited the hospital magazine, produced watercolours, and even patented a world clock, based on the phases of the moon:

Spread from a John Willis Mason notebook, with an original sketch
Of course there were more official records about the running of the hospitals too, such as the inspection reports of the General Board of Control, the body established in 1857 in Scotland to 'police' the asylum system. Despite their appearance, these sorts of documents can provide researchers with information on psychiatric institutions for which other records simply do not survive, such as the many private asylums in operation in the nineteenth century. They also give you an insight into the Inspectors' concerns, from cleanliness of wards, to sufficient activites' being arranged for patients:

This General Board of Control report for 1895 gives a rare glimpse into the lunatic wards of Edinburgh Poorhouse (at Craiglockhart), detailed records of which have long been destroyed. 
I always really enjoy hearing fresh perspectives on the archives during the seminar, and hearing the individual stories of patients from case books that I simply would not have come across had they not been discovered by the students.

It's LGBT History Month at the moment and, for my second 'public engagement' (!) this week, I was lucky enough to be involved in a fascinating event organised by Louise Neilson, LHSA's Access Officer, and members of the University LGBT+ Medics Society. The event centred on the LGBT+ contribution to debates and health campaigns around HIV in the 1980s and 1990s. Scottish LGBT communities were instrumental in information campaigns about HIV from the early 1980s, since (from friends and trips abroad thanks to newly-available budget flights to the US) people were receiving news of how HIV (then unfortunately named GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency) was decimating gay communities in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with little or no response from government agencies or the US medical establishment. Activists realised that a similar situation could develop in Scotland, and were keen that communities should be kept informed.

Louise N used multi-media from our collections that we've made available online to set the scene, explaining how public health campaigns in the region (like the Take Care campaign) were different from UK-wide approaches (such as the infamous UK 'Tombstone' / 'Iceberg' Don't Die of Ignorance ads). You can watch them yourself here.

We have a diverse range of public health material around HIV, and so Louise N also prepared a display showing items such as leaflets, postcards and posters, highlighting how LGBT-related organisations worked with the health service to promote safe sex. Issues of Gay Scotland also documented how debates around HIV were reported, as well as putting the spotlight on LGBT events, meeting places, support networks and the best in 1980s LGBT culture.

Postcards used in the display
As this 1983 issue shows, Gay Scotland was in tune with contemporary debates around HIV, busting myths and helping to keep readers informed about the latest health developments.

Follow our social media to hear about a public event for LGBT history month later in February!

Friday, 25 January 2019

Welcome to our new intern Emma!

Cataloguing and transcribing the letters of John Home, a patient at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in 1886-1887

Hi there, I’m Emma Filshie and I started my eight week internship at LHSA at the beginning of January. I’m currently on a career break and looking to retrain as an archivist, so this placement is a great opportunity to build up a solid base of varied work experience to support my application for postgraduate study starting this autumn.

The main focus of my internship will be the rehousing, cataloguing and transcribing of around 175 letters from John Home, a Writer to the Signet who was a patient at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum in Morningside (now the Royal Edinburgh Hospital) during 1886 and 1887.

John Home was a man of significant social standing in Edinburgh, both through his family and his profession. He was also a prolific correspondent, writing to a wide range of people including the Lord Advocate, Flora Stevenson, William McEwan MP (of McEwan’s brewers) and Drs Joseph Bell and Patrick Heron Watson, who inspired the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson!

His letters cover a variety of topics, but one prominent theme is his conviction that he had been wrongly certified and detained at the Asylum. He wrote several consistent accounts of his arrest and transfer to the Asylum, alleging illegalities and rough treatment, and continued to complain of the conditions once resident there. These complaints range from allegations of physical assaults, to the unsavoury behaviours and conditions of his fellow patients and the state of the food. His letters also reveal a number of romantic interests, frequently declaring his love and intentions of marriage…. to more than one woman!

Letter to James Auldis Jamieson, Crown Agent – 15 December 1886


I have to request that you will acquaint the Lord Advocate with the following monstrous fact that his Lordship may take such steps as in the circumstances are necessary.

There is at present in our midst a patient suffering from a most virulent attack of venereal pox, his head is one mass of open sores.

His Lordship is of course well aware that the poxous matter is a most malignant poison of a most infectious nature, and that patients suffering from this hateful disease are invariably confined in solitary confinement. In fact it resembles in many respects leprosy, and yet this infected monster is allowed to mingle and take his meals with  the other patients.

The other day one of the sores burst, and the couch on which he was sitting was besmeared with poxous matter.

Your most obedient Servant,

John Home

 Letter to Miss Mahon, a barmaid at the Balmoral Bar – 9 December 1886

My darling Wife,

I had hoped to get away from this infernal place this evening but fear I shall not now until tomorrow. I shall immediately come to you darling and shall bring the Diamond ring and gold chain and we shall then go along to the University Club and be married in presence of Mr and Mrs Fenn.

Send me a little letter by the bearer.

Ever your very loving Hub,

John Home

Letter to the Publisher of the Scotsman – 4 March 1887


I have to request that you will be good enough to insert the subjoined notice of marriage in your issue of tomorrow…..

At Edinburgh on the 4th March

John Home Esq W.S. to Kate, Daughter of Kearney Esq. of Londonderry

Under the 1866 Lunacy (Scotland) Act, medical personnel were permitted to open correspondence from patients and hold back any that were deemed unsuitable, so those of Home’s letters still held in the LHSA collection never reached their destination. He began to realise this after a few months, writing numerous copies of the same letter in an attempt to get at least one of them to its intended recipient.

P.S. Don’t be surprised if you receive several copies of this letter. I require to take these measures to ensure one being posted as the utter bugger, at the head here, excuse the expression, stops all letters….

The rehousing of the collection of letters has now been completed, with each letter now stored neatly in its own acid-free folder for preservation purposes and allocated a unique reference number to improve accessibility. Cataloguing the letters posed a couple of initial challenges – deciphering unfamiliar 19th century handwriting being the first, and writing brief yet comprehensive catalogue descriptions for some extremely long letters being another! I soon became familiar with the characteristics of his handwriting and with practise the summarising became easier, so hopefully will assist researchers accessing the collection in future.

The rehoused collection
The next step will be to transcribe the collection, which will require a forensic level of attention to detail and a good dollop of patience in order to replicate the drafting with complete accuracy. I’m looking forward to this next step and to providing another update on what the letters reveal in a future blog!

You can find out more about John Home, his letters and the wider context of the time in this article:

M. Barfoot and A. W. Beveridge, ’Madness at the crossroads: John Home’s letters from the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, 1886-87’, Psychological Medicine, 20 (1990), 263-84.

Friday, 11 January 2019

New year, new horizons

2018 saw some real highlights for LHSA. In what was a busy and productive year, we were awarded Accredited Archive Service status for a further three years and took part in celebrations for the NHS’s 70th and the Western General Hospital’s 150th anniversaries, which brought the collections to wider audiences. Louise (our now not-so-new Access Officer) joined the team and helped us respond to an increased number of enquiries (up 10% on 2017). We made ourselves ready for the new data protection regulation which came into force in May and finished our Wellcome Trust-funded TB case note cataloguing project.

A selection of images from our exhibition created for the NHS 70th anniversary 

2019 will be equally full, in part with established work but also with new exciting and worthwhile activity. We’ll be answering your enquiries, supporting research use and promoting access to the collections through a range of engagement activities as usual, alongside some fresh challenges. We’ll be looking in more depth at the provision of long-term storage for born digital collections and engaging with Edinburgh’s City Deal to explore options for digitisation of our existing paper material – all to support improved and increased appropriate research. We’ll be hosting a brand new PhD scholarship which will catalogue, and open up access to, the Levin Collection (the focus for our conservation internship at the end of last year, which made the collection ready) and we’ll be building on the success of 2018’s outreach programme, expanding our work with community groups and student societies. There’s lots more in store, so watch this space as we continue to blog about the collections and how they are used over the next 12 months!