A Researcher's Guide to Local History Terminology/Researching local history

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Researching local history[edit | edit source]

Local history research is often taken up as a hobby by people without prior training or experience in the appropriate techniques and approaches. The very nature of local history is such that starting points are always available locally and lay researchers can learn the necessary skills as they study their subject in ever increasing depth. Archivists and societies can provide advice, encouragement, and information; formal courses of study are also widely available.

Most local history researchers follow a process in which they start from the basic facts offered by the available evidence, make a more detailed analysis of that evidence to explore its implications, and then put that analysis in its wider temporal and geographical context. Some take a more theoretical approach: starting from a hypothesis, which they seek to demonstrate or disprove through evidence.

Primary sources[edit | edit source]

These are records that were created at the time of an event. For example, a primary source for a birth date would be a birth certificate. While you can find birth dates on other documents, such as marriage certificates, they would not be primary sources for the birth date, because they were not created at the time of the birth.

The survival and availability of local records differs significantly from area to area. West [1] is a good guide to what records may exist and how they might be used. Similarly Iredale [2] also describes where records may be found and how they can be used, although he originally wrote more than thirty years ago and is somewhat dated in parts. There are numerous guides to individual record categories [3] which can be found in bibliographies or referenced in more general works.

Secondary sources[edit | edit source]

A secondary source is a record that was created a significant amount of time after an event occurred. For example, a marriage certificate would be a secondary source for a birth date, because the birth took place several years before the time of the marriage. However, that same marriage certificate would be a primary source for a marriage date, because it was created at the time of the marriage.

There is often a local studies library which will contain a wealth of local material and web access. Early county historians [4] often provide parish by parish accounts, although they frequently include long descriptions of manorial descents which are of little interest to the current generation of historians. If there is a history of the parish church, this may well contain useful material.

Many books as secondary sources have a tendency to contain information which is of special interest to the author, even if the book titles are broadly similar. When researching a particular topic it is best to consult as many 'histories' as possible for vital clues can lurk in the most unexpected places. It is also true however that mistakes can be repeated through plagiarism by author after author and even exaggerated. This is the ever present problem with secondary sources of information.

Using paintings, drawings, prints and photographs[edit | edit source]

Photographs are usually reliable and can be interpreted directly and with confidence. (While this is true, remember that sources are created with intent by the author. Therefore a photo essay of a community may emphasize some areas, and omit others. As such, the use of photographic images as a primary basis for exploring a community may be limited. This is why it is always desirable to use multiple sources.)

Paintings and prints are open to artistic interpretation and / or a formulaic construction. For example the artist Gilpin[5] set a fashion for a romantic style of drawing and painting which influenced artists for many years and Billings[6] is famous for his stylised and romantised representation of Scottish castles, etc. Such sources can only be 'trusted' as factual in generalised terms.

Using old maps[edit | edit source]

Privately produced antique maps often go back several centuries, the Ordnance Survey (OS) itself did not start until the 19th-century. Many maps can be found either online [1] or are available for study at libraries, purchasable at bookshops, etc.

Comparing maps sequentially by age can reveal a great deal of information about place names (etymology), landscape features, natural habitats, changing farming practices, etc. Older OS maps may have many place names which are left out on modern OS maps.

The 'Name Book' was the written record of the OS and this can be very helpful and informative. The OS is sometimes wrong, with examples of misnamed hills, burns, historical features, etc. which have never been corrected and have been repeated by other 'official' bodies. Such errors can sometimes be identified and corrected by making comparisons with pre-OS maps, an example being where the OS at first used the name 'Drumastle Mill,' then 'Drumcastle Mill,' however a 1747 map gives 'Drumaskus Mill.' An old 'Tower' was nearby and this may have led to the OS error during re-surveying, etc.

Old maps, through comparing various surveys, can also reveal the extent to which geographical features have been altered by the activities of man. Rivers were surprisingly often diverted by natural circumstances, the landowning class, factory owners, etc.; lakes were created through mining, quarrying, road construction, etc.; small hills were removed through quarrying, etc.; lakes drained for agriculture, etc., etc.

Baronial or manorial records[edit | edit source]

The Barony became the principal administrative unit of medieval landed estates in Scotland and its business was carried out in the Barony court before the laird or his baillie. The records of the Barony, and in particular its court, document many aspects of local agriculture, the resolution of disagreements between tenants, the transfer of property amongst tenants, etc.

Many lairds also had a legal heritable jurisdiction which permitted the laird of the barony to deal with certain minor criminal matters and regulate the sale of bread and ale. Baronies continued to function in a minor way until the early 20th century, but by this date the business of the courts had for a long time been dominated by the transfer of tenants' property.

The proceedings of the court and other documents give much information about local agriculture and the management of estates. Records reveal a great deal about the community living in the barony, its social structure, households, responsibilities, and the local economy.

Etymology[edit | edit source]

The names of habitations, hills, rivers, villages, etc. can reveal a great deal about the history of such features, especially if the name can be traced throughout its existence to show subtle changes which help to positively identify the original meaning. Such changes can be very complex and confusing, especially if they involve other languages, such as Cornish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, etc.

Local dialects can lead the local historian astray, as with 'Watermillock' beside Ullswater in the Lake District. The name seems to imply something along the lines of 'The small mill by a stream', whilst it actually involves the dialect word 'wethers' for sheep and 'hillock', or small hill.[7]

Even well established placenames may change with new ownership, such as with the farm 'Sandilands', which was change to 'Bankend' once Lord Torphichen of the Sandilands family, sold the estate on which the farm stood. In such cases extra confusion can effect historical researchers as the farm was renamed after a previous farm which once stood on another site some distance away.

A tradition, particularly in Victorian times, was to enhance the 'image' of a place by renaming it using more upper or middle class names. Maybole in Ayrshire for example had many streets renamed through the influence of a local minister.

A particular tradition that exists in parts of Ayrshire in Scotland and probably elsewhere, is to rename places after old family homes or estates, places of particular personal interest, etc. For example the Fergushill Manse became 'Janburrow' after Janet from Burrowland Farm and Bonnyton became 'Girgenti' after an historic site in Sicily. Landowners often altered names, such as that of Culzean castle, which used to be 'The cove', named after the caves that the castle stood on. Little Dreghorn near Dreghorn in North Ayrshire was changed to Fairlie after the family's main home on the Ayrshire coast.

Clues can also be found by speaking to local people who may provide the pronunciation of a name from a map, etc. which might be significantly different from the deduced pronunciation.

Another difficulty with the interpretation of placenames, standard expressions, etc. is that the meanings of words may have changed, for example the expression 'Pit and gallows' refers to a pit which was actually a form of dungeon or prison cell, not a pit for drowning the condemned. Words may also take on new meanings which supplant the original, for example a 'turnpike' was used for the spiral stairs in a tower and became more familiarly a term for the Toll Roads first constructed in the 18th-century.[8]

Some descriptive terms were used very much in one locality, such as that of 'bastel-house' being confined to the East and Middle March of the Scottish - English border.

Some names can link certain features to industrial activity in the past, such as the name 'Red Boiler' which referred to the manufacture of soap at one particular site. Here the clues were that a plentiful supply of hardwood trees was a pre-requisite, together with a supply of animal carcasses, both of which the site had once provided in abundance. The folk memory of cast iron cauldrons at the site and the characteristic colour added to the circumstantial evidence.

Changes in the spoken language of an area results in the loss of some placenames and the corruption of others. Such changes may reflect such transition as that from Pictish to Gaelic to Scots and finally to English.

Personal names[edit | edit source]

The spelling of personal names, like that of placenames, was highly variable and only became consistent in the 19th century in many cases. Some spelling usages may reflect cadets of a family, such as with the Cunnnighame family, who used Cunninghame for the Glencairn and Corsehill branch; Cuninghame for Caddel and Monkredding; Cunningham for Baidland and Clonbeith; and finally Cuningham for Glengarnock.

When following family trees it is worth noting that many heirs changed their names to retain a traditional surname, as with the branch of the Seton family who inherited the Earldom of Eglinton and took the Montgomerie name associated with that title. This practise was sometimes a condition of inheritance or an act of gratitude.

Aerial and satellite imagery[edit | edit source]

Imagery from aerial reconnaissance is especially common from the first and second world wars. Some of which can be viewd in 3D. Such photographs are held by the Imperial War Museum and turn up at antique fairs, through on line auction, sites, etc.

Various websites can now provide satellite imagery which gives an overview, often in considerable detail, of areas which are being researched. Many sites additionally have live links on the satellite image which provide further details and sometimes link to sites such as Wikipedia, often providing much more information to the researcher. Features are usually easy to follow, such as Corpse roads, old railways, castles, rivers, rig and furrow systems, etc.

Taken together with maps, satellite imagery can clarify or add substantially to existing knowledge on a particular topic. The imagery is however not 'live' and can be several years old. Crop marks are sometimes visible, indicating the course of old roads, the position of old dwellings, etc. Due to the imagery being from above, some vertical structures can be hard to make out, only being visible by the shadows they cast, etc.

The interpretation of landscape features[edit | edit source]

There is no alternative than to keep an open mind and to develop or seek expert advice when making deductions from features in the landscape. Oliver Rackham is well known for his pioneering work on woodlands, leading to a better understanding of previous landscapes, which sustained lost crafts such as sawyers, digging temporary sawpits which collapsed upon themselves to leave 'grave' like features. They are often found in old woods, close to water and occasionally made with stone sides.[9] Q-pits are another landscape feature, found in woodlands or what has been woodland, they were kilns used to produce a sort of dried wood called 'white coal,' at one time used in the smelting of lead from the ore. Even old land usage can be deduced to some extent through examining the plants present, the form of trees, particular woodland boundary features, the presence or absence of coppicing, etc., etc. Some plants for instance have been known to linger on in one locality from the days of the monasteries and their 'physic' gardens.

Site visits and oral information[edit | edit source]

A visit is often essential, although satellite imagery can be a partial substitute. Local people rarely have a deep knowledge of their locality's history, however such information can be invaluable. It is often the case that site visits uncover the existence of primary sources of material such as photographs, deeds, etc. Additionally, personal contact with other local historians may result from meeting people local to an area.

Folklore, tradition and oral history[edit | edit source]

Many places have a rich folklore and tradition which can be both a help and a hindrance. Usually a kernel of truth is associated with such historical records, however they often suffer from exaggeration, fusion with other events, the 'Chinese whispers' phenomenon and other corruptions of historical accuracy. It is important for the researcher to remain impartial and often the simpler the version the more truth it holds.

False memory syndrome is a very real problem and questions to 'local' interviewees should be framed without any leading facts which could distort the correspondents memory at that time or later.

Selena's Tree is an example of how stories develop. This tree stands near Kilwinning in Ayrshire, Scotland. One legends records that it was the meeting place of lovers; a man from Eglinton castle and a woman from the town. A second legend records that it was where a local witch was burned at the stake. The first story is pure romantic fiction, the second confuses the site with the nearby place of execution where a witch was executed and the truth is that a local lady named Selena walked to this tree every day for many following a stroke at a relatively early age.

Sharing information and encouraging others[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia and Wikibook sites enable local historians to make their work available to a very wide audience, inviting the assistance and contributions of others. Contacting 'interested' individuals via email, post, etc. can widen the use of such Wiki sites and actively involve people in the recording of their own local history. Researchers in other countries often have an interest in work done by local historians, leading to productive communications and furtherance of objectives.

The writers of articles do not have any form of veto and it is inevitable that opinions will sometimes differ, resulting in edits which may or may not be a real improvement. Such is life! The important thing is to keep enthusiastic and pursue the Wikiway (democracy).

One great advantage of writing information on websites such as the various Wiki sites is that it will not get lost or corrupted by accident; it is a secure home therefore. A disadvantage, certainly on Wikipedia, is the less than perfect hard copy provided through the printing options.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. J West, Village Records
  2. D Iredale, Enjoying Archives
  3. NW Alcock, Old Title Deeds is a particularly good introduction to an under-used source for local history
  4. Morant, History and Antiquities of Essex for example
  5. Gilpin, William (1786). Observations relative chiefly to picturesque beauty on several parts of England. Vol.1. Cumberland and Wrestmorland. R.Blamire. London.
  6. Billings, Robert William (1901). The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland. Pub. Oliver & Boyd.
  7. Lee, Joan (1998). The Place Names of Cumbria. Cumbria Heritage Services. ISBN 0-905404-70-X. P. 90
  8. Mackenzie, W. Mackay (1927). The Mediaeval Castle in Scotland. Pub. Methuen & Co. Ltd., London.
  9. Rackham, Oliver (1976). Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Pub. J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0-460-04183-5.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • The Victoria History of the Counties of England (VCH).
  • Allison, K. J. (ed.) The Ealing Census
  • Bede, History of the English Church and People (AD 731).
  • Burke, Peter (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Polity Press, 1991)
  • Clanchy, M.T. From Memory to Written Record (Blackwell, 1992).
  • Currie, C. R. J. and Lewis, C. P. A Guide to English County Histories (Thrupp: Sutton, 1994) ISBN 0-7509-0289-2
  • Donaldson, Gordon and Morpeth, Robert S. (1977), A Dictionary of Scottish History. Edinburgh : John Donaldson. ISBN 0-85976-018-9
  • Hoskins, W. G. The Making of the English Landscape.
  • Phythian-Adams, Charles. ‘An Agenda for English Local History’, in Societies, Cultures and Kinship 1580-1850 (Leicester Univ. Press, 1993).
  • Sheeran, George and Yanina. ‘Reconstructing Local History’, Local Historian (November 1999)