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15 Aug 2022

Research volunteering at Newhailes

Written by Martin Cotter, Volunteer Researcher
A old handwritten diary lies open on a white cushion. The page on the left has an envelope folded over part of it. The page on the right is filled with dense lines of writing.
Sir Charles’s travel diary
The Dalrymple family lived at Newhailes House from 1709 until just a few years ago, and left a treasure trove of artefacts for us to study. I volunteered as a researcher for the National Trust for Scotland at Newhailes in 2020, and this year I had the opportunity to work on a fascinating item.

This item didn’t actually come from a Dalrymple though – it was a travel diary from 1824, written by Sir Charles Fergusson, 5th Baronet of Kilkerran. His connection with Newhailes was that he inherited the property from his aunt, Miss Christian Dalrymple, who died in 1838.

I was offered the task of transcribing this amazing little book. It’s almost 100 pages in length, every space crammed with Sir Charles’s handwriting. He went on a jaunt round northern Europe, a kind of mini Grand Tour, and I believe this diary was made as an aide memoire – he confesses in it after a visit to a museum that unless he writes down what he sees, ‘I remember almost nothing’. He was a member of the Speculative Society, where he gave readings – so perhaps he intended to use it to jog his memory for a lecture there.

The writing in the diary was at first challenging, but I soon became used to his ways! He was fond of abbreviations – cd. for could, wh. for which, anct. for ancient, etc. Once those were resolved, it helped to make the text readable. He used a quill pen – you can tell where the fresh nib has been cut, then the writing becomes gradually thicker and harder to read as the nib becomes dull again. He also had a penchant for French and Latin. By the end of the work, out of 41,000 words there were still 49 left that defied transcription – some are too blotted to read, some are overwritten, and some just refuse to make sense!

An old handwritten dairy lies open on a white cushion. The paper is slightly brown and has been written on with black ink. The handwriting is cursive and the lines are very close together.
A page showing Sir Charles’s beautiful handwriting

In transcription there’s a distinct satisfaction in suddenly solving a word that’s been stumping you – one such was what appeared to read as ‘trackshaugh’. No amount of Googling could solve this for me. In the end, I posted it on a community in Reddit called ‘what is this’ – where users try to help with mystery objects. And it worked! A Dutch Redditor replied that this was actually treckshuit – a kind of river boat taxi service that operated on the Dutch canals at the time.

The diary’s contents are varied and really interesting. Sir Charles was interested in the arts, architecture, agriculture and the people of the towns he visited. He rarely left anywhere without a visit to the cathedral or churches there, as well as the museums and the Town Hall, and would happily toddle off to see any attractions suggested to him by his guides.

In the course of this transcription work, I’d research the places that Sir Charles visited – it sometimes felt a little eerie to know I was looking at modern day pictures that were showing me exactly what he was describing! It also made me realise how precise his descriptions were. He meticulously listed the organ stops on the St Bavo organ in Haarlem, and I found images of this instrument that matched his list exactly. He was amazed and astounded by the sound it produced – but he was outraged when asked to pay the organist 12 florins for his troubles!

As I neared the last few pages, Sir Charles had one last surprise in store. Running out of room, he opted to write three pages both horizontally and vertically. It took a bit of concentration and digital manipulation – but (eventually!) I got there.

The inside back cover of an old diary is held open, revealing lines of handwritten text running both vertically and horizontally across the page. It is very hard to read!
The inside back cover of an old diary is held open, revealing lines of handwritten text running both vertically and horizontally across the page. It is very hard to read!

I honestly found it a privilege to be witness to the private thoughts of a prominent member of the family. I can’t wait to work on all the other treasures lying in wait at Newhailes!

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