Industrial Labour and Cultural Engagement in the Long Nineteenth Century

‘Piston, Pen & Press’ Project

Friends’ Meeting House, 6 Mount Street, Manchester / 18-19 August 2022

This conference is designed to expand on the remit of the ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ project and to discuss and reflect upon a wider range of cultural activities engaged in by industrial workers – for example, as dramatists and theatre-goers, as musicians and composers, as artists and visitors to exhibitions and galleries – as well as considering the state of critical work in this field and new directions for research. ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ focuses primarily on Scotland and the North of England: we are also interested in papers which consider literary and other productions in Britain more widely, and in papers which connect British cultural productions to those of international industrial workers, in order to make transnational or transcultural comparisons.

Given the project’s connections with industrial heritage museums and archives, we additionally seek to explore the ways in which creative, cultural and artistic activity by workers is, or could be, included in museum holdings, and used to engage twenty-first century audiences and communities. We therefore welcome proposals from museum, library and heritage professionals and from creative practitioners, as well as from academic and independent researchers.

The conference will have three main themes:

  • Reflection – we wish to reflect on the current state of the field and identifying future areas of research.
  • Expansion – we wish to explore working-class cultural production and engagement beyond the printed page e.g. art, music, photography, drama.
  • Engagement – we wish to explore the role of working-class cultural productions in the creative and heritage sectors.


This is a free event. To register for the in-person event in Manchester, click here. If you wish to attend remotely (via Zoom), you can register here.

Draft programme, June 2022

Note: For those arriving on Wednesday 17th August, there will be an optional afternoon tour of sites in Manchester, details tbc.

Thursday, 18th August

9.00 – 9.30 Registration & coffee

9.30 – 9.45 Welcome/housekeeping

9.45 – 11.15 Panel 1: Lancashire Working-Class Women Writers

  • Jack Southern/Andrew Hobbs (University Central Lancashire) – “I am a velvet weyver/An’ my heart is oft times sad”: The world-view of a velvet weaver in Edwardian Lancashire, through the poems of Kate Hall (1874-1947).
  • Chieko Ichikawa (Nara Women’s University) – Power of Imagination: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Working-Class Culture of Resistance.
  • Jenny Harper (University of Reading) – Out of the House of Bondage into the Field of Liberty- Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s Red and the Green.

11.15 – 11.30 Break

11.30 – 12:30 Panel 2: Working-class Culture & the Industrial City: Forms of Improvement

  • Mie Othelie Berg (University of Birmingham) – ‘A Moral Weapon’ – Class Interaction, Social Control and the Victorian Town Hall Organ.
  • Gordon Tait (Independent Scholar) – ‘A worthwhile original thought’: Thomas Dixon and the creation of culture in a northern town.

12:30 – 1:15 Lunch

1:15 – 2:45 Panel 3: Mutual Improvement

  • Helen Williams (Edinburgh Napier University) – ‘Twelve hundred volumes grace our shelves’: printers and their libraries.
  • Cathy Charlwood (University of Exeter)– Ebbw Vale in context: A Welsh mutual improvement success story.
  • Iona Craig (University of Strathclyde)– Miners’ Reading Rooms.

2:45 – 3 Coffee break

3 – 4 Panel 4: City Living

  • Christopher Ferguson (Auburn University) – Narrating the Nineteenth Century’s “Other” Revolution: Working-Class Writers and the Challenge of the City.
  • Serkan Culik ( Tekirdag Namık Kemal University)– Working Class Recipes: Tracing the Class in the Cookbook.

4 – 4:10 Short break

4:10 – 5 Piston, Pen & Press: Database launch and discussion

5:30 – 6:30 Jennifer Reid – performance (venue tbc)

6:30 onwards dinner

Friday 19th Aug

9.30 – 11.00 Panel 5: Recent Discoveries and Future Directions?

  • Michelle Johansen (Bishopsgate Institute) – Preserving Working-class Cultures: Charles Goss at the Bishopsgate Institute.
  • Simon Rennie (University of Exeter) – Modern Musical Adaptations of Cotton Famine Poetry.
  • Lena Wanggren (University of Edinburgh) – New Women and New Unionism: Where are the writing working women?

11.00 – 11.15 Break

11.15 – 1.15 Cultural Institutions Session: Chair Oli Betts

  • Mark Watson, HES
  • Matthew Moran, HMS Unicorn
  • Miriam McDonald, HES
  • Tim Boon, Head of Research, SMG
  • Karen Baker, Railway Museum
  • Jo March, Northumberland Archives

1.15 – 2.15 Lunch

2.15 – 3.45 Panel 6: Industrial Workplaces and Literary Culture

  • Ronan McGreechin (University of Strathclyde) – Illustrations and Sketches as Workplace Expression in the Denny Brother’s Drawing Office Scrapbook.
  • Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling): The Crafty Cal and the Great N. B. R.: Scottish Railway Poets and Workplace Identities.
  • Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum): George Gresswell – Engine Driver Poet.
  • Mike Sanders (University of Manchester): From Coalface to Typeface: The Literary Career of John Monk Foster.

3.45 – 4 Break

4 – 5.00 Closing roundtable: Brian Maidment, Florence Boos, Simon Kövesi

Victorian Literary Languages Workshop: Grammar and Philology

Victorian Literary Languages Research Network

Workshop One: Grammar and Philology

Lawson Room, School of English, University of St Andrews
Thursday 26 May

The first workshop of the ‘Victorian Literary Languages’ research network, co-organised by Gregory Tate (St Andrews) and Karin Koehler (Bangor), will be taking place in St Andrews on Thursday 26 and Friday 27 May. The aims of the network are to study the multilingualism of literature written in Victorian Britain and Ireland, and to explore the connections between the literary and linguistic histories of the four nations in the nineteenth century. The programme for the St Andrews workshop can be viewed here: Please email Greg Tate ( if you would like to attend part or all of the workshop online, or if you have any questions about the network.

Four Nations and Beyond: RSVP and SCVS event, 20 May 2022

Four Nations and Beyond

Periodical Studies and National Identities in the British Isles and Ireland 

Trades Hall, Glasgow. 20th May 2022

We are happy to welcome in-person and virtual participants to this event on Friday 20 May. Virtual registration remains open here. The programme is below, along with advance links to a selection of the papers and presentations.

RSVP Four Nations 20 May – schedule

Karin Koehler (University of Bangor), ‘Poetry, Language and National Identity in the North Wales Newspaper Press, c. 1850-1859’

Lisa Peters (independent scholar), ‘Gwalia: Creating a National Welsh Language Newspaper’

Lisa Peters, ‘Gwalia’

David Finkelstein (University of Westminster), ‘The International Typographical Trade Press and Labour Identity in Colonial Spaces’

David Finkelstein ‘International Typographical Trade Press’

Erick Boustead (independent scholar), ‘Chicago Irish Male Assimilation and “Mr Dooley”’

Erick Boustead, ‘Chicago Male Assimilation’

Emily Smith (Oklahoma Christian University), ‘The Fenian Sisterhood, Ladies Land Leaguers and the Woman Suffrage Question: The Representation of Women in the Victorian Irish Press’

Emily Smith ‘The Fenian Sisterhood’

Charlotte Lauder (University of Strathclyde/NLS), ‘From ‘Thistleites’ to ‘Thistleblaw’: The Scots Thistle (1885-2013), a Scottish Circulatory Manuscript Magazine’

Kirstie Blair, University of Strathclyde

Fionnuala Dillane, UCD

Decadence and Translation – Glasgow 13 December 2019 – CFP

Edouard Manet, frontispiece to Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘L’Après midi d’un faune’ – Special Collections, Glasgow University Library

Translation lies at the heart of Decadence. As the movement spread from France across Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century, reading translations was an important form of encounter for artists and writers; but so was the writing of translations, which informed the creative practice of writers including Oscar Wilde, Michael Field, Charles Baudelaire, Gabriele D’Annunzio and Stéphane Mallarmé. Decadent texts tend towards elaborate, esoteric and transgressive forms of expression. So finding appropriate forms and outlets across languages, disciplines and cultures has always been a puzzle and a stimulus for translators working on Decadence. This final event for the AHRC ‘Decadence and Translation’ Network will trace the technical challenges and formal difficulties, the social obstacles and publishing circumstances associated with translating Decadent texts from the nineteenth century to the present.

This one-day event on Friday 13 December 2019 at the University of Glasgow will incorporate both formal scholarly presentations and practical workshop sessions led by experienced translators. Plenary speakers include Professor Susan Bassnett (University of Warwick) and Professor Philip Terry (University of Essex).

The organisers seek proposals for short, 20 minute presentations from postgraduate students and Early Career Researchers addressing any aspect of Decadence and Translation. Topics might include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Decadence / Aestheticism / Cosmopolitanism
  • Translation
  • The transmission of Decadent texts through translation
  • Influence
  • The influence of translation upon Decadent writers
  • The technical challenges posed by translating Decadent texts
  • Theories of translation from the fin de siècle to the present
  • Current translation work on fin-de-siècletexts or writers
  • Global / Transnational Decadence

Please send a proposal of 300 words (max.) with a short 50 word biography in Word format to by

Friday 18 October 2019. Places at this event are limited, but a small number of bursaries towards the cost of travel and accommodation are available to students from within the United Kingdom.

A Fieldtrip to New Lanark

Guestpost by Lindsay Middleton

I have been in charge of organising the nineteenth-century reading group at the University of Glasgow since October 2018. Every month, students of all levels, staff and alumni come together over a pint to discuss social issues and critical ideas relating to Victorian literature; from food to periodization, and everything in between. The attendees are from multiple disciplines within the arts, some studying nineteenth-century textiles and others researching literature from other periods, yet we always find interesting and unexpected parallels between nineteenth-century material culture and what others are working on. As arts students, however, we are regularly confined to our offices or the pub for these kinds of discussions, and I thought it would be good to get some fresh air while taking advantage of some of the nineteenth-century resources that are within touching distance of the university. Having secured some community-building funding, then, I organised a field trip. On the third of June postgraduate students and staff from the University of Glasgow took a break from their normal Monday routine and left the office in favour of New Lanark World Heritage Site.

New Lanark’s History

New Lanark is an eighteenth-century cotton mill and village founded in 1785 by David Dale. Set in the beautifully verdant Clyde valley, it was significant to the Industrial Revolution not just in Scotland but in the whole of Britain and this was predominantly due to the millowner and educational reformer, Robert Owen. Taking over the mill from Dale (his stepfather) in 1799, Owen treated New Lanark as a social experiment, trying to turn it into a utopian village where workers’ wellbeing resulted in higher yields. He finished constructing his ‘New Institution for the Formation of Character’ in 1815, which introduced work incentives and workers’ rights that were until that point unseen in industrial environments. He educated children until they were at least ten, housed and fed his workers, gave them leisure time and formulated a performance-based grading system for his workers’ daily tasks. Owen faced opposition from the Church due to his criticism of organised religion, however, and eventually left New Lanark in 1825. He then journeyed to Indiana to begin a new project, New Harmony. Nevertheless, the reforms he introduced were so innovative that New Lanark was a spectacle in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – it was a regular stop for people on the Grand Tour, including William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Thanks to the World Heritage site now in place, it remains a spectacle today.

Our day at the Mill

Funding from the University of Glasgow allowed 16 of us to travel to New Lanark by bus for free.  Descending into the valley, you are at first struck by the attractive but industrial regularity of the stone buildings that constitute several mill buildings and the workers’ tenement housing, still a functioning village today. Given the rainy weather we were glad to get inside to begin our guided tour, though that relief was short-lived as we were shown around the water wheel, housing, mill and village store. Our guide talked us through Owens’s innovations, and the working mill – which now spins wool for high-end brands like Harris Tweed and the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter merchandise. This gave some impression of what life would have been like in Owen’s time (though we were reminded that there would have been over twenty spinning mules in the area where there was now only one. Noisy.).  I was particularly interested in the village store, with its pleasing plastic replicas of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century food. Owen introduced a currency to New Lanark village meaning that his workers were paid in tokens that they could spend in the store. Apparently this bought more than their wages would have in the nearby Lanark market. Whether this created a self-serving monopoly was unclear, but it did mean his workers had regular access to fresh, good-quality produce.

After the tour-guide had answered our questions, we were shown to the Annie Macleod experience: a ride in which you are transported back in time in your ‘pod’, as the ghost of mill-worker Annie Macleod recounts her childhood in 1820. This surreal display of light, sound and smells – yes, smells – added a level of whimsy to the day which none of us were expecting. An experience, to say the least. Over a lunch break that included some delicious ice cream made in New Lanark, we debriefed from the ride and were left to our own devices for the afternoon. With plenty remaining to explore, we took in Robert Owen’s famous school and classrooms, revisited the areas we had been shown on the tour, and perused the gift shop.

There is also a Scottish Wildlife Trust exhibition, which informs you about the bats, badgers, bees and birds that call the Clyde valley home. Then we got lucky, as the rain provided a window just long enough for us to do the 25-minute walk up to the impressive Corra Linn waterfall, one of four that make up the Falls of Clyde. The well-signposted boardwalk and stunning views are a wonderful way to take in the impressive and varied Scottish nature that both contrasts and facilitates the industrial New Lanark village, and we returned feeling invigorated.

Back Home

After a rainy bus ride home, we returned to the West End for a New Lanark-themed reading group and discussing an article by Lorna Davidson, ‘A Quest for Harmony: The Role of Music in Robert Owen’s New Lanark Community’ (2010).  This outlines the way Owen used music as a community-builder. The trip was enjoyed by all; it was fun, educational, and a great opportunity to take advantage of a wonderful Scottish resource and see knowledge exchange and heritage in action. With thanks to the College of Arts funding from the University of Glasgow, we were able to go on a field trip with other students across disciplines, which doesn’t often happen in the arts. New students have asked to be added to the reading group mailing list and so I am looking forward to continuing this postgraduate community building in Glasgow, bolstered by the opportunity to experience some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish history in the flesh, or in terms of Annie Macleod, in the hologram.

Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD candidate in English Literature and History University of Glasgow and University of Aberdeen. Her project is entitled: ‘The Technical Recipe: a Formal Analysis of 19th Century Food Writing’.






Funded Masters by Research — Exploring the History and Cultural Representation of Capital Punishment in Scotland

Funded Masters by Research (fees-only award)


Project: Exploring the History and Cultural Representation of Capital Punishment in Scotland

Supervisors: Professor Anne Schwan (English) and Dr Katrina Morrison (Criminology)

Start date: March 2019

Application deadline: 11th December 2018.

A fantastic opportunity to complete a funded Masters by Research (fees-only award) on representations of capital punishment in Victorian Scotland. The successful candidate will research the execution broadsides collection at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and will have an opportunity to co-organise a public event on the material at NLS.  Full details here.

Project Description

This MA studentship (fees-only award) allows the successful candidate to conduct a full-time Masters by Research on the history and representation of capital punishment in Edinburgh and Scotland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The project will examine historical and contemporary literary and cultural representations of both the death penalty and sites of public executions. Through innovative interdisciplinary research, the study will explore archival sources and nineteenth-century media to assess how such punishment was depicted historically while also interrogating the presence (or absence) of capital punishment in the collective cultural memory today, including a critical analysis of existing walking tours in the capital that take in sites of crime and punishment.

The starting point for the research will be the National Library of Scotland’s (NLS) crime and executions broadsides and chapbooks- cheap texts that formed a subcategory of street literature and functioned as a forerunner of the popular press; they were consumed by large audiences at the time but are now only available in special collections. The NLS has already made some of its broadsides available online, with further digitisation planned over the coming year. Regardless of digitisation, the candidate will be able to access original versions of these ephemeral texts in the library’s special collections. The project entails visits to other, smaller libraries in different parts of Scotland as well as major research libraries such as the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, to produce a comprehensive picture of the literary-cultural responses to public executions.

Such examples of popular street literature will be read and assessed against other historical accounts, including legal, religious or reformist writings, newspaper reports and/or the National Records of Scotland, to interrogate street literature’s historical accuracy alongside the rhetorical and aesthetic strategies used in such texts to respond to crime and punishment. The project will explore to what extent such texts gave voice to the condemned – typically in the form of the broadsides’ ’last lamentations’ – victims, families and the wider community while dealing with larger social issues including gender and class relations, religion and the administration of law and punishment.

For the purpose of engaging contemporary audiences in the moral and ethical debates about capital punishment, the MRes project will also include analysis of questionnaire responses from audience members participating in a ’pop up’ event at NLS, involving academic speakers and displays of selected broadsides and chapbooks that will invite the audience to reflect on these texts. This event and materials will be prepared by the MRes candidate on the basis of their initial research findings, supported by the supervisors and staff at the NLS.

The research methodology will primary consist of archival research and textual analysis, framed by relevant theoretical approaches in literary and cultural studies, and criminology. The project’s overarching objective is to contribute to a deeper understanding of how capital punishment was perceived and responded to historically, with a view to using this historical research as a starting point for stimulating debate about criminal punishment among contemporary audiences – a topic which remains an emotive public issue.
Professor Anne Schwan (English) has expertise in the history and literature of crime and punishment, with particular focus on the nineteenth century. Dr Katrina Morrison (Criminology) brings expertise in relevant sociological and criminological theories, and crime and punishment in the Scottish context.

Academic qualifications:

A first degree (at least a 2.1) ideally in English Studies, History, Criminology or a cognate discipline with a good fundamental knowledge of the history, literature and theory of crime and punishment.
English language requirement
IELTS score must be at least 6.5 (with not Jess than 6.0 in each of the four components). Other, equivalent qualifications will be accepted. Full details of the University’s policy are available online.

Essential attributes:

• Experience of fundamental studies in literature, culture, history and/or criminological questions
• Competent in textual analysis and use of theoretical frameworks
• Knowledge of the literary, cultural and historical contexts of the period in question
• Good written and oral communication skills
• Strong motivation, with evidence of independent research skills relevant to the project
• Good time management

Desirable attributes:

Experience in curation and/or engagement of contemporary audiences
Experience in interdisciplinary research
Funding Notes
This is a fees only funded MRes place.

‘Stick or Twist? Rigour meets Serendipity’, Cally Phillips

I am never quite sure whether to describe my relationship with the S.R.Crockett (SRC) Archives; of which I am the curator/guardian; as ‘not waving but drowning’ or as being embarrassed by riches but it’s frequently an overwhelming experience. There is just so much information it’s hard to know where to dive in.


My academic training began with an emphasis on rigour, in the field of Moral Philosophy. Over the years an element of serendipity has been added as I’ve studied (and at times qualified) in psychology, literature, mental health, social care… I am a serial ‘learner.’ I’ve been exposed to a  remarkable variety of research methods and find that outside of academic establishments one has both more freedom and more challenges when undertaking research. I work on what interests me – and so am constantly cursed to live in ‘interesting times.’  I am answerable to none, but equally I have no ‘support’ network or peer review system in place – there’s no safety net. Freedom can bring isolation.  I plough on, motivated by a conviction in the validity of the research.

I fully appreciate that serendipity can only take you so far in research (though I never underestimate it) and when the Archive received a very generous acquisition earlier this year, I glimpsed an opportunity to make order out of chaos.  The acquisition in question was a gorgeous, limited edition signed copy of the 8th Illustrated Edition of ‘The Stickit Minister and some common men’. ‘The Stickit’ (as SRC always called it, and on whose petard he has too often been ‘stickit’) was his first real publishing triumph and it happened in 1893. A quick count on my fingers told me that was 125 years ago. So while this particular Illustrated Edition was not published until 1894, it oozed significance.

‘The Stickit Minister’

I had my ‘in’.  I’d been lost in the mire of using the archive to develop a comprehensive timeline for SRC’s travels (of which there were many) and now I decided to focus on a fixed point.  Discovering that the actual date of first publication was March 20th 1893, I was sent into a fury of activity trying to pull together information to commemorate that event. Lots of work that had been languishing half-finished (as is the privilege and guilt of an ‘independent’ researcher) was brought forth and polished up into what turned out to be a 60 page Commemorative PDF.

Project SRC125 was born.  2019 will mark 125 years since SRC’s ‘breakthrough’ year of 1894 in which no fewer than four of his works were published, launching him into celebrity bestseller stakes and into the middle of a furore whose ill-effects are still felt today. I contend that SRC (Scotland’s ‘forgotten bestseller’) has a significant part to play in the history of Scottish literature – a part that goes well beyond any critique of the ‘quality’ of his writing.  That is my on-going ‘big’ study: a re-appraisal and ‘placing’ of Crockett in the context of his time and Scottish literature in general.  It is a story that, among other things, involves Cabbages and Kings.

‘The Stickit Minister’, from Chapter 1

2018/1893 thus represents the first stage of SRC125. The focus is on ‘the Stickit’ which – for those unfamiliar with it -was a volume of 24 stories written mostly in the 1880s and pulled together to critical and popular acclaim in 1893 by T.Fisher Unwin.  Already a juxtaposition of old and new, ‘Stickit’ was highly significant in SRC’s life. The book sold outrageously well, going into 8 editions in the first year.  It was appreciated by Stevenson (RLS), to whom it was dedicated.  His endorsement of the 2nd edition by means of a poem didn’t hurt sales. His relationship with and attitude to SRC has long been a bone of contention, which remains underexplored.

A stooshie was caused by SRC’s ‘Letter Declaratory’ to RLS  which was published in the Second Edition of ‘The Stickit’.  Indeed it is here that the roots of the Kailyard myth may have started. Investigation of the source and consequences of the stooshie has taken me into an exploration of relationships between a range of literary figures from Barrie (JMB) to Henley to Colvin and into the ‘ins and outs’ of the contemporary publishing scene – William Robertson Nicoll, T.Fisher Unwin and A.P.Watt are all ‘characters’ in the emerging ‘story.’  I deem it a ‘story’ because I believe that fact and fiction are inextricably mixed when delving into the past via archive and/or primary text material.  I contend that such research always relies on elements of speculation and inspiration.

Robert Louis Stevenson poem

‘Strive for rigour and avoid prejudice’ is my mantra as I enter such places. And I bear in mind SRC’s own statement ‘the actual connections are never those which you think of.’

Crockett was no more ‘stickit’ than he was ‘kailyard’, as I hope Project 125 will show. Indeed ‘Stickit’ was the catalyst for SRC to move beyond both Ministry and Kailyard and 1894 was a very interesting year in that respect.  Since 2019 also marks RLS125 (the anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson) there are, I sense, significant connections within this serendipity.

Part of my current research involves exploring the relationship in letters between RLS, SRC and JMB in the years 1893-4. The intended ‘outcome’ is a short play ‘Jimmy and Sam’s Almost Excellent Adventure’  which imagines JMB and SRC’s planned trip to Samoa to see RLS in 1893/4.  So for the foreseeable future I will be ‘drowned in Scotland’ through the work of SRC, JMB and RLS. I hope this will give me something interesting to share with those who are perhaps better qualified but less free to take the serendipitous paths.

My research challenges the perception that the latter part of the 19th century was a ‘dark age’ in Scottish literature. With the hindsight of 125 years it is possible to throw a spotlight onto this time to reveal a rich seam.  For too long I feel that the Scottish Renaissance has been predicated on a constructed late 19th century ‘decline’.  Hindsight, an awareness of past ‘agendas,’ a critical, rigorous mind and an openness to serendipity offer alternative perspectives of equal value.

I find the 1890’s a fascinating, vibrant time. I believe that research, like life, is always a work in progress –and all the better for it.  I contend that we should always be challenging past opinion and authority.

Cally Phillips

I’m happy that as a community SCVS offers an opportunity for those of us on the fringes to (virtually) share and talk about the cultural and literary past of Scotland. My email for Crockett related things is  and the associated website, The Galloway Raiders is

Cally Phillips  is an independent researcher with interests in Scottish literature of the late Victorian period, especially the work of S.R.Crockett and J.M.Barrie. In 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of Crockett’s death, Cally founded the S.R.Crockett society (The Galloway Raiders) at the same time republishing 32 volumes of his Galloway based novels. She holds the Crockett research archives of the late Dr I.M. Donaldson and Richard D. Jackson as well as a complete Crockett library and has now published over 50 Crockett related titles. In 2017 she founded the J.M.Barrie Literary Society.

‘Swords in the Stories: A Nineteenth Century Mystery’, Dr Valentina Bold


Image: ‘Kinmont Willie’s Sword’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

A story of serendipity

Sometimes research leads are hard to find. Sometimes they find you. This is a story of the second kind.  It concerns a museum, a curator, a sword and a song, serendipity and speculation.

Two years ago, I was giving a talk at Dumfries Museum about Annan antiquarian Frank Miller. Afterwards, curator Siobhan Ratchford approached me. She told me about a recent find, in the Annan Museum collection: an intriguing blade discovered within a set of agricultural equipment. The thing that marked it out was its rather weathered label. Only three words were intelligible: ‘Kinmont’, ‘Willie’ and ‘freebooter’. Siobhan had my full attention.

The Unknown Antiquarian

The Label’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

I knew the ballad of ‘Kinmont Willie’ from Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03).  Willie Armstrong (c.1550-c.1610) was a notorious Border outlaw, best known for having been illegally captured on a day of Truce, in 1596 and rescued in daring Carlisle jail-break led by Walter Scott of Buccleuch. Could this be Kinmont Willie’s sword?

The Museum had already taken the label to the University of Strathclyde, to be examined with a high-spec scanner. Maybe something could be found out about the person who wrote it or, as I came to think of him, ‘the Unknown Antiquarian’. Infuriatingly, the scan did not reveal much. The ink had rubbed off with age. This really was a mystery story in the making.

A story of opportunities

When Siobhan offered to show me the sword, and its label, I jumped at the chance. For one of the few times in my life, I was struck completely silent.  Having spent the last thirty years writing about nineteenth century poetry and song, I can honestly say this was one of my best moments ever.

Valentina Bold with the Sword ©Dumfries Museum

As I handled the (surprisingly light), rusty sword, I was acutely aware of its significance. Whether this was actually Kinmont Willie’s or not  someone, at some point in the past, had reason to believe it might have done. It was, then, a sword that was part of a story—but whose story and what?

Finding the Story

Like Siobhan and her colleague, Fiona Wilson, I felt sure this was a story worth telling.  I am particularly grateful for a The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s grant, which allowed me to conduct archival and field research on the sword and its stories, over 2017. I appreciate, too, support from Kate Kennedy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Outreach programme, which sponsored me to lecture on the sword in Dumfries and Annan: and

Fiona secured funding from the Festival of Museums for a weekend of activities with a related exhibition, ‘Swords in the Stories’, held in Dumfries and Annan over the summer of 2017, featuring other swords with stories from the regional collections, including a sword belonging to polar explorer Sir John Ross, another from the Napoleonic wars and Robert Burns’ excise sword.

I was helped in my research by many people including, satisfyingly, three of my former students: Ian Martin at Gilnockie Tower, John Bonner at Carlisle Castle and Kathy Hobkirk at Hawick Heritage Hub. I would also like to thank David Hill of Hawick Museum and David Caldwell, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and formerly of the National Museums of Scotland, and George Dalgleish, also of the Society and formerly of NMS. Dumfries and Galloway’s regional archaeologist, Andy Nicholson, was immensely helpful.

Dumfries and Galloway’s Regional Archivist, Graham Roberts amazingly, and  successfully, managed to decipher the label, discerning references in the writing to two printed texts: Roberti Johnstoni Scoto-Britanii Historiarum (1642) and Scott’s Minstrelsy. These meant the label had to be early nineteenth century, at the very earliest.

I started looking for references to the sword in the writings of known collectors of ballad-related items, including Walter Scott, and Dumfries and Galloway-based antiquarians like Joseph Train, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. William Motherwell, the Kirkcudbright-born ballad scholar William Macmath, who collected materials for Francis James Child, and Miller himself (who died in 1949) were later candidates but I could not find anything concrete to suggest that any of these people were aware of the sword. The best I can suggest is that this was a prized item in a hitherto unknown collection.

It is possible this unknown person had their interest in the sword piqued by the rise of the ‘celebrity sword’, which began in Scotland with Scott’s use of the Marquis of Montrose’s sword (lent to his cousin) in the ceremonials of 1822 during the royal visit to Edinburgh. The William Wallace sword (probably not earlier than the fifteenth century), now on display in Stirling, was sent to London for repairs in 1825.

The nineteenth century was a period, too, when attention was given more broadly to swords with stories, in Britain and in Europe: Arthur’s Excalibur, Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, Roland’s Durandal, El Cid’s Tizona. Perhaps the Annan sword’s owner (an Armstrong?) had taken a fresh look at it a family-held item at some point from the 1820s onwards—perhaps, too,  that person’s descendants had lost interest in the object, relegating it to storage.

The Sword

So much for the provenance—what of the sword? If it belonged to its identified owner, it would have to be from the late sixteenth century, when he was active. The question of authenticity was one of the first we had to consider. David Caldwell (although he has not seen the sword, only photographs) thinks the date is possible, based on key features. First, the blade and pommel (plummet, in Scots) are characteristic of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The pommel, too, is of a type used on basket hilts—unfortunately our hilt is missing. There is also, significantly, a ricasso –the blunt section at the top of the blade—and fullers, or grooves, on the blade.

‘A Sword with a Story’ © Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service

The Story: Kinmont Willie Armstrong

Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a man with a dark and heavily documented (for all the wrong reasons) past. He lived at the Tower of Sark, also known as Morton Rig. It is eleven miles from Carlisle, three from Longtown and three from Gretna Green; well positioned then, close to the border. It was referred to as ‘Sande Armstrong’s new hous’ in 1547, and ‘Kinmont’s Towre’ in 1590.

The tower is no longer there, but the site is marked with a small structure raised in 1996 and unveiled by the Duke of Buccleuch.  My thanks to Adam Armstrong-Crisp, of Armstrong Border Tours, who accompanied me to Morton Rig, and in retracing Kinmont Willie’s routes on both sides of the Border.

Morton Rig © Valentina Bold

Willie was the great grandson of Thomas Armstrong, the fifteenth century laird of Mangreton, grandson of ‘Ill Will’ Armstrong, and son of Sandy Armstrong, notorious for his gang of reivers, ‘Sandy’s Bairns’. This made him the second cousin of ‘Black’ Johnnie Armstrong of Gilnockie, his father’s cousin, and famous in ballad. Hanged by James V at Carlenrig, his last words, in his ballad, were ‘I am but a fool to seek grace at a graceless face’. Willie was also, significantly for his story, married to the daughter of another well-known reiver, Hutcheon Graham (of whom more presently).

These were notorious, violent men, and Kinmont Willie was one of the worst.  In a 1583 raid on Tynedale, he attacked eight villages, killed six men, wounded eleven more, took 30 prisoners, stole 800 cattle and £200 worth of goods.  He returned a year later, attacking eight villages, stealing 80 cattle and oxen, 60 horses and mares and 500 sheep, burning 60 houses, causing £2000 sterling-worth of destruction and killing ten men. In 1585 he rode out with the Earl of Bothwell against King James VI at Stirling , pillaging in the area and taking back substantial booty. In 1592 he was described as having 100 followers in his private army. He was, in short, the bane of the Western March.

On the 17th of March 1596, Willie rode home from a meeting at Kershopefoot, on the Border of the West March. He was part of a Scottish group which had met with a party under Thomas Salkeld, deputy to the Warden of the English West Marches, Lord Scrope.

Kershopefoot @ Valentina Bold

With a small group of around twenty followers, Willie would have felt protected by the day of Truce. This allowed those who attended till sunrise the next day to reach home. He had only a handful of miles to cross. However, as he rode north along the Liddle Water, he passed two hundred English soldiers, riding south.

What happened next is a little vague. There may have been a fray but, heavily outnumbered, Armstrong was taken across the border. According to the ballad, he was bound to a horse, with his hands tied behind. Under a heavy guard, he was taken on to Carlisle Castle, in an action which broke Border law.

Amidst public outrage the Keeper of Liddesdale, Walter Scott of Branxholme, laird of Buccleuch, demanded Willie’s release. He sent a letter of complaint to Salkeld, who referred the matter on to Scrope. The English Warden offered no satisfaction, until ‘good security’ was given for Willie’s behaviour. Nor was Robert Bowes, the English ambassador, able to resolve the matter.

Buccleuch decided to take direct action. He allegedly sent a woman into Carlisle Castle to assess how Willie was being held. There was a four-hour long meeting at Archerbreck, attended by various men including Grahams, Gilbert Elliot and Auld Wat Scott of Harden (Sir Walter Scott’s ancestor) and even some officers of the English West March, Thomas and Lancelot Carleton.

Buccleuch was then seen at the Langholm horse races talking to several English Grahams. Salkeld, incidentally, was also (like Willie) related to the Grahams by marriage. It is, then, likely that there was inside help (possibly even from members of the Castle Guard) in what happened next. Buccleuch later said, ‘I could nought have done in that matter without the great friendship of the Grahams of Eske’.

On Sunday the 13th of April 1596, Buccleuch  and his supporters assembled at Kinmont Willie’s home.  Their numbers have been estimated at forty (in the ballad), eighty (according to Buccleuch), two hundred, or even five hundred (according to Scrope). The raiding party included men best described as reiving royalty, such as Armstrong’s relatives Lang Sandy and Hutcheon Graham, the man associated, in 1606, with the first written use of the word ‘blackmail’.

Carrying ladders, crowbars, pickaxes and sledgehammers, ‘like a mason gang’, as the ballad puts it, the men rode through the Debateable Lands, across the Border through Graham territory and stormy weather. At Carlisle Castle, they attempted to scale the walls—according to some accounts, their ladders were too short and so they broke down the postern gate.

Carlisle Castle ©Valentina Bold

In the ballad, they use ‘coulters’ and ‘forehammers’ to break through to the prison, overpowering the Castle Guards to break down Willie’s door and set him free, sounding a trumpet to give the appearance of a larger force. Scrope and Salkeld took refuge, barricading themselves in.

The raid was finished by daybreak and, as signal beacons were lit in Carlisle, the rescue party escaped. It was said that a thousand men pursued them, but the raiding party crossed the Eden Water. In the ballad, Buccleuch flings his glove at Scrope and mocks him: “If ye like na my visit in merry England, / In fair Scotland come visit me!”.

The door was certainly broken—there are contemporary accounts of the cost of its replacement, with something extremely sturdy. Scrope wrote about the rescue, too, ‘in the dead time’ of night, the next day, despairing of the  watchmen who, ‘by reason of the stormy night were either on sleep or gotten under some cover to defend themselves from the violence of the weather’.

‘The Postern Gate’, Carlisle Castle © Valentina Bold

Perhaps, though, this rescue was not all that it seemed.  John Bonner of Carlisle Castle pointed out to me that Willie was not in the most secure part of the castle—it is very possible that this was intentional, and conspiratorial. Rather than placing him, for instance, in secure cells, or in the oubliette, he was held in a wooden structure just inside the castle wall.

The oubliette, Carlisle Castle © Valentina Bold

Whilst Scrope, it seems, never fully recovered from the shame of this notorious incident Willie continued his career of depradation. He rode out again later in 1596 with Wat of Harden. In 1597 he captured the Captain of Bewcastle among seventeen prisoners for ransom and stole 24 horses—he also experienced a raid from the English side, with his house sacked and burned, 300 beasts being stolen, and 2 men from his household killed.  At the head ‘Sandy’s Bairns’, he attacked Scotby in 1600 with 140 men, stealing over 100 cattle and taking prisoners; on the same night he attacked Carlisle, causing damage in the town and only leaving when the warning beacon was lit in town. His last raid was in 1602, south of Carlisle around Low and High Hesket. He died in his bed, about 1603 and is buried in the graveyard at Sark.

Graveyard at Sark © Valentina Bold

The Sword in the Story

This sword, as part of this story, puts us within touching distance of the past. For the collector, who labelled it, it was a celebrity item, with a sobering frisson  of reiving attached to it. This is a story of the Scotts, as much as it is a story of the Armstrongs—of the Bold Buccleuch, and of Sir Walter. It is a significant item, embodying messages about the ways we remember the past, its villains as well as its heroes. I explore these ideas further, and in detail, in a booklet I’m currently writing, the tangible output of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s generous funding. This will be launched in Dumfries in late 2018.

Fiona Wilson and Valentina Bold ©Dumfries Museum

Dr Valentina Bold is Principal Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and teaches ‘Enlightenment to Romanticism’.  In addition, she teaches within the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. She has published widely on literature, song and cultural heritage, with books including James Hogg: A Bard of Nature’s Making, Smeddum: A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology and Robert Burns’ Merry Muses of Caledonia and, with Andrew Nash, Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M.Barrie.


‘Preserves and Poetry at NAVSA 2017’, Erin Farley

The 2017 North American Victorian Studies conference was held in Banff, Alberta, Canada in November 2017, with the theme of ‘Victorian Preserves.’ Partly due to the theme, and partly due to the place itself, whose climate and topography were impossible to ignore, ideas of the memories and connections attached to landscape were often present. Banff has its origins as a Victorian railway town, settled around 1880 on the Canadian-Pacific railway route, and soon became a tourist resort after settlers realised the combination of scenery and its natural hot springs (sacred to the indigenous Stoney Nakoda people) could be used to attract health-conscious visitors. Today, it continues to do so, a magnet for skiiers and mountaineers. Delegates from places where neither snow nor mountains come in such volume – which was most of us – spent much of the break times staring out of the windows in awe.

View from Banff Centre

As the idea of the preservation of nature made its way onto the 19th-century agenda, Banff became the centre of the first Canadian national park in 1887. 2017 also marked 150 years of Canada’s existence as an independent nation. The name of Banff, and many other places nearby – Canmore, Calgary, Airdrie, Mount Ishbel – are a constant reminder of the role Victorian Scots took in colonising the area. The realities of Scotland’s role in empire and colonisation are still underplayed in public history, and something that we struggle to face up to. But the issues do not go away. A newspaper story in the local paper, Rocky Mountain Outlook, during the week of the conference covered an application from the Stoney Nakoda community to the Alberta Geographical Names programme, proposing that some place names be officially changed back to traditional ones. The first keynote of the conference, Coll Thrush’s paper on Indigenous histories of London, was preceded by a formal acknowledgement that we met on land which traditionally belonged to Stoney Nakoda people.

Beyond the specific local context, ideas of how selective preservation affects our idea of the past and the present appeared throughout a number of the panels. My paper was scheduled on the first day as part of a panel on ‘Nature, history and naturalism in the face of Victorian modernity,’ discussing how popular poetry reflected social and political meanings attached to public green spaces preserved within the city of Dundee, and how the circulation of these poems through newspapers and broadsides had very real effects on how people interacted with these places. I was joined on the panel by Sarah Leonard, who also focused on urban landscapes, looking at the London Society for Photographing Relics and what their practices told us about Victorian priorities for recording history. Thomas Recchio’s paper on ‘Natural Science and the Preservation of “Wonder” in Neo-Victorian fiction’ explored a view of science in which deepened understanding of the natural world added to the sense of magic and religious feeling inspired by observing nature, rather than diminishing it.

Our contemporary relationship to the Victorians and what they wrote was a strong theme among the poetry panels. Charles LaPorte’s ‘Victorian Women’s Poetry and the Preserves of Faith’ took Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Cry of the Human’ as a base from which to explore our contemporary attitudes to women’s religious verse. As long as we do not address the effect of secularisation on our readings, and do our best to bring genuine respect for Victorian women’s position of faith, LaPorte warned, we will be poor interpreters of these poems. These concerns were paralleled in Melissa Gregory’s paper on the same panel, about child elegies which often contain depictions of grieving which often seem disturbing to contemporary eyes. The discussion following this panel addressed the discomfort modern readers (even those very well acquainted with 19th century poetry) often feel upon encountering Victorian feelings that do not reflect what we feel, or expect others to feel, not only in the case of religion but in terms of a contemporary culture in which death is rarely spoken about. Trying to fully ‘listen’ to poets about not only the cultural but the emotional perspective they write from is a practice I aim to maintain throughout my own research, but it can be a challenge. Hearing the importance of doing this – and the inherent difficulties – acknowledged and discussed was encouraging and inspiring.

Our ongoing relationship to Victorian poetry was also the primary theme for Marjorie Stone’s paper Stone’s ‘A Diminishing Preserve? Victorian Poetry, Field Transformations, and Neo-Victorianism,’ which considered Victorian poetry studies itself as a preserve, and questioned how the current academic field affects what we consider Victorian poetry to be. Her paper was informed by academics’ responses to a questionnaire on how they perceived changes in the field of Victorian poetry studies during the time they had been involved in it.

As well as a shift away from studying traditionally canonical poets towards broader research directions taking in movements or themes in poetry, people reported a declining number of specialists in poetry, particularly among the younger generation (something compounded by the increasing difficulty of finding academic jobs, and a broader shift away from historical literature and the humanities in general in twenty-first century universities.) Stone also remarked on the dominance of the novel in Neo-Victorian studies and representations – as well as a worrying tendency for poetic lives to be portrayed in a tragic/glamorous mode tinged by conservatism masquerading as transgression. The discussions after Stone’s paper included several testimonials from people who felt like they now had to almost sneak poetry into 19th-century syllabi in order to attract students’ interest. There were also suggestions for an informal Victorian poetry caucus, which would allow people to collaborate and disseminate research, but also raise the profile of the discipline within the wider Victorian Studies field in North America.

The conference also covered many other aspects of Victorian preservation, including issues around archiving documents and objects. Evening activities also preserved Victorian entertainments through reviving them, with a film showing of the 1890 Blue Jeans, and a 19th Century Theatre Caucus performance of How We Live, an 1856 stage adaptation of London Labour and the London Poor directed by Taryn Hakala. The themes that NAVSA 2017 centred, as well as those brought up by the location itself, combined to provoke a number of interesting discussions on how we relate to the past through ideas of particular places or pieces of writing as representative, and the ways in which this relationship changes depending on contemporary concerns.

How We Live (photo credit: Amy Kahrmann Huseby and Taryn Hakala)

Erin Farley
I am grateful to the British Association of Victorian Studies for their award of the Sally Ledger Memorial Travel Bursary, which allowed me to attend this conference.

Erin Farley is a PhD student on the Collaborative Doctoral Award project “Poetry, Song and Community in the Industrial City: Victorian Dundee”, working with the University of Strathclyde and Dundee Central Library to explore the importance of locally-produced verse and song cultures in shaping communities in Dundee.

‘Letterpress: Victorian Technology in the Twenty-First Century’, Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams

The print world underwent a silent revolution in the latter part of the twentieth century.  New techniques such as offset lithography and laser printing came to dominate the publishing industry, ringing the death knell for the last of the iron printing presses.  Those presses, confined by the 1970s to high street print shops and the backrooms of wedding stationers, had dominated the printing process for the previous two hundred years and many differed only slightly from the technology developed by Gutenberg and his contemporaries.  When they finally went under, they did so quietly: chucked in skips, donated to museums, repurposed for art colleges, or left to gather dust in the garages and sheds of retired printers.

Now, letterpress – as the traditional method of printing is called – is enjoying something of a revival.  A quick glance at Etsy reveals a host of home businesses selling the products of their handpresses, while fine press printing is increasingly in demand, and artists and graphic designers are more and more looking back for inspiration to the once-neglected technology of last generation.  Academics have also begun paying attention to letterpress, as initiatives such as the major AHRC-funded project, Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, and Future amply attest.

Our Columbian press.

For those of us trying to pick up the pieces of a trade which has almost vanished over the past forty years, the challenges are many, but so are the rewards.  When I co-founded the Pathfoot Press as the letterpress arm of the University of Stirling in 2016 I found myself inheriting, amongst other equipment, a nineteenth-century Columbian press (formerly used by the Stirling Bibliographical Society and one of the gems of the iron press tradition) and it’s that press I want to write a bit about today.  The Columbian was invented in 1813 by the American engineer George Clymer (hence the eagle so prominent in the picture), but enjoyed a rather greater popularity in Europe.  Ours was made in the mid-nineteenth-century by the Edinburgh founders D & J Greig, who produced the majority of Scottish Columbians in their day.

A hundred-odd years later, the Columbian at Stirling continues to get the job done.  Those of us at the Pathfoot Press have used it both for official university commissions and for our own artistic and literary productions as we’ve gotten it up and running over the past year.  But it’s also showing its age.  The body is cracked in a couple of places, the wooden handle has been worn and grooved by centuries of hands, and the leather strap which roles the platen in and out of the press is badly in need of adjustment.  We should be able to source the repairs we need, but it’s moment like this that make me aware of how fragile the letterpress revival really is.  Worldwide, there are less than a handful of firms like Harry Rochat’s in London which produce new iron presses and the parts to repair old ones; otherwise, it’s make do and mend for as long as we can.

An early project of ours locked up in its formes and ready to print.

As such, you could say that we exist in the penumbra of a vanishing industry, but I’m inclined to be more optimistic.  For me, the resurrection of letterpress and the renewed public desire for goods produced by nineteenth-century methods on nineteenth-century machines is part of a larger cultural fascination with the handmade brought out about by the ubiquity of the digital, the 3D-printed, the easily replicated, and the plasticene.  Paradoxically, as ever easier methods of (re)production are developed, we come to appreciate the older, laborious methods that much more.  That’s one of the reasons why I find it so worthwhile to print with our Columbian – we’re creating things that people value and take delight in, which is worth many hours of frustration, inky fingers, and aching shoulders.

Demonstrating the press at a university open day.

And we’re only just beginning.  This year has seen the Pathfoot Press finding its feet, as we become familiar with our machinery, improve our craft, and undertake a few tentative commissions.  We’ll be going into 2018 with two lead printers (myself and Dr Dawn Hollis), our kindly bosses at the Stirling Art Collection (Sarah Bromage and Jane Cameron), two fantastic and dedicated interns, and ambitions to do much, much more.  Already, we’ve been giving outreach and educational sessions for everyone from Stirling alumni to undergraduates to local art teachers and we’ll be expanding this part of our work as we go forward, as well as making plans for ever more ambitious printing projects.

A broadside commissioned by Innerpeffray Library and printed on our Columbian.

So, if you like the idea of a Victorian (or at least early twentieth-century) print shop, come and see us!  We’re on Twitter @PathfootPress and our new website should be going live in the next month or two.  While our Columbian’s days as an old-fashioned jobbing press are long over, I very much hope and believe that its days as a tool for fine press printing, for teaching, and for outreach are only just beginning.

Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams is a lecturer in early modern literature at the University of Stirling with research interests in the culture of early modern northern Europe, especially Scotland. He is one of the lead printers at Stirling’s new centre for letterpress learning and teaching.