In our previous article, published on 29 May, NRS archivist Simon Johnson and conservator Jackie Thorburn shared the first of two articles relating to their work to open up improved access to the trial papers of the Scottish ‘Radical Rising’ of 1820 (NRS ref. JC21). They set the papers in their historic context and focused on Jackie’s extensive work to conserve the collection.
Today, Simon provides an overview of his work to facilitate better public access to the material, describing the process of improving the collection catalogue and digitising the original material after conservation work was completed. This also supports planned outreach work to mark the 200th anniversary of the Rising.
Enabling access to the evidence of a revolution
FIG 1: JC21/2/2 (trial papers of Camelon case, Stirling) – “a Special Session of Oyer and Terminer […] holden at the Town of Stirling […] on Friday the Twenty-third day of June”
On 23 June 1820—200 years ago today—a ‘special commission of oyer and terminer’ was opened in the Court House on Broad Street, Stirling. This marked the beginning of the trials of those men charged with treason for involvement in the so-called Radical Rising of 1820.
This insurrection, driven by artisan workers in central Scotland, pushed for government reform in response to the economic depression. The Rising was violently quashed and the subsequent trials ended in August 1820, leading to the transportation of 19 men and the execution of three others.
On completion of the trials and subsequent court processes, the trial records were held by the High Court of Justiciary at Parliament House, Edinburgh. Nineteenth century records from the High Court were transmitted to the former Scottish Record Office (NRS’s predecessor) in 1972 as a result of an Act of Adjournal (Records of High Court of Justiciary). This included the trial records of the Radical Rising.
The collection, which was in poor condition, was assigned the catalogue reference JC21 and the collection was box-listed to a basic standard, with only minimal cataloguing. For many years, it was a little-known and under-used collection.
Improving the JC21 catalogue
Conservation of the JC21 collection, completed by Jackie Thorburn in February 2020, allowed for easier and more detailed perusal of the content of the records. This provided an opportunity to make significant improvements to the existing JC21 catalogue, prior to digitising the collection.
FIGS 2–3: JC21/2/1 (trial papers of Bonnymuir case, Stirling), shown during and after conservation. FIG 2 highlights the folds in the document, which would impede the capture of quality images. FIG 3 shows the final image of the front page, captured after the record was ‘relaxed’ by Jackie Thorburn in Conservation Services, allowing for a quality image capture.
The archival catalogue is a window on what is included in a particular collection. It is an overview of the collection’s most representative features, which provides the archivist with intellectual control as well as providing the researcher with a ‘way in’ to a collection.
Arranged hierarchically (i.e. with different descriptive levels), catalogue descriptions begin with the ‘fonds’ level – the broadest level, providing an overview of the whole collection. Archival description then passes through various narrower levels, the next of which is the ‘series’ level – grouping the collection into common functions or subjects. The narrowest level is the ‘item’ level, which describes individual records within a collection which cannot be further sub-divided.
The JC21 catalogue was extremely basic, extending only to series-level descriptions with little detail concerning individual records. The series-level descriptions in JC21/2–6 merely identified the Scottish counties in which the treason trials took place, with a date range for the trials.
FIG 4: Screenshot of catalogue entry JC21/2 shown prior to catalogue improvements. This series-level entry identifies the county in which trials took place (in this case, Stirling) and the date range for the records (Jun-Aug 1820). The catalogue provides no narrower item-level description of the five individual records held within series JC21/2.
The entire collection has great research potential from a socio-political context. Unfortunately, the existing catalogue descriptions were of limited use for researchers in locating information on individuals or places relevant to the Rising.
This was a concern, as there is interest in researching individuals involved in the Rising, whilst local and family historians are among the most common users of NRS archives.
The insurrection of the week of 1–8 April 1820 took place in several areas of central Scotland. Taking the county of Stirlingshire as an example, Radical activities and unrest took place in Balfron, Bonnymuir, Camelon, St Ninian’s and Stewarton. This, however, was not reflected in the catalogue descriptions.
FIG 5: Page from the published proceedings and evidence of the Radicals’ trials, taken in short-hand by C. J. Green (Vol. 1, Edinburgh, 1825). Shows the names of 19 men against whom true bills were found in the St. Ninian’s, Balfron and Camelon cases.
By way of improving the catalogue, new item-level entries were created for each individual record in the collection. The title and description field for each of these new entries in JC21/2–6 include the name of the particular case to which the item relates: ‘Balfron Case’, ‘Bonnymuir Case’, etc. This is a vast improvement, as it allows researchers to locate material relating to those particular locations at a glance.
FIGS 6–7: Screenshots of JC21 search results overview from NRS public catalogue. FIG 6 shows the old catalogue entries, extending only to series-level descriptions. FIG 7 shows part of the improved catalogue, expanded to include item-level entries, and with additional details in the title field.
The ability to search catalogue descriptions by personal name is extremely important, enabling a wide range of different researchers to search for records of individuals and to assist them in locating records of particular relevance. The existing JC21 catalogue didn’t include any personal names, except for those of the three men who were executed for their part in the Rising.
This was remedied by adding into the catalogue the names of all 88 men against whom true bills were found, with the names being listed in the entry for the relevant case. 38 of these 88 men did not appear in court as they had either not been discovered by authorities or else had fled to foreign countries shortly after the events of early April 1820. The updated catalogue descriptions make clear which men appeared and which men were not held in custody.
FIG 8: Screenshot of new item-level catalogue entry JC21/2/1 (trial papers of Bonnymuir case, Stirling), showing location and the names of all 18 men against whom true bills were found. Also provides a physical description of the material.
By extending the descriptions to item-level and adding people and place data, researchers are now able to identify more specific details, which we hope will improve access and encourage further research.
Completing the catalogue improvements prior to digitising a collection is always advisable, as selected catalogue information for each record (i.e. reference numbers, titles, dates, etc.) forms the basis of ‘metadata’ which is produced to provide context to the digital images, as described below.
Digitising the JC21 records
Digitisation within the Archival Innovation and Development business area of NRS is managed by the Digital Services branch. Two teams of imaging technicians carry out image capture and post-capture processing: the Digital Services Team at General Register House, and the Digital Imaging Unit (DIU) at Thomas Thomson House.
Digital Services work very closely with Conservation Services and the Search Rooms to enable digital access to NRS holdings. Given the vast array of different types of material held by NRS, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to digitisation – the process often requires careful planning, closely-managed experimentation and a cross-departmental approach.
Digitising the JC21 material was no exception. The majority of the Radicals’ trial papers consist of multi-sheet manuscripts: gatherings of 18 parchment sheets, stab-sewn together in the top-left corner with red tape. The conservator made the decision not to separate these gatherings, so as to preserve the integrity of the material. This decision—though sound conservation practice—provided digitisation challenges.
FIGS 9–10: Top-left corner of two pages from JC21/4/1 (trial papers of Duntochar case, Dumbarton), showing the red tape with which the volume is stab-sewn together, providing a digitisation challenge.
The size of these gatherings of parchment (approximately 40 x 30cm) would ordinarily be suitable for the standard NRS camera stations, using either Nikon D800 or D810 cameras. However – as the gatherings of parchment had not been separated, it was necessary to turn each page for imaging, thus taking up more than double the space on the imaging platform and placing strain on the delicate material.
To solve this issue, the images were captured at the medium-format camera station in DIU, which utilises a Phase One IQ180 camera, enabling technicians to capture large records up to double-A0 in size (such as maps and plans). It is also used for higher-quality imaging of smaller items, where the nature of the record requires special consideration.
FIG 11: Medium-format camera station in the Digital Imaging Unit at Thomas Thomson House. A Phase One IQ180 camera captures images at up to double-A0 in size. [image courtesy of Jane Brown]
Conservation arranged for a section of archival-quality polyethylene foam to be placed beside the top-left corner of the document being imaged. This provided support to the turned pages, placing less stress on the stab-sewn corner of each bundle.
A very important aspect of digitising original material from NRS collections is to link the images with crucial information that tells us what it is. This information is known as ‘metadata’.
Before the imaging of each individual record commenced, the technician enters pre-agreed metadata into the imaging software: the record’s reference number, title and the date(s) it covers. As each page is imaged, technical metadata about the digital capture is also stored. This metadata provides context to the images, and is automatically stored in a large central database.
Each individual page was imaged to a high standard by NRS imaging technician Scott Mellia, ensuring optimum focus and colour-matching. Each image was captured with a slight border, so that the edges of each page are fully visible. The camera captured high-resolution TIFF images. Software then converted these large files into manageable 300dpi JPEG files, which are publishable in terms of image quality.
FIGS 12–14: Examples of images captured of three different types of record from the JC21 collection. From left to right: JC21/1/2 (commission of oyer and terminer), JC21/2/2 (trial papers of Camelon case, Stirling), JC21/8/5 (writ of capias, Stirling).
Following a rigorous quality-control process by a DIU technician, the imaging software then saved the JC21 images into a pre-defined folder structure which mirrors the hierarchical structure of an archival catalogue.
Having completed the digitisation of the material, the images were uploaded to the NRS image viewer, ‘Virtual Volumes’. This provides public access to the images for all registered readers via the computer terminals in the Historical Search Room at General Register House. This, in turn, helps to safeguard the preservation of the original material, as access to the digital images is provided in lieu of general public access to the originals.
FIGS 15–16: Images of JC21/2/3 (trial papers of St Ninian’s case, Stirling) as displayed on the NRS Virtual Volumes image viewer. FIG 15 shows a zoomed-out view of a whole page, with a pan window shown top-left. FIG 16 shows thumbnail images of the whole 19 pages of the record.
The entirety of the JC21 collection is now available to view digitally via the Virtual Volumes image viewer in the NRS search rooms at General Register House. The updated JC21 catalogue can be explored in the NRS Online Catalogue.
NRS will mark the 200th anniversary year of the Radical Rising with a series of online outreach articles during September 2020.