When we think of archives, the first thing that comes to mind is books, paper, plans and maybe photographs or film.
Objects are not the first thing that we think of, but the National Records of Scotland has gained a number of objects over the years, from knives that have been involved in murders, to a piece of tartan said to have belonged to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
These have originated from many different collections, and we also hold artefacts that were once used in the early days of the office e.g. candles used in the Historical Search Room and clerks’ rulers. We also hold personal objects and mementos, such as hair of a loved one, which were kept within letters.
All of these objects end up being kept, and they present interesting storage challenges for the NRS conservation department, but some more excitingly retain secrets of the past waiting to be discovered.
The Potato Tubers
Although all the objects are unique due to their specific provenance, one of the more unusual items is perhaps some diseased potato tubers and seeds.
Until the 1990’s these had remained within the original letter and would appear not to have been examined in any significant way.
The letter in question was from James Hoseason of Aywick, Shetland, to Captain Robert Craigie, dated 10 September 1849. It gives a detailed description of the diseased stems and condition of his plants.
“Just above the ground the stem is scooped or hollowed out; in the middle of the hollow a black substance is found to be lodged, resembling in appearance a worm or insect – but on cutting it, it is found to be a vegetable substance.”
Hoseason goes on to mention the samples:
“In the specimens sent you will find these both in the stems in their original position and loose or rolled within paper.”
And he continues:
“The whole stem of course withers and tumbles down on being thus cut, and as the crop is very far from ripe it must be seriously injured as the tuber can no longer grow once the stem is destroyed.”
This letter and the samples were then sent on by Robert Craigie to W F Skene, Secretary of the Edinburgh section of the Highland Relief Board. The Central Board for Highland Destitution was a charity set up to relieve destitution in the Highlands by using voluntary funds set aside for that purpose.
“… I fear greatly that by the time of maturity of the Potatoe Crop the disease will turn out to be very fatal.”
He goes on to explain:
“Crops of every kind in this district are some week later than has been for many years back and I affirm from the experience I have had for many years observation, that a late crop in Shetland is generally a bad one.”
The description of the tubers would strongly indicate that there was indeed a pathogen destroying the crop in Shetland at this time.
The potato blight occurred in Scotland from 1846 to 1856, which, although serious, was not as devastating as the Great Irish Famine and took fewer lives, with relief being provided by the Board.
Now all this has been sitting quietly within the archives, and one could wonder what it could tell us today.
Following an article in a national newspaper about a research project into the original ancestral strain of the pathogen that caused the Great Famine, we decided to offer a sample to see if these were in fact diseased and to help the research.
After several emails, and permission requests to take samples from the tubers, I carefully followed the directions of Professor Jean Ristaino at North Carolina State University and off our 5 samples went. They were the only ones tested from Scotland.
In two of the samples sent, Phytophthora Infectans DNA was found using optimized PCR procedures. It was unsuccessful in amplifying mtDNA from our specimens, so it is not possible to say which genotype caused the disease in this case.
However they found the letters very useful in developing a clearer understanding of the 19th century epidemics. Plus we now know that James Hoseason did indeed have diseased potatoes infected with the deadly pathogen.
It was great to help contribute to an international project, and it shows how archives can still hold information yet to be discovered.
Let us know in the comments if you have found anything interesting in your family archives that you did not expect to find.
Hazel de Vere
Conservator, National Records of Scotland