Driving Our Data

In the last five months, we have devoted a lot of time to considering how to structure the data that will drive MSR’s visualisations. And while Stage II of MSR will look to develop the user interface of the project, we wanted to take some time to show you ‘under the hood’ of what we have done so far. And what there is still left to do (spoiler: there’s lots)!

The information we collect on ministers from across Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689 is collated on Wikidata. Wikidata allows us to link together different aspects of clerical careers and to build search queries to test the data we have collected.

If we’re looking under the hood of MSR, then this stage of the project was about making sure we had an engine. Initially, we took data from volume one of Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae (scraped as part of our preliminary work in 2016-17) and added it to Wikidata. This consisted of recording the names of ministers, the locations of their parishes, the dates of their tenure, and any references to ministers being deprived or deposed. A typical example would look like this:

Each minister, like any other item on Wikidata, gets a ‘Q’ number and each characteristic (gender, occupation, residence) is given a ‘P’ number. Moreover, each parish is given a set of coordinates, so they can be plotted on a map (you can read about our very earliest work on mapping parishes here).

The beauty of Wikidata is that, with these items being so neatly split into categories, we can run queries on the data using the Wikidata Query service and some basic SPARQL. These queries allow us to ascertain certain information about our ministers or even view maps like the one at the top of this page.

The Wikidata Query service and its table view

The dataset of ministers from the region covered by the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale consists of over 800 entries, each with four or five characteristics. With this data, we have the very first, simple, visualisation of all of the ministers active in Lothian and Tweeddale. This provides an alternative to genealogists and scholars looking for an easy, accessible, way to visualize Hew Scott’s work from Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae.

The next step is to augment Scott’s rudimentary data with manuscript material. This will significantly expand the dataset, adding new information (such as ministers overlooked in the Fasti or the full details on clerical suspensions and depositions), and amending some of Scott’s inconsistencies. MSR is built on manuscripts housed in the National Records of Scotland and, because of the richness of this material, we have devised a very specific way of recording this information, all captured through Wikidata. Let’s look at John Hogg, the controversial minister of West Linton, the Canongate, and South Leith for an example.

An example of collating manuscript information onto a Wikidata entry

Here, we cite manuscript material that provides additional, accurate, information on Hogg’s career. We add details like this for each aspect of clerical career that we find in the manuscripts. Through Wikidata, we can record the repository, the archive accession number and the folio/page reference of relevant material in the manuscript.

NRS, CH2/295/3, f. 39

The image above shows the manuscript page on which details of Thomas Hogg’s career can be gleaned. By adding this material to our database, MSR provides both a finding aid to manuscript resources and also a way into a world of archival material that can often be incredibly challenging for non-specialists to view.

The map at the top of this page is a resource in its own right, but it isn’t static. We are now working to add more manuscript data to the dataset, so it expands and can offer new insights. We have multiple data points relating to over three hundred ministers (and counting) taken from manuscripts across Lothian and Tweeddale to add to Wikidata. Once uploaded, all of this information will result in the most extensive prosopography of Scottish ministers ever attempted.

We hope this view under the hood of MSR shows the extent of our efforts to structure the data of ecclesiastical careers in early modern Scotland. We also hope it shows you the ways in which the manuscript material we are mining will add considerably to our understanding of early modern religion. In the next year, we will devise a more user-friendly and customisable interface, so users from a wide range of backgrounds can explore this data in more detail: tracking clerical careers, observing trends in the data and seeing big religious changes over time. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your feedback on our work so far: it genuinely helps us shape the direction of the project.

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