Pulling Back the Curtain on Transatlantic Collaboration

When we began the conversation that led to the creation of Mapping the Scottish Reformation in the spring of 2017, neither of us could have anticipated how quickly MSR would take off, or how incredibly generous the Scottish History and Digital Humanities would be as we navigated the contours of this new and exciting part of our respective careers. One of the things that we remain intensely grateful for is the transparency of others who have embarked on their own digital humanities endeavors. To a person, our fellow scholars have been willing to peel back the curtains of polished finished projects to discuss how the various steps, strategies, and challenges along the way. These “inside looks” have been nothing short formative for our work.

In that spirit, we wanted to offer some insights into our own collaborative process in gathering and visualizing our data, applying for grants, and establishing good communication and a feasible workflow—all while working on two different sides of the Atlantic.

Traditionally, scholars have collaborated from within a single institution or country, eliminating the potential difficulties of different time zones and travel restrictions, not to mention disparate sorts of bureaucratic norms and red tape. Yet with the tools of Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Docs and Sheets, and cloud storage, the time is ripe for transatlantic collaboration, particularly in a field like Scottish History. Scotland’s diaspora, tourist industry, and uniquely fascinating history (we’re biased, we admit!) has meant that scholars and genealogists in North America and well beyond are interested in exploring the nuances of Scotland’s people and past. We think a collaborative project like MSR shows the potential of transatlantic collaboration to invigorate the study of Scottish history—but how exactly have we made this work on a day to day basis?

One of our slightly less awkward live transatlantic collaboration shots from spring 2020

The success of our collaborative process has hinged on three interrelated things: a clear digital workflow, regular communication between ourselves and other interested colleagues, and flexibility. The two technologies that have underpinned this whole project to date—Google Sheets and Wikidata—are stored entirely on the cloud and updated in real time, meaning either of us can access them at any moment and, crucially, at the same time. In the first data gathering phase of this project, we divided up the presbyteries within the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale and recorded our findings separately but on the same Google Sheet. We communicated constantly about any editorial or content challenges via text, email, or on a Google Doc called, fittingly, “concerns.” Both of us are, by habit, very quick responders to emails and texts, meaning that we could often troubleshoot questions such as “should we count this as the precise date of installation in a parish?” or “how do we record the first post of this schoolmaster turned minister” in real time, so long we were both still in working hours on our respective sides of the pond.

The “concerns” Google Doc also meant that we could make shared notes of oddities or issues in the records and respond to each other along the way. We highly recommend that any collaborators, especially early on in their process, keep some sort of shared running document like this, as it will come in surprisingly handy for grant-writing. You’ll also want to use a shared cloud service for any static or finished documents, such as Dropbox or Box. If we were a bigger project team, a collaborative workflow service such as Trello might have also been very useful.

an example of one of our many Google Sheets pages

Our workflow has also been strengthened by frequent communication about our progress in going through the presbytery records and regular planning for what comes next. We knew, for example, that the stage after data collection would involve entry of that data onto Wikidata and the running of test visualizations. Chris was, from the outset, more interested in (and, I’d argue, more capable of!) learning about and working with Wikidata, Leaflet JS, and a range of mapping technologies. I, on the other hand, was very content to continue augmenting our dataset, which meant that Chris was able to build much of our technological infrastructure while I focused on finishing the remaining presbytery records. The recognition of different strengths and interests, and clear communication about those, is essential for distribution of labor and creating the most efficient workflow, especially when looking ahead to next steps. 

Our process as we have moved through Stage 1 (data-gathering) and into Stage 2 (building the pilot user interface) has been also greatly enhanced through regular communication with other team members, collaborators, and interested colleagues. Mackenzie Brooks, W&L’s Digital Humanities Librarian and a member of the MSR team, has been an indispensable go-to for technology related questions, as has Ewan McAndrew, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedia guru. We have frequently turned to W&L’s associate provost and Advisory Board member Paul Youngman for questions and suggestions on funding. Our Advisory Board as a whole has been a constant well of support, insights, and critical questions that have guided the development of our work so far. And of course, all the colleagues from the Scottish history and genealogy communities who have commented on our social media posts, offering their thoughts and queries, have helped us imagine what MSR could become.

This list of people we’ve leaned on is long, but the lesson here is clear: a digital humanities project may have only two co-directors, but the best ones are born of multiple communities. To others embarking on such projects, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions, even the most basic ones. In fact, ask them as widely as possible, and share your work-in-progress whenever you can in presentations and in print, rather than waiting to unveil a more polished final product. 

our first joint presentation, in January 2020 at Edinburgh’s Centre for Data, Culture and Society. Other essential venues for sharing our work-in-progress have included the Digital Archives in the Commonwealth Summit, the Ecclesiastical History Society Podcast, the Scottish Indexes Conference, History Scotland, and the International Review of Scottish Studies.

Last, we want to emphasize flexibility as a core aspect of the collaborative process, especially when the project team is international. The UK and US have different calendars for the academic year, varied expectations for the balance between research, teaching, and service/administrative work, and assorted rules for things like research leave and buying out teaching. Because of this, there will invariably be certain times during the year where one of us is too swamped to devote much time to Mapping the Scottish Reformation. Flexibility has been key, with ourselves and each other, especially as we’re both at teaching-focused universities. It is quite common for one of us to say “as a heads up, I won’t be able to get to this for at least a week,” or “sorry, I lost the thread in the abyss of my inbox, can you resend?”. This sort of dialogue that foregrounds flexibility has been crucial, especially when designing work schedules for funding bids. We would certainly recommend that any collaborators beginning a research project as ambitious as MSRhave a conversation about their other research commitments/goals, the typical rhythms of their academic year, and any anticipated challenges.

Over the past three years, we have applied for numerous grants; gone through nearly 10,000 manuscript pages; collected data on 874 clerical posts, roughly 500 significant events (such as depositions and suspensions), 116 parishes, and 7 presbyteries; and begun work on our pilot user interface. Throughout, a clear workflow, good communication, and mutual flexibility has kept things running smoothly and kept us excited about this work. We hope this is some use to the followers of MSR, and we will keep pulling back our own curtain as this project progresses!  

Mikki Brock

Entering Stage Two: Mapping Parishes in Lothian and Tweeddale, 1560-1689

With Stage One of Mapping the Scottish Reformation nearing completion, we now have a large dataset of ministers, detailing their movements and important moments of their careers. We have parsed over 9,000 pages of manuscripts from presbyteries across the region of Lothian and Tweeddale. With these significant task complete, we can now turn our attentions to how we intend to present this data in Stage Two of the project.

Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation is generously funded by the Strathmartine Trust and will see us explore our user interfaces for the first time. Up to now, we have deposited our data onto Wikidata and used the built-in tools to test our material, to see the locations of gaps, and to create quick mock-up visuals that we think users might find useful. You can read more about our use of Wikidata mapping tools and how we structure our dataset here.

A screen grab of using the mapping tools built into the Wikidata Query Service.

Followers of the project will have seen some of the demos we have been able to quickly put together that visualise the breadth of our data and hint at some of the ways we can put it to work. Critically, Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation will use even more powerful mapping technologies to create visualisations that load faster, run more smoothly and show even more data. Before we formally embark on this process, we have spent the last couple of weeks dipping our toes into some of these more powerful mapping technologies.

The Wikidata Query Service — and the SPARQL queries we write to ask questions of our data — sits at the heart of our project. It allows our data to be open for other researchers to use (and build on) in the future, but it can also be quickly exported and patched into other programmes/services. The first stage of testing more powerful maps is to take the result of a SPARQL query, add a few modifications to the code, and export it into a TSV (tab-separated values) file.

The Wikidata Query Service allows the results of queries to be exported into various file formats

We exported a SPARQL query that shows all of the parishes in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689, as well as a label that showed in which presbytery each parish sat. This has the fewest values of any of our datasets so we thought it would be an easy place to start! The resulting TSV file is effectively a huge spreadsheet: and as much as I like spreadsheets, I think it would be stretch to call it attractive or user friendly. The key thing here is that we have the latitude and longitude data in separate columns and have the key bits of information we want to display to users. Our test file included around 120 lines.

The resulting TSV file is functional, if unappealing

Formatted correctly, a TSV file like this one can be imported into GeoJSON, an open format mapping service that allows users to input geographical data and show them on maps (note: have you noticed our constant use of open source and access services?!! It’s no coincidence!). Users can either add points manually or, critically for us, add geo-referenced locations in bulk. Having uploaded the file, the result is a much more appealing map that includes more attractive and comprehensive icons and the ability to select different mapping layers. We can even add different mapping tiles, using a service like Map Tiler, enabling us to test different backgrounds.

The beauty about GeoJSON is that it transforms that ugly TSV file into something more machine readable. Unfortunately, GeoJSON doesn’t allow you to automatically export your map or embed it into a website like this one. This is where Leaflet.JS comes in.

Leaflet is quietly taking over the world of internet mapping applications, but its huge functionality comes at a significant technical cost: we aren’t in the world of drag and drop or ‘what you see is what you get’ editing anymore. The benefits of a little perseverance, however, are huge.

Leaflet demands an understanding of CSS, or at least an understanding of what to swap into lines of code cribbed from GitHub and when. This process was made infinitely easier by Leaflet’s own tutorials and, in particular, by this superb tutorial on YouTube by Eduonix. The key here is to take the code generated by GeoJSON and to copy it into our HTML file (shown below in Sublime Text markup editor). You can see how the data from GeoJSON is shown just below the various lines of code for headers etc.

After generating our map, a few fairly simply lines of code allows Leaflet to then take the data from GeoJSON and display it, as well as adding a custom mapping layer and popup menus that are, in theory, infinitely customisable. The resulting map can be exported to HTML and embedded into a website. And because the database values were all pasted into Leaflet, at least for the moment, Leaflet doesn’t have to request the info each time the page loads. The result is that the embedded map loads almost immediately.

You can play with this simple demo, showing all of the parishes of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689, below.

Notice that we have made use of the NLS Historical Maps API to plot the points on a historical map. This dynamically adjusts to a different background map depending on how far a user zooms in or out of the map.

If this seems like a tremendous amount of effort to go to in order to embed a map, then I suppose you’re right. What’s important here is that we have demonstrated that the data we manually took from manuscripts within the National Records of Scotland, passed into Wikidata, and then queried using SPARQL and the Wikidata Query Service, can be exported, customised and presented in a way that it as visually friendly as we can make it!

This is just a test, but it reflects the process we will go through during Stage Two of Mapping the Scottish Reformation, with colleagues from our international Advisory Board and our technical friends and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. Ultimately, this process will allow us to create a number of interactive visualisations that will distill the months we have spent looking at handwritten archival material and make it more accessible. So while we’ve been recording, storing and querying the Scottish Reformation up to now, Stage Two of this project will allow us to start intricately mapping the Scottish Reformation.

Chris R. Langley

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.

Grant Success

In these testing times, we are proud to be able to share the news that Mapping the Scottish Reformation is one of several recipients of a Strathmartine Trust Award.

The Award will support Stage Two of the pilot phase of MSR, during which we will further explore ways to visualise and manipulate our initial dataset. Stage Two is a critical moment in the growth of our project that will allow us to establish the feasibility of appropriate technologies/techniques to query and map our data. Ultimately, we hope to develop a test version of an interactive map that traces clerical social networks in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689. This is the “proof of concept” stage—a crucial step before moving to gathering data on the clergy from other regions of Scotland.

The Strathmartine Trust offers a range of grants and awards to projects addressing the history of Scotland and the Scottish people. The Trust was established by the late Dr Ronald Cant to encourage and support the study of all periods of Scottish history, continuing the work to which he devoted most of his life.

We are very grateful to the Trustees of the Strathmartine Trust for their faith in MSR and for appreciating this as a key moment for our project. We should also like to thank everyone who has shown such support and generosity in watching MSR’s development to date. We hope to share more with you as we move into this next stage of our work.

Mapping Religious Change with Messy Data: A presentation at the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture & Society, January 2020

The Centre for Data, Culture and Society at the University of Edinburgh kindly invited us to present on the data-gathering phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation in January 2020.

Thank you to everyone who attended the event. We really appreciate your feedback and are eager to continue our conversations with you as we develop MSR.

For those of you who could not attend, the PowerPoint slides are attached to this post.

Working with Imperfect Manuscripts: Image Manipulation in MSR

MSR uses images from documents produced by Church of Scotland presbyteries between 1560 and 1689 to gather data on clerical careers. Indeed, at the time of writing, we have read over two and a half thousand pages of such material. And we aren’t finished!

Our friends at the National Records of Scotland provide us with bulk deposits of images of these manuscripts, presbytery by presbytery. These images were taken between 2003 and 2005, during which time around five million document images were snapped and digitised. These images form a terrific resource that can be accessed via the Virtual Volumes system at the National Records of Scotland reading rooms in Edinburgh. Due to bandwidth constraints in the early 2000s, these images were taken at a resolution of 2174 × 1655 pixels, or just over 3.5 million pixels per image. By contrast, images snapped on a current mobile phone camera can hit around 12.1 million pixels per image. These technical constraints and the fact that our manuscripts were produced four centuries ago and survive in varying states of decay means that our source base can be quite difficult to read. This blog post will take you through some of the methodologies we use to enhance the amount of data we can recover from our source base.

The following image is from a particularly faded section the records of Dalkeith Presbytery from 1614 (NRS, CH2/424/1). One can observe how the marginal annotation appears in a much deeper ink on the left-hand side, but the main entry to the right is faded. Moreover, some of the ink from the other side of the manuscript is just starting to bleed in to cloud our vision further. While this isn’t the worst manuscript pre-modern historians are likely to see (!), this is a common trait of some of the volumes with which we work.

Any illegible part of a manuscript is irksome, but it is particularly annoying in projects like ours that rely on parsing large numbers of manuscripts each day. Moreover, the early part of the seventeenth century was when Dalkeith Presbytery became far more active in recording details of clerical careers (among other things), so it is essential that we capture this data. 

Fortunately, there are a number of simple techniques that historians can use to improve their chances of seeing through this sort of haze. In particular, we can manipulate the colour balance of the image to bring the text into greater relief using quite basic computer software. Here’s one example with the image contrast boosted and with exposure increased. I think this setting allows manuscripts to appear as my family expect them –  suitably old – but it also allows the ink to become far clearer to the naked eye.

The next example saps most colours from the image to bring darker colours into greater relief. Such methods can also produce the dreaded white-on-black images that you might remember from older microfilm scans. Nevertheless, this approach can reveal obscured letter forms and even obliterated text.

With higher resolution images than ours, the amount of detail captured by a more modern camera’s sensor will allow for potentially better results. But at 3.6 megapixels, I’m quite happy with the results we’ve obtained here.

There are a number of different methods scholars can use to get these results, some more computationally intensive than others. The first is to use in-built image editing software that comes bundled with most consumer computers. For example, the app Preview in MacOS has an ‘Adjust Colour’ feature in its ‘Tools’ menu. Similar tools are available in the Photos app on Windows.

The key options here are the contrast and exposure sliders, that will allow you to adjust image accordingly. The sliders at the top of the menu allow manual adjustments so you can emphasise particular colours. 

More specialist software packages offer more powerful tools that can be used to target certain problematic areas of a manuscript image, rather than affecting the entire image. Software packages like Adobe PhotoShop and the cheaper Pixelmator are understandably associated with commercial enterprise work but can be used fruitfully by scholars to improve the visibility of problematic manuscripts. In particular, these software packages offer tools that will metaphorically ‘burn’ areas of the manuscript in order to raise faded text into a darker, more readable, form. Here’s a video of our manuscript sample from Dalkeith Presbytery again, this time being ‘burned’ in Pixelmator:

The more times the user passes the cursor over the chosen area, the deeper the darkening effect will become. Changing the ‘Exposure’ (or ‘Opacity’) setting (at the top of the screen in the video) allows the user to adjust the strength of the effect. While this is a time-consuming process, it can serve to reveal details in manuscripts that would have been too faded to enter into our analysis. It is an ideal approach for small-scale repairs to areas of the source base.

Such is the power of online computing that there are some online tools that can process images in equally powerful ways. The website Retro Reveal runs a number of image processing algorithms that are tuned to bring the sorts of text one might find in manuscripts into greater relief. While Retro Reveal is more suited to looking for very specific details in manuscripts, it can prove useful for generating alternate versions of large manuscript images, too.

These techniques are part of MSR’s daily toolbox to help us navigate the world of Church of Scotland presbytery manuscripts from between 1560 and 1689. We wanted to share our experience because these approaches will be of interest to other scholars working with manuscript images, but they will also be largely hidden when our dataset is released into the wild. When viewing MSR’s dataset, it is effectively naked and extracted from its physical context of the manuscript in which it exists. It is easy to forget that each entry in our database involves numerous steps of discovery, manipulation and manuscript analysis.

Chris R. Langley

Mapping Parishes, c.1560-1689

Mapping the Scottish Reformation is all about tracing clerical careers. Central to this project is the parish as a node: a place where ministers can travel to and depart from over the course of a career. While one of our early blog posts discussed ministers’ moves from university upon graduation to their first parish, I want to discuss some of the spatial aspects of parishes: how we plot them, what digital representations of them can tell us, and where we go from here.

Detail from Aaron Arrowsmith’s Ecclesiastical map of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1825)

As you may have seen from some of our recent posts on Twitter, one of the earliest maps that shows the ecclesiastical structure of Lothian and Tweeddale (indeed, all of Scotland) is Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of Scotland from 1825 housed in the National Library of Scotland. As you can see from the image above, Arrowsmith visually represented the boundaries of presbyteries and synods in which they sat. The coloured outlines are very helpful here. Unfortunately, while individual parishes are recorded here, they are largely ephemeral to Arrowsmith’s project: a map of this scale can never show the tightly-packed intramural parishes of Edinburgh, for example.

 
From our initial work with Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae and from our use of relevant presbytery manuscripts housed in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, we have created parish lists for each parish in all of the seven presbyteries that made up the 2,500 square kilometres of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. Lists like the one found in the November 1659 meeting of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale list the names of parishes, as well as giving us a useful note of their minister (or if they sat vacant). The final list consists of 119 parishes of differing size, density and settlement type.

Extract from the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale record book, housed in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh

To allow us to locate these parishes for some form of spatial analysis, we need to create a point for them using latitude and longitude coordinates (‘lat,long’ in the table below). One can easily find such data using a free-to-use online resource like this one. Some parishes, however, are easier to locate or ‘pin’ than others. For example, Greyfriars kirk in Edinburgh, remains, unsurprisingly, in situ today. A handful of other parishes (like Keith-Marischal in Haddington Presbytery) no longer exist and require more generalised coordinates. After a lot of searching, we were able to provide approximations for all 119 parishes.

Detail of location data for some parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery

Running these coordinates through mapping applications (like Palladio, shown below) allows the ‘lat,long’ coordinates to be plotted onto a modern two-dimensional map.

119 parishes of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale, 1560-1689

It is only with this kind of basic visualisation that we are able to see the dispersal of parishes in the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale. First, while the map shows great similarity in overall shape of the region presented in Arrowsmith’s 1825 map, it shows where parish density is greatest and, perhaps more interestingly, the locations of more sparsely populated areas. Second, we can see how topography affects parish distribution. So, the Pentland Hills (and the modern A702) form a natural boundary that separates the Synod from the neighbouring Synod of Glasgow and Ayr (in the shape of Lanark Presbytery). The amount of coastal parishes in the region is also quite striking (especially the clustering in West Lothian).

The distribution of parishes also reflects how the presbyteries of Peebles (and then Biggar in 1643) were remarkably remote. In many ways these parishes, while under the same synodal umbrella as the rest, would have had a very different experience of ecclesiastical authority. I’m struck that the distance between the northernmost parish in Biggar Presbytery (West Linton) and the southernmost in Dalkeith Presbytery (Penicuik) was over thirteen kilometres. The gap between the two parishes is highly visible on the map. We have already seen how this geographical distance could affect the types of graduates who would work in these areas. It is curious to consider what impact this might have had on journeys to Synod meetings that took place in Mid- or East Lothian (spare a thought for the minister of Glenholm on the southernmost tip of Peebles Presbytery having to journey seventy kilometers or so to Dunbar on the East Lothian coast for the Synod meeting in May 1657!). It begs the question if, to the early modern mind, these distances even mattered if they had no effect on day-to-day business (in May 1657, for example, all of the ministers from Peebles Presbytery were present at the Synod meeting in Dunbar!!). Such findings may also allow us to consider ideas of clerical and godly sociability.

Basic mapping like this also allows us to see more densely populated areas in greater detail. Edinburgh Presbytery, for example, shows this remarkable clustering of parishes around its medieval centre but one can see how the parishes in Leith would have drawn parishioners well into areas like modern-day Newhaven and Granton. The placement of these parishes tells us a great deal about the growth of Edinburgh since the end of the seventeenth century and opens the way for further studies of ecclesiastical discipline in the capital.

Geographic distribution of the parishes of Edinburgh Presbytery (and the west of Dalkeith Presbytery), 1560-1689

These visualisations pose more questions than Mapping the Scottish Reformation intends to answer. It is quite clear that: 1. GIS mapping of Scottish parishes over time is an urgent project. 2. Our understanding of how parish and regional finances created such an ecclesiastical landscape is very much lacking. 3. How did these parish density patterns compare with population density? Were these parishes more a reflection of Scottish life in the late-medieval period than the seventeenth century? 4. How did contemporaries think about space and how parishes related to one another?

Above all, however, having these points located in space for us in this manner allows us to develop the first stage of Mapping the Scottish Reformation. With universities already mapped in an earlier phase, we can now go about tracing clerical careers through time and space. And while much of the attention on our project will focus on these journeys, let’s spare a minute to consider the parishes that form the backbone of MSR.

Verbs and the Clerical Life Cycle in Early Modern Scotland

Historians of Scottish Church history often plough into the tomes of Hew Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae and move past the innocuous-looking abbreviations page without a second glance. It is, however, worth pausing for a moment to take them in.

Hew Scott’s “Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae”, 1 (Edinburgh, 1915)

Most of Scott’s abbreviations relate to events within a minister’s career that were quite distinct components of a clerical vocation: ‘admitted’, ‘appointed’, ‘inducted’, ‘instituted’, ‘presented’, ‘translated’. All words relating to a clear and identifiable action.

These verbs are replete with meaning for clerics, and we can see from individual entries in Scott’s Fasti how these events formed the backbone of his narratives of clerical lives. The example of Archibald Row, minister of Stobo between 1603 and 1618, is fairly typical: his ordination to the parish of nearby Drumelzier, his presentation there, his transfer and admission to Stobo. Entries like this all suggest that these stages of the clerical life course were distinct and can be assigned a date with some precision.  

Scott, “Fasti”, 1, p. 290.

Such clarity would be ideal for building a Digital Humanities project like Mapping the Scottish Reformation. Unfortunately, our scoping of presbyteries of the Synod of Lothian and Tweeddale between 1560 and 1689 suggests how informal and profoundly messy the ministry actually was, both in terms of lived experience and how clerical information was recorded in the records. Historical discourse often presents the clerical career as a very structured, straightforward path, with obvious steps of training, installation, and movement from parish to parish. But as we’ve learned from going through the records, the path to a given pulpit was often circuitous and unclear. 

For example, installation in a parish—often viewed by historians as the pivotal moment when a new minister officially becomes part of the club— is sometimes recorded informally and months after the fact. Sometimes, a newly admitted minister would simply give his presbytery a letter noting the date of his installment. In the case of John Barclay, his installation as minister of Cocksburnspath in 1682 was casually noted by the Dunbar Presbytery clerk in parentheses in that day’s roll call.

Moreover, we’ve learned that the presence of an admission date does not necessarily mean that was the precise moment when the minister actually took up his post. Take, for example, the case of Gilbert Tailor. Scott notes that Tailor was appointed as minister of Manor by the brethren of Peebles Presbytery at some point in 1596. Unfortunately, while formally admitted, it seems that Tailor was not active in his parish, as the presbytery wrote in January 1597:

‘The quhilk day gilbert tailyeor being present The brethren ordaines him to cum with his familie and mak his residence at the kirk of mennar with his parochinaris betuixt this and the first day of maiinixt to cum uthwyse thay will use the sensure of the kirk againes him’

Rather problematic is that Tailor’s ‘presentation’ to the parish of Manor isn’t recorded anywhere in the manuscript, Scott only assumes that his presentation was the previous year. Without this note of Tailor’s difficulties in moving his family to the Tweeddale parish, one would never know he was present. 

A modern image of the current parish church at Manor, Peeblesshire

Later in the century, Dunbar Presbytery would have to write a similar letter to David Sterling to ‘hesten’ to his new charge at Cockburnspath. The note here that the presbytery was ‘informed’ of his installation is telling and suggests that records of installations relied on word of mouth, rather than formalised, written, records.

Records of Dunbar Presbytery, housed in the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh.

In other instances, clerics appear one day in the records listed as minister of a given parish, as in the case of Gavin McCall, who was apparently second minister at Peebles in 1600, but was never noted as having been formally admitted. Later in the century, John Darngavel was recorded in the minutes of Dunbar Presbytery as having received ‘collation’ to Prestonkirk in 1670, but there is no reference to his installation/admission. It is possible that these words lacked the precision ascribed to them in Hew Scott’s time: even if these words meant very distinct things in theory, they could be used interchangeably by seventeenth-century scribes in practice.

Further complications arise when we consider the many clerical expectants who passed their trials and ended up in a pastoral no-man’s land of going to presbytery meetings and occasionally giving sermons there, but having no permanent post.  Some went on to become readers, schoolmasters, and domestic chaplains– all critically important to the spiritual life of a community– but never official minister of a parish. Do we record their careers as we would other clerics, or should they occupy a separate category? Such questions generated by the data-gathering phase of this project are encouraging us to expand and rethink some of our fundamental definitions of and expectations for the clerical profession.

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Scott’s terminology — of ‘admitting’, ‘instituting’, and ‘transferring’ ministers — was one of a distinct profession. And these terms perfectly suited the Church of his own time, with its developed sense of procedure, and professional etiquette. Unfortunately, by applying such terms to the early modern ministry, we may be transposing a system and language of formality that just wasn’t there (in concept or practice) or was in an embryonic state. Historians elsewhere have identified the early modern period as the moment when clerics started to develop the sort of esprit de corps and formality that defines any modern profession, but few scholars would go so far as to argue that the ministry was totally professionalised by the end of the seventeenth century. A failure to comprehend the shifts in language around ministers may blind us to the significant changes experienced in this period. 

Such questions of categorisation are highly pertinent to our project. According to the work of Townsend, Chappell and Struijvé, Digital Humanities projects cannot (and should not seek to) ‘convey every nuance of the original’ documents that form the backbone of the study. They should, however, have a clear sense of ‘how and why decisions were taken’: in other words, understanding editorial methods. Scott’s obsession with the verbs of the clerical life are more reflective of his position in the early twentieth century than the realities of ministry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Unfortunately, these terms are frequently deployed by historians of earlier periods (including the authors) with little critical appraisal. Mapping the Scottish Reformation has to present answers to these questions that remain sensitive to the shifting context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while also creating a sustainable resource that will have the shelf life of Scott’s Fasti

Michelle D. Brock & Chris R. Langley