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

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.

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.

***

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

Good news!


We’re delighted to be able to share with you that the next phase of Mapping the Scottish Reformation will be supported by a HCRR Level 1 Advancement grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can find out more about our grant at the NEH website. We are humbled to be in such good company.

The next phase of our project will begin in May 2019 and use manuscript material in National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, to extend the dataset that forms the backbone of MSR. Please stay tuned for more updates.

Until then, we’d like to thank all of you for supporting this project so far. We’re excited about what the next stages of MSR will bring!