by Isla Macfarlane
Transcription is essential for most archival research and can be both a very enjoyable and frustrating activity. It is incredibly satisfying to read a piece of old handwriting and work out what it means and how it can help you with your research – alternatively, coming across handwritten text that you cannot decipher is infuriating. As I am currently collecting data from Innerpeffray Library’s Visitor Books, a collection of manuscript ledgers which started recording the names of visitors to the library in 1859, I am doing a lot of transcription work and dealing with many different handwriting styles.
Innerpeffray Library is fortunate to have two extant manuscript sources – the Borrowing Registers, which record all books borrowed and by whom between 1747 and 1968, and the Visitor Books, which record the names and locations of all visitors to the library between 1859 and the present day. Although the Borrowing Registers were thoroughly investigated by Dr Jill Dye in her 2018 thesis, Innerpeffray’s Visitor Books are now being transcribed and researched for the first time. Unlike the Borrowing Registers, which were filled out by the current Librarian or Keeper at Innerpeffray, the Visitor Books were filled out in most cases by each individual visitor, or by one visitor representing their party or group. As such, the Visitor Books are filled with literally thousands of different signatures and handwriting samples.
As any palaeographer or archival researcher knows, with transcription projects which focus on a single individual, it is possible to get your ‘eye in’ and start to read that person’s handwriting fairly fluently. When I was working on a project looking at Dr Andrew Duncan’s medical diaries with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and the Wellcome Trust in 2018, I came home each night and dreamt of his handwriting – every time I closed my eyes, I saw pages of his diaries and examples of his shorthand (a sort of academic Tetris effect!).
With the Innerpeffray Visitor Books, this is not the case. I still dream of old handwriting after a day spent staring at the records, but every hand is different and presents its own challenges. Almost every entry is written by a different person, and not every person has realised that the Visitor Books will one day be studied by a future PhD student who needs to be able to read their writing! Although in earlier centuries it was general practice to follow a standard script, such as the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century secretary hand, in the nineteenth century and beyond writers much more often developed their own individual handwriting and style. In fact, many visitors almost seem to take pleasure in making their signatures as fancy (read: illegible) as possible, adding in extra curlicues, flourishes, lines, and on several occasions even writing over other entries, as in the example above.
Entries like the one above can be particularly frustrating but luckily, there is help available in the form of Twitter crowdsourcing! A couple of weeks ago, expecting very few interactions, I posted a quick picture of the above signature. To my surprise, this tweet is still circulating, with many kind and helpful individuals offering up their opinions on what it might say. As I did not originally include the location of the visitor (Lennoch, Crieff), I even had some very dedicated people responding with what the entry might say in cursive Cyrillic. (Reports differ – it could read ‘chinchilla’ or even ‘deprived of a lily’!)
In the end, the most helpful advice reminded me of one of the key tenets of palaeography – count the minims! In palaeography, each vertical stroke of the pen is a minim, so that in most scripts, an ‘i’ has one minim, an ‘n’ two, and an ‘m’ three. When there is little to show the separation between different letters in a piece of writing, as in this example, working out the minims is key. Following this advice and noting the slash, or virigule, that the original writer placed in the middle of his signature, it is possible to read a few different interpretations: including the names William Williams and William McCulloch.
With some additional information provided by the 1881 census (and with thanks to Twitter user @oldscotbooks for finding this), it appears that there was indeed a William McCulloch living in the area at the correct time.
And with that, it seems as though the mystery is solved. I will leave you with my favourite Twitter response to this tricky transcription, and feel free to follow along on Twitter for future #TranscriptionThursday palaeography puzzles!
 Royal College of Physicians, ‘New digitisation project: the history of Scotland’s eighteenth century dispensary’ <https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/new-digitisation-project-history-scotlands-eighteenth-century-dispensary>