This week Emily reports on an item discovered by the Lighting the Past team from within the ‘D’ section of the Copyright Collection. You can see the previous post in the series here.
Thomas Pennant (1726 – 1798) was a Welsh naturalist and antiquarian who also travelled widely in the British Isles. He made two tours of Scotland, first in 1769 and again in 1772, and published accounts of both journeys, which included observations on the history, geography, zoology, and culture of the places he visited. The Copyright Collection holds copies of both publications, and each of the volumes is heavily worn. Based on the sheer number of annotations, as well as the content of those marginal notes, the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century students of St Andrews seem to have questioned not only Pennant’s sources, but also his authority to speak on such matters.
Helpful (and not-so-helpful) Annotations
A typical marginal annotation occurs in the section discussing the author’s trip around the Hebrides. Pennant stresses the almost desolate nature of those islands, stating that while the Isle of Skye has neither towns nor villages, the “greater wonder” is that “there is not a town from Campbelton in the Firth of Clyde to Thurso…a tract of above two hundred miles.” But several readers objected to this, with one pointing out that the author has ignored both Oban and Tobermory.
A more helpful critique regarding the village of Fochabers in Moray served as a kind of update. Pennant refers to the settlement as a “wretched town” where the peasants’ homes are made of turf. But the marginal author, clearly writing some time after the book’s publication, insists that it is now “quite a changed place” and “one of the neatest little towns that can be seen in the North of Scotland.”
Students not only took issue with Pennant’s flawed observations, but with those added to the margins by their own peers. One such marginal dispute emerged on the topic of disease. While one student suggested that “the itch is common” in the Highlands, another disagreed, arguing instead that it was widespread in the Lowlands. What’s worse, this second student observed, was the prevalence of the Clap in the Lowlands, something that is never found in the Highlands!
One wonders how he acquired his information…
Local Flavour: Death, Spooks, and Superstitions
Several students added their voices to the discussion of funeral rituals in the Highlands. One extensive bit of marginalia by a certain R. Campbell informs the reader that after a person dies, “People also sit up with the corpse singing, smoking, drinking, playing cards & courting all night…”
But the students seemed of different minds on the subject of the supernatural. One concurred regarding tales of shrieking banshees and the appearance of corpse candles, ominous signs portending an imminent death, adding that “this is very true” for the Highlands
In another instance, R. Campbell also dismissed the author’s account of a seductive female spirit in Breadalbane, suggesting that “some old harridan has amused Pennant with the above, knowing him to be credulous.”
The vast majority of the additions, however, consist of rude (and sometimes crude) insults about the author, his reporting, intelligence, and even his heritage:
Many would not seem out of place in an old school textbook today, though the language of abuse may have evolved since then…
Even those students who despaired over the sorry state of their volume with its ripped pages, missing engravings, ink spills, humorous doodles, and countless scribbles, did so by writing in that very book.
Some things never change.
Lighting the Past Cataloguer