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Reading the Collections, Week 40: Tullis Russell Oral History Collection

Over the past few weeks there’s been a series of letters to the London Review of Books discussing the phenomenon of ‘cross generational vaulting’ – anecdotes passed down through generations that make the past seem unexpectedly immediate and familiar.

Working in Special Collections, I come in to contact with lots of original historical materials which create a similar sense of connection to distant events – though you can become numb to this effect over time. Fortunately, however, I have recently been lucky enough to work on an oral history collection that has this quality in spades.

The collection in question came to us following the shock closure of the Tullis Russell paper mill at Markinch back in June. The remaining business archives at the mill were brought to Special Collections here at St Andrews, since the Russell family have a longstanding connection with the University and we already hold their extensive family archive.

Examples of boxes made by the Tullis Russell paper mill
Examples of boxes made by the Tullis Russell paper mill
Tullis Russell Business Papers
Tullis Russell Business Papers

The material arrived in an array of boxes, bags and bubble wrapped packages. The listing of this material is ongoing – I’ve personally been tasked with reviewing and listing any audio visual material present. One exciting find has been a box of audio cassette recordings of oral history interviews conducted in the early 1990s with long-serving members of staff.

Tullis Russell 3_1
Oral history recordings

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the tapes – I didn’t know how well they were recorded in the first place, or what kinds of conditions they had been kept in over the past 25 years. But as soon as I started to play them, I was relieved to hear that the sound was clear, and I was reminded of the power of oral histories in making the distant or obscure past seem present and familiar.

I had previously only known Dr David Russell as a name related to the Russell Papers, or to Tullis Russell, but when you hear his measured, avuncular voice, he suddenly becomes real. In this clip he discusses how, as a Russell living more or less next door to the mill, he was aware of his destiny from a young age:

(Dr David Russel)

David Russell was born in 1915, the son of Sir David Russell, managing director of Tullis Russell . He succeeded his father as head of the business, which had been in the family since 1809. He was a student at St Andrews and maintained close links with us, becoming Chancellor’s Assessor in 1963 and Finance Convenor in 1964. He died in 1993. Here he introduces himself:

(Dr David Russell)

Photo of the new buildings at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell 1935 [ID 2-23-1].
Photo of the new buildings at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell 1935 [ID 2-23-1].
Despite Tullis Russell being a family firm, his role at the company was not assured:

(Dr David Russell)

In the interview, Russell discusses how his plans for a round the world trip in the late 1930s were never fulfilled on account of the war, modestly not mentioning that he served with the 7th Battalion of the Black Watch in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy, winning an MC for conspicuous gallantry at El Alamein.

(Dr David Russell)

Another key recording in the collection is an interview with James Rae, who started at Tullis Russell aged 15 in 1923 as an office apprentice, eventually becoming Managing Director of the company. In this clip, he discusses his early life and education:

(James Rae)

Photo of men sorting timber boards at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell, 1935 [ID 2-23-7].
Photo of men sorting timber boards at the paper mills, Markinch, by Sir David Russell, 1935 [ID 2-23-7].
On why he and others chose to work at Tullis Russell:

(James Rae)

One of the big themes in the interviews is the role of Tullis Russell in the local community. Although Tullis Russell was not quite a paternalistic employer in the vein of Cadbury’s or Lever Brothers, it was the biggest employer in Markinch along with Haig’s Distillery and always took its responsibilities to the community seriously. Indeed, it was owned by its employees, from 1994.

(James Rae)

(Dr David Russell)

(Dr David Russell)

And there was also a multi-generational aspect to the Tullis Russell workforce, and a relatively high proportion of women employees.


The collection includes an interview with the Reverend Professor Robert Davidson, born in Markinch in 1927, he studied Theology at St Andrews and later became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Here he discusses his background and the close-knit local communities in Fife:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

As a Markinch native he was familiar with Tullis Russell from an early age:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

He recalls that as part of their commitment to the welfare of their staff, Tullis Russell were one of the first employers of an industrial chaplain, though the experiment faltered when the incumbent failed to toe the company line:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

He never worked at the mill himself, instead being fortunate enough to attend St Andrews on a scholarship. He recalls the perception that the University was for wealthier people such as the Russell family, rather than for people of his own background, and way that it broadened his horizons:

(Reverend Professor Robert Davidson)

These are just snippets from a much larger collection – I continue to work through the rest of the oral history tapes and the wider Tullis Russell audio-visual collection which includes VHS, Betamax and vinyl recordings. Other members of the team are working on the more voluminous paper collection – in time we hope to have the entirety catalogued and will make as much available to the public as possible. I hope also to increase the accessibility of our AV material across other collections in recognition of their value to historical research.

Sean Rippington

Digital Archives Officer

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11 thoughts on "Reading the Collections, Week 40: Tullis Russell Oral History Collection"

  1. The first phase of the TR oral history project was started by David Erdal, TR Chairman in 1989 when the interviewer was Jim Smyth, University of Edinburgh. I was David’s PA at that time.
    James Daglish, TR Chief Executive re-launched the second phase between1996 and 1997 when we engaged the services of an oral history consultant to train Ian Murdoch, retired Safety Officer in interview and recording techniques. My role at that time was Editor of the company magazine “TRQ” (formerly “Rothmill Quarterly”) and Communications Assistant to the Share Council, the group of elected employees who represented all employee shareholders in the Tullis Russell Group. It was our plan to set up a small heritage centre within the mill with objects, archive documents and photographs and an area to listen to material extracted from the oral history tapes but this never materialised, mainly for economic reasons. I retired from TR in 2009 and now live in Staffordshire but keep in touch with Cecilia Russell and other former employees. You may already have a copy of the Oral history index and tape content that should have been in the box with the tapes. This index contains tape numbers, names and occupations of interviewees + dates + a short summary of key topics. If not, and you would be interested to see this, I can send you the Word file. I prepared the index when I was researching the tape transcripts for company magazine articles on the History of Tullis Russell and information required for the 200 year celebrations and commemorative book. I was absolutely delighted to find that these tapes are now available on line – I always felt that this was one of my unfinished tasks and many congratulations on achieving this.
    Pam McNamee (formerly Pam Landells)
    Uttoxeter, Staffordshire
    17 January 2017.

    1. Thank you to Sean Rippington for the archival work completed so far. I am delighted that we were able to get all the written and oral history of Tullis Russell as a complete collection into the Special Collections at St Andrews University. Many such archives from other paper companies, such as Guardbridge, were destroyed. Thanks also to Pam McNamee for your hard work at the time and for your comment. I want to add that you left out that you were secretary to the Russell Trust, working with me as administrator over many good years, not forgotten. Cecilia Russell (daughter of David Russell).

      1. Thank you Cecilia. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Russell Trust with you and lona Russell (granddaughter of David Russell.) Good times and never forgotten. Pam McNamee.

      2. Thank you Pamela and Cecilia for your comments and your help – we are glad that you are enjoying our posts about the collection.

        Pamela – we emailed you a response to your comment last month – did you receive it? We have some questions about the oral history project that you might be able to help us with!

  2. Hi,

    I found this web site quite by accident whilst looking for information about the Silverton, Somerset, paper mill which, like the TR mill at Markinch, is now closed. I visited the Markinch mill in the early 1960s as part of a training programme with Bowaters UK Paper Coy., at Sittingbourne, Kent. Among other things that sticks in my memory was the existence of a diesel engine which had been salvaged from a German U-boat during the first world war. It had been refurbished and connected to a generator to provide power for the mill in an emergency. I am wondering if this engine survived to the closing of the mill and, if so, what happened to it. Does anybody know.


    Tony Kettle
    Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

    1. Hi Tony,
      The diesel generator was still in use until sometime in the 1980’s when the mill was eventually connected to the Scottish Power network.
      The diesel generator was used for standby power at weekends when the mill shut down at noon on a Saturday and restarted at 22.00 on a Sunday. The diesel generator was required to supply the boiler water feed pumps at start up as there was no other electrical supply and once the boilers were up to pressure and producing steam for the Parsons steam turbine/generator sets then the diesel generator was shut down.
      The mill moved to 24/7 operation about the end of the 1980’s and with the Scottish Power supply into the mill there was no longer a need for the diesel generator.
      If I remember correctly it had damage pistons and was never repaired before being scrapped.
      I started my apprenticeship in 1972 as a Maintenance Electrician in the Power Station at T.R. and worked in various areas around the Mill for over 22 years. When I left the Company I was the Utilities Engineering Manager and had returned to manage Power Station.
      As I write this email, they are demolishing the mill that stood for over 200 years. Very sad.
      Neil Duff

  3. Sean, I don’t think I ever sent you the index of the oral history tapes. I had problems with my previous email and lost a lot of stuff. I still have this info so if you would like it, please let me know.

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