The Factor’s Letters: a journey of discovery in Special Collections
In the final week of my Skills for the Future (SFF) archive traineeship at Special Collections, it feels timely to take stock of the experiences I’ve had in during the past eleven months. The focus of my traineeship has been on traditional archival skills of cataloguing, palaeography (deciphering old handwriting and scripts) and on the preservation of archive materials. New skills have been fostered both through formal courses in palaeography and archive theory as well as through my day-to-day work of cataloguing the Factor’s Letters and Other Business Papers (UYUC560/1-11). The collection comprises papers received by the Factor of the United College of St Leonard and St Salvator, from the establishment of the College in 1747 until 1892, and covers the administration of the College lands as well as of bursaries, professors’ salaries, taxes, investments, and the College buildings. The aim of my cataloguing has been to provide descriptions of each individual letter, to enable easier access for future researchers.
The Letters are an institutional treasure trove, giving evidence not only of the day-to-day administration of the College’s major finances by the Factor, but also of the activities of the Senatus Academicus of Principal and Professors. The Letters thus encompass letters and papers from a wide variety of correspondents and sources which shed much light both on the corporate life of the College and on the intricacies of the administrative arrangements between the College as feudal Superior and its vassals and tenants.
In addition, the Letters document aspects of the lives of important University figures, such as former Principals Brewster, Forbes and Shairp, of prominent professors and academics, and of the students themselves. The correspondence regarding administration of the College bursaries, which enabled certain students of limited financial means to access an education at the College, gives unique insights into students’ lives at the time. These letters document a time when University education was accessible only to a privileged few, and provide fascinating glimpses of lives potentially transformed by a university education. The peculiar and intricate stipulations placed on some of the College bursaries by their benefactors are similarly fascinating, with certain bursaries only available to students of a particular surname. Negotiations, discussions and fact-checking appear frequently in the Letters, between the bursary patrons who had the power to nominate students for bursaries and the Factor, who had a role in advocating for the many students in ‘straitened circumstances’ who wrote to him requesting financial help.
“James Collier…has attained a degree of scholarship rarely attained by those in his rank in life, he gives evidence of excellent abilities and it will be doing a proper thing to aid him prosecuting his education.”
The story of James Collier (1846 – 1925) typifies for me both the fascination of the University’s archive collections and the exciting historical discoveries they make possible. Collier’s name first appears in the Factor’s Letters in 1863, in references sent on his behalf by his pastor and his teacher which describe him as a young and gifted scholar from Dunfermline, the son of a handloom weaver, working as a clerk while studying Latin and Greek at night. Collier’s academic career is charted through correspondence with the Factor, as he manages to obtain bursaries for each of the four years of his degree in Classics and mathematics. Collier later became a journalist in Edinburgh and London and then a leading sociologist, working in New Zealand and Australia. For me, the opportunity to uncover such stories of College life, whilst also learning new skills, has been as transformative as the opportunities the United College offered students such as James Collier. I would like to give my heartfelt thanks, both to the Scottish Council on Archives and to Special Collections as my host archive, for making this traineeship possible and for giving me the chance to go on this journey of historical discovery.
Skills for the Future archive trainee