The anatomy of an enquiry, part 1: unlocking answers in the archive

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Julie Greenhill may be a familiar name if you have ever sent an enquiry to Special Collections. Here she reflects on a key role the reading room team play in helping remote users.

Measuring Hebrew Scroll ms54(o) for an enquiry

At Special Collections we offer a remote enquiry service, finding information held in our collections for researchers who are not able to consult them in person. We regularly receive requests from all over the world, and from a diverse range of people, including students and academic researchers, family historians, professional genealogists, and even the occasional television company. While the majority of queries relate to historical aspects of the University, the town, and its inhabitants, we also receive our fair share of more obscure enquiries, and sometimes find ourselves going to great lengths to answer them. We’ve carefully measured columns of text on a Hebrew scroll to allow a researcher to extrapolate its full length (it is recorded as being 99ft long, but is currently too fragile to safely unroll), and compared the signature of an enquirer’s 17th century ancestor with those in our matriculation roll to try and establish if they were a student at St Andrews. We’ve hunted for marginalia in our rare books, found evidence of local witch trials in our early church records, and even uncovered a few scandals, such as an 18th century student who was expelled by the University for fathering a child out of wedlock.

Finding the answers to these questions in our collections can feel like discovering hidden gems, and it is extremely satisfying to be able to locate that little missing piece of someone’s personal puzzle. But by far the most rewarding types of enquiry are those which for the enquirer fill in gaps about the life of an ancestor or lost loved one, and for us add colour and richness to the inanimate paper records we preserve in the archive. And just sometimes we build up a relationship with an enquirer over time through our discoveries on their behalf…

Last year we were contacted by the son of former student Murdo MacLeod Duncan, seeking information about his late father’s studies at the University. He knew the rough dates of his father’s attendance, which were interrupted when he left to take up active duty in WWII, and that he played sports, including rugby and cricket.

Matriculation slip volumes

Our first step with this type of enquiry, after confirming that there are no data protection implications, is to establish the student’s year of graduation, which is published in the annual lists of Members of the General Council – the body of all graduates and senior academics of the University. From there, we can find the exact date of graduation and degree awarded in the Senatus Minutes, and we then work backwards to find start date and more detailed information about studies from the University’s matriculation slips, which were personally completed by each student at the start of every academic year from 1899. These slips have now been bound into large, heavy volumes, arranged by year and by surname. They contain information about students’ qualifications and previous studies, their home and term time addresses, classes taken and any grants or bursaries awarded. Earlier matriculations are simply signatures in a register.

From these sources, we confirmed that Murdo enrolled in a course in Arts in 1937, taking classes in Latin, English Literature, Modern History and Natural Science. He did not return until 1946, and after a further two years was awarded the degree of Master of Arts on 8 October 1948.

Murdo’s first year matriculation slip
Cricket Club minutes UYUY911/Cricket Club (Men)

Matriculation records help to build a picture of someone’s academic career, but of course studies make up just part of the student experience. It is, unfortunately, not always possible to find evidence of our alumni’s extra-curricular activities stored in the archive, but if a student was active in a sports club or society, we might be lucky enough to find a mention, or report, or maybe even a photograph. Knowing that Murdo had been a keen sportsman during his time at St Andrews, our cricket and rugby club records were our next port of call. Many of our student clubs and societies have chosen to house their records with us, and they can be found in our online catalogue under the classmark UYUY911. The cricket club records revealed that Murdo played for the team for two sessions from 1947, and was made Club Treasurer in 1948. A subsequent search of our online photographic catalogue produced a team photo from season 1948, which Murdo’s son confirmed included his father, seated second from right in the front row.

Fife News, 19 November 1938

Murdo proved frustratingly elusive in the Rugby Club minutes, but his son was aware of articles relating to his rugby career which had been printed in local newspaper The Fife News, though he had not been able to access them online. As we hold physical copies of The Fife News in our newspaper collection, we were able to identify the relevant articles, which established that Murdo regularly played for local team Howe of Fife, but also played in the University 2nd XV, and in fact represented the University against Howe of Fife in a match which took place on 19 November 1938.

Welch Regiment poster. Image courtesy of Murdo’s family

Corresponding with Murdo’s son over several months, we were able to exchange information which for him provided tangible confirmation of his father’s academic and sporting achievements at St Andrews, and for us drew together a single story from disparate parts of the archive. He has gone to great efforts to provide us with additional information about Murdo, which we are happy to add to the muniment collection (UYLY913). We now know that Murdo went on to have a long career as a teacher, married, had three children, and lived to the grand age of 83. But it also came to light that his name had sadly been missed from the University’s Roll of Service, which was a published list of all St Andrews students who served in WWII, and survived. With his son’s additional information, we have been able to amend our copy, and note that Murdo MacLeod Duncan was called up to the Black Watch in Perth in 1939, before receiving a commission in the Welch Regiment on 10 February 1940. He saw active service in India then Burma, on attachment to the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 2nd Suffolks, and was wounded in action in 1944. He was discharged in 1946, and then returned to complete his degree at the University of St Andrews.

This photo was taken after the war, when Murdo and his wife came second in a dancing competition at St Andrews. Image courtesy of Murdo’s family

This type of enquiry serves to remind us that the information we store on our shelves relates to real people, and holds value in many different ways, to us as researchers and to others as loved ones. So it is a joy to continue to answer as many questions as we can, to interact with our collections for this purpose, and in doing so, bring them to life. We are grateful to the family of Murdo MacLeod Duncan for their permission to share this story.

Julie Greenhill
Senior Library Assistant (Special Collections)

While our reading room remains closed at present due to lockdown, we do still have limited access to our collections and will do what we can to answer enquiries.

Related topics

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.


Enter your email address here to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 6,499 other subscribers.