Geo-mapping the RESP

My name is Denise Hick and I am a Master’s student in Earth Observation and Geoinformation Management at the University of Edinburgh. Together with Rowan Rush-Morgan, a second-year PhD student in Geography, we had the opportunity of working on an exciting web-mapping internship for the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project (RESP) within the Centre for Research Collections (CRC).  

A web-map was envisaged as an interactive way for users to browse the RESP catalogue in a visual way, finding recordings based on the place names mentioned within them. There are some examples of using web-mapping technology to visualise archival information, such as this map ( ) of witch trials in Scotland. However, we could not find any examples that used data directly from within an archival catalogue, so this would be a venture into the unknown both for ourselves and the RESP team.  

Geocoding and updating the Archive  

Throughout the internship, Rowan focused on data preparation. Place names were collated from recording transcripts, these were then converted into co-ordinates using the QGIS Geocode plugin. This was no easy task: in fact, multiple places with the same name exist. You can find Aberdeen in Hong Kong, the USA, and Jamaica! Furthermore, interviewees often refer to places by their locally known rather than ‘official’ names, while other place names have changed over the years. After finding the best possible co-ordinate matches, Rowan added this information to ArchivesSpace, RESP’s digital archive, linking each place name to the interview where it was mentioned.  

Pins on the map 

 While Rowan prepared the data, I focused on setting up the web map. With the help of Scott Renton, IT project manager, and Patryk Smacki, software developer at the University of Edinburgh, we developed an interactive web map for the RESP website using open-source mapping library OpenLayers. This entailed a lot of coding in JavaScript and Python. To improve performance, we then had to come up with an innovative way of plotting the place name data onto the map in the form of clickable pins, because the RESP archive now contains more than 300 different place names!  

The end result 

The final result of our internship is an interactive web map that displays places mentioned in the interviews carried out by RESP in Dumfries and Galloway and East Lothian (consultable here). Users can explore the map and zoom, pan and click on a pin to be directed to all the RESP interviews relating to that specific place. We hope the map gives users a much more accessible way to browse the RESP catalogue and offers an example to other archives of the ways in which web-mapping technologies can be utilised to visualise archival collections.  

We have really enjoyed our time with the RESP team. Whilst at times challenging, it has been an interesting internship and we learnt a lot about geocoding and coding, but also about Scottish geography, life and traditions!

The Man who Went to the Moon and the Woman who Helped Bring him to Langholm: A Tale of Two Leaps

I’ve now been working with the EERC Regional Ethnology of Scotland Study since 2011 and for the CRC-RESP Archive Project since 2018.  My jobs have allowed me to be involved with all aspects of our work, from training new fieldworkers and providing feedback on first interviews right through to listening to the interviews and preparing them for upload to the RESP archive website.

On any given day, when I sit down to start listening to a RESP recording, I know I’m going to learn something new.  In a world where it can seem we’re all hell-bent on destruction of one kind or another, the RESP recordings demonstrate that people are keeping on keeping on, as they always have done: working hard, enjoying life, doing their best, caring about the small stuff, and the huge stuff.  By way of illustrating something of the diversity of the collection, here are some examples from my listening over the past week or so:

  • From a recording made in 1979, Elizabeth Davidson talks about her early life in Carsluith in the first years of the twentieth century, when money, opportunity and choice were in short supply but life was nonetheless very full. Along with interviewer, David Hannay, she also reflects on the death of family members who, in more recent times would have easily survived their illnesses: scarlet fever, an infected wound, tuberculosis.
  • From a recording made in 2019, David Davies describes his musical life – from his childhood learning to play the piano, then working in a music shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, to accompanying Dean Martin as he sang ‘Little Old Wine Drinker’ in an impromptu performance on a ship travelling from New York back to the UK.  It was clearly a fantastic life and one he enjoyed greatly.  At one point he was working at a hotel in New Brighton where his beautiful and ornate concert-organ was on a turntable in the middle of the dancefloor.  As he played, the dais revolved and the dancers circled around him.  Very stylish, no doubt, but not so practical.  Two attendees had to help David off the dais at break-time because he was too dizzy to walk.  And this wasn’t a life without hardship and difficulty.  It’s clear from his testimony that David’s peripatetic lifestyle made establishing a settled home life difficult, with his family having little choice but to uproot and resettle when each job finished and the next opportunity was in a different town or another country.
  • From a 1996 recording, 80 year old retired millworker Duncan Adam, whose father died during World War 1 when Duncan was a toddler, described his understandable reluctance to go to War when it came time for him to be conscripted during World War 2. With a wife and young child at home, Duncan must have feared history repeating itself with his own family.
  • And from an interview made in 2020, sisters Betty and Suzanne recall their childhood in Fisherrow where to venture ‘over the bridge’ into nearby Musselburgh was widely regarded as ‘unnecessary or unwise’ and where their fisherman father regarded his Perth forbearers, who came to Fisherrow in 1800, as recent incomers!

It’s such an amazing privilege to be able to spend my working day listening to these recordings and preparing the files and supporting documentation so that the recordings can be shared on our Project website.  It’s all very well to collect these valuable recordings, which tell us so much about our shared cultural lives, but it’s also imperative that we can than share this material with a wider audience both to respect the time and energy given by our volunteer fieldworkers and interviewees and also to try to ensure these recordings are widely available and accessed.  This ethos is at the heart of everything we do at the RESP and a central part of my job as RESP Archives Assistant.

Another central part of the RESP work is to train local volunteer fieldworkers to make fieldwork recordings in their local area and it’s rare for me to do any local fieldwork.  However, I have been fortunate enough to be the interviewer on a small number of recordings made in Dumfries and Galloway and a significant local anniversary prompted this blog, about an interview I carried out in 2013, in Langholm, with Grace Brown.  Also present that day, as cameraman, technician and fellow interviewer, was my colleague, Mark Mulhern, Senior Research Fellow at the EERC.

In 1969, just a short time after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, Grace Brown and her colleagues on the Langholm town council – in a huge leap of faith and audacity – voted unanimously to write to Neil inviting him to become a Freeman of Langholm.  As Grace explained to me, Langholm is the ancient homeland of the Armstrong clan and the town had been extremely excited and diligent in following Neil’s progress in the time leading up to the moon landing.  A letter was duly despatched, through a Langholm exile living in Houston, Texas, and, although they had to wait some time to hear back, Neil did accept that invitation and when he visited Scotland in 1972, to deliver the Mountbatten Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, he also travelled to Langholm to become the first man to receive the honour of Freeman of Langholm.

For months before the visit, the town council were in a state of high alert and Grace remembers this event as the highlight of her career.  As Neil was to be the very first Freeman of Langholm, a Burgess Ticket was commissioned, along with a ceremonial box to contain this.  The box, made by a Kirkcudbright artist, was an exact representation of Hollows Tower. The whole community were excited about the upcoming visit and Langholm became a destination for press and public alike.  Grace recalls the Chicago Tribune printed a map of the British Isles with only 2 places marked on it, London and Langholm!  She also describes in detail the itinerary for the time that Neil and his wife, Jan, were in Langholm.  One of the many gifts presented to the couple during the visit was a mohair shawl made from Lunar Tartan.  This tartan, which reflected the colours of lunar rock brought back from Neil’s voyage, had been designed and produced by cloth designer, Ian Maxwell, and partner Alasdair Irvine to celebrate the moon landing and the mohair stole was woven at their Esk Valley mill.

I’m not going to say any more about the interview and hope I’ve done enough to tempt you to listen to the interview in full, which you can do by following this link

In her presence, back in 2013, Grace bubbled with excitement and pride as she talked about the visit.  It was such a pleasure and privilege to speak to her.  At one point I said to her that Mark and I had been excited to meet her, a woman who had shaken hands with the first man to walk on the moon.  ‘That’s right’, she replied ‘…ah didn’t wash ma hand for a week!’

Caroline Milligan, RESP Archives Assistant