Wooden Spoon of the Month: Papyri…in my rubbish dump?

What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?  

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar.’ Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it! 

You may be thinking yes, you wouldn’t expect to see a scrap of papyrus in the collections of the University library, but it is historic writing material, and does appear to contain text. That’s not out of place in a library. You may be thinking ‘this isn’t that peculiar’ and ponder why it is this month’s ‘wooden spoon.’ There’s something up with this papyrus, and unless you can read Ancient Greek, you probably won’t know what.  

Found in an ancient rubbish dump in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (modern day: el-Bahnasa), this scrap of papyrus was among thousands well preserved by the desert conditions. The dumps were excavated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by papyrologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund donated 18 of these fragments to the University of Edinburgh in 1914. The texts uncovered range from lost poetic works to early biblical stories, ranging in date from the 3rd century BCE to the Muslim Conquests of Egypt in 640 CE.  

Most of the papyri were written in Greek (including our ‘wooden spoon’), but other languages found include Egyptian hieroglyphics, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, testament to the multiculturalism of Egypt in antiquity. With over half a million fragments found, it is estimated that only 2% of the texts have been studied, translated, and catalogued. But what about our ‘wooden spoon’? Luckily for us, this piece of papyri is numbered 309 in the 2nd volume of Oxyrhynchus papyri (with the 86th volume released last November!).  

So, what does it say? Is it an ancient curse? A lost verse of Sappho? What makes papyrus scrap P.Oxy CCCIX the ‘wooden spoon’ of the month is its unsuspectingly modern subject: it is a two-millennia-old tax receipt.  

The papyrus lists the various amounts of money, measured in drachmae and obols, a man called Thoönios paid in tax during the reign of the emperor Tiberius, giving the manuscript a precise date of 17-19 CE. While taxation had existed in Egypt for thousands of years, the start of Roman rule in 30 BCE led to complex developments in taxation. While Thoönios paid in cash, taxes could also be paid in kind, and appointed officials oversaw the implementation and collection of the deluge of small taxes an individual in Roman Egypt could owe. Perhaps their complexity was why Thoönios had to write them down.  

From ancient rubbish dump to the Centre for Research Collections in the University of Edinburgh, our 2000-year-old ‘wooden spoon’ of the month reminds us that our tax self-assessment deadline has just passed, and it is eternally important to write these things down.  

By Izzy Nendick  

Wooden Spoon of the Month: Adam Ferguson’s Coffee Pot

What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what? 

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar.’ Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it! 

Hidden in a little red box in the special collections of the library, categorised in the multifarious ‘medals/ objects’ section, is a curious object that comes loaded with Scottish History, and encapsulates the driving force of the Enlightenment in Europe. Sent from Berlin to Edinburgh, but although intended to serve a potent drug new to the intelligentsia of Europe, this object is now commonplace in many homes.  

The box that contains Adam Ferguson’s coffee pot

Inside the once neat but now scruffy box is a silver coffee pot, with a slender curved handle and hinged lid. Despite its international status, and precise artistry, the pot is minimal in design and understated in its appearance; form does not take precedent over function. More at home in a local antiques store, or even your grandma’s ‘look-but-don’t-touch-shelf’, what makes this silver coffee pot special is the engraved message, revealing who it belonged to, where it came from, and the exceptional circumstances they lived under.  

Dating to the 1760s, this coffee pot was bequeathed by George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland, to his friend Adam Ferguson. Both men played key but different roles in the history of the Enlightenment in Scotland, with one exiled for his political beliefs, and the other a pioneering philosopher.  

Adam Ferguson’s coffee pot, gifted by George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland

George Keith had sent the coffee pot from Berlin because, at this time, he was living in the court of Frederick the Great, having been exiled from Scotland was his part in the 1715 Jacobite rising. Although George Keith rose to high office under the Prussian King, he was eventually pardoned by King George II. In 1761-2 he visited Edinburgh and was instructed to stay with the philosopher Adam Ferguson by their mutual friend, David Hume. Although Scotland was his birthplace, George Keith didn’t stay long, preferring his new continental home and status. He did not forget his friend Ferguson however, who had lived up to his cordial reputation.  

Testament to their friendship, as well as the neoclassical themes of the Enlightenment, George Keith had a quote from the Roman poet Horace engraved on the coffee pot. Translated, the segment from Ode 1.24 reads:  

When will Honour, and unswerving Loyalty,  

that is sister to Justice, and our naked Truth,  

ever discover his equal? 

Cute! Adam Ferguson was an equally remarkable figure in comparison to the last Earl Marischal of Scotland, having written extensively about philosophy and morals, and lectured at the University of Edinburgh. Sometimes called the father of modern sociology, his most notable publication is his Essay on the History of Civil Society

The earliest known print of a coffee shop, dated 1674

An interesting feature of this gift, however, is the liquid it was intended to contain. Coffee became popular in the United Kingdom after being introduced to Europe via the Ottoman Empire, and some even believe the stimulating effects of the drink led to the Great Enlightenment itself. Since water was still unsafe to drink, many started the day with an alcoholic beverage, and as we all know, this does not always lend itself to great intellectual thought. However, starting the day with coffee would stimulate the mind and allow the intellectuals of 17th and 18th century Britain to put pen to paper and think an awful lot about a plethora of terribly exciting things. 

The extent to which coffee can be regarded as the foundation of the Enlightenment is debatable, but as an old display label for the pot explains ‘The gift is a touching memento of exile and of friendship, but as drinking coffee together is universally seen as the simplest and most natural social act, it also stands as an eloquent epitome of the social basis of so much Enlightenment thought and of Ferguson’s own thinking in particular.’ 

Written by Izzy Nendick.

Wooden Spoon of the Month: Life Mask of William Hare

In honour of the spooky season of All Hallows’ Eve, our wooden spoon focuses on this seemingly simple bust. Rather than a memorial of an old chancellor of the university or a key philosopher who once walked the streets of Edinburgh, this is a life mask of the murderer William Hare.


What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?
 

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!

This month’s wooden spoon begins with an old nursey rhyme: ‘Up the close and down the stair, In the house with Burke and Hare, Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox, the boy who buys the beef.’

In honour of the spooky season of All Hallows’ Eve, our wooden spoon focuses on this seemingly simple bust. Rather than a memorial of an old chancellor of the university or a key philosopher who once walked the streets of Edinburgh, this is a life mask of the murderer William Hare.

William Hare was part of a murdering duo with serial killer William Burke in 1829. Unlike Burke, who was executed for his crimes, Hare avoided conviction by providing evidence against his partner. Upon discovering that they could earn money from anatomists for cadavers, Hare and Burke began murdering Hare’s lodgers to sell the bodies. There was a lack of evidence when the pair were finally caught, hence Hare gave evidence in order to avoid the fate that found his partner: execution by hanging in Lawnmarket. Hare’s future after Burke’s death is unknown. There are some who believe he moved to London, where he was blinded in an accident with a lime pit and spent the rest of his life as a blind beggar in the street. However, evidence remaining points to his travels through Dumfries in order to return to Ireland.

His life mask is an interesting object to take into consideration. There is one of his partner William Burke, also at the Anatomy Museum, which was taken before Burke was executed. Masks such as these have a long history, but were often taken post-mortem. From the Middle Ages to the 19th Century, they were used by artists as a reference for portraits and sculptures of the deceased (obviously until photographs became more accessible). They were also used as a means of identifying unidentified bodies. The death masks were presented to family members by law enforcement in order to see if the cadaver was their missing relative. Additionally, death masks are found in funerary contexts, as seen by well-known examples such as the Mask of Tutankhamun and the Mask of Agamemnon.

However, the life masks of Burke and Hare serve a different purpose. The emergence of the pseudoscience Phrenology led to the collecting of death and life masks of not only kings but of murderers. Phrenologists were of the belief that there were certain physiognomic features that indicated if one was a murderer or a king. Hence, the preservation of Burke and Hare’s facial structures were a means of understanding the physiognomic tells of a murderer.

There are countless examples of these masks in the university’s collections, demonstrating the obsession with phrenology in the 18th Century in Edinburgh. While extremely problematic due to its use to push racist narratives of white supremacy, the university has begun to acknowledge and address the issues around the controversial collection. You can read more about it in Carley’s article about the ‘Mindshift’ programme at the Anatomical Museum.

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

Wooden Spoon of the Month: The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition

What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what? 

Our July Wooden Spoon has been awarded to a photograph taken during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, which took place between 1902 and 1904.

What is the Wooden Spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we celebrate a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what? 

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it! 

Our September Wooden Spoon has been awarded to a photograph taken during the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, which took place between 1902 and 1904. Led by scientist William Speirs Bruce, a former University of Edinburgh medical student, the expedition was organised to conduct investigation and exploration of the Antarctic environment, and facilitate meteorological, geological, biological, and topographical research. 

During the latter part of the expedition, in March 1904, the ship the crew were travelling on, named the Scotia, ran into some ice. While efforts to break free ensued, the company’s official piper, Gilbert Kerr, disembarked and was photographed, in full traditional Scottish dress, playing the bagpipes alongside a penguin in the middle of the Antarctic landscape.

(Image from University of Edinburgh image collections. Shelfmark: Gen.1658 (Coll-72) 

Although an incredible image in its own right, the photograph’s Wooden Spoon status lies not in the item itself, but in what happened later with regards to the expedition’s official Wikipedia page.  

To begin with, the caption for the image shown on the page was: ‘Piper Kerr, a member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, plays the bagpipes for an indifferent penguin, March 1904.’ The acknowledgement of the penguin’s ‘indifference’ here is itself funny, as the penguin does indeed appear to pay little attention to the music being played beside it. However, in 2016, a Twitter user took a step further, and edited the original description to read: ‘Piper Kerr (right), a member of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, plays the bagpipes for an indifferent penguin, March 1904.’ With the addition of a single word, the Wikipedia edit and subsequent tweet attracted extensive attention for its comically obvious clarification of the piper’s identity, gaining tens of thousands of likes and shares over social media. 

A subtle, yet hilarious edit. Picture: Twitter/AlanFerrier/Wikipedia
(image taken from The Scotsman, Scot’s hilarious tweet about bagpiper and penguin goes viral | The Scotsman

It is in this way that the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, which returned home safely via the River Clyde on the 21st July 1904, produced an image which would go viral on the internet more than one hundred years later, and if we do say so ourselves, make a worthy Wooden Spoon. 

William Spears Bruce later bequeathed his papers to the University of Edinburgh, within which the photograph of Kerr and the penguin, alongside a range of volumes, pamphlets, albums, reports, accounts and other photographs are held. More information regarding the collection and relevant information can be found below. 

So there you go – the story of a piper, a penguin, and a viral tweet! 

Sources:

The original Wikipedia article on the expedition that has since been changed: Scottish National Antarctic Expedition – Wikipedia  

Articles addressing the attention surrounding the photograph and tweet: 

Scot’s hilarious tweet about bagpiper and penguin goes viral | The Scotsman 

The Time a Scotsman Played Bagpipes for a Penguin in Antarctica | Mental Floss 

Wikipedia edit goes viral after explaining who’s the man and who’s the penguin – Deadline News 

To find out more about and explore the papers of William Speirs Bruce: 

Collection: Papers of William Speirs Bruce | University of Edinburgh Archive and Manuscript Collections 

Papers of William Speirs Bruce, No.673 – CRC Gallimaufry (Miscellaneous Images) (ed.ac.uk) 

Written by Catherine Alexander.

Wooden Spoon of the Month: Arthur Holmes

The fifth Wooden Spoon of the Month has been awarded to Arthur Holmes’ acceptance of the Vetlesen Prize. What is the wooden spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we’ll be celebrating a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?  

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!  

Arthur Holmes, born in 1890 (and died aged 75), was one of the most famous geologists of the 20th century. During his undergraduate, Holmes pioneered radiometric dating. It was a method that allowed us to precisely date rocks and minerals (even if they are over one million years old!).

Holmes was born in Hebburn (Country Durham), son of David Holmes, a cabinet maker. He enrolled to study physics in London at the age of seventeen but fell in love with Geology in his second year of study. Against the advice of his tutors, his career path was set.

He spent time in Mozambique where he became so ill with malaria that notice of his death was posted home but he was able to make a recovery. He married twice, taught in Durham and at the Imperial College and had close ties to Edinburgh University (he was the Regius Professor of Geology at the University of Edinburgh from 1942 to 1956). Despite his incredible contribution to science, he is not particularly well known and has few surviving photos.

In 1964, Arthur Holmes was awarded the Vetlesen prize.

The Vetlesen was established in 1959 and was designed to be the Nobel Prize of the Earth Sciences. It is awarded for “scientific achievement resulting in a clearer understanding of the Earth, its history, or its relations to the universe” and is handed out (roughly) every three years.

From a letter written in 1964, we know that Holmes expressed his surprise at being selected “for what must surely be the highest distinction in the world for geologists. The surprise was all the greater because I have to confess that I had not even known there was such an award”.

This Wooden Spoon is also part of the VOiCE celebrations of the latest ‘Meet the…’ Series episode. In December 2020, VOlunteers In Collections Engagement began a monthly, lunchtime, conversational webinar with someone involved in Collections, Archives and the Heritage Sector. On June 10th, 2021, Martha and Lily talked to Gillian McCay, the assistant curator at the Cockburn Geological Museum.

We discussed Arthur Holmes, Charles Lyell and much, much more. You can listen again to Gillian’s ‘Meet the…’ series episode. here or just search ‘We’ve got History Between Us’ on your preferred podcast platform.

Thanks Arthur Holmes, for your humble acceptance of the highest distinction you (didn’t know you) could achieve.

Written by Lily Mellon

LHSA40 – Wooden Spoon of the Month

The fourth wooden spoon has been awarded to an object in the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA). VOiCE spotted the letter when LHSA highlighted it as part of the social media campaign for their 40th anniversary. 

The fourth wooden spoon has been awarded to an object in the Lothian Health Services Archive (LHSA). VOiCE spotted the letter when LHSA highlighted it as part of the social media campaign for their 40th anniversary. 

What is the wooden spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we’ll be celebrating a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?    

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!  

This wooden spoon features a copy of a letter from 1922. It was sent by Deputy Superintendent, William Caw, who was demanding an explanation for the following unusual occurrences in the nurses’ accommodation at the Royal Infirmary (Edinburgh); the scattering of the confetti over the night nurses, the overstay of a doctor without permission and the presence of guinea pigs in the dining room (who had been fed through the windows of the accommodation on Sunday morning). 

No response to the letter has been found as of yet, but as the files containing the letter are yet to be fully catalogued, perhaps there is still more information to come – or indeed, more pranks from within RIE to be uncovered. 

You can visit the online exhibition that features memories from the Royal Infirmary here and on May 12th 2021, LHSA celebrated #InternationalNursesDay. As part of this recognition, the modern apprentice (Lauren McKay) at the CRC created a new digital resource list to feature the key resources available to us. You can read about Lauren’s experience here

Keep up with this year of celebrations via the #LHSA40 hashtag. LHSA have been highlighting many of their interns, volunteers and modern apprentices both past and present. Are you interested in how Edinburgh responded to the HIV crisis? What about how the first prosthetic hand was invented? Do you want to track the employment records of a family member? You can find everything on the Lothian Health Archive website – just click here.  

No guinea pigs were harmed in the writing of this article. 

Written by Lily Mellon 

Wooden Spoon of the Month: Fake News from the Archives

As we finish up the month of March, our thoughts turn to April and importantly, April Fool’s Day. A time for practical jokes, hoaxes and jokesters.  

The third ‘Wooden Spoon of the Month’ has been awarded to a fake article posted in Student in 1980 – although this example was not an April Fool, but more of a yuletide prank, it certainly captures that surprising, out of the ordinary feeling. 

What is the wooden spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we’ll be celebrating a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?    

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!  

In 2014, the library ran a project to digitize copies of Student making issues accessible online todayThey began with the 1984-5 season. Since the pilot, a grant allowed an intern to digitize a decade of Student (1980-90). Originally, these digital copies were released in real time, exactly 30-years to the day that an issue has been published. Keep an eye out under the hashtag #studentarchive.  

VOiCE has been highlighting some of Students’ articles via our #onthisday social media project. You can follow us on social media here

Without further ado here is the article in full: 

Text

Description automatically generated

The piece plans out the whole weekend for the reader including instructions to “get drunk and insult your neighbours” before listing some pornography to watch starring the Swedish actress and singer, Britt Ekland. Amongst the itinerary, the punk poet John Cooper Clarke is said to be joining the Christmas panto; the critically acclaimed Talking Heads (American band formed in 1975 and inducted into the hall of fame in 2002) was playing at Teviot row despite no marketing up until this point; Tod Papageorge (American photographer) was supposedly at the University of Edinburgh’s art gallery; the film society was showing a 1979 erotic historical drama about the rise and fall of a Roman emperor and STV had gotten hold of the rights to screen Star Wars despite nowhere else being able to show it. Finally, and most important to VOiCE regarding Santa’s grotto, shout out to a time in which Woolworths still existed. 

You can see the important parts in more detail below: 

Text

Description automatically generated
Text

Description automatically generated
Text

Description automatically generated
Text

Description automatically generated

“Our last weekend – if you’re one of the lucky ones and managed to get a ticket for the Talking Heads gig, then you won’t be short of something to do on Friday – but, if you didn’t, there’s plenty more. John Cooper Clarke makes an interesting change to the usual Niteclub gigs, and the opening of the Christmas panto would be an ideal way to bring the festive season, keeping in the spirit of today’s Student. Saturday morning – take a break from the hustle of Christmas shopping and perhaps take a visit to Santa’s Grotto in John Menzies, or Arnotts, or Woolworths, or W.H Smiths – there seems to be a large choice. Saturday afternoon – Edinburgh v. Glasgow at Myreside could be an excellent game, featuring many of this years possibles for the Scotland team. Also, exhibitions at the Talbot Rice Centre are both worth going to see. Saturday night – if pushed, get drunk and insult your neighbours – great fun and a lot more interesting than festering at home watching [phrase omitted] in Stetsons on the TV. Even more thrilling would be to dig your mac and head off to the Classic to see Britt Ekland, everyone’s paramour, in ‘Scandinavian Erotica’. Let’s face it Sunday morning is a no-no wo we’ll get straight to Sunday afternoon where there’s even more porn available. It seems like the complaints in our letters column got through to the Film Soc mandarins because they’re sharing the American version of ‘Caligula’ a rare chance to wallow in some real unexpurgated filth. We love it! Sunday night – to finish off the weekend, Star Wars is being shown on STV at 10:15pm. An excellent scoop by the Scottish Independent Television and it’s not being shown on any other region. We’re the lucky ones. If you’ve enjoyed our weekends together half as much as I’ve hated writing, then I suppose it’s been worthwhile. Take care, see you sometime. Tootsiexxx  

Of course, some people took the article (which sat in the normal What’s On section) seriously.  

VOiCE went to the following Issue of Student and found that a reader had written in to complain about the joke. 

Text

Description automatically generated

“Lies, damn lies and Student. Last week on the back page of Student several events were mentioned in the What’s On column which were never intended to take place. No doubt someone high up in The Student decided it would be an amusing practical joke if students looked forward to a mixture of Star Wars, Caligula and Talking Heads and went to these events and discovered nothing was on. The best way to ruin Student’s credibility and lose customers is to print lies of this nature. How can you expect people to write for and buy a newspaper which specialises in deceit. After last week’s Annual General Meeting when several thousand pounds of students’ money was given to Publications Board, I would not have thought that Student dares to deceive students in this manner. In future you can print one less copy because I certainly will not buy it. 

Now, we share an extract of the editor’s response to the complaint: 

Text

Description automatically generated

Those ‘lies’ which appeared did so only because there was no way that anybody with the slightest knowledge of the Arts, Rock and What’s On in Edinburgh could have taken them seriously [] In the past it was assumed that readers of Student were intelligent and well-informed (ie, they knew which day it was and which town they were in), now, alas, it seems we are no longer safe in such an assumption. 

Strong words from Hackett – we can’t help but wonder whether the Newsletter kept the reader or, indeed, how many University students looked forward to fake films, gigs and exhibitions. 

The digitised editions of Student can be found here, although take some of what you read with a pinch of salt.  

Written by Lily Mellon 

The Moon might still be made of Cheese

James Nasmyth’s personal photographs of the Moon have been selected for the second ‘Wooden Spoon of the Month’ award. What is the wooden spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we’ll be celebrating a piece within our collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?  

Each article will bring amusing stories, unwelcome additions, surprising annotations, damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at: voiceed@outlook.com but remember – we’re here to celebrate the weird and wonderful, not insult it!  

James Nasmyth (1808-1890) was a Scottish industrialist and son of Alexander Nasmyth (a Scottish portrait and landscape artist). James was an engineer, an inventor, an artist and a philosopher. He is most well-known for inventing the steam hammer. As Edinburgh was his birthplace, and he attended the University, a building in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Heriot-Watt is named after him.

 Once retired, James Nasmyth was able to focus on his hobby – astronomy. He spent several decades observing the Moon through a large telescope of his own design and wanted to publish his work via the new medium of photography. He did so (he co-wrote a book in 1874 with James Carpenter) and the photos included here show some of the end results. Here’s where our question comes in: can anyone guess what might be strange about these images?  

The art of photography was not yet developed enough to achieve the highly magnified views that Nasmyth wanted. These are not photographs of the Moon. They’re images of his own plaster models. The photos were shot outdoors in raking light and, as a result, the images successfully captured the all-important variations of the Moon’s surface that Nasmyth was hoping to portray. He was able to replicate the shadows, contours and craters – he just achieved this in model form. 

We know, we know. We’re asking you to speculate over the possibility that our historical knowledge of the moon could be based on a fake but convincing reconstruction! It’s new and unheard-of territory and yet it’s true. 

Nasmyth is buried in Edinburgh alongside his wife and mother. If you’re Edinburgh-based and mixing up your lockdown walks, then pass through the Dean Cemetery. You can visit the monument erected for both James and his brother Patrick (James was one of eleven children!). A steam hammer is carved into the monument. 

Written by Lily Mellon

Wooden Spoon of the Month

An engraving of March of the Highlander’s has been selected for the Newsletter’s first Wooden Spoon of the Month Article. What is the wooden spoon section we hear you ask? Each month we’ll be celebrating a piece within the CRC’s collections that leaves you thinking, maybe something is just slightly off here… but what?

Each article will bring amusing stories; unwelcome additions; surprising annotations; damage to artifacts or the unsolved mysteries of our Collections and Archives. We’re wanting to highlight the unusual, the unexplained, the unfortunate occurrences and the downright ‘peculiar’. Do you have a suggestion for a future ‘Wooden Spoon’ of the month? We’d love to hear from you at crcblog@outlook.com.

Artistic License: A Scottish Highlander for every occasion

Edinburgh: March of the Highlanders was created by Joseph M.W Turner c. 1834-5 to be published in Fisher’s illustrations. These illustrations were the accompaniment to the Waverley Novels (written by Walter Scott) in 1836. This print (above) depicts the Jacobite army assembling on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, shortly before the Battle of Prestonpans.

The battle of Prestonpans (or the battle of Gladsmuir as it was also known) was fought on the 21st September 1745 and went down in history as a significant win and morale boost for the Jacobite army. The battle entered collective memory and surrounding legend despite only lasting around thirty minutes.

So why might March of the Highlanders be awarded the wooden spoon? It involves the background scene within Turner’s painting and Higman’s engraving. It’s a familiar scene to that which we still view from Carlton Hill today. Central to the piece is Edinburgh’s North Bridge and to the right of it we clearly see some buildings from the New Town in the distance.

North Bridge (as we know it today) was constructed between 1894 and 1897 but the bridge that stood there previously did not exist until 1763. That’s eighteen years after the Battle at Prestonpans. I bet you’ve guessed it – it’s a similar story regarding the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town. Edinburgh Town Council began to publish the ‘aspirations’ of the New Town architect in 1776. That’s twenty-two years till the buildings were envisaged never mind built – now that’s artistic license.

The question of whether Walter Scott appreciated Turner’s watercolour is also worth a mention. Scott may have invited Turner to Abbotsford and accompanied him to several sites associated with his poems but that did not stop Scott complaining of Turner’s propensity for adding ‘highlanders in every Scottish scene’. Do you agree with Scott?

Written by Lily Mellon

%d bloggers like this: