Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Saturday, 25 August 2012

23rd Annual Conference of SAFHS

The 23rd Annual conference of the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, titled "Crops, Cloth, Cod’n’Coal" was hosted jointly by Tay Valley FHS and Fife FHS, and was held in the Bonar Hall of the University of Dundee, on 21 April 2012.  In terms of numbers, it wasn’t quite as well-attended as the 2011 conference in Edinburgh, which was a pity, as the quality of the talks was possibly even higher than previously. Here are reports of the talks:

Crops in the 1700s and 1800s 

Prof. Geoff Squire of the James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, where he is coordinator of the Agroecology group.

Throughout the period 1700 1900, Scotland could not feed its people with any degree of certainty, due to natural disasters, crop failures and poor rates of production. We tend to associate the term ‘potato famine’ with Ireland, but much of Scotland also suffered badly, during the 1860s.

Geoff spoke of how various crops were used and introduced - e.g. the development of legumes became more prominent when it was realised that they fixed nitrogen in the soil - and how the agricultural revolution fitted in with other developments in Scotland such as industrialisation. Massive amounts of guano were imported into Scotland, to try to enrich the soil – in 1882, 9590 tons of it were brought into the country through Leith docks!   and did you know that whin or gorse is actually a legume crop, which can be flailed and pulped to produce animal fodder?

He also spoke of the earlier eruption of the Icelandic volcano Laki, which had lasted from June 1783 till February 1784. The catastrophic effects were felt, not only in Iceland, where more than 20% of the population died, but throughout Europe, and as far away as India and Japan -  partly through the direct effects of the ash haze and clouds of poisonous gasses, and partly through the subsequent famine, caused by pollution and lack of light. The ill effects of this lingered for many years.

This was a fascinating talk –  perhaps unexpectedly so for those of us who can hardly tell one end of turnip from the other!

Dundee Weaver craft over 500 years  

Ron Scrimgeour, Deacon of the Weavers Craft Guild.  

2012 is the 500th anniversary of the Weavers Craft Guild in Dundee, and Ron gave an interesting overview of its history.

Dundee had a total of nine Incorporated Trades – Baxters, Cordiners, Glovers & Skinners, Tailors, Bonnetmakers, Fleshers, Hammermen, Weavers, Dyers & Waulkers. Edinburgh, by the way, had 12 incorporated trades, Aberdeen had 7, while Glasgow had 13. Interesting sidelights were that the Hammermen included the Bucklemakers (very important in the days before zip fasteners!) and were also Armourers to the king;  as well as slaughtering animals and preparing the meat, Fleshers also raised the beasts, and fattened them; Tailors – in the earlier times – were an itinerant trade, who would set up their tents in an area for a few months, when the need for new clothes in that area had been exhausted, move on to the next place. 

 The Trade guilds were set up with four main purposes -  to prevent unfair competition, to regulate quality, to oversee training, and to operate a system of poor relief for their members.  There is much more information on the website:

Ron also spoke about the jute industry, its connections with India, and how jute came to Dundee, almost by accident, in the 1820s when a couple of small bales of jute arrived at Dundee docks.  None of the manufacturers wanted to work with this very coarse material, until it was discovered that whale oil was the ideal substance to soften the raw jute, and make it workable. Dundee’s large whaling fleet could provide a plentiful supply  of the oil – and so the famous Dundee jute industry was born.

At the time of the 1911 census, the city had a total population of 150,000, of whom 40,00 were employed in the jute industry, including school children working half time. An interesting snippet of information was that a weaver who still had a piece of cloth on his loom could not be conscripted – so I expect that there would always be a piece of half-finished work kept around, ready to be re-instated in a hurry, if required!

Having had the talk on Jute, we moved on to Journalism, the third speaker of the morning being Professor Bruce Durie, who, until September 2011, ran the professional postgraduate programme in Genealogical Studies at Strathclyde University.   Bruce was speaking about J.E.P. Muddock, the Victorian journalist and novelist who created “Dick Donovan, the Glasgow detective”. Donovan actually preceded Sherlock Holmes as the first real fictional detective.  James Edward Muddock (who, for some reason, re-branded himself as “Joyce Emmerson Preston Muddock”) had a very complicated family life – a serious challenge for the family historian!

Continuing with the Dundee theme of Jam, Jute and Journalism, and having now had Jute and Journalism, we were amused to discover that each conference goody bag contained a wee jar of Mackay’s marmalade to complete the trio of topics!

After lunch, the subjects of the talks moved across the Tay to Fife.

Fife fishing ports, then and now

Rodger McAslan, from the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther.

Rodger had to contend with several microphone problems, but struggled gamely on, to give an excellent talk about the development of fishing in Scotland, from prehistoric times, through the 19th century herring boom, when fishermen, and fisher-lassies, followed the herring throughout the season, from Stornoway to Lerwick, to Peterhead, then southwards as far as Yarmouth. Rodger also spoke of the major part played by fishermen during the world wars, and of the less-optimistic state of the industry today.  For information, see :

Glenrothes and the Coal Rush

Andrew Dowsie, Fife Archivist

The new town of Glenrothes was planned in the late 1940s, primarily to house miners who were to be employed at the newly established Rothes colliery.  The housing was designed to include parkland and recreational areas, and the homes themselves had all mod cons of the period – a far cry from the old miners rows with cramped rooms and no indoor sanitation.  The mine itself failed, due to various geological problems, but the town flourished, becoming associated with the new technologies, and acquiring the tag of ‘Silicon Glen’.

Glenrothes is now the administrative capital of Fife, housing the headquarters of both Fife Council and Fife Constabulary.   Plenty of photographs, and Andrew’s dry sense of humour, made for a very interesting talk. For information, see:

Next year’s conference is to be held in Galashiels, on Saturday 11th May 2013, and will be hosted by Borders FHS.

Janice Menzies (SAFHS rep)

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