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Archives in Writing

by Jennifer Morag Henderson

My new biography “Daughters of the North” tells, in part, the life story of a woman called Jean Gordon, who lived at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. It can be very difficult to find detailed information about women’s lives 500 years ago, but with Jean Gordon I had an incomparable contemporary source: a collection of her own letters. There are published transcriptions of these documents readily available, but nothing compared to being able to pick up a piece of paper that Jean herself had folded and sealed, and reading Jean’s own thoughts in her own handwriting. I could see the words that she emphasised, or stumbled over and crossed out, and watch her handwriting change over time, from the first letter written as a young bride, to the final one, written as a great-grandmother in her eighties. The letters were not just a source of information but also a point of connection: they illustrate the power of archives, and show how important archives can be for a writer.

Jean Gordon, the subject of my book, is probably best known as the first wife of the notorious Earl of Bothwell. Jean was Bothwell’s alibi for the night of the murder of Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots’ wayward husband. However, despite Bothwell claiming that he was in bed with Jean, he became the prime suspect in Darnley’s death, and was put on trial for murder. After his (dubious) exoneration, Bothwell and Jean divorced, and Bothwell went on to marry Mary, Queen of Scots – triggering the chain of events that led to Mary’s escape to and then long captivity in England.

Jean’s key role in the dramatic events of Mary’s life was part of what first attracted me to writing her story, but my time in archives, and the exploration of Jean’s later life as Countess of Sutherland, took the book in a new and important direction. It became a book about not only Jean, but also about her family, the life that women could lead, and, crucially, the land that she lived in. The story of Jean’s time at Mary, Queen of Scots’ court had been written about in many secondary sources, but as I read her letters and the other documents in the archives I realised that here were primary sources absolutely full of stories that had rarely, if ever, been told.

An archive is not organised in the same way as a library: everything about Jean Gordon was not arranged into books and filed neatly and alphabetically in one place. Instead, archival collections retain their original organisation, and generally remain in the order they were in at the time of accession into an archive – and they can contain not only papers but also objects. My research into 16th century Scotland involved looking at sources other than written material, including paintings and drawings, items that belonged to people of the time such as clothes, and even ephemera such as songs. After I had found a letter written by Jean, I could see what it was filed next to, which brought up new discoveries of correspondence, and often opened up new areas of understanding.

Many of Jean’s letters were in the archives of the Sutherland family: the archives of her second husband. They had been loosely organised into groups by earlier researchers, either by date or subject. I soon found that organisation by subject – where letters were described and catalogued into categories such as “family” or “business” – was likely to be suspect. Because Jean was a woman, her letters were often assumed to touch only on family matters – but in fact, she was in control of running the Sutherland estates for a long time. Likewise, I found the cataloguing of one of her son John’s letters as “business” inadequate when the letter itself actually dealt, in a sensitive way, with the loss of both his own newborn baby, and a stillbirth experienced by his sister-in-law.

The letters also brought new characters alive: Jean’s daughter-in-law Lucie is rarely, if ever, mentioned by historians, as her effect on wider history is judged to be negligible. Within the Gordon family though, she was loved and remembered. Her personality emerged vividly through her letters, as she exhorted her husband Robert to be careful as he travelled from their family home in the south of England to visit his mother Jean in the north of Scotland. Lucie’s entreaties to Robert not to forget her love, or the love of their children, intermingled with her descriptions of current affairs: outbreaks of plague, or the death of a cousin. There was a real sense of someone living through history, but also enjoying family life in a very recognisable way.

I had learnt through my research for my first biography, of Josephine Tey, how important family connections could be, and how these were not always linear: it was not just Tey’s siblings who held material relating to her work, but also distant cousins. In order to access that, I had to understand how Tey saw her family – not just trace who she was most closely related to, but understand through her actions which family members she actually remained in contact with. It was the same with Jean Gordon: I knew that she remained close to her mother’s side of the family, which showed me that her connection with her cousin Agnes Keith (the wife of the Regent Moray) could be very important. The Earls of Moray are based at Darnaway Castle, which is still a private residence in the hands of Agnes Keith’s descendants: I was lucky enough to finally manage to get in to see the original ancient Hall that Mary, Queen of Scots would have known, with its ancient carved and smoke-blackened timbers from the 14th century. A conversation with the family about the available archives led to important discussions with archivists who could help with my queries. Again, a crucial difference between archives and the library service is that many archives are in private hands, and different archives do not necessarily have contact with each other: the researcher has to learn where to look.

In Inverness, where I live, the Highland Archive Centre organises introductory sessions to explain archives and explore some of their possible uses. Archives can be used in many ways: family historians and genealogists often use them as a starting point, but writers can use them differently. The Highland Archive Centre have previously organised sessions with the Society of Authors, and regularly work with schoolchildren, to encourage the use of their archives as creative prompts. A writer might search for items connected with a particular place or time or person that interests them, then use that as something to build a piece of fiction on.

A good example of fiction based on research is S.G. MacLean’s recent “The Bookseller of Inverness”. Set in the Highlands after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, the story uses a factual base, before spinning off into its own dramatic story. MacLean has a PhD in history and is experienced in using archives, and in a note at the end of the book she explains some of the sources that she used, from the classic three-volume “The Lyon in Mourning” to the “Letter-Book of Bailie John Steuart of Inverness”. Due to the limited library access enforced by the pandemic, she explains, she ended up using the original manuscript of Bailie Steuart in the archives rather than the transcribed and printed edition. The Bailie’s descriptions of lived history sparked her imagination, and he appears as a character in the final novel – she interprets his letters as being not just the transactions of business concerns they appear to be on the surface, but as documents that can be read in code, as part of a Jacobite plot.

A more academic non-fiction writer’s approach could be to take a particular archive and explore it thoroughly, summarizing and explaining what is in there, for example James Miller’s recent book “The Dunbars of Ackergill and Hempriggs”. In the introduction, Miller explains that he was invited to write a book based on the Dunbar family papers. He has previously written other archive-research-based books on the history of Inverness, the story of travel and transport in the Highlands, and Scottish mercenaries, among other topics. In “The Dunbars…” Miller covers the sweeping history of one family in the north of Scotland from as early as the twelfth century, taking in information not only from the Dunbar papers themselves but also using his extensive local knowledge to cross-reference them with material from other archives such as the Breadalbane Muniments in the National Records of Scotland. The story is continued right down to the present day, and the living descendants, and backed up by appendixes of information on money and names and details from the original documents. As I learnt during the writing of “Daughters of the North”, the history of Caithness and the Far North is under-studied, with a relative paucity of written documents compared to other regions, so this is a valuable new resource for anyone interested in the area. So much important archival work is done by local historians and family historians, often drawing out stories of much wider interest. Writers’ personal research into what look like regional anomalies can bring out stories of national significance, such as David Alston’s work on slavery and the Highlands.

What I wanted to do with my book “Daughters of the North” was somewhere in between S.G. MacLean’s fictional history, and James Miller’s factual summary: I wanted to write a non-fiction biography where I was scrupulous about the accuracy of my information and where it came from – but I also wanted to tell the exciting stories of the time. Jean Gordon lived a long and full life, watching and influencing events as the throne of Scotland passed through the regency of Mary of Guise, to Mary, Queen of Scots, to Moray and the other Regents, to James VI and finally to Charles I. Scotland and England were united, Scotland changed from Catholic to Protestant, relations within Europe shifted dramatically and the New World began to open up. Historians rarely, if ever, study all these things together: a historian of Mary, Queen of Scots’ era, for example, might not necessarily choose to also study the era of Charles I, or what the Thirty Years’ War meant for Scandinavia – but all of these things were part of Jean’s life. She was shaped and changed by what she lived through, and had an impact on events herself. By exploring history through biography we gain a new perspective.

Archives can be difficult to access and difficult to understand. Reading Jean’s letters was not a simple process: I had to locate them, travel to view them, I had to understand the Scots language in which she wrote, and I even had to take courses in palaeography in order to read her 16th century handwriting, which is formed using different letters and conventions than we use today. By learning to use archives, however, writers can see the stories in them – and bring those stories alive for a wider audience.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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