Monday 18 March 2019

Palaeography Group

We have started a new group in the Orkney Archive. It is an informal group for folk who wish to practice their skills reading Secretary Script, Scottish handwriting from the 16th and 17th centuries. There are various online sources that are useful, particularly Scottish where you can begin your studies of this fascinating script. Once you have learnt the basics the only way to become proficient is to practice.

Our group is meeting on Monday nights in the Archive Searchroom from 5.45pm - 6.45pm. Please contact Lucy Gibbon, Assistant Archivist in the first instance if you would like to book a place. Her contact details are 01856 873166 or email

Each week Lucy picks one piece of writing, makes copies of it and the group sit around a table and read aloud what they think the words are, working through the document word for word or letter by letter depending on the level of difficulty. The others can agree or disagree. There will be reference books nearby to look up. Each week one member of the group has been happy to type up the transcription as we decipher it.

The group is organic and will evolve depending on who joins in or the level of skill in the room. Sometimes we will struggle and sometimes we will fly through a document.

We hope that learning from each other will enhance all our skills.

The first week, we started small with this document:

This document is from D2 which is the Balfour of Balfour and Trenabie papers and dated 1673.
Our transcription is this:
We the Justices of his Ma[je]sties peace gentlemen, heritores, fewares, uddallers and otheris within the contrey of orknay doe by these pr[ese]nts testifie and declaire that the provost, baillies, counsell and inhabitants of the burgh of Kirkwall and their predecessores [had/hes?] of this long tyme bygone menteined and upholdine that great and ancient fabrek called St Magnus Kirk there.
While in January 16 [space] years a pairt of the samyne was [beirned/ruined?] by a dreidfull and aciden-tall fyre from heavin and now the povertie of that place has so increassed that they ar not in abilitie nor Capacity to repaire naither that pairt that is rewined [ruined] nor uphold what is yet remaineing without the supplie and help of some Christiane charitie for that effect. In testimonie wh[e]r[e]of we have sub[scribed]t this p[rese]ntis with our hands at Kirkwall the [space] day of November 1673.
Edward McLaw[rren]
W[illiam] Buchanan
Geo[rge] Sinclair            J Buchanan
John Elphinstone            James Fea
                                       Arthur Buchanan
James Sinclair                Will[iam] Douglas
Michael Rendall             O[liver] Kincaid
Robert Irving                 William Young
                                       N. Moncrieff
The names were interesting, but most of them could be found in the book, Kirkwall in the Orkneys by B H Hossack, first published in 1900.
Other reference books we used were The Concise Scots Dictionary; Scottish Handwriting 1150-1650 - an introduction to the reading of documents by Grant G Simpson.

If you disagree with our transcription, please comment below. We are here to learn and any help is greatly appreciated.

If you would like to join in, please contact Lucy Gibbon to book a place. We are limiting the group to 8 members, but so far the most we have had is 5. So it is always worth phoning or emailing to see if a place is free the night you want to come. If you have set up a similar group, we would be interested in hearing about it too.