Monday 11 July 2022

Transcription: Preserving the Recorded Past. With Call for Information (Lady Burroughs)

 Guest Blogpost by Nela Scholma-Mason

Skull in a basket. Drawing by Nela Scholma-Mason

If you enjoy a suspenseful Gothic short story, you might like Lady Burroughs’ report on the discovery of Taversoe Tuick (GB241/D19/10/9).

Set on the isle of Rousay in 1898, it tells of the chance discovery of a prehistoric grave chamber in a thunderstorm. In the end, the narrator walks home with a skull in her basket.

Above all, this is an excavation report, not a work of fiction.

Eliza D'Oyly Traill Burroughs (1849-1908) (GB241/L3295/4)

The author (and 1st-person narrator) is Eliza D’Oyly Traill Burroughs (née Geddes, 1849-1908; pictured), and the document is mostly known as ‘the journal of Lady Burroughs’.

The manuscript, however, does not form part of a personal diary; it comprises nine loose pages and drawings that are solely focused on the discovery and the ensuing excavation of Taversoe Tuick – which is why it is referred to as a ‘report’ and a ‘manuscript’ here, rather than a ‘journal’.

It is a lively piece, full of riveting questions and theories about prehistory, glimpses of Eliza’s observational sense of humour and her emotional intelligence, as well as dramatic descriptions of the storm-swept island of Rousay.

Eliza’s writing style creates a personal connection between herself and the reader: she makes no secret out of the joy she got from the discovery, recommending excavation to “anyone in search of excitement!” She also gives insightful remarks about the moods of those present (her husband and two workmen) – in addition to providing measurements, detailed site descriptions, and sketches.

The report remained an unpublished manuscript until Diana Reynolds transcribed it for PSAS in 1985 – but even after that, Eliza herself remained a little-known figure in Orkney history, usually overshadowed by the history of her husband, Lt-Gen Sir Frederick W Traill Burroughs, the laird of Rousay and Wyre (see ‘further reading’, below for more information on him).  

I came across the Taversoe Tuick report years ago when I was looking for case studies during research into Orcadian archaeology and folklore (I won’t digress). Having discovered a new favourite author, I began to search for Eliza – Who was she? What else had she written? Who had written about her? – only to find… well, not very much.

Initial online searches did not even reveal her birthdate (9 May 1849).  


Lady Burroughs (Ref: GB241/S18/1)

I soon realised that if I wanted to read more by her, I would have to dig deep for it – and if I wanted to read more about her… I would have to write it myself (spoiler alert: I have!).

Over the years I would find out that Eliza was the first person to bring cinema to the isle of Rousay (in 1901), that she promoted local craftwork and artistic talent, took a deep interest in the welfare of local schoolchildren, knew May Morris, liked the outdoors, enjoyed stargazing, and was partial to tea.

Still – to this day I have not found any private letters or diaries that would provide a clearer idea of her personality and her views (other than her archaeological views). 

In photographs (of which there are many), she has a confident, intelligent expression (her writing style and attention to detail would support this), but photographs are mere moments in time. At present, hers could still do with more context

Back in 2017, my first starting point was the Orkney Library & Archive (OA), Archon code GB241 

Apart from Eliza’s original report (GB241/D19/10/9), many of the relevant sources were 19th-century newspaper clippings (the OA’s D19 papers; I also consulted the British Newspaper Archive ), and while I read these with interest, the warning words of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) resounded in my mind: in his periodical the Rambler (nr. 60, 13 October 1750) , he notes that many writers rely too heavily on newspaper articles to piece together a biography of their subject, when, in fact:

“ (…) more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative (…)”.


Dr Samuel Johnston (1709-1784), noted biographer (among many other works)
Painting by Joshua Reynolds 

For obvious reasons, this is not something I could do. Eliza, her household staff, and I are separated by more than a century. We have walked the same ground, but not at the same time.

This venture was impossible after all.

Or so I thought!

The OA Sound Archive holds a recorded interview with Alexina Craigie (OSA/TA/149). Alexina Craigie had worked at Trumland House around the turn of the century and was still alive in 1977 (!) when Howie Firth interviewed her for Radio Orkney.

The interview is on a reel-to-reel tape, and I was quite apprehensive the first time I used it. Not daring to press any buttons for fear of breaking things, I listened to the interview in one go once it had been switched on by one of the archivists.

Ye Olde Reel-to-Reel Tape Player

The interview is a treasure trove of anecdotes, memories, and descriptions of Orkney, with focus on Rousay. It contains stories and recollections about Alexina Craigie’s own family and memories that were told to her by her relatives.

The scope of history on the tape easily goes back at least into the early 1800s, if not before that, with tales of press gangs, peat cutting, the development of a postal service in Rousay, hazardous whaling trips, and the kinds of foods that were eaten in Rousay when Alexina was young.

Alexina’s memories of working at Trumland House are a relatively small part of the interview, but the anecdotes she does share have been invaluable for my research, especially as they give an insight into Eliza’s character by someone who knew her personally.

These anecdotes include Eliza wandering about Trumland House looking for company (and tea) while her husband and houseguests are out; and Eliza giving up her seat in a cart between Westness and Trumland, deciding to walk instead, which saved Alexina a 3.5-mile trek while on duty.

In summer 2018, I was back in Orkney and had arranged with the OA to transcribe the interview. My concerns regarding the age and fragility of the tape (which had prevented me from pressing any buttons previously) had turned into a plan to commit the words of the interview to paper (or, to be more precise, to pdf: GB241/OSA-TA-149).

The interview lasts for about 30 minutes and I set aside two days for the transcription. This included listening to the recording various times until I became familiar with the melody and rhythm of Alexina’s voice and her manners of speaking, before writing it up bit-by-bit.

Finally, I listened to the tape several more times, while reading and correcting what I had written up until every word matched (to the best of my understanding).  

At this point, let me emphasise how much help I had from Colin Rendall (Orkney Archive Technician) during those days. His advice was crucial, as I wanted to avoid mistakes out of ignorance, especially when it came to dialect and vernacular ways of phrasing (interesting detour: I learned that there is no such thing as ‘the Orkney dialect’, as every island of the archipelago has their own).

To my understanding, the role of the transcriber is just that: to transcribe every spoken word, not to correct anything – be it dates, place names, historical facts – nor to smooth over any phrasing (although some transcribers choose to omit fill noises; for example, if the speaker says ‘erm’ many times – which Alexina does not).

Of course, even a transcription comes with its own bias (and therefore responsibility!) – simply because it is carried out by a person, who is making decisions throughout the process. This is an important point, but it would need its own discussion.

The (largely) passive part I played as a transcriber was what made the process even more interesting. I was not putting together a polished, reviewed history. Instead, I was recording a private person’s memory and understanding of the time she lived in, and her own life story embedded in that.

Above all, listening to the voice of someone who was alive during the 19th century (!) felt like a rare privilege. Unfortunately, a written transcription does not record the sound of someone’s voice, nor their gestures or facial expressions while they are speaking. These are the first elements to become (apologies in advance…) ‘lost in transcription’.

Alexina Craigie’s voice is clear and strong (she was about a century old at the time of the interview!), her phrasing elegant. The tone of her voice reveals a bright, friendly sense of humour during some anecdotes, while hinting at a profound loyalty to those around her in other parts.

When she begins to talk about Eliza, you can hear how her face lights up with a smile. It is clear from her voice alone that she got along well with her, which adds even more weight and meaning when she speaks affectionately about Eliza:

“Lady Burroughs was… oh my gosh… [inaudible], she was the most humble lady in many ways (…). You couldn’t imagine!”


Alexina Craigie (1879-1980) Photographed in 1975 (GB241/L2238/2)

There were words – sometimes entire phrases – neither Colin nor I were sure about, which I have either marked with ‘inaudible’ or provided two possible options for (not ideal – but I felt this was preferable to putting words into the mouth of the speaker). Hopefully I will be able to fill in those gaps and update the transcription sometime.

I could not have done this transcription without Colin’s help, and I am very grateful not only for his advice and proofreading, but also for all the cheerful banter and coffee. Those two days were a joy.

This is the closest I could ever hope to get to “having a short conversation with one of [Eliza’s] servants” (or at least eavesdropping on one!) as a means of gathering biographical information. I hope Dr Johnson would let me off the hook.

 “There is no Answer from the Unrecorded Past”, Eliza notes while trying to make sense of Taversoe Tuick.

In my case, this applies to ‘answers’ that were once recorded in writing (unlike the prehistoric remains Eliza dealt with) but have become (apologies again…) ‘un-recorded’ by being lost, thrown out or destroyed.

By transcribing and digitising we can delay the loss of people’s life stories and keep them available for another few generations.

I look forward to being back in Kirkwall again soon and visit the Orkney Archive. Maybe I will be able to fill in some of those ‘inaudible’ gaps.  

On a final note: My research into the life of Lady Burroughs is far from complete. I would very much like to hear from you if you know of anything relating to her. Be it an ancestral connection, letter/s, photograph/s, a diary (one can but hope!), or even just a brief anecdote you think you heard somewhere. Nothing is irrelevant!

I have also tried to track down some of her original watercolours, but to little avail so far. Everything – however small, however brief, however anecdotal – is of interest!

You can contact me (Nela) at:

A short film portraying the storm-swept discovery of Taversoe Tuick will be shown at this year's Orkney Storytelling Festival. This film forms part of the Forgotten Stories project.


Further reading:

Nela’s article about Lady Burroughs

Scholma-Mason, N M A (2021), ‘Eliza D’Oyly Traill Burroughs (1849-1908): A Voice from the            Unrecorded Past’ in Proc Soc Antiq Scot 150, 279-299.       

This paper was awarded the R B K Stevenson Award 2021

 Hard copies of this article and Diana Reynolds' article are available to read in the Orkney Room             (Orkney Room Periodicals, 941, PSAS, Volumes 115 and 150)

William Thomson’s biography of Lt-Gen Sir F W Traill Burroughs:

 Thomson, W P L (1981) The Little General and the Rousay Crofters: Crisis and Conflict on       an Orkney Estate. Edinburgh: John Donald.

(A copy of this book is available to read in the Orkney Room 333 Y)

Alexina Craigie's Interview

Howie Firth’s interview with Alexina Craigie (1977) can be found in the Orkney Sound Archive under GB241/OSA/TA/149. 

Nela Scholma-Mason’s transcription (2018) of this interview can be found under: GB241/OSA-TA-149 in the Orkney Archive

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