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John Dewar’s lost photographs
The gentleman in the photograph is George Douglas Campbell (1823-1900) eighth Duke of Argyll who was a Scottish peer and Liberal politician.
In his day he was Postmaster General for the UK and largely responsible for the 1872 Education Act of Scotland making primary school education mandatory for children between the age of five and 13. He was also Secretary of State for India and helped to establish the Royal Indian Engineering College based near Egham, Surrey, to train civil engineers for service in the Indian Public Works Department.
In 1871 his son and heir, Lord Lorne, married Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. He made a significant geological discovery in the 1850s when one of his tenants told him he had seen some leaves embedded in basalt lava on the Island of Mull. Duke George helped to popularise ornithology and was one of the first after Leonardo da Vinci to give a detailed account of the principles of bird flight in the hope that man might take to the air. He published many erudite papers on science and religion.
Although no doubt trachled by the responsibilities of state and high office and perforce absent from Inveraray for much of the year, the Duke never turned his back on his home county and did a particularly wonderful thing for Argyll and Scotland. In 1862, on the suggestion of his cousin, John Francis Campbell of Islay, he commissioned one of his employees, John Dewar (1802–72), a wood-cutter and Gaelic-speaking native of Arrochar in Dunbartonshire, to go round Argyllshire, Arran, West Dunbartonshire, West Perthshire and Lochaber, gathering and writing down the traditional tales, historical stories, poems, songs, and the genealogies of those districts. When he died 10 years later Dewar, who was a storyteller himself, had collected a colossal 5,000 pages of information ranging from the time of Robert the Bruce to the Jacobite Rising of 1745 which might otherwise have been lost or forgotten.
What the Duke did was unique on two counts. Firstly, because very few big landowners in the Highlands during the Victorian era took much interest in local history or the Gaelic language, and, secondly, through Dewar, he established the first oral history project ever conducted in Scotland – 89 years before the School of Scottish Studies was founded at the University of Edinburgh. Dewar’s monumental work still exists and is contained in 10 large manuscript volumes. Seven are at Inveraray Castle and three in the National Library of Scotland. Also at Inveraray are 20 volumes of English translations of Dewar’s handwritten notes made for the Duke and Lord Lorne by Hector Maclean an Islay schoolmaster at Ballygrant in 1879–81, which are bound together in six thick tomes.
Very little of what John Dewar collected has been published and what has appeared in print is not considered satisfactory. All this is changing. Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th and present Duke of Argyll, has magnanimously opened to the public his voluminous and nationally important private archives through the recently formed Friends of Argyll Papers. The archivist is Alison Diamond who for eight years created, managed and delivered the National Records of Scotland education service to learners of all ages.
The Dewar Project has been established. This is a collaborative undertaking using voluntary help worldwide aimed at transcribing, translating, editing and publishing his work. All the manuscripts have been digitised, allowing images of pages to be sent to volunteers anywhere for transcription. The project is directed by Ronald Black who is acknowledged as one of the greatest living Scottish Gaelic scholars and Dr Christopher Dracup, who graduated from Sabhal Mor Ostaig College on Skye with a First Class Honours degree in Gaelic Language and Culture and was the recipient of the prestigious Highland Society of London Award for the best Highlands and Islands themed dissertation in the Humanities and Gaelic subject network, (Oban Times 20 October 2010). With such a doughty leading team historians are in for a treat.
The proposal is to divide the material into 10 volumes as follows: 1. Appin and Lorn; 2. Arran; 3. Cowal: 4. Glencoe, Lochaber and the North: 5. Inveraray, Mid Argyll and Knapdale: 6. Islay, Jura and Colonsay: 7. Kintyre: 8. Mull, Coll, Tiree and Morvern: 9. Perthshire and Loch Lomond: 10. Texts with no geographical location. The material for each volume is drawn from different parts of all 10 manuscripts. The transcription and translation for number six is now complete; those for numbers two, seven and nine is progressing well. Publication dates are: 6/2021; 9/2023; 7/2025 and so on. A Scottish publishing company have expressed themselves well aware of the value of the project, and have agreed to take on the publication of the whole series, hardback. The stories will be given with parallel translation, i.e. Gaelic on left and English on right.
An intriguing possibility is that Dewar may have carried a camera. In 1862 he mentions that he had an injury when he was a sawyer and was looking for another form of employment. He must at least have got round to purchasing one and mastering the tricky technology of exposing film in the field, because later he tells that he had left it and equipment in a house in Cowal. Although he never mentions photography again, it is just conceivable photographs taken by him in the form of black and white glass plates are still stored in someone’s attic.
If Dewar had combined collecting and taking photographs of his informants it would have been wonderful as there isn’t a known likeness of him, never mind the people he met. Enquiries round Arrochar and Cowal have not produced a result nor can his name be found in the electronic catalogues of the Scottish National Photograph collections before 1872. Photography was well on its way in Scotland by 1862 therefore their existence is technically possible.
The Argyll Papers at Inveraray Castle are the family and estate archives of the Campbell family, dukes of Argyll. They date from the 13th century and consist of documents relating to Inveraray; Rosneath; Kintyre; Campbell; Tiree; Mull, Iona, Morvern, Lismore and Scammadale. Included are; accounts, rentals, tacks, correspondence and other papers relating to administration and rural industries (kelp, salt, wool, lint, coal, quarries, woods) and infrastructure. There are name lists, such as the Argyll Estate Census of 1779 (recording the names and ages of every person living on the Argyll Estate) and smaller scale census for Tiree (1776), and Campbeltown and Kintyre (1792). A large volume of maps, plans and written surveys also forms part of the estate archive.
The Friends of the Argyll Papers is a registered Scottish charity dedicated to supporting the development of the archive, financially and through volunteering.
The archive is usually open to the public, by appointment, for research, Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm. However, given the current circumstances the archive is now closed to volunteers and researchers but at the time of going to press, the archivist was still taking calls.
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