Saturday, 24 May 2014

Graveyard survey training with Historic Graves

I had a very enjoyable day today in Glasgow learning basic graveyard survey techniques at the city's Necropolis. John Tierney from Historic Graves (, which is based in the Republic of Ireland, was in Britain for a few days to help people in both Manchester and Glasgow train those interested in survey techniques.

We initially met at 10am at the Bridge of Sighs, on the entrance into the Necropolis, with a few of our number experiencing travel issues thanks to an Orange march which had decided to manifest itself in the city centre. After a brief introductory talk by John on some of the tools of the trade that he uses, we then went to the Sigma section of the cemetery to learn some basic recording, photographing and interpretation techniques. What do you photograph? How should you record the information? How and why does geo-referencing the data help? These and many other questions were explored as we worked, and lots of tips offered along the way, including when the best times of the day are to carry out survey work, how to counter poor light levels, and more.

There were seven of us in total, so I spent the first part of the day partnered with Scott, who works in his spare time as a tour guide with the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, as well as being its webmaster. We each took a turn both working as photographers and spotters as we recorded several monuments, including some tricky memorials that had fallen into disrepair, and which posed some interesting issues on how best to capture the images. After half an hour or so I then partnered with Roger Guthrie, who I've often met before as the man at Glasgow City Archives who brings document productions to the table when I've ordered them, and who certainly knows a fair bit about about the city. We had to record what we saw before us on sheets designed to both record what we see - including sketches - and extract relevant data in summary form also. Again there were some interesting issues, such as whether we should record the names of people as being commemorated on a monument if they were not actually buried there e.g. if the deceased's father is noted. In this we decided that all those named should be commemorated, but I did clarify with John about whether the Lord God Almighty should also be included, as he popped up a lot also! Quite wisely John suggested that we perhaps leave him off, or the database could become somewhat unwieldy... :)

We broke for lunch and popped into a local hotel by the Cathedral, where I had a chance to talk to John about the work currently being done by his organisation in Ireland. The company concentrates its efforts in the Republic, particularly in the south west, and in a typical week John's team will perhaps survey 2 typical Irish graveyards, comprised of about 150 stones in each. The idea for such a venture arose out of the archaeology industry about three years back, as an offshoot of parent company Eachtra Archaeological Projects ('eachtra' means 'history' in Irish; rendered as 'eachdraidh' in Scotland), and its main aim at the moment is community empowerment, something that particularly came to the fore last year with The Gathering, and the south's concept of reverse genealogy that has been so successful (via initiatives such as Ireland Reaching Out ( On the company's website this is in fact the first thing flagged up as its mission statement - "A community based heritage project which digitally records and publishes historic graveyard surveys and stories." As this suggests, its main aim is to help communities learn the techniques necessary to be able to take on such a surveying project, to learn how to gather its own data and to preserve it on the Historic Graves database, or via their own standalone set up. The training session today in Glasgow (and Manchester) is a first step into Britain to try to bring the same sort of approach here, particularly as we dive further into a digital age.

One of the things I mentioned to John in the Necropolis was that the form we used had a field for 'townland' to be filled in, which I informed him was not a concept we had in Scotland (in Ireland, by contrast, it's a very important subdivision of a parish). In return, over lunch he mentioned something fascinating about another Irish land division, the 'barony', which I had thought had ceased to be useful in the mid to late 19th century. John described how he had in fact come across instances of Irish regiments not being raised in the First World War across parishes, but in fact across baronies, showing that they were still being utilised in the early 20th century for some practical purposes. All very interesting stuff - in fact, the ability to network and discuss different areas of expertise and experience today was another key aspect of what made it all so enjoyable.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis partnered with Historic Graves on today's venture, and it was also interesting to chat with the organisation's Ruth Johnstone about some of its current work. For the last three years the group has been bringing students over from Poland to help them for a few weeks, and as part of their architecture degrees, for one of their modules requiring community initiatives, and as such we had one of the students with us today. The Friends have been up and running as a charitable venture since 2005 (their impressive website is at, organise tours, and are also involved in fundraising to help restore the Monteath Mausoleum, their current conservation project.

Part 2 of the day's session then was classroom bound - a floor up within the hotel! We were given a presentation summarising some of the approaches we had employed earlier in survey work, but were also talked through various software programmes to help record and manipulate sound (to create audio soundscapes of cemeteries, for example, or to perhaps record interviews about relevant oral history concerning burials), and to host the data generated by the survey itself. Again the concepts of community genealogy and citizen researchers were heavily promoted, and one thing that I was delighted to hear - publish early and fix errors as you go along, This is what I do on my own family history website, because if I don't, I'll be dead before it is pitch perfect for any academic purpose! That's not to say he meant don't worry about errors - he meant get something up online, you can always go back and add to it, and enhance it with additional photos, or better photos, extra context, that sort of thing. But once it's up and online, it's in a position to start working for you, you can always refine it as you go along after. He also discussed strategies for making the online database then direct traffic to other core activities a group may be interested in, such as tours or publications.

Today's event was part of a two day session, with Monday 26th providing a further opportunity to practice the same techniques. I unfortunately won't be able to make this session, but if you wish to do so, visit the project page at for further details. It's definitely something I would encourage genealogists who have not done surveying before to have a go at.

Finally, a huge thanks to John and also to the lady from archaeology charity Archaeology Scotland (, which also partnered in today's venture - sorry, I forgot to get your name, but the lunchtime drinks were appreciated! (UPDATE: it was Kate Phillips - thanks Kate!)


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And FindmyPast - please reinstate the original Scottish census citations on your new site.

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