Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Travel and Immigration: Insights from the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

I have been writing about some of the themes that arise out of a series of letters from the latter half of the nineteenth century that travelled across the Atlantic between Scotland, Canada, and the United States. You can read my introduction to the letters here and my first thematic post on life and death in the letters here.

I’m following the story of some of my Scottish ancestors, and today the story brings us to a discussion of travel and immigration as shown in the letters.

Travel and Immigration in the Gilchrist Shearer Letters

The central figures in today’s letters are James Shearer Sr. and James Shearer, Jr. Continue reading

Disease and Death in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

Disease and Death in the Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

I am working my way through a series of letters sent between my Scottish ancestors and their families and friends in Scotland, Canada, and the USA. You can find my introduction to the letters here. Their authors have included some fascinating morsels of information about everyday life, and the nature of their letters also tells us about channels of communication that were maintained by Scots, regardless of where they travelled.

One thing that is immediately noticeable across these letters is that the authors were focussed on the putting the most important news first: that of their health and the health and wellbeing of family members and close friends. Unfortunately, this means that a number of the letters begin with news of recent (and not so recent) deaths. Continue reading

Scots in Canada: The Gilchrist-Shearer Letters

The Scottish people have a long history of migration and as a result many Canadians have Scottish roots.

I think there’s a tendency to lump all 18th and 19th century immigrants to Canada and the United States together and think of them as poor, desperate, unskilled workers, in some cases the victims of industrialisation, crop failure, land clearances, etc., and who by leaving for a new country would be abandoning everything and everyone they once knew, never to be heard from again. Continue reading

Postcard from Glenashdale Falls, Isle of Arran

Postcard from Glenashdale Falls, Isle of Arran

Glenashdale Falls, Isle of Arran — Photo by P. Dumas


The Isle of Arran holds countless points of beauty and of historic (and prehistoric) significance. Only two hours from Glasgow (approx. 1 hour by train plus 1 hour by ferry) off the West Coast of Scotland, Arran’s most noticeably spectacular feature may be Goatfell, it’s highest point, Continue reading

More Maps: John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine


Photo Credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Back with more historic maps which may be useful for generating class discussion on how such sources illustrate perceptions and views of the British and Irish in the wider world.

Today we’re highlighting the first atlas to cover the British Isles as a whole, as well as the first work to make comprehensive plans of many English and Welsh towns available in print. English historian and geographer John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was published in 1611/1612, with a print run of approximately 500 copies. Each of the English and Welsh counties and the four provinces of Ireland was separately depicted, along with a larger view of Scotland.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Speed used previously compiled sources to inform his Theatre, but he made the maps and other elements himself.  The maps are rich with details of local history, fashions, and features, all of which would be useful in the classroom to provide a view of life in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

With the publication of the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, Speed was well on his way to becoming the best-known mapmaker of his era.


Photo credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Cambridge University Library has a remarkable digital resource utilizing one of their five proof copies of Speed’s atlas.  It can be found here.

Additional Sources:

Annie Taylor, “A Theatre of Treasures,” Cambridge University Special Collections.

Ashley Baynton-Williams, John Speed Biography Part I, Part II, and Part III.

“Mapping the Origins of a Masterpiece,” University of Cambridge.

Up Helly Aa Round-Up


Up Helly Aa procession, 2010 – photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Up Helly Aa, the festival celebrating Shetland’s history and Norse roots, culminated in Lerwick earlier this week with a procession, lit by 1000 torches, and burning of a galley boat.  Other local festivities will be held throughout Shetland until March.

First records date the winter festival to 1824 when a visiting minister wrote: ‘The whole town was in an uproar: from twelve o’clock last night until late this night blowing of horns, beating of drums, tinkling of old tin kettles, firing of guns, shouting, bawling, fiddling, fifeing, drinking, fighting.’

– Up Helly Aa Committee

The modern form of Up Helly Aa, with the galley burning, dates to about 130 years ago.

Description of the Events and Listing of Festivities and Recap of Lerwick’s procession

History of Up Helly Aa

Official Website

Shetland Library, Very Brief History of Up Helly Aa

Alison Campsie, “Hundreds of ‘Vikings’ gather for Up Helly Aa in Shetland,” The Scotsman

BBC News article on Up Helly Aa and Video of this year’s procession in Lerwick

Pictures from this year’s festivities (and here)

The holiday season in Edinburgh


Edinburgh – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Thank you so much for reading Isles Abroad throughout 2016! We’ll be back in the new year with more British and Irish history, but for now, enjoy some pictures of my favorite city during the holiday season.


Edinburgh – photo credit: L. Flewelling


North Bridge at Hogmanay – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Postcard from Glenfinnan


Glenfinnan Viaduct – photo credit: L. Flewelling

This is such a lovely valley, with the enormous viaduct stretching its length.  The viaduct was completed in 1898.  It was made especially famous in the Harry Potter movies, of course, but it also featured a film that played a major role in shaping my love of otters and suspicion of people named Angus: Ring of Bright Water. (“I thought it was just an otter!”  Talk about scarring for a small child.)


Glenfinnan Viaduct – Photo Credit: L. Flewelling

Glenfinnan was also the site of the Jacobite Rising’s beginnings in 1745, and the valley features a picturesque monument to the ’45, built in 1815.  The Glenfinnan Monument is a property of the National Trust for Scotland.


’45 Monument – Photo Credit: L. Flewelling

Postcard from Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh


The Salisbury Crags – photo credit: L. Flewelling

This is quite simply one of the best places in the world (and my favorite spot in Edinburgh).


Arthur’s Seat from the top of Salisbury Crags – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Arthur’s Seat on a snowy day – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Postcard from Arrochar, Scotland

Postcard from Arrochar, Scotland


The village of Arrochar can be found at the top of Loch Long, about an hour northwest of Glasgow. There are walkways and picnic areas along the edge of the water. Arrochar is a lovely little place to stop for a break before taking on the forest paths and hillwalking nearby. Note that Loch Long reaches out to the sea. These photos were taken at low tide.



Arrochar and Loch Long — Photo credits: Paula Dumas