In Roman Scotland (book #126)

Jessie Mothersole, 1927.

This is an account of visits to Roman sites in Scotland. Mothersole writes as if it’s a connected tour, but there’s no actual statement that it was, and I think she probably made separate visits to different places. She seems to have been alone sometimes and other times with unnamed companions.

Mothersole is clearly serious about archaeology, and I would like to know whether she studied it. She writes in detail about the layout of the sites she visits, talks about previous excavations and the accounts of previous visitors. She’s interested in the methods and logic of archaeology. Here’s a drawing by her of a post hole:

Post hole

The book includes her watercolours of the sites, and maps, even ones that fold out – not a cheap publication.

Here’s Eagle Rock, Cramond – the frontispiece. I don’t think her watercolours are very good.

Eagle's Rock, Cramond

There’s a photograph of the site now here.

Fold-out map of the Birrens fort – she notes that it’s after Barbour, who excavated it in the 1890s:

Map, Birrens

Map of Ardoch (she notes that it’s after the 18thc plan by Roy):

Map, Ardoch

Watercolour of Raeburnfoot fort:

Raeburnfoot

Roman road at Burnswork:

Burnswork

She refers particularly to Sir George Macdonald’s work, but also acknowledges Collingwood.

She makes the contemporary inhabitants of the places she visits part of the scene as well as the archaeology. In Musselburgh she’s shown a better view of the Old Bridge by “a young man, who had evidently been through the war,” who invites her into his parents’ house. Although she represents him as speaking without an accent, his parents speak Scots: “’When I hae crossit it wi’ ane of the bairns clingin’ to each o’ me hands, I hae said, ‘Haud tight, or ye’ll be ower the edge’”’. She’s taken to the flat above to draw the bridge: “I was rather taken aback to see a man sitting on the side of the bed hurrying into his clothes. He was apparently on night-work. I apologized for disturbing them, but neither of them seems a bit disconcerted, inviting me to the windows, and begging me to stay”. She gives the man she met first, Donald, “a commission for some snapshots in the neighbourhood, which in due time he discharged faithfully” – she seems surprised.

She’s interested in “whether there was any local interest in such [Roman] things”, asking people for directions and sometimes rather patronising about their lack of interest and knowledge. “And all the time it was just behind him!”

She meets a local man who worked on the excavation of Raeburnfoot fort. He “beamed all over” when she asked him about it. Mothersole is critical of some of his information. He says “’This is whaur what they callit the ‘Pray-torium’ wull ha’ been.’ As a matter of fact the excavator’s report states that nothing was found within the fort that could definitely be assigned to a building”.

Her account of a sleepy summer’s day at Ardoch Roman Fort reminds me of a passage in Charlotte Higgins’s Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain. Here’s Mothersole:

I spent a long summer’s day sketching on this site, and I shall always remember the mounds of Ardoch, not only for their grandeur, but also for their wild flowers, and for the honey-sweet fragrance with which the air was filled. The turf was white with ladies’ bedstraw, purple with heartsease and vetch, blue with bird’s-eye speedwell. … Plovers haunted the spot, circling round, or alighting quite close to me as I lay on the grass, so still that they could not tell I was alive.

I’ll dig up the Higgins quote and add it.

She mentions a tombstone for “a woman from Rætia, with the melodious name of Titullina Pussitta. The first friend to whom I quoted it promptly rechristened her cat”.

Against the cosiness, there are occasional things that make the modern reader think of some of the context of her travels. There’s the condescending references to the people she meets, the odd mention of the war (the woman in Musselburgh had had three sons die in the war), the stately home in Carstairs that is about to become “a Roman Catholic home for defective children”, a quick Google of which shows a history of abuse …

I like the map of Roman Scotland with which her book ends:

Map, Scotland

Here’s an ad from the back for one of her other books:

Ad

Mothersole wrote several other non-fiction books, including one called The Saxon Shore which I have ordered, and one on Czechoslovakia. Brian Philp says that The Saxon Shore “inspired me as a schoolboy to a 50-year programme of excavation and publication on the Reculver and Dover forts which continues yet” (link).

There’s some of her art online: a picture of Mary Jane Ellis of Scilly, 1910, and something called Angelic Inspiration, 1913.

Her first book seems to have been published in 1910, though she illustrated a version of Cupid and Psyche published in 1903. She must have been born by about 1885 (which would have made her 18 in 1903). She contributed some drawings to a book by Margaret Murray about the Egyptian site of Saqqara (published 1905), which suggests she may have worked on that excavation. If so, that probably takes her date of birth back a bit, as it’s not terribly likely a 18 year-old young woman would have joined Murray’s dig. Looking in the census, I think she must have been the Jessie Mothersole born in 1873/74, who in the 1911 census is described as a “Painter (artist)”, aged 37, was living in Middlesex and had been born in Colchester. In the 1901 census the same person aged 27 was “Living on own means,” and in 1891, if it’s the same person, aged 17, she was a “Wholesaler,” which suggests a change in circumstances. Free BMD suggests she may have died in 1958 aged 84. I’ll poke around a bit more when I have more time.

Other books I read this week:

LM Montgomery, The Blue Castle (re-read)
Linda Castillo, Her Last Breath
Nora Roberts, Shadow Spell (re-read)
Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl
Nora Roberts, Whiskey Beach (re-read)
Clive Bloom, Bestsellers (which I will blog)

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