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Scotch Thistle Research: about me, Sonia Baker

Like historians everywhere, many historians of Scotland begin with a single strand of a story and find themselves drawn into an unexpectedly fascinating tapestry.

History is often intriguing but Scottish History seems to stimulate researchers to engage with its protagonists to a greater degree than do many other histories.

Since attaining my first-class Honours degree in Scottish History from Edinburgh University in 1999, I have undertaken a wide range of research projects from my base in Dunbar, East Lothian.

 Islay Burns Murray & Martha Fleming Murray, Scotland Historical research with Scotch Thistle Research. Charles Baker, England, Historical research with Scotch Thistle Research. Plant nursery, Uppertay, Carlisle, William Little, Scotland. Historical research with Scotch Thistle Research. The Little family, Scotland. Historical research with Scotch Thistle Research.
Portraits remained a prerogative of the wealthy but, during the nineteenth-century, photography became increasingly popular amongst the middling sorts. Photographs of farm servants, like my English ancestor Charles Baker (1837-1917), were less common: perhaps ‘The Peopleís Photographer,’ T. White of Lewisham, had spotted Charles at work near Ewhurst, East Sussex.

‘East Lothian's Millennium Project was described by judges as a monumental work of scholarship.’

How my passion began

An innocent undergraduate investigation into the landscape at Paxton House, in the Borders, launched my own engagement with Scottish History 17 years ago. This ostensibly unremarkable research was soon surpassed by the serendipitous discovery that an eighteenth-century owner of Paxton was the Governor of Grenada who had been murdered there during the Fédon Rebellion — a slave-uprising — in 1795.

At a stroke, my modest Scottish research revealed hitherto unknown strands of the complex weave which was the British Empire. My subsequent tracking of those strands revealed that this man had owned slaves in the West Indies, and that his brother worked as a Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh alongside a certain Walter Scott. My fascination with these and other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scots culminated in the award of a PhD in 2015. I welcome you all to the entrancing world of Scottish History!

Awards

From the University of Edinburgh
1998, The Fraser Mackintosh Prize for Mull in the later 19th Century: Population Change, Landlord Coercion and the Decline of Traditional Land Use.
1999, a share of The Dobson Morpeth Prize for Paradox in Grenada; a Study of Slave-Owning Scots of the Enlightened Age.

2010, East Lothian Council, as the publisher of The Fourth Statistical Account 1945-2000, Volumes 1-7, was awarded an Alan Ball Local History Award. The judges described the Account as ‘a monumental work of scholarship.’

The East Lothian project

Preceding my PhD studies, my most extensive project, which took 4 years to complete, was a Millennium Project: The Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian, 1945-2000. For this I was both editor and researcher, collating material from more than 500 voluntary contributors and producing seven volumes (see shortened version) . I designed a 94-page ‘Prompt Sheet’ to guide the volunteers in writing their contributions. The material thus produced was usable, as submitted, with minimum input or amendment, and the resultant text resonates with the individual voices of East Lothian's own people.

Stephen Bunyan, C.B.E., Chairman of the East Lothian Fourth Statistical Account Society, acknowledged “...our editor, Sonia Baker, ... has been indefatigable, and [her] perseverance has kept the show on the road."

Other research

I have identified and tracked a number of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scottish men who migrated to the West Indies, their illegitimate offspring and the women with whom they had these children.

Little was known of the layout of William Morison's home at Prestongrange House in East Lothian but, from Morison's 1741 will, we learn of the rooms in the house and what they contained in the way of furnishings. In the ‘second room off the staircase’ was ‘a bed hung with blew stuff...’, and Morison was probably proud of ‘a fine Japanese cabinet’ listed as being in the main room of the house. (NRS, CC8/8/104, folio 267, 30 July 1741).

This information was located when I researched and wrote the booklet R1 Prestongrange House; see the full transcript of Morison's will on pp. 22-4 of the booklet. I wrote a second booklet, R20 Poverty, Self-help and an Emerging Social Life in Prestonpans, and a third, Threads of the Past. All three were published, with the others in the series, in Prestonpans - A Social and Economic History across 1000 Years (Prestonpans, 2006), for The Baron Courts of Prestoungrange & Dolphinstoun.

In The Country Houses, Castles, and Mansions of East Lothian, S. Baker (Stenlake, 2009), p. 80, I investigated the history of the Victorian Thurston House at Innerwick. Reconstructed by John Kinross during the 1890s, Thurston was to survive barely half a century before being demolished in 1952. A schedule drawn up for its potential sale in 1948 suggests that it had been a rather grand property, with ‘morning, drawing, dining, smoking and billiard rooms’, as well as a ‘library of 21 x 18 feet’. Built of ‘red sandstone’, Thurston was described as having ‘fine proportions’. (See sale schedule, ref. Ay 02ē5, the John Gray Centre, Haddington.)

In the Statistical Account, I was responsible for, amongst other things, a more mundane topic of research, namely an analysis of the development of the A1 road in East Lothian, between 1945 and 2000.

I am also an horticulturist and, for Peter McGowan Associates on behalf of Edinburgh City Councilís Gardens & Designed Landscapes Survey (2006-7), I provided the research on 50 properties for the site reports.

I provided research for The Centre for Scottish Urban History, University of Edinburgh, for Historic Scotlandís Burgh SurveysHistoric Barrhead: Archaeology and Development (2006).

I located illustrations, and researched and compiled the text of the exhibition Farming in Dunbar & District (2005-6), for East Lothian Council Museums Service.

I acted as consultant and contributor to the Readerís Digest Association publication, J. Andrews (Ed.), The Story of Where You Live: Trace the Roots of Your Locality, its People and its Landscape (London, 2005).

Trust Scotch Thistle Research for your detailed historical research.

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