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As in many rural communities, place names in Assynt mean a lot more than merely words on maps.  They indicate what is and was important to everyday life, and very often give a glimpse of how much more the land was used in times gone by.  Alastair Moffat notes in one of his books that the landscape, in the form of place names, doesn't forget, and when we start tapping into this source of history, we can see what he means.  For example, we have many names of Norse origin in Assynt, although no clear physical evidence of Norse settlement has yet been found, and, intriguingly, we have names that are an amalgam of Norse and Gaelic.

Over the years, a number of events and meetings of interest groups have been arranged about place names. We have a retired Ordnance Survey surveyor in the area, who led one event.  And individuals with an interest in place names have compiled lists, especially of place names that appear on no map, but were once commonly used in the area.  Almost every nook and cranny in the landscape has, it seems, been named.  But we have already forgotten most of these names, and therefore their significance.

At a  recent place names of Assynt event arranged by Assynt Leisure and Learning, we noted that it would be good to bring our knowledge together in a common place.  It was possible to prototype such a system quite quickly using the Omeka archiving software, together with appropriate geo-location plugins.

The site is a work-in-progress, and it will be interesting to see how it is likely to be used, who is likely to contribute information, and why.  You can have a browse yourself at http://www.tinslave.co.uk/AAA

 

It was a very welcome invitation from Lucy Conway of the Island of Eigg History Society, Commun Eachdraidh Eige, to visit to assist the group there to develop plans for a community digital archive. Late October weather and ferry crossings do not always make ideal partners, and in this case, the Loch Nevis, the usual ferry was out of operation.  The easiest way from Assynt to Eigg is via Skye, meaning two ferry trips, from Armadale to Mallaig and then on the Small Isles ferry.  In one of those delightful connections that bind small communities, the landlady of the B&B at which I stayed on Skye was the mother-in-law of the skipper of the MV Orion, the dolphin spotting boat brought on as a passenger ferry while the Loch Nevis was being repaired.

Not far from Armadale, just as inter-passenger chatting started up, we ran into a huge school of common dolphin, perhaps well over a hundred in the main group, though just a few at a time came to investigate us.

Dolphinss. Sound of Sleat
Dolphins. Sound of Sleat

From Mallaig, looking back to Knoydart in the morning light was dreamy.

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Once on Eigg, we held long discussion with Camille Dressler and Alex Boden, as well as with Trisha McVarish of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust.  Later, Alex du Toit from the Highland Archive in Fort William joined us.  Bizarrely, Alex, like me, was born in Cape Town, and for two old Capetonians to meet and chat on the island of Eigg 6000+ miles from where we started was surreal.

And on the score of thinking about South Africa, I stayed at Lag Eorna, which, photographed from a particular angle, could easily be mistaken for a farmhouse in the Western Cape mountains.

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An eventful night passed, as around 4.00am, the large Coastguard helicopter landed roughly at the spot form which the above picture was taken, to get someone to hospital following a medical emergency. (All turned out fine.) The helicopter landed in driving wind and rain, apart from the pitch blackness of the night.  It was a reminder of how fortunate we are with our emergency and medical service in the Highlands and Islands.  A subsequent tweet about this drew the response from the coastguard that they come out to attend emergencies at any time of the day or night, and in any weather at all.  Such routine courage from people with lives of service.

The discussions with the History Society and Trust developed the ideas they were formulating.  Here is hoping for a long and fruitful connection with Eigg and it islanders.

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What?  The dolphin picture is the most interesting part of this post?  Righto, here's another one.

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There was a film-maker on board the ferry, going to Eigg for an assignment, to whom I got chatting.  When the dolphins appeared, everyone was furiously photographing the delightful event... - except our film-maker, who was filming people's reaction to the dolphins.  It was an interesting lesson in perspective, and I think perhaps he understood that the significance of these encounters is their almost mystical effect on us, rather than the sight of the animals themselves.

 

Helmsdale
Helmsdale

The True North conference took place at Timespan in Helmsdale on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th March 2015.  The conference title was a good way of reflecting the eclectic nature of the presentations, from technologists through to sound artists, geo-political visionaries to genealogists and many points in between.  I had a five minute slot into which I managed to cram one or two practical issues which are the real experience of running digital archives, especially at a small scale and I hope I managed to convey something of interest based on actual practice.

The event was attended by artists, poets, writers, musicians academics, archaeologists, historians, technologists, architects, sociologists and generalists like me.

Friday morning was bright and clear, and the wonderful Emigrants memorial was asking to be photographed.

"The Emigrants"
"The Emigrants"

And the views from Timespan situated as it is just downstream of the Telford bridge crossing the Helmsdale river are irresistible

Telford Bridge over the Helmsdale river
Telford Bridge over the Helmsdale river

The usual conference-style presentations were interspersed with round-table discussion by sets of presenters, providing plenty of thinking time.  One of the sessions was presented by one of my Cultural Studies lecturers, Matt Sillars of UHI. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Matt's presentation style, of laying out a straight forward fact, then layering several conclusions on that foundation in quick succession,in such a way that the audience feels as though they themselves had reached those conclusions. There were also elective sessions which included some walks, which even in Saturday's drizzle was refreshing.

Medieval Hospital search
Medieval Hospital search

The conference ended with a brilliant exposition of the issues associated with documenting cultural expression, by Ross Sinclair.  Ross managed this by pretty much performing his presentation, making a far better impact than a more conventional presentation.

Ross Sinclair
Ross Sinclair

The event was great for making new acquaintances, some of which I hope will develop further and lead to collaboration.

In case this sounds far removed from Real Life (as Ross Sinclair would put it) there was a direct reminder at the B&B at which I stayed of the reality of history, in this case the Kildonan Gold Rush of the 19th century - the B&B owner pans for gold in the river and has been fairly successful, the gold in the picture on the hand that panned it.

Panned gold
Panned gold

Many thanks to all at Timespan for very good organisation, the volunteers for smilingly keeping everyone fed and watered and to all the unseen folk who made it all happen.  As an old techie, I could not help noticing that the time stamp on one of Saturday morning's presentations was just before 2.00am, meaning they had been working at ensuring all was ready into the small hours. This attentiveness was  a hallmark of an excellent conference.

 

January 2015 saw a major update to the tiny little raspberry Pi single board computer, which I have previously written about here.  The Pi now has four times the number of "cores" on the same chip, and four times the amount of memory of the original, and is roughly six times as powerful.  Yet it is the same astonishing price, just £25.

This puts the Pi well into the frame for establishing a community digital archive running Free and Open Source archiving software, with some caveats.  Certainly, for a community concerned about the practicalities of establishing a digital archive, the initial hardware cost can now be contained to the cost of a pub meal.  What is more, the power required to run a Pi (or several of them) is extremely low, around 2.5w by my tests, which is roughly what an electronic item on standby consumes.  This makes ongoing electricity costs a rounding error rather than a major cost factor.  Finally, the small size of the Pi makes tucking a community archive into a corner of a community building simple.

The biggest two caveats regarding running a community digital archive on a Pi are data security and multimedia processing, and these two issues need to be understood and the issues worked around.

Regarding data security, the biggest issue is that the Pi uses a small SD or micro-SD card, cheap, solid state storage, but with the drawback of the cards having a limited life, occasionally being slow, and with limited capacity.  These issues can be worked around by taking regular backups, holding multiple SD cards on site, in case of failure, and by using a USB-connected conventional disk for the data.  One would never use something like a Pi where absolute and constant data reliability was required, but in an archiving context, processes can be developed to make this issue by no means a show stopper.

While the new Pi is much more powerful than its predecessor, it remains a relatively underpowered device by modern standards.  When used purely in the archiving context, this is of no great concern, but if the "server" is also used to manipulate multimedia files, a process which is usually processor-intensive, one would not be playing to the strength of the Pi.  Having said that, the Pi as a multimedia playback device is quite amazing in its capability, and there is a real case for using them in interpretation and display contexts.

It is also a brilliant platform for prototyping, and for developing transportable archiving.  It is possible to imagine a requirement where on-site archiving capabilities were required.  The Pi makes this very easy.

Does this removal of a barrier interest your archiving requirement?

The Wildflower Europe project has recently produced a e-publication (http://wildflowereurope.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Community-historic-archives.pdf ) based on the research and practical experiences in setting up a community history digital archive in a small rural community in Scotland, and on ethnobotanical pilot work in botanical rich areas of South East Europe. Wildflower Europe's  aims were to share experiences and to promote the feasibility of developing small scale archives at community level. In addition they were investigating the use of archiving as part of multi-disciplinary efforts to celebrate and protect increasingly rare wild plant landscapes as part of the Wildflower Europe Project (www.wildflowereurope.org).

Stevan Lockhart of Tinslave Consultancy was the lead author of the e-publication.  For further information, please contact Stevan.