...And windows and doors, and books and papers, cutlery and crockery, needles and thread, hats and shoes, necklaces and rings, armour and weaponry, pots, pans, hats, gloves, trinkets, coins, stamps, postcards, mirrors, candles and all manner of ordinary objects from daily human life- if any of these very everyday objects could give voice to their existence, what many hundreds of stories might they tell? Of the many hands and lives through which they passed; of the many different adventures, whether upright or underhand; of the letters they wrote, the battles they fought, the scenes they lit and the bodies they adorned. And now, in a time more material than ever before, if our vast treasures of personal odds and ends could speak- what stories might they tell about us?
Certainly, there is a power to be felt in the presence of an object, no matter how seemingly mundane, when we know that it has a story to tell. We encounter coins upon a daily basis, and they are therefore nothing short of ordinary- but what of a coin exchanged in remuneration between an Edinburgh doctor his and murderous accomplices? Between a publisher and a soon-to-be famous author in exchange for their latest novel? Furthermore, objects are not only eternal ‘witnesses’- they frequently have a far more active and even pivotal role in the unravelling stories. What of the sword which sealed the fate of King Charles I so long ago- and changed the course of a nation’s history in its wake?
A great part of my doctorate research focuses upon the power of the object in the telling of stories- stories of time and of place, but most crucially, of people. I focus on one particularly eighteenth-century practice of material culture- the practice of antiquarianism- and through this antiquarian lens I explore the works of nineteenth-century Scottish author Walter Scott. Scott was an avid antiquarian collector himself, boasting in his expansive collection at Abbotsford House the sporran and skene-dhu of Rob Roy; a crucifix carried by Mary Queen of Scots on the day of her execution; an oatcake found in the pocket of a deceased Highland soldier after the battle of Culloden; the door of the Old Tolbooth prison and countless other relics and remains. Scott surrounded himself with these objects, most often objects providing a material testimony of a chapter of Scotland’s past, and through the contemplation of these threshold presences he entered a romantic world of Scotland’s past which he wrote into his many fictions. Indeed, amongst the pages of his poems, novels and scholarly writings are scattered the material relics and remains of Scotland’s past- and very frequently, those objects were artefacts which were in his possession at Abbotsford.
Yet I think that Scott’s enthusiasm for unravelling the stories deeply entwined in the material remains of the past is an instinct alive in each of us- from family stories and personal trinkets, to the great archaeological discoveries that significantly change our knowledge of a time and place- in each case, our desire emerges from a wish to know the story hidden away, which reveals something of the past to the people of the present. And a part of this desire perhaps too comes from the hope that one day, it will be the small and trivial, grand and monumental objects of our lives under a similar scrutiny for story.