Interview with Kirsty Haslam (University of Aberdeen)

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

Having moved around a lot as a young child due to my father’s work, my family settled when I was seven in the village in Aberdeenshire that my Mum had grown up in. My adult life so far seems to have followed a similar pattern. After completing an undergraduate degree at St Andrews and an MA at UCL I moved around much of the south of England for work. Returning to Scotland to work towards a PhD at the University of Aberdeen has therefore been a homecoming and, with my research focused on the region, has been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about this fascinating corner of Scotland. 

Tell us more about your project.

Broadly my project examines the social and cultural impact of warfare in the North-east of Scotland, primarily Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, in the late medieval and early modern period. I am particularly focused on examining the extent to which there was an urban martial culture in this period and the extent to which this related to or was derived from a more well-established, if not necessarily unanimously accepted, rural martial culture. For both urban and rural areas I aim to assess the extent to which we see direct engagement with offensive and defensive preparations for warfare (who this involves, the implications for social status within the community, how this changes etc.). I then place this engagement within the context of wider martial practices (weaponry displays, celebrations of a memory of conflict, use and decoration of public spaces) to assess and compare rural and urban martial cultures.

What are you talking about in your paper for the CBCB podcast series?

In my paper, I’ve taken a narrow ‘snapshot’ from my research to focus on the appointment of three training captains in the burgh of Aberdeen in the 1620s. In contrast to an appointment in the fifteenth century it became increasingly clear that, by the seventeenth century, these appointments were made not necessarily based on their rural connections of the individuals in question but on their direct experience of continental warfare. I place this observation within the context of wider discussions about relationships between the urban and rural environment and the desire of Aberdeen’s burgh council to maintain their own authority and autonomy without compromising their security. 

What is your favourite thing about the medieval and early modern periods?

One favourite thing is very hard to pick – my ‘first’ favourite thing as a child was probably the castles, coupled with this being the period in which we really see the rise of portraiture, allowing us to increasingly put faces to names. Now, I love, and am often frustrated by, the detective nature of the research in this period; the satisfaction of, finally, deciphering a particularly challenging page of handwriting; the relatability and the distance of the people, balancing between actions which appear so human and so alien to us today, sometimes simultaneously (and I still love the castles!). 

If you were not in academia, what would you be doing?

Prior to starting my PhD, I worked in heritage and would hope to return to the industry at some point in the future. I really enjoyed the opportunity to engage visitors to heritage sites with the past through the spaces we were occupying; to widen or challenge traditional narratives and to surprise or connect people with those who lived before us. As we come up to winter I also realise I miss the deep conversation cleans in historic houses that happen at this time of year – they are painstakingly thorough and very therapeutic!

Do you have a favourite medieval or early modern text?

Perhaps not traditionally a ‘text’ but a long-standing favourite is the poem painted onto the very early seventeenth century ceiling of the Nine Nobles Room at Crathes Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property in the North-East of Scotland. I worked at the castle after leaving school and was fascinated: that it was expected that you would ‘read’ your surroundings; that it used letters of the alphabet that we don’t anymore; that it ended with a question expecting us to have an opinion (a device I would later find out was borrowed from a fifteenth century Scottish text on the same topic).  The poem itself isn’t necessarily very memorable but the text and the paintings on the ceiling opened avenues I don’t think I’d previously considered and sparked an ongoing appreciation of painted ceilings. 

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