Treasure in focus
The Pocket Diaries of Mrs Patrick Playfair of Dalmarnock
Since March, there has been a project under way - largely funded by a generous grant from Piers Playfair in New York - to create a detailed catalogue of the Playfair papers held in Special Collections. The collection consists of fascinating diaries, albums and letter books of three generations of the family of the Rev James Playfair DD (1778-1813), principal of the United College from 1800 until 1813. The Playfairs had careers in medicine, the army, the consular service in India, China, Aden, Zanzibar and Algiers at a time of British colonial expansion and active involvement in suppressing slavery. The home base in St Andrews remained a constant for this far-flung family, with young children being sent home to relatives to be raised and educated here, virtually all the family retiring here and a constant flow of letters about events in St Andrews being sent to homesick relatives in foreign parts.
Jean Playfair (1777-1852), the second of the five daughters of Principal Playfair, eloped in 1802 with her cousin Patrick Playfair, a Glasgow merchant with trading interests in the West Indies. The couple purchased the small estate of Dalmarnock on the outskirts of the city and there raised a family of 5 daughters and 5 sons. Each year, Mrs Playfair kept a pocket diary in which she recorded the daily doings of her busy family and social life and commented intelligently - and often trenchantly - on local and national affairs. Thirty nine of these diaries, from 1807 to 1852, survive in the Playfair Collection (PLFR/2).
In form, they are small, leather-covered pocket books with their opening and end pages full of advice on fashion, conversational faults, Christian virtue and the latest dances, together with the times of hackney coaches, enchantingly illustrated with engravings which are sometimes hand tinted. The contents make fascinating reading, by turns touching and amusing, always lively, fresh, informative and dazzlingly immediate.
The Napoleonic wars are reported on as events unfold with the celebrations in Glasgow at the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 where "almost every window & chimney top had handkerchiefs, bedcovers, ribbons innumerable flying about", public dismay at Napoleon's return in 1815 "the whole of Europe are in consternation" and the stir when he was at Plymouth on the Bellerophone with "thousands going in boats to see him daily before he is sent to St Helena to his meditations". Military campaigns in India, the failures of banks and businesses, the coming of railways, the invention of ether, floods, wrecks and collisions at sea, royal visits - all are grist to her mill. By no means a radical, she comments in horror at the move for social reform and the extension of the franchise, "the most foolish thing ever was known. French principles too prevalent in many ranks", at Catholic emancipation, at unrest in Ireland and at the Disruption in the Church of Scotland. Her daily recording of the terror caused by the dreadful 1832 cholera epidemic makes a particularly grim and powerful impression.
Her own domestic life is vividly evoked. On one occasion she makes 48 lbs of "red jelly, black jelly, white jelly, common mixed jelly, black jam, raspberry and strawberry mixed jam, red gooseberry cheese, gooseberry jam, gooseberry jelly, white gooseberry cheese and raspberry vinegar". She describes meals she attends or serves up to the huge parties always at her table, medical treatments (for a headache: "had 11 leeches on my forehead at night & mustard blister on cheek yet no relief") and journeys and holidays she and her family and servants make, especially back and forth to her relations in St Andrews. This latter trip could involve going by canal boat from Glasgow to Grangemouth, steam boat thence to North Queensferry and on by chaise to Kirkcaldy where the party stayed the night before a chaise took them on to St Andrews at 2pm next day. She is laconic about the births of her children, remarking stoically of the ninth "The day was fine & having the window open it was much more cheerful than on former occasions" but the pride she takes in their achievements, her keen interest in their schooling and the many parties and balls they attend show hers to have been a warm and happy family home.
These diaries are available to read in the Special Collections department, along with the rest of the Playfair collection - to which significant additions have been made during the year by kind donations from Hugh Playfair.