Researching Scottish Esoteric Trends in a Pandemic
A reflection on the year the world stopped.
I was very aware that a lockdown was coming. At the start of 2020 I worked part time at a small, but well loved café in the centre of Edinburgh. As news of Covid-19 started to spread across the world, we had noticed that customers were less frequent. By the first week of February, it was becoming a ghost town as the students of Edinburgh University had gone home due to the second set of UCU strikes and there was an impending sense of the danger that the pandemic was edging closer. The tourists became few and far between. We had to reduce the work force and it was becoming very real that I was going to be furloughed. Of course, like many I panicked. There is a mortgage and bills to pay, a husband and three cats to look out for. My mother was recovering from knee surgery and my father from a pituitary apoplexy. Plus, to top things off, my research masters corrections needed to be resubmitted. All the while this very scary, unknown respiratory illness threatened the lives of everyone I knew and loved. However, I am a problem solver. It's what I did in my previous career so I set about dealing with each issue as it came along.
First, I was able to find part time employment in a nearby supermarket, just as the country had gone mad for pasta and toilet paper. We were going to be financially ok. Next was the masters resubmission. I had all the notes I needed. Yes, in those first few weeks of lockdown, I found it impossible to concentrate for longer than a couple of hours at a time. But I got through it. I resubmitted my masters. By this point we had gone from lockdown into the tier system. It was summer and drinking in the garden became the new hottest spot in town. We could travel if we really needed to for education. I really needed to travel. All the library books that I had related to my masters and I now had to focus on my PhD.
The library at the University of Glasgow were operating an online order system. You ordered the books and they would tell you when you could come to pick them up. This was my only time in the university for the rest of 2020. Soon after, the central belt was placed in tier four. It was no longer safe to travel between the two cities. All pubs, restaurants and cafe's were closed to inside customers. For a while you could buy alcohol from pubs at their front doors, but as autumn approached, this was also stopped. Buying take away coffees while taking your daily walk became the only real thing you could do.
All of the conferences that papers were to be written for had been cancelled.
Our annual progress review did not take place. Although there was a no detriment policy. Researchers were supposed to continue. Reading and writing is an integral part of a PhD after all...
Well, this would be fine I thought. I can carry on. I can write my background chapters and get some definitions on paper. There is my literature review that also needs drafting. I felt that I had plenty to be getting on with. I had access to the University of Glasgow library remotely. I have a pretty robust home library and a small budget for buying books that are vital to my research. I felt confident that I would be fine.
Late 15th and early 16th Century Scotland.
I ploughed ahead into my research.
There was always going to be issues with my archival visits. In the end, I was unable to visit any archives at all. Aberdeen, Dundee, even my own Glasgow and home city Edinburgh never happened. Part of my research concentrates on annotations and the book as an object. This would have to be put on hold...… Little did I realise that would be until summer 2021.
Next came my literature review. I became astonished and slightly disillusioned at how many of the key texts on esoteric themes had not be digitised, even key texts on the Scottish witch trials. I turned to amazon market place and Abe books in the hope of finding second-hand copies. Many were either completely unavailable or far too costly for my small book budget. I began compiling lists and lists of secondary source material to check when I could get back into the physical library. From the books I could read online, I was becoming vastly aware that there were important works such as Christina Larner's Enemies of God, I really needed to read. While I do not focus on the witch trials, I need to understand Scotland's relationship with magic in general. The theories and previous research surrounding the witch trials is an important factor in this understanding. I started to find that not only was I struggling to get hold of certain texts, but I was also hitting walls.
In looking for evidence of Esoteric trends in the 15th and 16th centuries in Scotland, it became even more apparent that I was in a labyrinth. One that kept shifting but I had no Hoggle or Ludo to help me (sorry for the Jim Henson reference). I felt like AC-12 looking for H (sorry if you don't get that reference either, but box sets and childhood films were what got me through the evenings, Line of Duty being one of them). The trends that form part of my research are in many ways linked to the Catholic church, or to put it more succinctly, pre-reformation. Many of the practices do span the Catholic/Protestant divide of course. But what struck me most is that many important figures in Scottish ecclesiastical history, especially pre-1560, have very little written about them. Some of these key figures of Scotland's ecclesiastical, legal and educational history were last written about in the late 18th or 19th centuries (which fortunately meant I had access through Archive.org). The material was of course tainted by a certain bias, something that I had to get to grips with quickly). Fascinating to read, but not without serious issue. Once again, to progress any further would require archival visits. I did find some references to articles written in the early 20th century, but these again were not digitised.
I kept going as Christmas approached.
Edinburgh had been in level 4 for what seemed like forever. Christmas plans were restricted and if I am honest, that is when my mental health began to wane.
Lockdown came into effect on boxing day.
By New Year I had set myself several academic tasks and I was still employed by the supermarket. January brought an air of positivity. There was a vaccine on the horizon. Everyone I knew and loved had made it through the first wave. There was an air of optimism.
Graduate teachings seminars began in term two and the conferences that had been postponed from 2020 were all happening online in 2021. Teaching is one of the things I love about being a PhD candidate. My GTA responsibilities have always been on the introduction to religions courses and the variety of students always stimulates interesting debates and conversation. I was excited to be teaching again. To have a connection to the university.
Meanwhile in my research the walls kept going on up.
For the first two months of the new year I struggled. I tried to write definitions but many of the books on the "Renaissance" were in print only. The list of books I had to check grew every day I sat down at my computer. I found a wonderful lead that excited both myself and my supervisor. It was a real breakthrough. But every document or secondary source associated with said breakthrough was stored safely in various libraries around Scotland. Things ground to a halt once again. This time, my mental health was beginning to come apart at the seams.
Teaching proved difficult on zoom. Around half the class would not show up and those that did were increasingly reluctant to put their camera on, debate or discussion slowly dwindled no matter how upbeat I tried to be. Talking to a black wall of student numbers for two hours straight drained me. There began to arise a fear of zoom in me. There was no engagement from me in group chats. Zoom calls and Microsoft teams began giving me anxiety. The virtual world became a hostile. I did not engage.
Writing became a horrendous chore. My drafts were increasingly becoming footnoted with highlighted references still needing to be checked. The footnotes to some pages were a block of highlighter yellow. My anxiety was going through the roof and I cried most days. It started to become apparent that the act of "reading and writing", a staple of doing a PhD, was the one thing causing the most amount of stress. I was not able to "carry out background reading and firm up a literature review" because many of the texts were simply not available. Many days it felt like every pathway was blocked by a huge wall. Try to go the next way, another wall. Simple things that could be checked in the matter of minutes in a physical library are now bullet points in a full 160 leaf A5 notepad. It was then I had to admit defeat.
Being honest with myself I had to take the steps needed to cope with everything that was going on around me. I sought medical attention and was giving a suspension of studies while I came to terms with the past year and the toll it took on me mentally. Anti-depressants now stabilise my moods and prevent me from having a panic attack when connecting to zoom. In a very unusual turn of events I began to say no to things I knew were not good for me. Online conferences were upsetting for me. I withdrew from two. I began to realise how I learn. Human interaction and discussion are fundamental to my happiness. Online Q&A's were stressing me out. It was the social interactions during coffee breaks and in post conference drinks I thrived. I now know this. Taking this time, and stepping back from my studies I have been lucky enough to reflect on this experience.
The period of Scottish history I am researching is notoriously difficult. I accept that and understood the issues when deciding on my PhD thesis topic. Add to this the issue that studies in esotericism or esoteric trends in the periods I am researching are practically non-existent. My entire project relies on archives and visits to archives. This has in turn led to some twists and turns, some more drastic than other as to which way my research can go if I have the hope of submitting in time. While these are still exciting avenues, the adjustment and change in focus also played a huge contribution in the decline of my mental health. My background is in theology and religious studies. I now find myself speedily getting to grips with 15th century Scottish literature (although the reading of Scots has been a joy, reading aloud is a must as it really helps understand the leid). It has not all been bad though.
Trying to research through this extraordinary time has made me far more determined to promote Scotland's voice. Not only in the field of "Western Esotericism" as it is currently known, but also Scottish history in general. Every wall that has gone up has been noted in my A5 notebook. Past names, Past histories and Past lives that deserve to be explored. By the end of the first decade of the 16th century, Scotland had three established Universities. Each surprisingly nuanced and unique in its approach to learning. Those that led the universities of St. Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen all have strong links to the continent of Europe. Scotland was an independent country in those days and their story on the European stage is far from been told. The variations of the intellectual history of Scots thinkers needs to be explored. We did manage to get around, even in those days!! My experience has highlighted the need for digitalisation of texts and journals. It has highlighted the need for interdisciplinary discussions of the 15th and 16th centuries in Scotland. Can research clusters help break down some of the walls that history has built?
These reflections led to the creation of this site in the hope that fellow researchers of all things esoteric and Scots can begin building a more comprehensive picture of the role Scotland and Scottish nationals have played on the international stage of intellectual history. If even one wall was to be torn down so that future researchers can knock down even more walls then all this will be worth it in the end.
Thank you for reading. It has been a cathartic exercise to write as many of these frustrations have been kept close to my chest.