Studio portrait of George Bruce circa 1876. Photographer: T Rodger.
Post-graduate student Ailey Hall has meticulously transcribed a mid to late 19th century scrapbook created by George Bruce. Bruce was a Town Councillor, property developer and author who was central to the development of St Andrews, with his achievements including the creation of the Bruce Embankment, the conversion of the Royal George tenements at the harbour and improvements at St Andrews harbour. In this blog post, Ailey summarises this important project that reveals Bruce’s thoughts on 19th century St Andrews.
Over the summer, I had the privilege of transcribing George Bruce’s nineteenth-century scrapbook. According to his own words, George Bruce served the public for thirty-two years, resigning as town councillor of St. Andrews in 1889. Bruce loved the town, collecting newspaper clippings and notes which he annotated faithfully. While the newspaper clippings immortalize St. Andrews’s history, Bruce’s handwritten marginalia offer insight into how he, as a citizen of St. Andrews, responded to those newsworthy events.
The first article I transcribed was a letter to the provost of St. Andrews in 1858, Sir Hugh Lyon Playfair. In this letter, Bruce, along with others, strongly opposed the police act of 1858, an act which centralized police forces and “[consolidated] with the County.” Bruce and his compatriots believed this act would “[infringe] upon their rights.” This letter demonstrates how Bruce and his compatriots cherished their freedoms, and were naturally wary of any entity which threatened them.
Bruce’s primary frustration lies with the town clerks. Indeed, none of Bruce’s references to the town clerk are especially favourable and it seems Bruce and the town clerks feuded for much of his career. Two key issues stoking Bruce’s indignation include the destruction of our beloved Lade Braes walk and the disintegration of public footpaths. For both of these issues (and several others), Bruce blames the town clerk. I am sure many of you are familiar with the Lade Braes walk, but if you are not, this walk came into existence in around 1849 and ran along the Lade Braes, an “artificial watercourse” in existence since the fifteenth century, perhaps even earlier (https://www.ladebraes.net/lade-braes-history/). In 1882, just thirty-three years later, Bruce claims that the Lade Braes walk was destroyed, “like everything else through a faithless Town clerk.” In the following news clipping, it appears that houses and high walls were spoiling the view on the walk, causing the “destruction” of the Lade Braes. Next to another newspaper clipping, Bruce laments, “Public footpaths, like everything else, lost through the Town Clerk.” In this case, one Mr. Murray asserted that the “Sandy path” was not worth restoring, which enflamed Bruce’s ire. From inference, it seems that Bruce’s decision to resign as councillor was hastened by his utter loathing of the town clerks who had “systematically shorn the city of her public lands and rights.” Bruce’s vehemence toward the town clerks demonstrates a deep-seeded resentment toward their actions. Bruce’s allegiance, throughout his annotations, remained loyal to St. Andrews. In his mind, the actions of the town clerks promoted their self-interest rather than that of the town.
Bruce’s scrapbook provides readers with a perspective wholly dedicated to the interests of St. Andrews. In his annotations, readers feel Bruce’s human frustrations, which helps modern-day readers identify the events recorded in the news clippings. Through his words, we witness how he reacted to larger issues, like the police act, and smaller issues—which, I imagine, Bruce felt were equally significant to the larger issues—like the ruined footpaths. It is also fascinating to see how staples of the town, like the Lade Braes walk, stoked debate in the late-nineteenth century. Bruce’s scrapbook, which illustrates the rich history of St. Andrews, is one of many artefacts within the museum’s archives worth transcribing and preserving!