As historians, we weave together stories from the evidence we have; we know that this evidence is only part of what there ever was, and that there are ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’. So we analyse what we have and look for evidence to fill these gaps. Over the summer and autumn months, we invited members of the public to tell us their story, and many did. We have gathered photographs, interviews and written testimonies, which we will be analysing and building on over the next few months. It was a wonderful privilege to be given such personal material and we have a responsibility to work carefully with it.
The value of oral histories, often accompanied by photographs, mementos and personal treasures, is that they allow a person to explain what was and is important to them. Building up this collection will provide us an unprecedented insight into marital and family life in 20th-century Scotland. But it raises questions about the hidden stories, and these are the ones we will also be thinking about in coming months. The hidden stories are the ones which, for many reasons, are not told or we do not know. The past disappears faster than we can catch hold of it, and with it, something of ourselves.
For some years, I have had in my possession a letter – very short, written on a small piece of parchment paper, undated. One of the recognitions from the project, albeit possibly an obvious one, is that – while policy discussion focuses on divorce and ‘broken’ families – the death of a spouse is still the most common reason for the end of a marriage. For the generation who were of marriageable age in both World Wars, death or loss of a suitor may have meant no opportunity to marry at all. The letter is from someone called Raymond to Jen; he writes – I kissed this when I sent it; I hope to kiss it again soon. And then he adds, in capitals – PS. FORGIVE ME.
The letter came into my possession when my great aunt died. The small letter was folded neatly in a small jewellery box, a box which was literally falling apart at the seam. In another small box, there was an RAF tie pin; there were also cufflinks and another tie pin in the shape of a horse shoe. One can only surmise that these belonged to Raymond. I know nothing about Raymond; I know very little about Jen, aside from that she was my grandfather’s cousin, she was never married, and she was spoken about with affection. Generational and geographical distance and a fragmented family mean she was mostly a name and a face known briefly in my childhood. And yet, she knew and cared enough about me to make sure that something of her life came into my hands. And even though her possessions arrived in a supermarket carrier, somewhat crumpled and passed through several hands, there was, well-hidden in there, the letter that she had obviously kept and treasured for many decades until her death. And so it sits in my drawer, meaning at once nothing and everything in the world.
Jen’s story, that of women (and men) who loved and lost, is replicated many times over. It reminds us that it is not only the complete stories which make up the history of marriage, but the fragments too. Not only the whole families, but the ‘broken’ ones, and the ones that were never made. Because these too, speak in some way of love, of loss, and oftentimes, are to be just as much treasured.