In December 2014 I visited the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, to consult the archive of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society. The collection is rich and extensive, containing draft and fair minute books of committee meetings, manuscript copies of papers delivered, original and copy correspondence to and from the society and its members. My primary task in visiting the archive was to trace the involvement of one member – John Clennell – who was also a key figure in the Literary and Philosophical Societies of Newcastle and Hackney. The invaluable starting point for this search was David Allan’s 2003 article, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment and the Politics of Provincial Culture’ (Eighteenth-Century Life, 27 , 1-31). Allan’s emphasis is understandably on the relationship of the Perth Society to others in Scotland, particularly through the common patronage (or antagonism) of the Earl of Buchan, but he also makes tantilising reference to the Society’s cross-border exchange with Newcastle, noting that Clennell ‘eulogize[d] the commitment of his friends in Perth to Buchan’s vision’ (17).
A list of donations received by the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society revealed the extent to which this Society was engaged in friendly commerce with others well beyond regional and national borders. Gifts of their transactions were made by the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland and of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Plinian Society (Edinburgh), and the Royal Northern Society of Antiquaries at Copenhagen. Also in the archive is a certificate of election to the Philosophical Society of America for the Earl of Buchan himself, whose ‘Scheme of Communication between the Learned Societies in Europe’ was also presented to the Society. The minutes of meetings contained yet more evidence of this commerce, and significant overlap in membership between societies: shortly following Clennell’s election as a corresponding member in 1805, the President, Vice-President and Secretary of the Newcastle Society were also elected honorary members. There is a striking sense of common endeavour, and above all, reciprocity, that appears from the exchanges (of transactions, letters, formal thanks, physical visits) between societies that clearly regarded themselves as distinctive, yet identified themselves as part of a coherent international project. Precisely how did this interaction shape, and how was it shaped by, the particular aims of the respective societies?
As well as revealing connections between societies, the miscellaneous correspondence of the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society illuminates the local, personal relationships that underpinned interactions within that Society. This overlap is perhaps best illustrated by an invitation (pictured below) to the funeral of James Marshall sent by his son William to fellow Society member and Secretary John McOrmie. The postscript on the front page is a request from Marshall to McOrmie for the address of a corresponding member (the reverse of the invitation has been used by McOrmie to draft a letter of thanks to a donor, in an excellent early nineteenth-century example of recycling).