Beware the Babbet Bapper!

The what, I hear you say?  Read on, and you will find out – all will be revealed by the end.

Anyone who has researched their family tree, or indeed carried out research using old documents of any sort, will have come across the problem of difficult (or impossible) to read handwriting.  Often the age of the document and the fact that not only is the style of writing very different from what we’re used to, but the language and punctuation (or lack of it) make it hard to understand.  Sometimes it’s the idiosyncratic writing style of the author that is the problem when there is nothing for it but to try to work your way through it.  But, as anyone who has spent any time transcribing documents (i.e. producing a word-for-word, usually typewritten, copy) knows, if you’re not careful, incorrect assumptions can be made about a word or phrase that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems.   That’s why researchers must at times be patient with transcriptions.  Particularly those that have been carried out by people not properly skilled in the art of palaeography (the study of historical handwriting).  What’s important when mistakes have happened is that there is a way of correcting and/or identifying errors to the transcriber.

But when is it likely that someone would be using transcriptions?  Most commonly nowadays, they are found online, when a copy (digital or otherwise) or the original of a document is not available.  For many reasons – condition or location or cost of viewing the originals – these transcriptions may be the only way we can access the information some documents provide, and as such they can be invaluable.

For me, I find myself most often using transcriptions when I am looking for Scottish records, but not using Scotlandspeople (which is the only place you can go to see copies of original Scottish records).  If the transcriptions have been carried out by people who are unfamiliar with Scottish names, occupations, places etc then occasionally some strange things appear.

Such as “Babbet Bapper”.

This was recorded by a transcriber as the occupation of a man living in a very small village in the west of Scotland in the 1871 Census.  It’s probably a record that very few, if any, people would look at – but I did.  I found it on one of the paid-for genealogy web sites (I won’t mention which one, that would not be fair) while carrying out some quick research on the people of that particular village.  By going back to the original scan of the record on Scotlandspeople I found that he was in fact a “Rabbit Trapper” – so now you know.

If you’d like to know more about reading old hand-writing there are various places you can go – web sites such as www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/reading-old-documents or www.scottishhandwriting.com; courses such as at www.futurelearn.com/courses/ems-palaeography; or books).  I’m not in a position to recommend any in particular; instead I suggest you try a selection to see which works best for you.