We are often asked what an archivist is. There are lots of right answers but I like to think of myself as a keeper of people’s stories. A collection at East Lothian that demonstrates this to a ‘T’ is the Wallace Menzies collection. Wallace Menzies is a firm of solicitors based in North Berwick and the collection is one of personal legal papers relating to work they undertook.
The story of the firm itself is an interesting one and is closely tied with North Berwick. It started out as Lyle and Wallace. Both Robert Lyle and Andrew Wallace were Town Clerks of North Berwick as well as solicitors and indeed for sometime the solicitors office and the town clerk’s office were one and the same place. When Lyle passed away Wallace asked his nephew John W Menzies to become his partner therby given the firm its modern name. Wallace was a popular character in the town and a plaque was erected as a memorial to him on top of North Berwick Law (pictured)
The collection runs to some 70 boxes and includes the stores of hundreds of people. In the collection we have the papers of Mrs Scott Elliott, a very wealthy local lady who owned a considerable chunk of Easter Road in Edinburgh. She set up a trust and left large amounts of money, furs and jewels to her family.
There are also the records of Helen Whitelaw a local lady who left a considerable donation to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on her death. You can hold this ladys life in your hands as we have her birth, marriage and death certificates and her wedding and engagement rings.
The collection also includes a fair amount of scandal – a divorce case from the 1890s involving nasty diseases, adultery and alcoholism that probably would be too far fetched for Eastenders is just an example.
Some of the papers include an inventory of people’s possessions, bank books, certificates, insurance and pension documents – papers that give a great insight into these people’s lives.