I’m writing this, again, the old-fashioned way. It’s Monday, early in the afternoon, and my girlfriend and I have left Edinburgh and are riding the 12:19 out of Glasgow Queen Street bound for Mallaig, where a ferry will sail us across to Skye for the next three months.
This particular train ride is noted for the stunning landscapes through which it passes, the most famous being the Glenfinnan Viaduct. If you’ve ever watched any of the Harry Potter films, you’ll no doubt recognize it as the impressive concrete bridge traversed by the Hogwarts Express. It’s also a lengthy trip at nearly six hours, and I have quite a bit of time on my hands to think. Think about what I’m writing; about the people sitting around me; about how I should have grabbed that last Tennant’s off the trolley; and about using the one functioning toilet on this train before it divides at Crianlarich and we in the rear coach become loo-less, according to the rumour floating about.
But mainly, I’m thinking about journeys.
Life is a journey – that’s what people say. But I think it’s more a series of journeys, like chapters in a book. Of course, I don’t claim – nor have I ever claimed – to be a philosopher of any rank. That’s just the way I’ve always seen it. When I sat down to think of ways to keep this blog operational while abroad, it occurred to me that I’ve never been very forthcoming with you about the journey that’s taken me to where I am today as a freelance historian. It’s been a surprisingly long one, and began in earnest ten years ago this coming June when I was naught but a fresh-faced (read: pimple-plagued), braces-sporting, bespectacled 16-year-old wallflower coming out of my first year of high school. So many memories…
By the time I turned sixteen, it was no great secret in my family that I harboured a real love for all things Island history. Everyone knew it, and my grandmother was certainly no exception (she actually follows this blog, and I know she’ll be reading this at some point, so hiya, Nanny!). One winter’s evening (Friday, I believe), quite out of the blue, she phoned with a bit of news, news that would become the best gift she could have ever given me (other than, technically, life itself, and a hand-knit Snoopy sweater when I was five). What she had to say changed my world forever: in a distant land far, far away (the West Royalty Industrial Park off of Upton Road) was a large warehouse in which were contained the artefacts collected by the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation and that, if I was interested, I should look into seeking employment there.
A warehouse full of historically significant Island artefacts? In Charlottetown? How had I not heard of this before? My mind raced with the possibilities. I had to work there – absolutely, positively, unequivocally. Some way. Somehow. Long story short? I did.
A couple of phone calls and a few months later, I was granted an audience with Registrar and Collections Technician Jason MacNeil. I must admit I felt a bit like Harry Potter on his first day at Hogwarts when I first stepped foot inside the Artifactory (a proper noun cleverly coined by its staff many years ago, and not an actual museological term). It was incredibly intimidating, but at the same time too good to possibly be true. While there were no floating staircases or headless ghosts (not that I could see, anyway), there was an awe-inspiring abundance of artefacts, no matter which way you turned. They were everywhere, and I was surely in Heaven.
The tour qualified as a job interview of sorts, and I suppose I passed muster because it wasn’t long after that I heard back from the Museum and Heritage Foundation. They didn’t have the funds at hand to pay me, but how would I like to volunteer a few days a weeks and gain some valuable, hands-on experience?
Seriously?! Just show me where to sign!
My first official day was June 26, 2006. I remember it well, because it poured rain on the drive from Stratford to West Royalty; I missed a turn and ended up halfway down the North River Causeway before realizing my mistake; and because I ended up being poorly dressed for one of the tasks that had been set for me (I had opted for a nice pair of jeans in a bid to make a good impression, despite the fact that it was incredibly hot and humid).
I really had no idea what to expect, but in hindsight I suppose my age and rudimentary, neophyte skills shouldn’t have marked me for anything too glamorous or exotic. And my first task? Anything but. There were about twenty boxes of Ed MacDonald’s history of Saint Dunstan’s University tucked away in a stuffy loft that needed to be inventoried, a task that had my name written all over it. Ever the keener, I dove into it with gusto, and over the next two hours nearly succumbed to heatstroke and dehydration, sweating out at least a few pounds in the process. I think Jason could see I was suffering something fierce, but I wasn’t about to throw in the towel. Not an option.
I soldiered on and completed the inventory, although at some point I must have miscounted because I ended up with an odd number when it should have been even. Pleased with my accomplishment nonetheless (and frankly too tired to care), my dedication was rewarded with an unexpected offering: How would I like to try my hand at handling an actual artefact and carrying out some basic conservation measures?
I was led through the doors into back storage, where awaited a Victorian fainting couch that was in need of a light vacuuming and polishing. For the next two hours or so, I lovingly cleaned out every crevice and polished every applicable surface more than once. It would later end up being taken to the historic Yeo House at Green Park, and the last I saw it, it was positioned under the ground floor staircase. Keep an eye out for it if you’re ever there.
I went on to volunteer three days a week for the rest of that summer, and then off and on over the winter when my schedule permitted. The following summer (2007), they still hadn’t managed to get rid of me, and applied for government funding to hire me full time and pay me for my services. It’s a pattern that would continue until 2012. During that time, the Artifactory became my playground (strictly in a professional sense, mind you), and I went on many adventures, some of which I’ll share with you in posts to come.
But for now, I have a ferry to catch!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – I neglected to use the toilet, but as it turns out, the rumour was unfounded.
P.P.S. – Apologies – no images on hand for this week.