The roadman in Lochaber was one of the first. It was the dead of winter. The highways he normally cared for in the shadow of Ben Nevis were smothered under deep snow.
Calum MacLean, then a 35-year-old ethnographer from the University’s newly formed School of Scottish Studies, turned on his microphone and leaned towards the gentleman.
From the roadman’s mouth – or more accurately, from the area’s collective memory – came some 524 Gaelic tales.
These stories are now part of the extensive collection of oral tradition that Maclean, his contemporaries such as Hamish Henderson and subsequent staff at the School have gathered in the years since. It was an effort that birthed the School of Scottish Studies Archives.
Now, 70 years after that encounter in the Highlands, students, staff and friends from across the world are to join in celebrations to mark this exceptional University resource.
The programme will bring to life this unique cultural treasure trove, which includes sound recordings, photographs, film and rare historic documents.
The Archive is, says its Curator Cathlin MacAulay, a place “where artistry and everyday life come together”.
“The archives capture the voices of ‘ordinary’ people describing their day-to-day existence –work, family, food, housing, transport, agriculture, weather lore,” she says. “We have the songs, stories and tunes that were passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition, the gems that brighten the hours of darkness and the long day’s work.
“The immediacy of the spoken word and the evocative images in the photographic collections make for a moving and intimate connection to the past. The Archives are a place to find out more about our cultures, communities, histories and artistic practices, to reflect on and appreciate the very rich diversity of life.”
Length and breadth
The School of Scottish Studies was established in 1951 to collect material that reflected elements of Scottish life which many feared were about to be lost in a fast-changing world. They include material recorded in dialects no longer spoken.
Researchers and students undertook a concerted campaign of fieldwork from the early 1950s onwards, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland.
Their voyage of discovery took them to farming and fishing communities, towns and cities. They listened to people’s stories, asked searching questions and unearthed hidden cultural gems.
The range of work is astonishing. Field workers collected songs, music, tales and poems, and recorded place names, folklore, customs and everyday scenes that would soon vanish. With each passing year, their achievement seems more and more valuable.
For Scottish Ethnology Lecturer Lori Watson, who is also an acclaimed fiddle player and traditional singer, there is something very special about this resource – particularly the sound archive.
“Once you get those headphones on and disappear into the lives and experiences of other people as they share parts of themselves, their families, communities, their work, beliefs, hopes and sorrows: it is infinitely relatable and captivating.
“As a musician there is so much to learn from and be creatively inspired by and as a fieldworker there is much to wonder at and empathise with! I am particularly motivated by the opening of the archives to the public and the engagement of artists of all kinds with the archive holdings.
“For students and experts of the traditional arts, the School of Scottish Studies’ recordings, images and curated library are essential in refining and absorbing essential stylistic aspects of music and song in Scotland for interpretation and for performance.
“As part of the celebrations this year, I’ll be drawing together and highlighting music works created in response to the sound archive and facilitating some new ones too!”
Events celebrating the 70th anniversary will include talks and panel sessions that showcase prized audio and visual archives and will include people involved in their creation, or re-use.
Also lined up is a contemporary Gaelic film screening and an immersive Google Arts & Culture story – an online platform of high-resolution images and video that celebrates the archives.
Events will provide fresh perspectives on this vital resource – and its vast array of recordings of songs, music, stories, poems, folklore and oral history in Scots, Gaelic and English.
Edinburgh’s Head of Celtic and Scottish Studies, Neil Martin, says the archives are a precious storehouse of Scotland’s cultural history.
“The archives are chiefly in the form of sound recordings, yet they are mute, silent, until we engage with them. What moves me most is that we enter into a kind of communion with the voices of those who lived before us, perhaps long before us. There is an intimacy to it. We hear their songs, their stories, their experiences of love and war and work, of the simple business of living.
“These are vivid glimpses of lives lived, lives which, like most, would never have made it into print. To use the Archives is to engage in a kind of time travel; a journey to a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.”
Complementing this treasury of more than 30,000 recordings is an extensive archive of photographs, as well as film and manuscripts. Alongside these collections, a much-loved library has developed supporting both their research and the teaching programme.
A living archive
The methodology behind the archives was inspired by Scandinavian and Irish approaches to ethnology. These sought to explore the cultural heritage of a nation through the collection and analysis of traditional forms such as tales and music, as well as through oral history.
Over the years, the archives have attracted interest worldwide, particularly from the US and Canada, and inspired new creative ventures in many other countries.
This year’s celebrations will culminate with a symposium that brings together researchers and supporters to consider how aspects of Scottish life might be documented in the future and the place archives have in facilitating a broader understanding of our cultural history.
The University’s Head of Special Collections, Daryl Green, describes the Archives as a resource that not only captures the diminishing voices of rural communities and dialects, but also the rigorous effort and industrious individuals – like Calum MacLean – who began and still conduct the documentary fieldwork necessary to preserve these stories.
What was recorded, he adds, has an effect far beyond the singular moments when a camera clicks in a Dalkeith’s blacksmiths or a tape starts recording in Lochaber.
“The voices, the images, the songs found within the Archives have inspired deep academic exploration of the Scottish identity. They have inspired contemporary artists, musicians and film-makers to engage with a shared cultural history. They have helped inform those who study the languages and dialects found across Scotland, and to ensure they have a permanent site of record and continued engagement.”