The School of Scottish Studies was established in 1951 at the University of Edinburgh to collect, archive, research and publish material relating to the cultural life, folklore and traditional arts of Scotland. Over the past sixty years, fieldworkers at the School have made thousands of recordings of songs, instrumental music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs, place-names biographical information and local history. Material in the Sound Archive comes from all over Scotland and its diaspora. This page gives a little background history and context, offers some impressive statistics in its description of content, and talks about access to the archives past and present.
History and Context
The context of the establishment of the archives was the aftermath of World War II. At this time, in Scotland, there was a renewed interest in matters of national and cultural identity, symbolised by the liberation of the Stone of Destiny from London in 1950 (and the song-making and storytelling that followed this event!). There was already a long tradition of collecting folklore in Scotland before the 1950s, but it seemed like the time was right for this collecting to be carried on through the creation of a national institution rather than solely by interested individuals. There were precedents for this kind of centre in Ireland and Sweden, and so members of the Irish Folklore Commission and the Institute for Folklore Research in Uppsala encouraged and helped to establish the School in Edinburgh.
A key figure in these early days was the talented linguist, Angus McIntosh, who had spent time at the famous Bletchley Park. He was one ofthe cryptographers and translators who succeeded in decoding signals traffic encrypted by Germany’s famous Enigma machine! He was knowledgeable about new recording technologies such as the ‘open reel’ recorder, which was soon to take over from the wire and wax cylinders.
The first collector was Calum MacLean, brother of the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, who had trained in Ireland. Calum was soon followed by Hamish Henderson and Francis Collinson. Each of these collectors focussed on their specific areas of interest. Calum McLean’s interest was the Gaelic speaking communities; Hamish Henderson’s particular interest at this time was the Scots-speaking Travelling families.
In the early days, the collector’s main concern was cultural ‘rescue.’ They wanted to collect material from rural communities—in the language and dialect of the place—before the customs, practices, tales, songs and music died out completely. Recordings were undertaken in peoples’ homes, in the field (literally!) at ceilidhs, at work, on boats….
One of the main strengths of the collection in the School is the fact that collectors were able to build a rapport and often a friendship with those from whom they collected. They deeply respected the culture and traditions of the contributors and sought to preserve the integrity and authenticity of their voices.
Since the early days, the portability of tape recorders has definitely improved. Open reels were used until the 1990s, and today collectors use solid state recorders. Cassette tapes and minidiscs were also used along the way (…anybody remember them?!).
In the 1980s, the focus of the School changed from collecting to teaching, so there are fewer collected items after this time. Nevertheless, research still continues and students of the degree course here (including our very own Alastair Mackie) are expected to contribute!
Today, the sound archives contain 20,000 items. Unlike paper, recordings tend to deteriorate rapidly, so the material is stored in a purpose-built, environmentally-stored area in the basement.
40% of this material is in Gaelic; the rest is in Scots or English (excluding the international collections). Just under half of the recordings contain songs: waulking songs, puirt-a-beul, laments, lullabies, bothy songs, sea songs, emigrant songs, nursery rhymes, games, the great narrative ballads and many love songs.
1/3 of the tapes contain tales. The Tale Archive contains many stories, some of which originated centuries ago and were transmitted orally from generation to generation. There are supernatural legends of fairies witches and ghosts, accounts of historical events including the Clearances and clan battles, humorous anecdotes and a large number of tales from Scotland’s Travellers.
There is also a large repertoire of fiddle and pipe music, as well as music from various other instruments such as the clarsach and tin whistle.
A lot of the material in the archives comprises accounts of traditional ways of life. The early collectors visited crofting, farming and fishing communities obtaining information on subjects such as the life of crofters and farm servants, the agricultural year, food gathering and preparation, house construction, the herring industry, traditional medicine, animal husbandry, emigration, whaling, religion, weather lore, lifecycle and seasonal customs. Urban life has also been documented and there are recollections of shipbuilding, factory work, transport, housing and street life, schooling, as well as contemporary fieldwork examining the re-invention of customs and use of ‘heritage.’ Today, there are even accounts of things like goth culture and clubbing!
The archives also contain international material, from India, Uganda and Appalachia in various donated collections, such as the extensive John Levy Collection which consists, mainly, of religious music from Asia.
To complement the sound recordings, he archive hold material such as film, photographs and manuscripts, books and journals. In the photographic archive, there are over 40,00 images, mainly in black and white, with a substantial collection of colour slides.
Organising all this material is a daunting and difficult task and raises issues of classification. There are several different classification systems, all of which are incomplete. On our visit we used two different databases, the Central Card Index and ALST database. The first is ‘track’ or item based, the other contains the whole tapes in what is called the SA series. Cathlin, the Curator of the archives, and Caroline, the archives assistant, are always on hand to help us navigate through these confusing systems!
Users of the Archive
In discussing the archive material, the issue of the politics of ownership was raised, and is something that we need to be aware of. This is all legally very complicated! The archives own the copyright for all the material, and tapes can be copied only subject to copyright permission.
There are many different users of the archives today. There are often requests from family members to hear their parents or grandparents. Musicians often come in looking for material to develop their repertoire; others are looking for inspiration for new music and other projects (like us!). We heard about Alasdair Roberts’ interesting project ‘Tracer Trails’ and his puppet show based on the old folk play, ‘Galoshins.’
Because of the location of the archives in relation to where the material has been collected, there have been issues with access. In the 1960s, a series of commercial discs was launched, called the ‘Scottish Tradition Series,’ which are still available today (published by Greentrax). These contain various themed compilations of piping and fiddle music, Gaelic and Scots songs, stories and customs. The archive journal Tocher was established in 1971, which contains transcriptions and translations of material. The book ‘Scottish Traditional Tales’ by Alan Bruford and Donald Archie MacDonald also features a variety of tales with notes and annotation.
Most recently, the landmark project Tobair an Dualchais (Kist o’ Riches) has digitised some of the material in the archives. We will learn about this from Chris Wright, who worked as a Scots Song Cataloguer for the project, and who is currently their Scots Artist in Residence. 20% of the archive is now online, and more than 80% of what is on the website is housed here. This material is catalogued in individual tracks, and is a wonderful starting point for delving deeper into material.