Category Archives: Archives in 70 Objects

SSSA in 70 Objects: Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig recordings by Rev. William Matheson

The Words and the Tunes

by Dr Anja Gunderloch

Back in the mists of time, in the second year of my undergraduate degree, the highlight of my week was the Gaelic poetry class with Ronnie Black.  We were working our way through songs from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, unpicking tricky bits of grammar, hunting in Dwelly’s dictionary for the best words to use in our translations, testing each word for its role in the rhymes and alliterations, discovering aspects of Gaelic history entirely unknown to us until then.  The material stretched us but it was also hugely rewarding when things finally clicked into place, sometimes through our own efforts, and sometimes with Ronnie resolving the conundrum for us with a flourish.  William J. Watson’s famous anthology Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig was our textbook, and I still recall my keen delight when I managed to acquire my own copy from ‘Wee Thins’ on Buccleuch Street for what was even then the quite acceptable sum of £4.20.

As we reached the end of each song, Ronnie would position a tape recorder so we could hear clearly and play a recording.  Every time, it felt like a reward for our efforts in making sense of a song.  Sometimes, the tune would go round and round in my head all day.  Suddenly, there was another dimension that we had not quite appreciated even as we took turns to read each stanza aloud before translating.  Not only did the tune show us the metre in greater clarity, each beat falling on a word that was then revealed to have a relationship with another one, it also spoke of the mood of the song, or of listeners of long ago joining in a chorus, or of a poet crafting words and tune into a whole that still resonated after so many years, as singer after singer learned and passed on the songs.  The recordings we listened to came from the Archives, of course.

Black and white image of a man sitting to the left of the frame. He wears a suit and tie. In front of him is a microphone and on the table in front of him there is a reel to reel recording machine

Reverend William Matheson. Image: SSSA Photographic Collection

The singer was the Rev. William Matheson, singing unaccompanied and unhurried, each word clear, important, relevant, just a few stanzas from each song, to illustrate how tunes and words interacted and complemented each other.  I still have my own copy of that cassette tape, latterly transferred to a CD when technology moved on.  It seems that all the songs in Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig that Matheson, a noted scholar of Gaelic song in all its manifestations, knew or tracked down a tune for are represented there.  Nowadays, my first port of call for these songs is Tobar an Dualchais where there are many more recordings of Matheson’s singing.  There is the pleasure of revisiting the songs as I first heard them, and then there is the thrill that comes with listening to another version that Matheson recorded, sometimes a longer one, and sometimes with subtle differences in words, tune, or emphasis, just as would happen in a ‘real’ performance.  I have learned so much about these songs over the years, and I still keep learning and understanding more about the words and the tunes.


Dr Anja Gunderloch graduated with First Class Honours from this university in 1990 as the first student who took the then new degree in Scottish Ethnology and Celtic. Anja is lecturer in Celtic at the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies. 

There are 750 tracks by Rev William Matheson – including material from Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig – on Tobar an Dualchais. You can listen online by following this link.

SSSA in 70 Objects: Òganaich Dhuinn a Rinn M’ Fhàgail

Contributor: Barra Waulking Women

Fieldworker: Thorkild Knudsen

Reference: SA1965.109.004

Response: Louise Scollay

I have a lifelong love – some might say obsession –  of textiles and craft and often this spills over into our collections.  I am always seeking out the hand-made in our archives.

Whilst working from home, I have been listening to material from the sound collections related to wool and spinning. The song Òganaich Dhuinn a Rinn M’ Fhàgailwas performed in Barra as a waulking song – beat-driven songs, performed by women during the process of fulling the newly spun cloth . It is noted that this particular song was also used to accompany spinning and, upon reading that, I didn’t need much convincing to get my spinning wheel out and give it a go myself.

Accompanied by the Wauliking Women of Barra, I spun prepared Zwartbles fibre (a breed of sheep from the Netherlands, which is well established in the UK) and then plyed that yarn with Hebridean wool. These were the two kinds of wool I had to hand – I wouldn’t ordinarily spin two similarly coloured breeds together. It was a pleasing spinning experience doing it to music – although it was hard to keep time  – some breeds of wool and different preparations prefer a slower tempo to others! That beat and the vocables though, stayed with me a long time after the spinning wheel was put away.

While the spinning was a pleasant experience, it was less easy to film oneself in the process at the same time. Nonetheless, here is my spun response to Òganaich Dhuinn a Rinn M’ Fhàgail. 


Louise Scollay is Archive & Library Assistant at The School of Scottish Studies Archives.


Is there an ‘object’ or connection to the School of Scottish Studies or our archive that you would like to write about or respond to? It could be a recording, an image, a manuscript or something else! Find more information here:



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SSSA in 70 Objects: Borders Ba’ Games

‘They do it yet!’: The surprise of Borders ba’.
Dr Emily Lyle

When I was talking with an old man in Denholm about customs, I had been reading about the ball game there and I asked him if he remembered them playing. I was totally surprised when he told me ‘They do it yet!’, and that was the beginning of the recording for the archive of this living tradition of the Borders for, next time the game was played at Denholm, I was there with the archive photographer, Lesley Davenport. Before the game, she took photos of the balls that were displayed in the windows, and the surprise here was that the game was played with multiple balls which were decorated with ribbons. The balls were provided by couples who were married or had celebrated an anniversary in the previous year.


1 A silver wedding ball with white ribbons at Denholm.

The game is handball and when each ball is thrown up to start play, the person throwing announces the sum that will be paid when the ball is returned, like ‘There’s £5 on it!’. We watched the first ball being thrown up in Denholm that day and then observed the players lying in a heap (the ‘strow’) for half an hour or so until we had to leave for an evening engagement in Edinburgh.


2. . The opening of play at Denholm.


3. The strow at Denholm.  This shows a heap of men on the ground with others standing round them.

The game does not require daylight but can continue after dark.

4. Playing in the twilight at Hobkirk.


The players are not distinguished by team colours. They are divided by geographical halves into ‘Uppies’ and ‘Doonies’ and they know each other. The goals, called ‘hails’, are natural or built features that can be more than a mile apart. The players do not drive the ball into the opposite hail but bring it into their own hail



5. A Doonie player at Ancrum returning after hailing the ba’ over the dyke that forms the Doonie hail.

After a ball is hailed, another is thrown up, but not all balls reach the hails during play for they can be hidden (‘smuggled’) in such places as a milk churn, a rabbit burrow, or the player’s clothing, deliberately worn loose for this purpose.

6. A player at Hobkirk being searched for a smuggled ba’.


When a player successfully smuggles a ba’, he is expected to take it to a hail before claiming the payment put on it and he does this when the action of the game is elsewhere.

7. A player at Jedburgh hailing a smuggled ba’ at the Uppie hail.


In Jedburgh, the game is played in the streets of the town and the windows are barricaded to prevent damage.

8. Players in a street in Jedburgh.

9. A boarded-up window in Jedburgh.


10: A Strow in Jedburgh

Sometimes there is a separate boys’ game before the men’s game.


11. Boys playing at Ancrum


In Lilliesleaf  the game is played in the fields by school children.

12. Children playing at Lilliesleaf in the snow.

Visitors can take part in these games and are Uppies or Doonies depending on the direction from which they come.


The cluster of games in these locations takes place on various dates following the first new moon after Candlemas (2 February) and it is always very cold. The game that was played at Duns ceased in the nineteenth century when there was a snowstorm one year and, when it was resumed in the 1940s, it was as part of the town’s summer festival with barrels in the town square as hails.

13. One of the hails in Duns.

14. Players running through the square in Duns.

The game is generally played at a specific time of year but its early connection with weddings is preserved at Melrose where the game is played after the marriage ceremony. The ball has been updated to a Rugby ball.

15.  An announcement of a wedding ba’ in a shop window in Melrose.


If you didn’t already know about the Borders ba’ game, you may have found all this as surprising as I did!


Dr Emily Lyle is an Honorary Fellow in Celtic and Scottish Studies and has been with the department since 1970. Her main areas of research have been Scottish songs and customs and Indo-European mythology.


Photograph credits  
Please do not reproduce without permission

All images held at (C) The School of Scottish Studies Archives.

Images 1-3 Lesley Davenport

Images 4, 6-8, 11-14 Ian MacKenzie

Image 5 Gisela Stuart

Image 9 Neill Martin

Image 10 Tom McKean

Image 15 Emily Lyle



SSSA in 70 Objects: The Barnyards o’ Delgaty

Contributor: Enoch Kent

Fieldworker: Hamish Henderson

Reference: SA1954.33.a6

Link to the song on Tobar an Dualchais:

Response by: Robert Fell

This Bothy ballad – rendered beautifully here by Enoch Kent in 1954 – holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the first examples of the genre I heard from The School of Scottish Studies Archives. At the time, I was working towards my undergraduate degree on the Scottish Studies 1B course ‘Creating Scotland’, where this track was used as an example of the unique repository of knowledge that the archives represent. From that moment on, I knew that my academic interests lay in the exploration of our archive and duly shifted the focus of my degree from English Literature to Scottish Ethnology. My current doctoral project has revealed to me that the diverse range of intangible cultural heritage embodied by the archives is truly breath-taking. This researcher, for one, has merely scratched the surface.

Enoch’s ballad belongs to genre of narrative songs associated with the reorganisation of rural Scottish society during the ‘Agrarian Revolution’ of the nineteenth century. ‘Just as the growth of capitalist farming ensured that the farming units were split up into large farms and small crofts’, says David Buchan, ‘it ensured that rural society was divided into a small group of wealthy farmers and a large group of farm labourers’ (1972: 255). These labourers were often peripatetic and sold their labour to farm owners on a six-monthly basis, a procedure known as ‘feeing’. From the 1830s until the late nineteenth century, the feeing procedure was notoriously inequitable and exploitative, in favour of the farm owners, of course. The unmarried labourers would live in Bothan [Scottish Gaelic: ‘hut, cottage’] attached to the farms and pass their leisure time sharing songs.


A black and white image of a tightly packed street, with hundreds of people.

Turriff’s Feein Fair in 1890. Image from Peter Cooke’s Collection at SSSA


Thus, a ‘new-style ballad grew and flourished […] and the literate descendants of the oral-traditional singers created and sang ballads which have traces of the old style, and which, like the old ballads, grew organically out of a certain set of social conditions’ (Buchan 1972: 268). Buchan goes on, noting that ‘instead of escaping from the hard realities of everyday life by singing about another life’, the Bothy ballad singer ‘relieved his feelings by commenting directly and sardonically on the life he led, day in, day out’ (1972: 268). In The Barnyards o’ Delgaty, for instance, we hear about the poor condition of the farm’s horses, them being all ‘skin and bone’; the narrator rails against the perceived social control exerted by the famer, exclaiming ‘I can drink and no be drunk’ and boasting that he can ‘fecht [fight] and no be slain’; and the central importance of the feeing procedure is writ large by its incorporation in the expressive culture of the farm labourers. The promises of the farmer and the bleak actuality of the farm (Buchan 1972: 262) are thereby negotiated in song, giving us an unparalleled insight into the lived experiences of Scotland’s farm labourers during the nineteenth century. Even this terse examination hints at the rich resource the archives represent for casual listener and researcher alike.


Robert Fell is a doctoral researcher in Celtic and Scottish Studies working with the storytelling traditions of Scotland’s Traveller communities.


Work Cited:

Buchan, David. 1972. The Ballad and the Folk (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul). Online access via DiscoverEd



SSSA in 70 Objects : The reflections of the windows in the stairwell of 29 George Square

Response: Louise Scollay, Archive and Library Assistant, SSSA

On a yellow wall there is a shadow from the window of trees in the garden

I have always had a love affair with these windows, or moreso the scene they project on to the wall.

When I studied at the School, when the Celtic and Scottish Studies Department was housed in 27-29 George Square, I would go from the Library into the 29 to pick up a recorder, or get something from the student pigeon holes and I would catch sight of the reflection and shadow play on the wall and be captivated.  A bit like Alice Through The Looking Glass , you almost felt you could step through. (Or had I taken my classes on liminality too literally?)

Circa 2011

When I returned to 29 George Square as Archive & Library Assistant , in 2017, I was captivated once more.

To be honest it takes me ages to climb all the stairs from the ground floor to my office on the third floor, but it takes even longer when the journey looks like this.  My phone is full of these images.


I love how depending on the season, or the time of day, we get a different image painted across the wall.

The different panes of glass are beautiful!

Face to Face services at SSSA have been closed since March 2020 and staff have only had limited access to the building. I have missed a lot of things about the service and the building, but I have really missed watching these shadows and lights grow and shrink on the canvas of the wall over the year.

In the past year the overgrown garden has been cut back, but when I was in recently to do a collections check, I was pleased to see that the shadows and reflections still are something to behold. It almost looks like water, like you could dive in!


Images © Louise Scollay

Is there an ‘object’ related to the School of Scottish Studies that you would like to write about or respond to? It could be a recording, an image, a manuscript or something else!
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