Collecting in East Lothian

We are always encouraging people to get involved with our Project, whether as a volunteer fieldworker or transcriber, or as a willing interviewee.  As well as valuing the oral history interview for its own sake we are also keen to encourage and facilitate opportunities for people to get together and learn from each other about the community they live in.  In this month’s blog post we hear from one of our East Lothian volunteer fieldworkers, Janis Macdonald, about her interest in social history, how she came to be involved with the RESP and what she has learned from her participation.  To date, Janis has carried out 17 interviews with 18 interviewees and, as the following report demonstrates, she doesn’t seem to be thinking of hanging up her microphone anytime soon!  We’re very glad to hear this!

fieldworker, Janis Macdonald

For as long as I can remember I have had an interest in family history. I was very close to my maternal grandparents and I used to love encouraging them to share stories of when they were younger. Both were local and came from large families. However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realised how little I actually knew about their early years. My nana used to deliver Sunday papers for her father, regularly cycling miles out into the country from Haddington. My papa went to school in Prestonpans. I also knew that, as the oldest child he took on responsibilities for the well-being of his siblings.

my grandparents, William and Helen Cunningham

On reflection now, I realise that most of the memories shared with me were from their married years, and the childhood years of my mother and her four brothers. My grandfather worked for the local Council and my grandmother for a local baker. I know they both had bikes and that my grandfather, having driven a Council lorry for many years, found the size of his first car challenging and it was regularly to be found parked quite far from the kerb! It’s often too late when we realise how little we know about our families.

Tracing family trees can give us names, dates and places but it is the social history that catches my interest. The Ethnology research project is helping us ensure that we can build our knowledge. People share their stories and this contributes to the pictures we have of when our relatives were younger.

I became involved in the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project after attending a Haddington Remembered session with my uncle. At that event Ruth, one of the John Gray Centre archivists, asked if I would be interested in helping with fieldwork and later Mark, one of the project researchers, contacted me. He arranged a short training meeting for myself and two other interested volunteers.  The session covered how to use the recording equipment, guidance on conducting interviews and there was also time to make some practice interviews.  Now that I’m a fully-fledged fieldworker, I find I prefer to refer to the interviews as conversations.  The term interview can seem a bit intimidating! Mostly I have engaged in guided conversations though, as I like to have a little knowledge of the person I am talking with!

My first conversation was with my mother-in-law and her twin sister. I felt a bit anxious beforehand but as they started talking I relaxed and it was good fun. One lesson I learned was that when the recorder was switched off the stories kept on coming!  Mark gave me feedback on this first interview and commented on the electrical noise throughout the recording. It was my mother-in-law’s air mattress – a noise that we had become so used to that we didn’t give it a thought! Mark’s feedback was supportive and reassuring and he uses his experience to comment on recording levels, types of question and where there might be opportunities to elicit more information.

Everyone has a story to tell. I have had the privilege of talking with a number of local people who have grown up in East Lothian. Some may have similar experiences but each story has personal reminiscences which bring our County to life. East Lothian used to be called Haddingtonshire. The name Haddingtonshire conjures up a different way of life from East Lothian and, to my mind, lends itself to a more rural description. Rural links come across quite strongly in many of the conversations I have had.

It is also a real privilege to talk with people about East Lothian. It can be humbling to hear of their early years and make comparisons with those of today’s children. Despite what may appear to us now as hardships, their memories are usually positive and the importance of family and community comes through very strongly.  I have been fortunate to know mostly all the people I have talked with, and my family has known their families. This connection has made these conversations all the more interesting to me. I can put faces to some of the personalities they mention, or even add to the reminiscences. Older people who knew my mother, and even those who knew my grandparents have told stories that I can make links to. Having lived in Haddington all my life, I too can remember the High Street shops as they were in the past: visiting several stores to acquire everything on the list – no credit cards, no scouring shelves for specific brands, no home deliveries and everyone had their own shopping bag!

As a volunteer fieldworker with the RESP I have been encouraged to follow my own connections and ideas while allowing each person the opportunity to speak about what matters to them. The people I have recorded have come from a wide range of backgrounds and our conversations have been varied – ranging from the drummer of a popular local band to a retained fireman working in Haddington. Stories I have heard cover a wide range of subjects too and have included changes in local businesses, school experiences, memories of World War 2, fashion, fishing life and Haddington Pipe Band. Although I have chatted with many older people, including a gentleman who is 101, I am also keen to record some school pupils in order to have contrasting experiences.  And so there’s plenty to get on with and lots of people willing to share stories. Today’s events are tomorrow’s memories!

Janis Macdonald

You can find out more about the recordings made by janis on our RESP Archive website:

Royal Reflections from the RESP Archive

10 - Peers of the realm look on during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey

This weekend sees the culmination of celebrations to mark the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, and marks her 70th anniversary as monarch. This event provides us with an opportunity to explore some of the Royal Family related material that can be found in RESP archive recordings.

The RESP archive includes a number of recordings which contain memories of monarchs and royal celebrations.  The earliest relates to a recording made in 1975 with 100 year old Granny Blacklock.  Recorded by her grandson, Ian Blacklock, and subsequently donated to the RESP, this interview takes us back to Granny’s childhood, in the late 1870s and provides us with some of the earliest recollections we have in the archive. Although not yet available to listen to on the website, there is a published summary on the site and the recording and transcription will be uploaded soon.  As a young woman, Granny worked for a family who were based in Manchester for a while and she was taken along to the opening of the Manchester ship canal, in 1894.  Queen Victoria was there, and Granny could recall the monarch in her ‘wida’s weeds’ as she passed quite close by and waved to the crowd.  When asked by Ian if she’d waved back, she recalled, ‘Aye, Ah waived back, aye’.

We then jump to the green at West Barns, East Lothian, 1935.  Peter Aitchison, who was a small child in 1935, recalled a cedar being planted to celebrate the silver jubilee of Queen Mary and King George V.  In a moving, informative and often funny interview, Peter mentions this occasion and then adds quickly that he’s always keen to tell people that the tree ‘wisnae his fault’, a reference, perhaps, to the impressive, or possibly intrusive, size of the tree today!

Other interviewees recall the coronation celebrations in different parts of Dumfries and Galloway.  These include Tom Allan, who remembers the celebrations, including pipe bands and bonfires, in Lochmaben and Sheila Austin, who remembers the celebrations in the more remote farming parts of the region

My favourite recollection comes to us from Davie Graham, of Sanquhar, who recalls that only a few people in the town had a television in 1953 and so many, himself included, watched the coronation through a shop window!

The Man who Went to the Moon and the Woman who Helped Bring him to Langholm: A Tale of Two Leaps

I’ve now been working with the EERC Regional Ethnology of Scotland Study since 2011 and for the CRC-RESP Archive Project since 2018.  My jobs have allowed me to be involved with all aspects of our work, from training new fieldworkers and providing feedback on first interviews right through to listening to the interviews and preparing them for upload to the RESP archive website.

On any given day, when I sit down to start listening to a RESP recording, I know I’m going to learn something new.  In a world where it can seem we’re all hell-bent on destruction of one kind or another, the RESP recordings demonstrate that people are keeping on keeping on, as they always have done: working hard, enjoying life, doing their best, caring about the small stuff, and the huge stuff.  By way of illustrating something of the diversity of the collection, here are some examples from my listening over the past week or so:

  • From a recording made in 1979, Elizabeth Davidson talks about her early life in Carsluith in the first years of the twentieth century, when money, opportunity and choice were in short supply but life was nonetheless very full. Along with interviewer, David Hannay, she also reflects on the death of family members who, in more recent times would have easily survived their illnesses: scarlet fever, an infected wound, tuberculosis.
  • From a recording made in 2019, David Davies describes his musical life – from his childhood learning to play the piano, then working in a music shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, to accompanying Dean Martin as he sang ‘Little Old Wine Drinker’ in an impromptu performance on a ship travelling from New York back to the UK.  It was clearly a fantastic life and one he enjoyed greatly.  At one point he was working at a hotel in New Brighton where his beautiful and ornate concert-organ was on a turntable in the middle of the dancefloor.  As he played, the dais revolved and the dancers circled around him.  Very stylish, no doubt, but not so practical.  Two attendees had to help David off the dais at break-time because he was too dizzy to walk.  And this wasn’t a life without hardship and difficulty.  It’s clear from his testimony that David’s peripatetic lifestyle made establishing a settled home life difficult, with his family having little choice but to uproot and resettle when each job finished and the next opportunity was in a different town or another country.
  • From a 1996 recording, 80 year old retired millworker Duncan Adam, whose father died during World War 1 when Duncan was a toddler, described his understandable reluctance to go to War when it came time for him to be conscripted during World War 2. With a wife and young child at home, Duncan must have feared history repeating itself with his own family.
  • And from an interview made in 2020, sisters Betty and Suzanne recall their childhood in Fisherrow where to venture ‘over the bridge’ into nearby Musselburgh was widely regarded as ‘unnecessary or unwise’ and where their fisherman father regarded his Perth forbearers, who came to Fisherrow in 1800, as recent incomers!

It’s such an amazing privilege to be able to spend my working day listening to these recordings and preparing the files and supporting documentation so that the recordings can be shared on our Project website.  It’s all very well to collect these valuable recordings, which tell us so much about our shared cultural lives, but it’s also imperative that we can than share this material with a wider audience both to respect the time and energy given by our volunteer fieldworkers and interviewees and also to try to ensure these recordings are widely available and accessed.  This ethos is at the heart of everything we do at the RESP and a central part of my job as RESP Archives Assistant.

Another central part of the RESP work is to train local volunteer fieldworkers to make fieldwork recordings in their local area and it’s rare for me to do any local fieldwork.  However, I have been fortunate enough to be the interviewer on a small number of recordings made in Dumfries and Galloway and a significant local anniversary prompted this blog, about an interview I carried out in 2013, in Langholm, with Grace Brown.  Also present that day, as cameraman, technician and fellow interviewer, was my colleague, Mark Mulhern, Senior Research Fellow at the EERC.

In 1969, just a short time after Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, Grace Brown and her colleagues on the Langholm town council – in a huge leap of faith and audacity – voted unanimously to write to Neil inviting him to become a Freeman of Langholm.  As Grace explained to me, Langholm is the ancient homeland of the Armstrong clan and the town had been extremely excited and diligent in following Neil’s progress in the time leading up to the moon landing.  A letter was duly despatched, through a Langholm exile living in Houston, Texas, and, although they had to wait some time to hear back, Neil did accept that invitation and when he visited Scotland in 1972, to deliver the Mountbatten Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, he also travelled to Langholm to become the first man to receive the honour of Freeman of Langholm.

For months before the visit, the town council were in a state of high alert and Grace remembers this event as the highlight of her career.  As Neil was to be the very first Freeman of Langholm, a Burgess Ticket was commissioned, along with a ceremonial box to contain this.  The box, made by a Kirkcudbright artist, was an exact representation of Hollows Tower. The whole community were excited about the upcoming visit and Langholm became a destination for press and public alike.  Grace recalls the Chicago Tribune printed a map of the British Isles with only 2 places marked on it, London and Langholm!  She also describes in detail the itinerary for the time that Neil and his wife, Jan, were in Langholm.  One of the many gifts presented to the couple during the visit was a mohair shawl made from Lunar Tartan.  This tartan, which reflected the colours of lunar rock brought back from Neil’s voyage, had been designed and produced by cloth designer, Ian Maxwell, and partner Alasdair Irvine to celebrate the moon landing and the mohair stole was woven at their Esk Valley mill.

I’m not going to say any more about the interview and hope I’ve done enough to tempt you to listen to the interview in full, which you can do by following this link

In her presence, back in 2013, Grace bubbled with excitement and pride as she talked about the visit.  It was such a pleasure and privilege to speak to her.  At one point I said to her that Mark and I had been excited to meet her, a woman who had shaken hands with the first man to walk on the moon.  ‘That’s right’, she replied ‘…ah didn’t wash ma hand for a week!’

Caroline Milligan, RESP Archives Assistant