Category Archives: Archives in 70 Objects

SSSA in 70 Objects: The Tiree Clapperboard

On Sunday, August 22 1976, the School of Scottish Studies filmed an open air baptism in Tiree. This was the first baptismal service of its kind in several years and the community and church of Tiree were happy for fieldworkers from the School to capture the event for preservation.

For anyone who has visited us over the past few years, you may have seen this film playing in our foyer.

One of the objects we have in our archive is the clapperboard, which was used by the unit who went to Tiree to make the film.

Clapperboards, or sometimes clapsticks, filmsticks or slate, were used in film productions to assist in synchronizing of picture and sound, and to designate and mark the various scenes and takes as they are filmed and audio-recorded. It was operated by a Clapper loader.

 

This is a still from the film showing SOSS staff setting up. with Dr Margaret Mackay being the ‘Clapper loader’.

When I took the board out of its box, from the archive store, I was surprised at the weight and heft of it. Presumably it was used for other purposes over the years, as it appears to show the vague etchings of writing and so may have been used in other filming pursuits by the School. I am sad to say though, it also looks like it could have been used as someone’s coaster at one stage too!

 

 

These items are still used in film production today, but the modern equivalent – digislates – have an electronic display, the time code of which is synced with the cameras.

And, if you are wondering, of course I gave it a try and yelled “Action!” (into the set of the empty Scottish Studies Library). Mind you, I did not bring down clappper with any kind of dramatic snap – previous use as a coaster aside – it is an archival object after all!

 

Tagged

SSSA in 70 Objects: CROW PIE: COOKERY FROM THE MACLAGAN MANUSCRIPTS

The Maclagan Manuscripts

Collected by: Elizabeth Kerr

Residence: Port Charlotte

Locality of Collection: Highland

Reference: MML0772b

Chosen by: Theresa Mackay

Five years ago I was completing my MLitt dissertation at the Centre for History, UHI, and like any student who is passionate about a topic, I couldn’t stop researching. The end result was one dissertation submitted for my degree—on the presence of female innkeepers in the early nineteenth-century Highlands—and a big pile of “extra” research on food. This data on what innkeepers cooked two hundred years ago kickstarted my Ph.D and led me to study The Maclagan Manuscripts at the SSSA.

The Maclagan Manuscripts (MM) consist of more than 9000 items of folklore from the western Highlands and Islands. Spearheaded by Dr. Robert Craig Maclagan in 1893, this project saw a team of collectors handwriting and submitting folkloric points of interest over nine years.

I have spent much time studying the MM to understand nineteenth-century foodways and practices of Gaelic-speaking women in the western coastal communities and I have to say this recipe for crow pie collected by Elizabeth Kerr is one of my favourites:

Pithean-cnàimheach. (crow pie.) Ingredients. The legs and breasts of a dozen crows. Two ounces butter; two tea cupfuls of flour; a little Baking powder; salt, pepper, and water.

___Method. Par-boil the meat in very little water, with a pinch of salt added. Put into a pie dish with the gravy and pepper. Make paste in the ordinary way, and cover the pie dish with it. Put a griddle on the fire, on which put the pie, and place a common pot over it, with its mouth downwards. Bake for Forty-five minutes.

 

From MacGillivray’s British Birds (1837)

Here we identify birds eaten on Islay, but if you look closely at this record, and others found in the MM, they help us to understand foodways practices of the past. Looking at the main ingredients, this recipe calls for “legs and breasts of a dozen crows” which sparks us to think about how the birds would have been caught (a job for boys with a sling, perhaps?) and how the remaining heads and feathers would have been used.

The prevalence of certain “supporting” ingredients in these cookery records point to foodstuffs that were considered staples, such as bread, whisky, cream, meals of barley and oat, and butter and salt (as seen here). In this recipe we also see that the pie covering was made “in the ordinary way” causing us to explore what specific foodstuffs were used in this “paste” and what practice was the “ordinary way”.

In terms of cooking equipment, here we see a “pie dish” referenced, a note that helps us to understand how a kitchen was outfitted. Along with pie dishes, the MM suggests that kitchens also included various sizes of barrels, three-legged pots, and buckets and bags for collecting whelks at the shore, giving us an understanding of nineteenth-century material culture and cooking technology.

It is the idea that this simple recipe for crow pie tells us so much about how women in the Gàidhealtachd fed themselves and their families that appeals to me so much. A recipe by collector Elizabeth Kerr that may have taken her only a few minutes to jot down has forever preserved the foodways of the nineteenth century western Highlands and Islands.

 

Theresa Mackay is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Victoria (Canada). Her research centres on foodways and practices of nineteenth century women in the Gàidhealtachd along the western coastlines of the Highlands and Islands.

To find out more about The Maclagan Manuscripts visit: https://www.ed.ac.uk/information-services/library-museum-gallery/cultural-heritage-collections/school-scottish-studies-archives/manuscripts-collections/maclagan

To read Theresa’s article on female innkeepers in the Highlands and Islands, see the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/jshs.2017.0218

Tagged ,

SSSA in 70 Objects: Plants used in traditional Shetland medicine

Contributor: Tom Tulloch

Fieldworker: Alan Bruford

SA Reference: SA1978.068

Chosen by: Jenny Sturgeon

My chosen object is a recording of Shetlander Tom Tulloch talking with interviewer Alan Bruford.

Recorded in Yell, Shetland (presumably in Tom’s house), Tom and his wife, Elizabeth, chat about the local Shetland names for plants. The recording opens with a list of plant names including arthie (chicken-weed) and blugga (marsh marigold).

I came across this recording whilst researching for a workshop I was running as part of an artist residency at the National Library of Scotland. Working with participants from across Scotland I ran four workshops exploring creative music and spoken word responses to a series of plant lectures given to University of Glasgow students in the 80s. Presented by Professor James Holmes Dickson, these lectures are housed in the Scotland’s Sounds archive and gave the group an insight to ecology and conservation of plants in Scotland. Alongside mentions of the common and Latin names of plants I was keen to explore local plant names and uses across Scotland, with particular reference to Shetland, which is where I live.

The thing that really endeared me to this particular recording on Tobar an Dualchais is Tom saying,  ‘I keyn the wirds but I dinna keyn deir proper names’. This struck me when I first heard him saying it because my interpretation is that he does know the ‘proper names’. It got me thinking about different names for plants and animals and how there is not one ‘proper name’. There is a Latin name, which is the accepted scientific name, but that does not mean much to a lot of people, myself included! Local names for flora and fauna root us to where we come from and there is a
cultural history and identity associated with them. Being able to delve into archives such as this is a way we can access and be inspired by our heritage.

Along with several other recordings from Tobar an Dualchais this recording of Tom features in one of the two pieces created during my residency. As with many of the recordings I came across from that time, you can clearly hear the ticking of a grandfather clock in the background. The finished sound pieces feature music, words and field recordings created by participants during the workshops.

You can listen to these pieces at the link below.
https://jennysturgeon.bandcamp.com/track/pushing-reaching-falling-replacing
https://jennysturgeon.bandcamp.com/track/as-far-north-as-anything-grows

You can listen to the original recording of Tom Tulloch on Tobar an Dualchais: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/81445

Jenny Sturgeon is a singer-songwriter based in Shetland. In addition to her residency with Unlocking our Sound Heritage, Jenny has recently collaborated on an audio visual project based around  Nan Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain. https://www.jennysturgeonmusic.com/thelivingmountain

Tagged ,

SSSA in 70 Objects: “No Winder You Canna Catch Fish”

Response by: Holly Graham

Recording: Up Helly Aa peats replaced by tar barrels

Contributor: Katie Laurenson

Fieldworker: Elizabeth Neilson

Reference: SA1961.89.B74

© Gaada

My chosen object is a short audio extractan excerpt of a longer oral history interview with Shetlander, Katie Laurenson; held within the School of Scottish Studies online collection of archive audio. I came across it while delving through another gathering of materials that has become an archive collection in its own right, hosted online by Shetland-based art space Gaada. Over the past year or so, Gaada have been working closely with local activist group Up Helly Aa for Aa (UHA4A) to collect a range of matter that together tells a story of the island’s annual local fire festival and its historic exclusion of women.

This assemblage of scanned press-cuttings, screen-shots of Facebook posts, drawings, videos, photographs and more, exists as a Google drive of digitised ephemera, documentation and artworks built collaboratively with contributions from UHA4A members. I had been invited, alongside a small selection of other artists, to explore this collection and to develop some accompanying artwork in the form of a flag design, and pieces for a display unit – outdoor structures that could allow for socially distanced viewing in the context of Covid19. A selection of these artworks were later donated to Glasgow Women’s Library. 

As I read and surveyed images, a picture of the festival and what it meant to local people built in my mind – firearms, tar barrels, guizing, Vikings, community. The earliest festivals were “a highly ritualised form of mis-rule governed by the people” according to writer Callum G. Brown (Up-Helly-Aa: Custom, Culture and Community in Shetland, 1998); a show of what Brydon Leslie calls “disruption, devilment, and above all, flame” (New Shetlander, 2011). Brian Smith debunks the authenticity of what he terms the ‘bogus name “Up Helly Aa”’ and the festival’s links to Viking history, saying its inventors – young working men in Lerwick – ‘had their tongues firmly in their cheeks’ (The Shetland Times, 1993). Recent article headlines from local papers jostle and joust: ‘Is Up-Helly-A’ brazenly sexist, or is ‘the way it’s always been’ still acceptable?’ asks Peter Johnson in a 2017 issue of The Shetland Timesthere’s a ‘Burning desire for change’ says Zara Pennington for The Orkney News in 2018; ‘Leave it as it is’ reads the opener of a letter from Lerwick resident Jolene Tindall for The Shetland Times in a year later; ‘Up Helly Aa sexism under the spotlight’ reads a headline of a 2020 Sunday Times article written by Shetlander Sally Huband; ‘They call us backward’ claims a staunch member of the ‘remain the same’ camp in a short video feature by Huck Magazine posted on their site in the same year. 

There was a lot to look through, and I spent a number hours-worth of screen-time squinting at and zooming in on minute columns of newspaper text, lined by pixelated image boarders. The link to Katie’s sound file on the School of Scottish Studies website stood out to me as one of the only items in the Google drive present existing in audio format. It was a welcome pause from the glowing screen and I closed my eyes while I listened. Katie’s lilting narrative told of roots of the festival, steeped in sun-worship rituals. She spoke of flaming tar barrels and the healing properties of tar. She told her own anecdotes of being chastised for wandering to a neighbour’s house via a forbidden route. 

Postcards by Holly Graham

I often work with audio. I’m interested in story-telling and how individual voices present singular subject views, that listened to along-side others, can layer to build complex and nuanced narratives, versions of histories. I was intrigued by Katie’s recounting of her journey to the neighbour’s house and of how that mapped onto histories of the Up Helly Aa procession route, steeped in the superstitious belief that there was only one correct direction to move. Through Katie I learnt vocabulary that was new to me – ‘sungaits’, the way of the sun, also known as clockwise; and ‘widdergaits’, against the sun, or anticlockwise. She laughed at what ‘the old folks’ would say if they saw the present day Lerwick Up Helly Aa procession, weaving a figure of eight back and forth through the town centre. They’d think it was bad luck to travel in such a direction – they’d say ‘no winder you canna catch fish’. I liked this idea of tradition, superstition, direction, push-back and change. 

From what I’d read in the Gaada and UHA4A collections of text, the main argument against women’s participation in the annual procession was one founded in tradition, in the notion that things had not changed before and should therefore not change now. But in light of Katie’s memories of the festival this case falls short. Katie was speaking in 1961, and her voice reaches us intact 60 years later, to speak some home truths to ‘this modern Up Helly Aa that you see nowadays’. And while speaking to us from the 20th century, Katie was born in 1890, just 9 years the first organised torch-light procession took place in Lerwick. Viewed through the span of a life and a voice – human for scale – we see the festival past as not so old, not so distant and concrete, impervious to change. We make traditions collectively, collaboratively. They are often built around small truths that in turn expand foam-like to form myths, and we pack further myths in around them, insulatory protective wrapping to transport them. They morph and change with time. Why would we not desire our traditions to be flexible enough to accommodate us, and to suit us societally as we move and shift, rather than remaining rigid restraints that constrict our collective growth? 

The work I made for the project pivoted around a verbatim poem I assembled from Katie’s words, channelling the push and pull, forward and backward notions held by the terms ‘sungaits’ and ‘widdergaits’. The flag featured a mass of spiralling ribbons, and the two words – one on either face – constructed from these ribbons and enmeshed within them. The display case held a collection of prints: a collage of newspaper headlines, a dictionary definition of ‘widder-’, screenshots of a subtitled documentary on the festival and it’s accompanying calls for change. I also worked with other fragments of archive from the Scottish School of Studies collection; field recordings of songs sung and music played in the processions, recorded by Peter R. Cooke in 1982 [SA1982.010.011].

I pieced together an audio piece or ballad of sorts, that combined Katie’s voice with those of contemporary UHA4A women – Debra Nicolson, Joyce DaviesLindsey Manson, and Frances Taylor – who echoed her words to form a chorus. The audio cycles, returning to familiar melodies played in reverse, words layered and repeated, the narrative is slippery. Together, tongues in cheeks, Katie and the UHA4A women chant: ‘No winder you canna catch fish!’ 

Holly’s flag flying at Gaada, in Bridge-End, Burra Isle.

 

________With thanks to Amy Gear and Daniel Clark at Gaada; Caroline Gausden at Glasgow Women’s Library; Louise Scollay at The School of Scottish Studies Archives and Library; Debra Nicolson, Joyce Davies, Lindsey Manson, and Frances Taylor of Up Helly Aa for Aa; Katie Laurenson and her family, and Peter R. Cooke. 

______________ 

Thanks to Holly and Gaada for use of their images.

You can visit Holly’s website here: https://www.hollygraham.co.uk/

You can find out more about the project on Gaada’s website: https://www.gaada.org/weemins-wark 

Up Helly Aa for Aa campaign:  https://www.facebook.com/S4UHAE/about/

Glasgow Women’s Library: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/

Tagged ,

SSSA in 70 Objects: Psalm 118 to ‘Coleshill’

Contributor: Murdina and Effie MacDonald, Psalm 118 to ‘Coleshill’

Fieldworker: Thorkild Knudsen

Reference: SA1965.031

Link to recording on Tobar an Dualchais

Response: Clare Button

Visiting the Isle of Lewis with my parents at age fifteen seemed the ideal chance to use my newly acquired pieces of Gaelic. Back home in England I was a fervent convert, listening to all the Gaelic music I could find and devouring a book titled (more than a little misleadingly, as it turned out) Scottish Gaelic in Three Months. Thrilled as I was to hear the language around me on the streets of Stornoway, I lost the bottle to try it myself, save for a shyly squeaked ‘madainn mhath’ to a lady behind the counter in a charity shop. Bolstered by her kind reaction, I thought to repay her by purchasing something, and my eye was caught by a record titled Gaelic Psalms from Lewis, the cover emblazoned with J.H. Lorimer’s dramatic painting The Ordination of Elders in the Scottish Kirk.

Closer inspection revealed that it was Volume 6 in Greentrax’s Scottish Tradition Series, which showcased recordings from the School of Scottish Studies, a new name to me at that time. I hardly knew what to expect, but it was only twenty pence, and would just about fit in our suitcase. I suspect the lady behind the counter was somewhat bewildered to see this earnest English teenager expressing an interest in the devotional singing of her island.

It was around a month or two before I played the LP on my dad’s record player, but when I did, my musical landscape was changed forever. I had heard sacred music before, of course, but nothing like this, with the psalm being ‘lined out’ by the precentor, and the congregation following after in a heavily ornamented style, each person at their own pace. The effect was an ocean of sound, both alien and familiar, human voices locked in private devotion yet joined in communal worship.

I loved the richly dramatic congregational recordings, but I was especially struck by the singing of two sisters, Murdina and Effie MacDonald, of Balantrushal, north west Lewis. Recorded at their home in 1965 by Thorkild Knudsen, a Danish musicologist then on the staff of the School of Scottish Studies, they intone verses 15-23 of Psalm 118 to the tune ‘Coleshill’, their brittle voices trilling, soaring and swooping together in two barely separable strands. ‘Guth gàirdeachais is slàinte ta / am pàilliunaibh nan saoi…’ Their singing is particularly touching because it is domestic, sisterly, intimate. The notes to the recording mention that, although it was quite unheard of for women to precent, they may often ‘be heard singing Gaelic Psalms while at household chores.’ Now, years later, with many recordings of the MacDonald sisters available online via Tobar an Dualchais, the extent and depth of their skill at psalm singing can be truly appreciated.

A year or two later, I heard the same recording sampled by Martyn Bennett on another album which changed my life, Grit (2003). In the sleeve notes, Bennett tells the story of travelling to Balantrushal to see Murdina, then in her late eighties, to get her blessing to use the recording. She confided to Martyn her own initial misgivings back in the 1960s on recording these religious songs, a confession which he found reassuring. Of the resulting composition, ‘Liberation’, Martyn wrote:

‘I could not find any other way to express the profound feeling of losing faith, and the determination to find it again.’

It is both touching and strange to think of the sisters giving their blessing to this epic mashup of their voices with clashing rave beats, euphoric sonic whirls and Michael Marra’s best (and, I suspect, his only) attempt at being a minister. The track is radically different from Murdina and Effie’s world, but it does, I think, retain the kernel of purity found in Knudsen’s original recording.

Now, many years later, I have been entranced by sacred music of all kinds, from the astonishing Canu Pwnc tradition of Wales, to the heart-bursting ecstasy of Sacred Harp, to the simple grace of medieval plainchant, but the billowing swells of the Scottish Gaelic style hold a unique magic. My Gaelic may still not be much improved, but this recording grows with me all the time.

Clare Button is Archivist at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London.

 

Listen to Murdina and Effie MacDonald here: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/67880/1

More about Martyn Bennett here: https://realworldrecords.com/artists/martyn-bennett/

Find out about the Gaelic Psalms from Lewis here: http://www.greentrax.com/music/product/Various-Artists-Gaelic-Psalms-From-Lewis-Scottish-Tradition-Series-vol-6-CD

 

 

Tagged , ,

SSSA In 70 Objects: The Pictish Arts Society

Written by Stuart McHardy

In 1988 the School of Scottish Studies began to host gatherings of the Pictish Arts Society, both its committee meetings and its public lectures. The Society, formed to further interest in, and study of, all aspects of the Picts was originally conceived by myself and the American-born artist Marianna Lines.

Our presence was facilitated by linguist David Clement who was seconded to the School from the Celtic department. I had kept up a tenuous connection with the school since my undergraduate days. The three of us were joined as the inaugural committee by ethnologist Bob Brydon, historian Graeme Cruikshank, lawyer George Fraser and knitwear designer Heather Richard.

In 1992, due to a considerable level of public interest, our initial Newsletter developed into the PAS Journal, which presented a wide range of academically sound articles from a range of contributors, including archaeologists, historians and linguists, as well as professional artists, as the original mission statement of the Society had specifically laid emphasis on the corpus of Pictish Art and its potential to stimulate new work in the modern world.

The open meetings in the Conference Room were always lively and stimulating and within a couple of years the Society began to stage annual conferences, which were initially also held in the School, and which originally included exhibitions of contemporary Pictish inspired artwork.  Over time the conferences began to be held in other locations, most of which would generally be considered to be somewhat more appropriate than Edinburgh, even if tradition tells us that Arthur’s sleeping companions inside his Seat in Holyrood Park, are Picts.  This highlighted the situation that many members had to travel extensively to come to Edinburgh and in 2000 the PAS officially moved from 27 George Square to the appropriate location of Pictavia near Brechin, with the support of Angus Council through the commitment of my successor as President of the Society, Norman Atkinson.

illustration drawn by J D Moir and used with kind permission

Since then, the society has continued to hold regular meetings and conferences, currently on Zoom, and to publish a quarterly newsletter, the Journal having ceased publication after 17 issues. At the time when the PAS formed there were no books on the Picts in print and it is testament to the work of the membership that nowadays there are so many works available, both reprints and new works, and it is likely that the efforts of the early group in George Square has helped ensure that today’s Scottish archaeologists ad historians are much more involved with matters Pictish than was the case when first we met. Sadly, since our early days in the School of the Scottish Studies many of the original enthusiasts have passed on, including in 2018 our co-founder Marianna Lines, whose vibrant and colourful interpretations of Pictish Symbol Stones were so effective  in bringing so much of Scotland’s ancient culture to wider public notice.

Stuart McHardy is a Teaching Fellow, Centre for Open Learning, University of Edinburgh

Musselburgh

2021

Information:

The Pictish Arts Society logo is designed by Nick Simpson and the illustration of the stone is by JD Moir. We have used these with permission, please do not reproduce.

http://www.thepictishartssociety.org.uk/

The Pictish Arts Society Newsletter has an open access archive here: http://www.thepictishartssociety.org.uk/newsletters/4593763668

 

SSSA in 70 Objects: Hò Ro Gur Toigh Leinn Anna 

Contributor: Peigi Anndra MacRae, Mairi Anndra MacRae 

Fieldworker: Donald Archie MacDonald 

Reference: SA1964.062 

Link: http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/104487

Response: Dr Alison Mayne 

It’s extremely hard for me to pick one object from the School of Scottish Studies Archives.  I first discovered its treasures when Louise Scollay found a lever arch file full of clippings and letters about Cleekwork and she asked me to make a cleek glove based on a pattern found there.  This work developed into a Handmaking in the Archives event for the University of Edinburgh Festival of Creative Learning.  

Unsurprisingly perhaps, my interest in the SSSA focuses on the world of textiles and wool processing in particular.  The archive is packed with images, stories and songs of sheep, shearing, spinning and the transformation into cloth through knit or weave.  Louise herself selected a Barra waulking song as her favourite object, celebrating the community preparation of tweed.  Coming in a close second for my own favourite is the Tom Anderson 1960 recording of Rosabel Blance singing her own composition of ‘Roo the Bonny Oo which magically replicates the sound of a burring spinning wheel. 

However, I knew my special SSSA object had to come from Peigi Anndra MacRae.  With her sister, Mairi, Peigi opened her home to a young Margaret Fay Shaw in the late 1920s and introduced her to the crofting way of life, traditions, stories and music of South Uist.  After her marriage to ethnologist John Lorne Campbell, Shaw remained fast friends with Peigi Anndra as she developed the work which would become Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. 

Mary and Peggy MacRae
Image used with kind permission from Alex MacRae.

The relationship between folklorist / ethnologist and contributor is fascinating:  There are ethical concerns we are more aware of now which can make the uneven power relations between collector and singer feel uncomfortable; the mantle of expertise may have been borne by the fieldworker, but the incredible depth of knowledge lays with the singer or contributor.  In many ways, the interest lies for me in the process of collecting, not necessarily the item itself. 

Peigi Anndra’s singing of  Ro Gur Toigh Leinn Anna was recorded by Donald Archie MacDonald (who worked at the SSSA between 1962 to 1994) in 1964.  It tells of a woman sad that she is unable to take part in waulking the tweed and was composed by Mrs Catriona Campbell of South Lochboisdale. 

What I love is the uncertainty of memory, repetition and occasional pauses of Peigi Anndra’s singing, the quiet interjections of MacDonald where she forgets the words, Mairi calling corrections from across the room, the whirr and click of the reel to reel tape.  Recordings like this are not only significant in recording traditional song and ways of knowing, but in reminding listeners and researchers down the years of the process of recording.  It is a precious reminder that we should not forget the relationships and labour of collecting which have constructed the archive. 

 

Dr Alison Mayne is a researcher in everyday textiles and wellbeing, with additional interests in digital communities and design for older people. She holds awards from Women’s History Scotland, The Pasold Fund and is a University of Glasgow 2020-21 Visiting Library Fellow, supported by the William Lind Foundation.

@knittyphd

 

Image used with kind permission of the MacRae family. Please do not reproduce.

Further resources

There are further recordings from The School of Scottish Studies Collections featuring Peigi and Mairi MacRae. Many of these are available to stream via Tobar an Dualchais.

http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/searchByTrackId?id=SA1964.062

http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/searchByTrackId?id=SA1965.118

http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/searchByTrackId?id=SA1966.081

For more information about Margaret Fay Shaw and her relationship with the MacRaes visit The National Trust:  https://www.nts.org.uk/stories/stories-songs-and-starlings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged

SSSA in 70 Objects : A bird living in one of the houses on St Kilda, 1938

Chosen by Stephen Willis, Library Assistant, Centre for Research Collections.

On 29th August 1930, the island of St Kilda was evacuated due to its remote location and a dwindling population. The School of Scottish Studies Archives contains a photo album of St Kilda containing some bittersweet images of an ornithological visit made in 1938 showing the changes that had occurred.

The trip was made by naturalist and writer, Robert Atkinson, along with some people who had lived on the island, Neil Gillies, Annie Gillies and Finlay MacQueen and would return for the summer months. An image that caught my eye was of a wren, which had made its home in one of the abandoned houses.

B332 Robert Atkinson Collection – © The School of Scottish Studies Archives

It is amazing to think of such a tiny bird now ruling the roost in a house made for people. It is a beautiful composition, with the sun shining through the window and the bird looking up. It is perched on what looks like debris from the house which has deteriorated without being heated and maintained for 8 years. From another image in the album it looks like one of the birds, possibly the same one was caught and is being examined, before hopefully being allowed to go on its way.

B333 – The Robert Atkinson Collection © The School of Sottish Studies Archives

(Description: St. Kilda: Wren Caught by Neil Gillies in One of the Houses, July 29th 1938)

The bird seems to be sitting fearlessly in one of the visitor’s hands so perhaps this was because it had no experience of people until that day. As Atkinson said in his book Island Going (first published in 1949),

‘St Kilda wrens left the nest for a world without natural enemies. Their only mortality was accidental’.

Like many people, I have been watching birds more during lockdown and I have noticed how quickly they look to reclaim places that they have been chased away from by human activity. I saw a bird that was walking on the road last May and a car drove over where it was standing. Fortunately, it appeared uninjured and flew away, but it had no road sense because there had been so few cars on the road to learn to be afraid.

Perhaps it is most fitting to end with some words from Robert Atkinson’s on the wrens, which complement the images well:

‘They were so near it was like examining a bird in the hand; their St Kildan characteristics of larger size and stronger, greyer markings, robuster bills and legs, were plain. Pleasant to watch the stealthy bright-eyed approach to the nest, the gabbled transfer of caterpillars, the gentle receipt of the white sac; and to hear the invisible whirr of wings amplified within the dark hollow of the cleit.’

Reference: Robert Atkinson, Island Going (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2008), Chapter 20

 

You can browse images from the Atkinson Collection on The University of Edinburgh Image Collection website. 

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: https://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/sssa/sssa-in-70-objects/

 

 

Tagged ,