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SSSA in 70 Objects: Puzzling Black Cats

Do you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia or Mavrogatphobia? Perhaps don’t read on!

Today is Friday, 13th August – Friday the Thirteenth! The day, it is said, that is purported to be unlucky or be shrouded in superstitious or even supernatural belief, although nobody really knows why! Nevertheless, we are always keen for an opportunity to delve into the collections related to superstitions.

I found this letter in a box of correspondence (SSSA/Box141) related to Alan Bruford, Archivist and lecturer at the School of Scottish Studies. This letter was sent from a school in Aberdeen by Class 1K and is dated January 1980; the query is on black cats and luck!  The class had been learning about superstitions, but had a burning question for Professor John MacQueen, the Director of The School of Scottish Studies at that time.

 

 

“Most of the things [superstitions] that we have thought of we have found a solution to them, but there is one thing that has had us puzzled, BLACK CATS. We don’t know why they are lucky or unlucky, so that is why we are writing.”

The letter was signed by 19 students.

You can really feel that sense of bewilderment and that vehement thirst for knowledge of Class 1k.

 

As you can see, the secretary at the School was perhaps unsure who was best to answer this question and suggested Alan Bruford or Jack [John] MacQueen might have the answer. But did they? Did Class 1K get a response?

Often with correspondence such as this, a copy of the response was kept with the letter and there was no response with this one. I hope that we might be able to give some information today, if it isn’t too late.

 

 

page 81 of "The cat, a guide to the classification and varieties of cats and a short tratise upon their care, diseases, and treatment" (1895)

page 81 of “The cat, a guide to the classification and varieties of cats and a short treatise upon their care, diseases, and treatment” (1895)

 

It is true, there are conflicting reports – sometimes Black cats seem to foretell good and bad luck. Perhaps one reason for this is that black cats were associated with being the devil or with the alleged ill doing of witches. The persecution of people as witches is a blog post for another day!

Perhaps (like “witches”) it’s all down to individual beliefs and who the luck is intended for. Often the cats came off worse!  Here are a few examples from our collections.

 

Bad Luck?

Nan MacKinnon told Anne Ross about a black cat that followed a man who had jilted his wife. The man’s mother had to speak to the minister before the cat, mysteriously, stopped appearing. Was this black cat really a wronged woman, come to seek out revenge?

BANA-BHUIDSEACH MAR CHAT. Nan MacKinnon (contributor), Anne Ross (fieldworker). SA1964.078.B. https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/23715

 

In the Maclagan Manuscripts (1893-1902) there are a few mentions of Black cats and mostly of them related to bad luck. A female contributor in Newhaven, Edinburgh, told if men were to meet a black cat on their way to go fishing, they would just say to one another ‘We hae gane far enough the day’, and they would turn back, for they would be quite sure their luck was gone. (MML8840)

This practice was also observed in St Ninians; miners there held that it was unlucky for one to meet one. When they returned home after the encounter, they did not go out for the rest of the day, simply on account of a black cat having crossed the road before them! (MML9112). Also from Maclagan is a statement from an Lewis contributor, who stated that the breath of a black cat was pure poison (MML3847a)

 

Good Luck, but for who?

Another entry in the Maclagan manuscripts details another fishing-related black cat tale, this time from Westray, Orkney. An old man was often asked to secure good weather for the fishermen and he did this by putting a black cat under a creel while the boats were out. On one occasion a boy (who became the reciter’s brother in law in time) let the cat out for mischief. This apparently caused a sudden storm at sea from which the fishermen managed to escape from (MML 6771-6772).

 

Donald John Stewart, of South Uist, told a curious tale of a Glasgow man who went to stay in the highlands for his health. An old woman told him about a particular mirror in one room in the house he was staying in, and said that anyone who looked in it when the full moon was shining on the sea outside would turn into a cat. The man did just that, and turned into a big black cat. The old woman then told his family to submerge the cat in the well seven times by the light of the full moon, and that when they let him go the seventh time, he would be restored!

AN SGÀTHAN ANN AN TAIGH COIRE BHREAGAIN. Donald John Stewart (Contributor), Donald Archie MacDonald (fieldworker). SA1975.113.B3. https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/76886

 

Stanley Robertson told a tale to Barbara McDermitt about a woman who sold her soul to the Devil for some wishes. Before her time came to spend the afterlife with the Devil, she wished to be young and beautiful and for her black tom cat to be made into a man to love her. Sadly – for both, presumably – ‘Big Tom’ was lacking somewhat!

An old spinster wished for her cat to be turned into a handsome young man, Stanley Robertson (Contributor), Barbara McDermitt (Fieldworker). SA1971.13.A1. https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/65452

 

Good Luck – they just are!

In my own upbringing I was always told that a black cat crossing your path was good luck indeed. According to my Nannie, they just are lucky!

I can’t find too many examples from our material available on Tobar an Dualchais, but Donald Sinclair, from Tiree. told John MacInnes that it was fortunate to have a Black cat around the place {SA1968.024) and Eileen McCafferty, from East Lothian, told Morag MacLeod and Emily Lyle that the tail of a black cat could cure warts (SA1974.24). If that isn’t good luck, then what is?!

Thankfully, we don’t only have to look to the archives to find out the answer to the query. We took to the twitter hivemind and this is what they had to say (well, 42 of them!)

poll which reads 64.3% of respondents think black cats are good luck

 

 

Class 1k, from Bankhead Academy, 1980 I think it is safe to say there is no real solution to this one.

What are your own thoughts, reader?

 

We will leave you to ponder your own superstitious beliefs with two bonny black cats belonging to Archive & Library Assistant, Elliot.

 

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Queering the Archive: Chat with Rufus Elliot and Rylan Gleave from OVER/AT and their new EP, “Folk’s Songs”

 

 

An image of some of the SSSA collections and shelving with the progress pride filter added. Bottom text says Queering The Archive in white.

 

As part Queering the Archives, we will feature conversations and podcasts with various people undertaking work and projects that feature LGBT+ voices and representation. My first conversation is with musicians and vocalists Rufus Elliot and Rylan Gleave about their work with OVER/AT and their new EP, “Folk’s Songs”.

 

“FOLKS’ SONGS is a new E.P. from the trans music-making world of OVER/AT. It comprises three exclusive, newly commissioned audio pieces by three Scotland-based trans, non-binary, or other gender-minority artists: new songs for/by/with the Folk. It is unlike any trans music-making which has come before it in Scotland.”

 

Rufus is a composer and musicians and founder and producer of OVER/AT, “a trans nonbinary and gender diverse music making world” that works directly with Scottish and Scotland based trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse musicians. OVER/AT is designed to empower and create imaginative responses from trans voices. It commissioned three artists to make pieces, responding to the idea of the trans voice. This included Malin Lewis, Harry Josephine Giles, and Matthew Arthur Williams. They each made completely different responses to that idea that made up the EP of “Folk’s Songs”.

Rylan Gleave is a composer and vocalist based in Glasgow, who also teaches singing and has produced and worked on the OVER/AT project. Rylan held introductory vocal workshops and individual lessons with some of the artists from the EP. He also recorded Viv singing Out of Existence, on Rufus’ direction, due to C19 restrictions. Alongside Rufus, Rylan created some accessible singing resources, including making audio voice-overs and BSL interpretation to go on the website

The EP is an incredibly visceral record that takes you through the trans, nonbinary, and gender diverse music experience through the voice and its eclectic sounds. The EP explores the idea of speaking out, the voice, and trans voices and spaces and being empowered to explore our voices. The voice is something that can be so personal to each trans experience and the EP is an example of how strong the trans voice and creativity is, as well as showing how trans, nonbinary and gender diverse Folk can use the voice and create spaces in the music scene and beyond. It was a joy to chat everything OVER/AT and the EP with Rufus and Rylan and delving into the influences of the EP and their own work, as well as trans and queer representation in music and elsewhere.

 

Listen to the podcast here:

https://tinyurl.com/yah5j8vr

 

 

 

“Folk’s Songs” was released March 26, 2021.

artwork – Jamie Crewe
additional design – Leo Valenti
producer – Rufus Isabel Elliot
mixing and mastering engineer – Kay Logan

track 1 recorded by Malin Lewis
track 2 recorded by Matthew Arthur Williams & Joel Cu
tracks 3-7 recorded by Rylan Gleave
track 8 recorded by Matthew Arthur Williams and Rufus Isabel Elliot

The work was made possible by Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator programme, and supported by Creative Scotland. Composer-Curator is supported by Arts Council England and PRS Foundation.

Find further information on OVER/AT and purchase “Folk’s Songs” on Bandcamp here: https://over-at.bandcamp.com/  Access the learning resources here: https://www.ambf.co.uk/learning-resources

Find more about Rufus here: https://www.ambf.co.uk/

Find more about Rylan here: https://www.rylangleave.com/

And check out the album, “Not Passing” here: https://comfortglasgow.bandcamp.com/album/not-passing

 

 

 

Written by Elliot Holmes.

Elliot is one of the Archives and Library Assistants at the School of Scottish Studies Archives and uses He/They pronouns. You can also find him on twitter @elliotlholmes

Follow @EU_SSSA on twitter for updates and sharing our collections.

Please do feel free to get in touch with Elliot to take part in a podcast or other Queering the Archive blogs and information on the workshop and future events!

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Queering the Archive: An Announcement of a New Initiative

We are excited to announce the work on our new Queering the Archive initiative. This initiative aims to increase representation of LGBT+ records within our collections. 

Queering the Archive will hope to investigate the gaps in our collections and cataloging to improve LGBT+ representation with aims for further development and active archiving in the future. The initiative is a part of our 70th Anniversary plans and will be included in a series of events over the rest of the year. The initiative will allow us to go forward in improving marginalised and underrepresented voices and material. 

 

An image of progress pride. It Includes the rainbow flag design, with arrows to the left of the trans flag and representation of people of colour in pride and the community.

Progress Pride Flag


There are unfortunately little accounts of LGBT+ histories and recordings in the School of Scottish Studies Archives. 
In particular, there is little representation on queer folklore, folk narratives, or songs in a wider historical and archival setting. LGBT+ histories are sometimes ‘hidden’ histories, either through historical context on discussion of LGBT+ identity and topics, lack of archiving or archival interest, or a lack of appropriate and inclusive search-terms and cataloging that reflects queer identities.

 

Queering the Archive will begin with an intervention and discussion workshop.

 

The workshop will provide a starting point to actively work with the community to discuss our collections, representation, as well as crowd-source search-terms for improvement of cataloging developed by and for the LGBT+ community. 

Workshops will allow participants to engage with our records and active intervention through crowd-sourcing and discussion. It is our aim to work with the community, skill-share, and offer meaningful collaboration and discussion as much as possible throughout the initiative. It will introduce you to our collections, queer theory, and investigations into our LGBT+ and related records.

Workshops will be completely free and led remotely via Zoom, and will utilise other platforms.

Dates are to be announced. 

 

 

We will also be producing a series of blogs exploring the initiative and application of queer theory to our collections with further discussion. 

The next blog will explore queering the collections through the popular and infamous ‘cross-dressing’ ballads and exploring the queerness and issues of LGBT+ representation in the context of the selected ballads and traditions.

We will also be exploring the work ‘behind the scenes’ of Queering the Archive through our blogs and we will include other exciting material and updates!

 

 

If you are interested in taking part in the workshops, researching LGBT+ recordsusing our collections for your work, depositing your work and records, or working with us for Queering the Archive, please contact Elliot.Holmes@ed.ac.uk  

 

Written by Elliot Holmes. 

Elliot is one of the Archives and Library Assistants at the School of Scottish Studies Archives and uses He/They pronouns. You can also find him on twitter @elliotlholmes  

Follow @EU_SSSA on twitter for updates on the 70th Anniversary, Queering the Archive, and sharing our collections. 

#SSSA70 #QueeringSSSA

 

 

 

The term Queering has been used by many across the Gallery, Library, Archive, and Museum, (GLAM), sector with many launching queering initiatives to expand and represent LGBT+ histories. We will be using the term Queer as a catch-all term, and the term Queering in regards to application of queer theory and approaches. We will also be using the term LGBT+ throughout the initiative. 

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