Literatures, Languages & Cultures


Meet our graduates: Ella Leith

Having studied Scottish Ethnology as both an undergraduate and postgraduate, Ella has developed particular expertise in British Sign Language storytelling in Scottish deaf communities.

Photograph of Ella Leith
Ella Leith in the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Dr Ella Leith first came to the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) in 2004 as a Scottish Ethnology undergraduate in Celtic and Scottish Studies.

Over 13 years on, she has completed both an MSc by Research and a PhD with us, and has been a tutor to undergraduate Scottish Studies students here since 2009.

British Sign Language (BSL) has become Ella’s particular specialism, informing both her career choices and the way she chooses to spend her spare time.

In addition to a number of part-time roles, she is on the committees of Deaf History Scotland and EdSign (a bilingual public engagement lecture series), and volunteers as a literacy tutor with The City of Edinburgh Council.

Using and thinking in visual and spatial language

Ella works part-time for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (on secondment from Heriot-Watt University), developing options for British Sign Language as a curriculum subject in Scottish schools.

Her other role is as a freelance researcher, most regularly for the European Ethnological Research Centre (affiliated to Celtic and Scottish Studies), making the centre’s Regional Ethnology of Scotland project accessible to deaf BSL-using audiences, and on collecting BSL oral histories to incorporate into the project.

Asked about her biggest achievements, she cites “learning BSL to a level of fluency where I’m able to give signed public lectures about my research, and getting a positive response from deaf audience members, though my supervisors would probably say passing my PhD viva with no corrections!”

“The deaf people I can now call colleagues and friends are a constant motivation, and my mind is blown daily by the implications of using and thinking in visual and spatial language.”

Freedom to explore the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Originally from the West Midlands, England, and now based in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Ella knew she wanted to study Scottish Ethnology from her early teens “due to a passionate interest in storytelling, singing and folklore traditions”.

She describes the School of Scottish Studies Archives (which has recently reopened after a major refurbishment) as a “huge draw”, saying “having such a rich resource of folk material at my fingertips - while also being encouraged from the very beginning to submit my own fieldwork to it - was too great an opportunity to miss.”

In terms of her learning experience in Celtic and Scottish Studies, “being encouraged to undertake independent fieldwork from very early on in the programme had a massive impact. The sense of being thought capable of making a valuable contribution to the Archive, even as a lowly second year, was very empowering.”

“I also valued the freedom we were given to explore the Archives, and to come up with our own essay topics and projects. This could lead to being over-ambitious (I still remember the look on the Traditional Drama course organiser’s face when I presented him with a thirty-page dramaturgical choreography of the folk play ‘Galoshins’), but having that freedom gave me a real excitement about the subject area and all the possibilities for research – which I then went on to explore in my postgraduate study.”

Enthusiasm for, and delight in, the subject area

Looking back on her days as an undergraduate, Ella says “I loved the programme and hated having to make choices between the different honours courses.”

“The Traditional Narrative course was fantastic, and I still can’t bring myself to throw away my notes. The Ethnology of Social Organisation and the Onomastics (naming studies) courses were also fascinating and have stayed with me since.”

“It’s impossible to do justice to the positive impact that the staff - teaching, administrative, and Archive - have had on me. Right from the start, they communicated a real enthusiasm for and delight in the subject area, and a warm collaborative openness towards the students which manifested itself in giving us freedom to let us explore our own research interests.”

“I think the fact that so many members of staff are also creative practitioners made a difference: I was taught by academics who were also musicians, singers, storytellers, writers - and so there was a sense of dynamic engagement with theory and practice.”

A wonderfully close cohort of students

Asked what her advice would be to people interested in Scottish Ethnology, Ella says “care about it for its own sake, and seek out the people who will inspire and support you.”

For her, those people were both staff and fellow students. “The staff projected a set of values that I found very appealing and inspiring, which can be reduced down to the belief that people, and the everyday things they do, and who they think they are, fundamentally matter and should be celebrated.” 

“Not very many people know about Scottish Ethnology as a subject area, and so those that do tend to be very keen. I was lucky enough to be part of a wonderfully close cohort of students, almost all of whom were passionate about the subject and interested in bouncing ideas around and exploring different avenues together.”

“I still think that all the best people are ethnologists, whether they know it or not!”

Are you interested in studying Scottish Ethnology at LLC?

The only programme of its kind in the world, our four-year undergraduate degree provides a fascinating insight into the traditional and popular culture of Scotland, putting folklore and folklife in a Scottish and international context. We also offer a one year MSc by Research degree and a PhD in the area.

Find out more in our guide to Celtic and Scottish Studies

Related links

Read our feature on the reopening of the School of Scottish Studies Archives