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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.

Almost 20 years on, she has completed both an MSc by Research and a PhD with us, and was a tutor to undergraduate Scottish Studies students before moving to Malta in March 2019, where she continues to work as a freelance researcher for the European Ethnological Research Centre (EERC), which is affiliated to Celtic and Scottish Studies.

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.

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!”

Using and thinking in visual and spatial language

As part of her contribution to EERC, Ella has worked to make 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.

Having developed options for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to introduce British Sign Language as a curriculum subject in Scottish schools, she is currently assisting the Authority on developing the new British Sign Language Awards - qualifications aimed at Scottish high school students.

She has served on the committees of Deaf History Scotland and EdSign (a bilingual public engagement lecture series), and volunteered as a literacy tutor with The City of Edinburgh Council, at a Maltese food bank, and for a book preservation project at a local monastery, also in Malta.

Asked what motivates her, Ella says “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, 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 celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2021) 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!”

May 2021 - This is an updated edition of an article first published in November 2017.

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Home of the School of Scottish Studies Archives, we are the longest established Celtic department in Scotland. Choose from a wide range of undergraduate degrees in Celtic, Scottish Ethnology, Scottish Studies, and Primary Education with Gaelic, or a range of postgraduate programmes, including our Masters by Research in Scottish Ethnology.

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Related links

Read our feature on the 70th anniversary of the School of Scottish Studies Archives