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The School of Scottish Studies Archives at 70

It’s 70 years since the University began collecting images, stories and voices of unheard Scottish lives. Lori Watson and Neill Martin reflect on this cultural milestone.

Photo of two men with a microphone
Ailidh Dall Stiùbhart (Blind Alec Stewart) with Hamish Henderson, Sutherland, 1958. Photo by Sandy Paton

In 1951, staff and students in Scottish Studies set out on a decades-long journey around Scotland capturing elements of life in farming and fishing communities, towns and cities.

Today, the University of Edinburgh is celebrating the work of these pioneering ethnographers, among them Calum MacLean and Hamish Henderson, who listened to people’s stories, asked searching questions and unearthed hidden cultural gems.

The School of Scottish Studies Archives is now a unique cultural treasure trove of some 33,000 sound recordings (songs, music, tales, and poems), thousands of photographs, films, videos and manuscripts. As well as the public, it is used extensively by staff and students, including to inspire new creative work.

In this extract from the Edinburgh Impact article, 'Where artistry and everyday life meet', Lori Watson and Neill Martin share their thoughts on what the Archives mean and look ahead to the 70th anniversary celebrations.

Infinitely relatable and captivating

Lori is a Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology, and an acclaimed fiddle player and traditional singer. Reflecting on the sound archive in particular, she comments:

“Once you get those headphones on and disappear into the lives and experiences of other people as they share parts of themselves, their families, communities, their work, beliefs, hopes and sorrows: it is infinitely relatable and captivating.”

“As a musician there is so much to learn from and be creatively inspired by and as a fieldworker there is much to wonder at and empathise with! I am particularly motivated by the opening of the archives to the public and the engagement of artists of all kinds with the archive holdings.”

“For students and experts of the traditional arts, the School of Scottish Studies’ recordings, images and curated library are essential in refining and absorbing essential stylistic aspects of music and song in Scotland for interpretation and for performance.”

“As part of the celebrations this year, I’ll be drawing together and highlighting music works created in response to the sound archive and facilitating some new ones too!”

The simple business of living

Neill is a Senior Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology and Head of Celtic and Scottish Studies.

For him, the key to the success of the Archives is that they are a living resource.

“The archives are chiefly in the form of sound recordings, yet they are mute, silent, until we engage with them.”

“What moves me most is that we enter into a kind of communion with the voices of those who lived before us, perhaps long before us. There is an intimacy to it. We hear their songs, their stories, their experiences of love and war and work, of the simple business of living.”

“These are vivid glimpses of lives lived, lives which, like most, would never have made it into print. To use the Archives is to engage in a kind of time travel; a journey to a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.”

Read the full article on Edinburgh Impact

Edinburgh Impact is a new platform highlighting how the University community is making its mark on the world through its research, innovation, ideas and actions.

An evening of Rebellious Truth

As part of the SSSA at 70 celebrations, Celtic and Scottish Studies partnered with Edinburgh Tradfest to live stream the first annual Rebellious Truth Lecture on Monday 10th May 2021.

Through presentation and live performance, folk singer, songwriter and theatre-maker Karine Polwart explored the importance of traditional arts and the role of traditional artists of all backgrounds and practices in addressing societal concerns.

In particular, Karine's insightful and personal Rebellious Truth Lecture comprised moments of realisation, observation and reflection that connected traditional song and creative work with the importance of understanding, experiencing and naming the natural world around us and our destructive tendencies of commodification and consumption.

The event also featured the première of The Order of Time by our Traditional Artist in Residence, Mike Vass, accompanied by Mairearad Green. 

Our blog post about the event includes clips of three songs discussed and performed by Karine on the night.

Read our blog post about the first annual Rebellious Truth Lecture

Are you interested in studying with us?

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.

Find out more about Celtic and Scottish Studies

The School of Scottish Studies Archives were a huge draw for me. Having such a rich resource of folk material at my fingertips - while also being encouraged to submit my own fieldwork to it - was too great an opportunity to miss. 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 undergraduate, was very empowering. 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.

Ella Leith, MA (Hons) and MSc by Research in Scottish Ethnology, and PhD in Celtic and Scottish StudiesElla is a freelance researcher for the European Ethnological Research Centre with an interest in British Sign Language storytelling

Related links

Keep up to date with SSSA at 70 celebrations

Read our interview with Scottish Ethnology graduate Ella Leith