Archive voices offer a renewed sense of Scotland’s past

Haunting sound and video installations inspired by archive recordings spanning 70 years are offering exhibition audiences fresh perspectives on Scotland’s rich oral tradition.

a woman getting a book from a bookshelf
Heritage Collections Research Services Supervisor Daisy Stafford reshelves an item from the School of Scottish Studies Archives.

The new commissions, which feature recordings from a remarkable University of Edinburgh resource, take gallery-goers on a sensory journey around cities and towns, countryside and coasts.

A Carrying Stream showcases work by three artists, who have taken audio and film material from the School of Scottish Studies Archives and reimagined it for the digital age – to mesmerising effect.

Each of the three artists – Blair Coron, Fraser MacBeath and Carla Sayer – has responded to a chosen theme based on their previous engagement with the Archives.

Ebb and flow

The exhibition’s title comes from a line by poet, songwriter and political activist Hamish Henderson, who was a researcher in the School. Henderson wrote: “Maker, ye maun (must) sing them … tomorrow, songs will flow free again, and new voices be borne on the carrying stream.”

Exhibition co-curator Bianca Packham explains: “Traditions ebb and flow. They wind their way through time and space, shaped by the people and places they encounter, deeply rooted yet constantly evolving.

“Hamish Henderson's ‘carrying stream’ encapsulates this fluidity and dynamism, reminding us that traditions are always in a state of flux.”

Blair Coron is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from Fife. His music blends modern classical, traditional folk and storytelling. Themes of nature, people, time and place are common threads. Coron’s primary intention is to create enchanting atmospheres that set a course for introspection.

“The archives are a wonderful way to learn about Scotland’s past,” says Blair, “enabling us to link to a time other than our own. It is a deeply emotional connection that can’t be found in history books.”

Fraser MacBeath is an audio-visual artist from the Isle of Lewis. Using sound, film and installation, he combines elements of sound art and ambient music with abstract film and images of physical environments. His work focuses on memory, culture and the ties between tradition and modernity.

Fraser says: “I love combining these grainy, raspy, relics of Scotland with the latest production practices. It’s been great to trawl the archive for material that speaks to my experience growing up.”

Carla Sayer is an Edinburgh-based music creator and Edinburgh College of Art graduate, whose work is a journey into Scotland's industrial past. The reminiscences of millworkers are interspersed with field recordings of old machines and an original music score – a tribute to the artist’s great-grandmother and her working life in a textiles factory.

Carla says: “I hope this can help us collectively to consider how far women have come, bring to light what they endured to improve their pay and conditions, and reflect on how far we still have to go.”

Bianca Packham describes the exhibition as a deep listening experience that transports people to another time and place: "As visitors enter the gallery, we hope they take a moment to sit, close their eyes and be carried along the stream.”

Cherishing tradition

The School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh was established in 1951 to collect, preserve, research and publish material relating to the cultural traditions and folklore of Scotland.

Staff and student fieldworkers at the School have made around 33,000 recordings that include songs, instrumental music, tales, customs, beliefs and local history.

The early collectors visited crofting, farming and fishing communities to gather information on a range of cultural topics with many aspects of urban life documented too.

Archive material comes from across Scotland and its diaspora. As well as being a rich repository of oral tradition, it is invaluable for its range of dialects and accents in Gaelic, Scots and English.

The School’s extensive collections also include fieldwork equipment, photographs from the 1930s onwards, film and manuscripts. A selection of these will be displayed in the exhibition.

Exhibition co-curator Kirsty Stewart says: "The potency of archives lies in their use and re-use. We are fortunate that the School of Scottish Studies Archives regularly attracts creative users such as Carla, Blair, and Fraser.

“The creative re-use of archives is no less important or indeed impactful than when archives are used more conventionally, say for teaching classes or written research.”

A Carrying Stream will run from 9 June to 30 September in the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library at 30 George Square. Admission is free.

Related links

Book free tickets

Celtic & Scottish Studies 

Explore the School of Scottish Studies archive

Photo credit: Juliette Lichman