Dr. Margaret Mackay describes the beginnings and journey of the SOHG

I am delighted to have been asked to reflect on the people, aims and ideals instrumental at the start, and some of the Group’s early work.  I have been a member since the beginning and associated with the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh throughout this time, the institution which has been at the heart of the Group’s activities since its inception.

The prime mover in this development was Eric Cregeen (1921-1983), with whom I had the great privilege to work as a Research Fellow from 1973.  In his career he combined several approaches, historical, ethnological, archaeological, arising from his studies at Cambridge, his work for the Manx Museum and particularly its Folk Life Survey (his family roots were in the Isle of Man) and experiences in the post which first brought him to Scotland in 1954, that of organiser for Glasgow University’s Extra-Mural activities in Argyll.  From his base there he embarked on research in the Argyll Estate Muniments.  In these, along with his recognition of the rich vein of oral tradition to be found in communities such as those on the island of Tiree, and its potential for complementing and augmenting the written record, lay the genesis of the ‘Tiree Project’, with its focus on its life and history in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1966 Eric Cregeen was appointed to the staff of the School of Scottish Studies, founded fifteen years earlier, in 1951, at the University of Edinburgh.  Although the term ‘oral history’ was not in use at that time, its members were engaged in precisely this kind of activity.  The School was established to be a centre for collecting, archiving, researching, studying and publishing material relating to Scotland’s cultural heritage.  Its sound archives soon came to be known world-wide for their unique holdings in Gaelic and Scots – vocal and instrumental music, tales, customs, beliefs, aspects of material culture, place-names and, importantly, information on the “way of life” past and present – gathered through field recording in all parts of the country.

Pioneering these activities were Calum Maclean (1915-1960) and Hamish Henderson (1919-2002), to be joined later by Francis Collinson, Stewart Sanderson, James Ross, Anne Ross, Bill Nicolaisen, Basil Megaw, Donald Archie MacDonald, John MacInnes, Alan Bruford, Peter Cooke and others.  It was Calum Maclean who so memorably wrote, in his book The Highlands, first published in 1959, “There are two histories of every land and people, the written history that tells what is considered politic to tell and the unwritten history that tells everything”.

Eric’s appointment was to have “social organisation” as its focus and his respect for oral sources of evidence ensured that he was involved with the nascent Oral History Society in the early 1970s, contributing eloquently to some of its early conferences.   He invited the OHS to hold a conference in Scotland in 1977 and hosted this at the School of Scottish Studies.  Early in 1978 a conference on “Oral History in Scotland” was held there, sponsored by the department and by the Scottish Record Office (now the National Archives of Scotland), where the then Keeper of the Records of Scotland, John Imrie, had an interest in film and sound records.  Eric organised this with John Bates of the SRO and speakers included Alan Bruford and Fred Kent, the former the School’s Research Archivist, the latter its Chief Technician, John Hume, Marinell Ash and Michael Robson.  The last three, from the worlds of academic economic and industrial history, broadcasting and museums respectively, with the others, point to important early constituents of the oral history movement in Scotland.

That day ended with a discussion on “The Future of Oral History in Scotland”.  Out of this came a Scottish Oral History Committee, which instituted the Scottish Oral History Group at a conference held on 2 December 1978 at the University of Strathclyde.  The Group’s first committee was composed of Professor T C Smout, now the Historiographer Royal of Scotland (Honorary President), Eric Cregeen (Chair), John Bates (Vice Chair), Iain Flett (Secretary).  Its newsletter, known from issue three as BY WORD OF MOUTH, was edited at the start by Angus Martin and its first issue outlined the aims of the Group, to “promote, develop and refine” oral history methods and to make these “better known and more widely used in the investigation of Scottish life”.

From its inception, the Scottish Oral History Group embraced a wider, more open and inclusive interpretation of what constituted ‘oral history’ or ‘oral sources’ than the Oral History Society, where the emphasis was on personal experience and reminiscence.  In Scotland, the transmission of a knowledge of the past through oral testimony – inherited tradition as well as life stories – was considered a dimension which was vital to include.  This should, and would, be subject to the kind of critical scrutiny and analysis that other sources also required, and folkloristic theory could be invoked appropriately.  Methodologically and theoretically, this wide embrace has been an important feature of oral history work in Scotland from the start.

Early landmarks included the establishment of a register of oral history material by the SRO through its National Register of Archives (Scotland) and a regular pattern of SOHG Conferences, often including practical workshops and sometimes meeting with allied organisations.  The possibilities offered by Manpower Services Commission (MSC) funding for oral history projects encouraged work in many parts of the country, and Billy Kay’s BBC Scotland Series Odyssey, with its associated exhibition and two publications of the same name, were rightly hailed as major achievements in illustrating the potent qualities of oral history.  A glance at the contents of the combined volume, Odyssey: Voices from Scotland’s Recent Past shows the range of topics being researched at the time by those who contributed, all deserving recognition as pioneers in the field:  working life in agriculture, fisheries and in the mining, steel, jute and lace industries;  the experience of incomers to Scotland, Irish, Jewish, Lithuanian, Italian;  internal migration and emigration;  the impact of World Wars One and Two, the Temperance Movement, the General Strike, the Depression, land raids; the lives of Scottish Travellers, Barra tradition, wedding customs.

Since those early days oral history in Scotland has taken its place in university curricula, in local and national data-gathering initiatives, in museums and heritage centres.  Digital technologies and the internet are transforming methods and access to collections.  The way forward is a challenging one for the Scottish Oral History Group as it continues true to the aims set out by its founders, still as relevant now as they were at the start, to “promote, develop and refine” oral history methods and to make these “better known and more widely used in the investigation of Scottish life”.  As Eric Cregeen wrote in the Group’s inaugural newsletter, “The recordings we make now will be a powerful aid to future generations living in a much-changed society”.