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.