restricted access Dipping into the Well: Scottish Oral Tradition Online
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Dipping into the Well:
Scottish Oral Tradition Online

Scotland has a long history of collecting material from its oral traditions as illustrated by the various manuscripts and publications of songs, tales, and verse that have appeared from the sixteenth century onwards in the languages of Gaelic, Scots, and English. For a small country, Scotland's influence has stretched widely, particularly from the 1760s onwards with the publication of MacPherson's Ossian, a literary creation in English drawing on oral tradition from Gaelic-speaking Badenoch. The text was seminal to the European Romantic movement and the antiquarianism of that and the following centuries, and there has been much debate as to its "authenticity," which continues even to the present day. Collectors in Scotland have come from all walks of life, from aristocrats and landed gentry such as Lady Evelyn Stewart Murray (1868-1940), sister of the Duke of Atholl, who collected Gaelic tales from people working on the family estate in Perthshire,1 to those born into much poorer circumstances such as Robert Burns (1759-1796), son of a tenant farmer, who collected material for the Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803), songs and airs that attracted the interest of composers such as Haydn and Beethoven. Most of the collectors, though, appear to have been from the "professional" classes, principally teachers and preachers. They were literate and therefore able to create texts of the oral material, and their roles gave them access as "insider-outsiders" to the communities in which they were located.

Verse and song were the primary interests in the early period, and in Gaelic these are virtually interchangeable. But by the nineteenth century the field had opened up, and tales, customs, and beliefs began to feature more strongly. During this century there was also a growing awareness of presentation and the uses to which the material could be put. Whose account was presented? John Francis Campbell of Islay (1822-1885), who collected Gaelic tales, was a strong advocate of verbatim transcription and publication. In his introduction to Popular Tales of the West Highlands, in which he discusses the new science of "storyology," he indicates (1890:iii):

. . . it seemed to me as barbarous to "polish" a genuine popular tale, as it would be to adorn the bones of a Megatherium with tinsel, or gild a rare old copper coin. . . . [S]tories orally collected can only be valuable if given unaltered. . . .

He worked with a team that included John Dewar, a laborer, Hector Urquhart, a gamekeeper, and Hector MacLean, a schoolmaster. Campbell would make spot checks of their transcriptions by comparing them with the original sources to see how accurate they were. The tales were published as transcribed.

Image 1. Lachlan MacNeill, John Francis Campbell, and Hector MacLean, Islay, 1870 (School of Scottish Studies Archives).
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Image 1.

Lachlan MacNeill, John Francis Campbell, and Hector MacLean, Islay, 1870 (School of Scottish Studies Archives).

Other individuals, while taking what appear to be relatively accurate transcriptions, published quite different versions. For example, Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), author of Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic folklore, would sometimes make a collation from several original oral sources. Often these re-renderings would be done in the literary language of the time—moving ever further from the verbatim account.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought the use of sound recording equipment for the purpose of collecting. Gaelic songs were the main focus, with recordings made from 1907 onwards by Rudolf Trebitsch (1876-1918), an Austrian ethnologist; Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929), who was much involved in the Folk Song Society in England and worked in Arisaig; and Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) from Perth, who collected in the Hebrides. While it appears that Trebitsch was interested in "rescue ethnology," particularly in relation to endangered languages, Kennedy-Fraser was concerned not with the material per se, but with recreating it in the form of "artsongs." She would revamp the airs according to a western mode and use, to our ears, sometimes rather florid translations of the Gaelic originals, publishing these as Songs of the Hebrides and performing the songs around the world. During the 1920s and early 1930s James Maddison Carpenter (1888-1983) visited from the United States with his Dicataphone cylinder machine, recording traditional...