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Rannsachadh digiteach air a' Ghàidhlig ~ Goireasan digiteach airson nan Gàidheal

Month: March 2022

Decoding Hidden Heritages: Connections

One of the best things about having worked in The School of Scottish Studies Archives & Library for the past five years is seeing how people are connected with the archive recordings here.

I don’t only mean seeing how our readers are affected by connecting their own research to the myriad depths and layers of oral record testimony – though that process is rather like watching someone discovering treasure every single time. Once the Decoding Hidden Heritages project reaches its culmination, the transcript material from the Tale Archive will be another important layer to these recordings, and available for all to discover.

I also refer to the connections than extend outside the archives.

Black ad white image of a man sitting outside a house, he is talking into a recorder, being held out to him by a fieldworker. the fieldworker is cut out of the left side of the image

Angus MacNeil of Smirasary, Glenuig, being interviewed by Calum Maclean (out of image) 1959 Image copyright: SSSA

Many of the people who were recorded in the first decades of the School of Scottish Studies are no longer alive, but their material lives on in those who have connections to the people, their native area, or work or traditions. For example. Shetland fiddle players come to the collections to learn the playing style of the isles; Gaelic singers have used the archive to learn a regional variation of a song for performance; local heritage groups using material recorded in their location for museum exhibitions; storytellers learning tales…and the Carrying Stream flows on.

For me,  these connections are particularly palpable when tied to family and we have great links with relations of some of our contributors and fieldworkers. Some can fill in details for us, such as other family members who were recorded or give background information that adds more depth. Often they give permission for re-use of material, if the archive do not hold the rights. Sometimes people come to us looking for recordings their relatives made and at other times we are connected with people who did not know their relation was recorded at all. In all of these instances those connections between contributor, recording, family and us, as the archive, are further strengthened and emboldened.

For those who read my previous blog on seeking the unknown person in the collections – I have an update! A former colleague (connections, again!) sent the post on to her friend from Glenuig who may have known my two unknown women of Smirasary – “You never know, he might have an idea who they are?”

Within a few hours I had a response – not only did he know who they were, but one of the women was his grandmother. The woman that was down in our records as “Anon Woman B / Mrs MacDonald?” was indeed a Mrs MacDonald. She was Johanna MacDonald (1880-1973) and there is more material in the Archives attributed to her from other fieldwork trips to Smirasary in the mid-late 1950s. You can hear some of those other recordings on Tobar an Dualchais. Another fantastic set of connections and one which will hopefully lead to these transcriptions becoming more accessible.

I never fail to be surprised at the connections people have to The School of Scottish Studies Archives, or the weight and strength of those connections!

“Magic Flight”: A Mi’kmaq Tale

There are 28 versions of Aarne–Thompson–Uther (ATU) Index tale type 313 at the School of Scottish Studies Archives, but this particular one stands out. It is a tale told by Isabel Morris Googoo from the Mi’kmaq (or Micmac) tribe in Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, to folklorist Elsie Clews Parsons in 1923. It was originally published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1925, but the copy we have on file is from a 1986 edition of the Cape Breton Magazine, with added illustrations of Mi’kmaq petroglyphs from a publication by the Nova Scotia Museum. The article notes that “it is an example of elements of European stories and religion that have been worked into Micmac tradition.” In this part of Canada, this European influence would have come more specifically from Scottish and French settlers, although this tale type has variations that can be found across the globe. It even has ties to Ancient Greek mythology. In Scots, it is best known as Nicht, Nought, Nothing collected by Andrew Lang from “an aged old lady in Morayshire” (In Lang’s words). Unfortunately, the lady is not named as is too often the case with female narrators, and actually what makes the Mi’kmaq Magic Flight story so interesting is that it was told and collected by women, and they are specifically named. In the Journal of American Folklore article, we are even given the names of the source of the story: Googoo’s grandmother, Mary Doucet Newell. The collector, Elsie Clews Parsons, was one of the earliest figures for the feminist movement and was outspoken on the negative effects of gender role expectations, publishing works on the topic in the early 20th century.

An Irish version of the Magic Flight tale, also collected by a woman, can be read on the Duchas website here.

The Mi’kmaq Magic Flight tale from the Cape Breton Magazine is attached here in its entirety. Note the adverts, providing a wonderful glimpse into the social history of 1980’s Nova Scotia!

A Micmac Tale – Magic Flight



Parsons, Elsie Clews. “Micmac Folklore.” The Journal of American Folklore 38, no. 147 (1925): 55–133. *Warning: this article contains some offensive language*

Peverill, L.., Robertson, M.. Rock Drawings of the Micmac Indians. Petroglyphs. N.p.: n.p., 1973.

Cape Breton’s magazine. 1972. Wreck Cove, N.S.: R. Caplan (Edition no. 41, 1986).

Lang, Andrew. Custom and Myth. United States: Harper & brothers, 1893.

Dè a’ Ghàidhlig air fee-fi-fo-fum?

(English Synopsis: Musings about what the words fith fath fuathagaich /fi fa fuəgɪç/ which are spoken by giants in certain tales such as Gille an Fheadain Duibh ‘The Lad of the Black Whistle’ could mean and whether there might possible be a link to the fee-fi-fo-fum from Jack and the Beanstalk.)

Ann an seann-sgeulachdan, tachraidh e gu math tric gun nochd facal, abairt no gnàthas-cainnte annasach. Ach chan iongnadh mòr sin: b’ i a’ Ghàidhlig a’ chiad chànan aig an fheadhainn a dh’innis na sgeulaichean ud. Bhiodh iad a’ toirt dealbh air an t-saoghal ann an Gàidhlig sa chiad dol a-mach, agus bha Gàidhlig èasgaidh shùbailte shiùbhlach aca a tha a leithid mar rionnagan san oidhche fhrasaich an-diugh. Ach leis gun dàinig na sgeulachdan seo a-nuas thuca o ghinealach gu ginealach, uaireannan nochdaidh rud-eigin annta air a bheil coltas fìor-aosta agus nach eil furasta ri thuigsinn idir.

Tha sgeulachd ann a nochdas ann an diofar cruthan ach aig cridhe na sgeulachd tha balach òg a nì sabaid an aghaidh trì fuamhairean agus am màthair. Fhuair am balach obair buachailleachd aig cailleach ann am baile air chor-eigin agus bidh e a’ falbh le gobhair na caillich. Ged a thoirmisg a’ chailleach dha falbh rathad nam fuaimhairean, sin a nì e. Agus nuair a ruigeas e an gàrradh a tha mun cuairt air taigh a’ chiad fhuamhaire, cuiridh e toll ann agus leigidh am balach na gobhair a-steach. Bidh am balach crosta seo (an-dà, tha e dìreach air dochann a dhèanamh air gàrradh fuamhaire bochd agus na gobhair ag ithe a’ bharra aige a-nis!) an uair sin a’ sreap suas craobh agus a’ cluich fhìdeag ann. Thig an uairsin fuamhair ’s e airson facal modhail fhaighinn air mac an ànraidh seo shuas sa chraobh agus bidh rann àraidh aig an fhuamhair ’s e a’ tighinn:

Air fith fath fuathagaich¹ air barraibh an albhagaich,²
’S fhada bha mo chorp air feadh ga meirgeadh ’s tolladh
a’ feitheamh air greim dhe d’ fheòil is
balgam dhe d’ fhuil, a mhic an Albannaich.³

¹ no fuagaich/fuamhaich
² no almhagaich/all(a)mharaich agus fiù air baile nan Albannaich uaireannan
³ no rìgh

Nise, tha an dàrna, treas is ceathramh sreath furasta gu leòr ri thuigsinn, fuilteach ’s gu bheil iad. Ach bha a’ chiad sreath a-riamh a’ cur iongnadh orm. Dè th’ ann an albhaga(i)ch? Agus dè dìreach a tha air fith fath fuathagaich a’ ciallachadh? Feumaidh mi aideachadh nach eil fhios a’m, ged a tha nàdar de dh’amharas agam. (Ma tha sibh airson èisteachd ris, seo aon dhe na clàraidhean aig Sgoil Eòlais na h-Alba. Tha am fith fath fuathagaich a’ nochdadh san dàrna clàradh, ’s dòcha dà mhionaid an dèidh toiseach a’ chlàraidh.)

A’s a’ chiad dol a-mach, saoilidh mi gu bheil baile nan Albannaich dìreach na mhearachd is an sgeulaiche a’ dol car iomrall (no fiù an neach a rinn an tar-sgrìobhadh, chan eil na clàraidhean cho soilleir uaireannan). Ged nach eil mi cinnteach idir mun albhagaich, leis gu bheil gach tionndadh dhen sgeulachd ag innse gun do shreap e suas craobh, chanainn gu bheil air barraibh (< bàrr + -aibh) ag innse gu bheil e na shuidhe air rudeigin, ge be dè th’ ann an albhagaich. Tha albhagaich a’ toirt ailbh(eag) “creag” nam inntinn ach carson a bhiodh e air creag is e dìreach air craobh a shreap?

Ach co-dhiù, ’s e a’ chiad phàirt a tha a’ fàgail tachais nam inntinn bhochd. Dè th’ anns na faclan seo? An e faclan fuadain a th’ annta, vocables mar gum biodh? Cha phìobaire mi ach chan eil coltas canntaireachd air — chan ann air fuathagaich co-dhiù. Chan eil cus ciallach sna faclairean a bharrachd. Tha aon fhacal ann, fìth-fàth, sin cleòca a dh’fhàgas do-fhaicsinneach thu. ’S e facal gu math aosta a th’ ann; tha e a’ nochdadh san t-Seann-Ghaeilge mar fía fé (is cruthan eile). Ach cha chreid mi gur e cleòca mar a sin a th’ againn an-seo. Chan eil dad ann an gin dhe na sgeulachdan a tha a’ toirt iomradh air do-fhaicsinneachd.

An aon rud – agus sin an leth-amharas air an dug mi iomradh roimhe – a bhuail orm, sin an rann ud a tha a’ nochdadh ann an ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’:

I smell the blood of an Englishman,
Be he alive, or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread

Chan e dìreach gu bheil fee-fi-fo-fum car coltach ri fith fath fuathagaich ach tha an rann air fad gu math coltach na nàdar ris an rann Ghàidhlig, nach eil?

A-rèir coltais, ’s ann aig Shakespeare a tha seo a’ nochdadh ann an sgrìobhadh a’ chiad turas (mar fie, foh, and fum). Tha an Oxford English Dictionary (aig a bheil e mar fee-faw-fum) ag innse dhuinn gur e doggerel a th’ ann ach cha do lorg mi cus a mhìnicheas air na tha fee-fi-fo-fum a’ ciallachadh ann, no cò às a thàinig e. ’S e sin, an e faclan fuadain Beurla a th’ annta no saoil an do ghoid a’ Bheurla seo air cànan eile? Ged a tha eòlaichean sgeulachdan ag innse dhuinn gu bheil ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ a’ buntainn ri roinn sgeulachdan ris an canar “neach a’ marbhadh dràgan”, chan fhaighear a’ phònair draoidheachd ud ach ann am Breatainn. Cha chuireadh e iongnadh orm nam biodh freumh no freumhag Cheilteach aig Jack, car mar a dh’fhàg àireamhan nam Breatannach lorg san yan tan tethera.

Ach ged a tha pailteas iongnaidh orm, chan eil dad a dh’fhios. Saoil a bheil sgeulachd mar seo aig na Cuimrich? No a bheil mi fada ceàrr ’s mìneachadh gu tur eadar-dhealaichte air? Dè ur beachd-ne?

Mìcheal Bauer, cuidiche rannsachaidh

Decoding Hidden Heritages: Seeking the “Unknown”

As Copyright Administrator for the Decoding Hidden Heritages project, it’s my role to investigate the copyright status of the sound material and transcriptions in the Tale Archive.

Everyone involved with a sound recording has copyright to their material. As a result, it can be a lengthy process when checking which individuals are involved with a recording, and if The School of Scottish Studies Archives (SSSA) hold records of copyright assignation. Typically, the search must go outwith SSSA and that’s when I feel like donning my deerstalker! Today I will highlight some of that process.

We come across a number of contributors who are down as Unknown or Anonymous in our collections. There can be a few different reasons why this happened; not everyone’s names were captured by the fieldworker, or it was a cataloguing error. Sometimes people just wished to remain anonymous – either they were too shy to go on record, or the material may have been deemed too sensitive. These days, we have distinct copyright and Data Protection rules to safeguard sensitive material. We also have methods to close or mute someone’s material for a set period of time rather than anonymising completely or forever. So there is some flexibility in the approaches that we can take.

If persons are not explicitly named for a recording, it doesn’t mean we can assume that copyright can be cleared on that basis alone – we still have to do our due diligence. Given that this week marks International Woman’s Day 2022 (March 8) – let’s look at an example of two anonymous women in the Tale Archive.
index card featuring tales recorded by two anonmyous women in 1959This card refers to part of the recording SA1959.027 – but it doesn’t give us much information, other than it was recorded in Smearisary, Glenuig and the story is of Murchag  is Meanchag/Murchag A’s Mionachag.

My next step was to look at what is included on the whole recording. On checking the Summary book for 1959, it shows that this was a recording made by Calum Maclean, Basil Megaw and Ian Whittaker. The other contributors on the tape were Angus MacNeill, Sandy Gillies and “Anon Woman A”, “Anon Woman B / Mrs MacDonald (?)” and “Anon Woman C”. Not terribly enlightening, in the grand scheme of things! Even if Anon Woman B might be a Mrs MacDonald, it doesn’t give us anything to go on. From here I went down to the archive store room to look at the original tape box  – sometimes there was a listing completed at the time of recording and included in the box.

A beautiful listing both outside and inside the box, but  – as an archive colleague from the past has noted, in pencil – “Who are the informants?”

Listening to the recording itself can be helpful in some cases, because often the name is given at some point – but my Gaelic is not yet good enough for this tape.

So, what now? I will contact our colleagues at Tobar an Dualchais because parts of this tape are available to listen to online; these recordings are by the named contributors. It is possible when their researchers were seeking copyright that they were able to find out who these anonymous female storytellers were. I will keep you updated.

It’s really important to find out who unknown people in our collections are and, if possible, put a name to the voice and acknowledge their important contribution in the archives. I include a very short extract of Anon Woman A and Anon Woman B / Mrs Macdonald (?), of Smearisary and thank them for making my job so interesting!

This clip is placed here on a risk-balanced approach and that is another part of the process for another blog post!

Extract from SA1959.027 from collection of School of Scottish Studies Archives.


Louise Scollay, Copyright Administrator

The Selkie o the River Dee

A Faroese stamp featuring the legend of Kópakonan (the Seal Woman).

Whilst working on data capture for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project, I came across this tale of a seal-woman, or selkie (ScG: ròn ‘seal’), that struck a chord with me. Stanley Robertson from Aberdeen tells of the story he heard from his father, ‘The Selkie o the River Dee’, which Stanley was told was a true story and referred to an ancestor of his.

A man spies a seal-woman coming out of the River Dee and shedding her skin on the shore. The man takes the skin and hides it from her to force the woman to go home with him and be his wife. They have several children together and one day the children find the seal skin the man had hidden. The woman takes the skin and disappears back into the River Dee, never to return, with the man arriving just in time to see her go.

Upon reading the story, it immediately occurred to me that this seems to have been a tragic incident that was ‘spun’ into a whimsical tale, likely for the benefit of the children involved. Surely enough, Stanley goes on to say that he thinks the woman might have actually committed suicide, as the story referred to ”real” people. I think this story is fascinating because it has the ability to truly resonate with the listener or reader on a very emotional level. You don’t need to be an expert on folktales to understand why or how it came to be. Similar seal-woman (or mermaid) stories are found across the North Atlantic, for example in Irish, Icelandic and Faroese folklore.

A much more cheerful selkie reference in popular culture can be seen in the beautifully-illustrated Irish feature film: Song of the Sea.

To hear a similar story in Gaelic, click here.

To hear more stories on selkies (male and female versions), visit the Tobar an Dualchais website.

This blog post was written by Cristina Horvath, the newly-appointed Digitisation & Data Entry Technician for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project.

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