“Port Ness Beach, Isle of Lewis, Scotland” by Chris Golightly is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Today (October 3rd) is Scottish Museums Day, a day to celebrate everything great and wonderful about Scottish Museums, galleries and archives! This year, the theme is: A Museum of Happiness, inspired by Stuart A. Paterson’s poem…
I’ve made my own Museum of
Happiness, which isn’t built of brick
or stone or wood, its walls the thickness
of the day, a flapping tongue of canvass
held in place by rope & peg to stop
it flying off & joyously away
up into everywhere in time & space
I’ll carry it around with me to pitch
beside the sea, in a field or by
that river, a billowing rickety marquee,
a travelling show of personal delights
performing one night only & forever…
This story can be interpreted in various ways, but I see it as a lesson to not rely on external factors to bring you happiness, or that you can search far and wide, but the key to happiness might have been in front of you all along.
What do you think of these stories? Is there a particular folktale or traditional song about happiness that makes you smile?
Here in the The School of Scottish Studies Archives we have tales classified under the ATU index, as well as tales grouped together under story types, such as Robber Tales, Historical Tradition; Romance Tales; Hero Tales and Legends.
There are also indexes of tales which are classified under “Supernatural Witch” and “Supernatural Fairies” which were part of the work of Alan Bruford (1937-1995) to survey the Central Index and pull together material of “recurrent plots and motifs from the tangled mass of Scottish, and especially Gaelic, local traditions of supernatural and historical events” [Bruford, 1967].
There isn’t a great deal written on the ongoing work of these type-lists, but it is clear that Bruford continued to work on this until his death. Donald Archie MacDonald (1929-1999) published a broader paper on the type-lists in 1995 and I link to that at the end.
*The Maclagan Mss is in the process of being added to the University of Edinburgh’s OpenBooks platform as an open access resource. This is a work in progress but the pdf batches so far can be accessed here: https://edin.ac/3UdzSSz
The ‘secret’ of making heather ale has been a popular folktale in Scotland, with claims that the brewing of it dates back to ancient times.
I came across a few references to it while digitizing the ATU index cards in the SSSA’s Tale Archive.
Read the full Gaelic version from Calum Maclean’s collection of Fìion an Fhraoich (IFC MS 1028, pp. 103-105).
Accounts differ, as to whether it was the Vikings or ‘The Pechs’ that held the secret to making the ale, but the similar vein that runs through them is that eventually there were only two people in the world who held the secret: a father and his son. When they were forced to disclose their secret, the father claimed he would share the recipe, but only if his son was killed first. This request was followed through and the father then exclaimed that he had lied – he never intended to share the recipe, but believed that his son would have, being weaker than himself, and therefore had him killed to protect the secret forever!
“LONG ago there were people in this country called the Pechs; short wee men they were, wi’ red hair, and long arms, and feet sae braid, that when it rained they could turn them up owre their heads, and then they served for umbrellas.”
Another wonderful reference to this story is the 1890 poem “Heather Ale” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings underground.
There rose a king in Scotland,
A fell man to his foes,
He smote the Picts in battle,
He hunted them like roes.
Over miles of the red mountain
He hunted as they fled,
And strewed the dwarfish bodies
Of the dying and the dead.
Summer came in the country,
Red was the heather bell;
But the manner of the brewing
Was none alive to tell.
In graves that were like children’s
On many a mountain head,
The Brewsters of the Heather
Lay numbered with the dead.
The king in the red moorland
Rode on a summer’s day;
And the bees hummed, and the curlews
Cried beside the way.
The king rode, and was angry,
Black was his brow and pale,
To rule in a land of heather
And lack the Heather Ale.
It fortuned that his vassals,
Riding free on the heath,
Came on a stone that was fallen
And vermin hid beneath.
Rudely plucked from their hiding,
Never a word they spoke:
A son and his aged father—
Last of the dwarfish folk.
The king sat high on his charger,
He looked on the little men;
And the dwarfish and swarthy couple
Looked at the king again.
Down by the shore he had them;
And there on the giddy brink—
“I will give you life, ye vermin,
For the secret of the drink.”
There stood the son and father
And they looked high and low;
The heather was red around them,
The sea rumbled below.
And up and spoke the father,
Shrill was his voice to hear:
“I have a word in private,
A word for the royal ear.
“Life is dear to the aged,
And honour a little thing;
I would gladly sell the secret,”
Quoth the Pict to the King.
His voice was small as a sparrow’s,
And shrill and wonderful clear:
“I would gladly sell my secret,
Only my son I fear.
“For life is a little matter,
And death is nought to the young;
And I dare not sell my honour
Under the eye of my son.
Take him, O king, and bind him,
And cast him far in the deep;
And it’s I will tell the secret
That I have sworn to keep.”
They took the son and bound him,
Neck and heels in a thong,
And a lad took him and swung him,
And flung him far and strong,
And the sea swallowed his body,
Like that of a child of ten;—
And there on the cliff stood the father,
Last of the dwarfish men.
“True was the word I told you:
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of Heather Ale.”
Nowadays, in the age of the internet and search engines, the guarding of a recipe to the death seems quite ridiculous! Also, to our modern sensibilities allowing a tradition to die out and not be preserved in some form or another would be almost unthinkable. The School of Scottish Studies Archives, and others like it around the world, exist to collect, preserve and share oral and written tradition. This work is very important, and crucial to our understanding of the past, present and future. The world is a much richer place for it!
If you’d like to try making your own heather ale, check out this recipe. Let us know how it turns out!
Our own Prof Will Lamb is working with Dr David Howcroft (lead investigator) and Dr Dimitra Gkatzia from Edinburgh Napier university to build the first tools for Gàidhlig chatbots. This is starting with the creation of a new dataset to train AI models.
The next step? Well, after a bit of data cleanup and anonymisation, it’s time to see how well neural network models for natural language generation work for this amount of data. One of the interesting challenges for this project is trying to see how far you can get in building a chatbot with as little data as possible. The lessons we learn in this work will inform future work, not just in Scottish Gaelic, but in Natural Language Generation more generally!
Why build chatbots for Scottish Gaelic?
We believe the world is a better place when everyone can learn in their preferred language. Scottish Gaelic has fewer language technologies available than languages like English or Mandarin, and we’d like for our research in natural language generation to help in some small way to address this gap.
Why focus on ‘Exhibits’?
Museums are a primary tool for learning outside of schools, libraries, and documentaries, and are increasingly leveraging mobile applications and chatbots to enhance visitor experiences. However, these chatbots are generally available for only a few languages, due to a lack of linguistic and technical resources for minority languages like Scottish Gaelic.
How can I contribute?
If you speak Scottish Gaelic and live in Scotland, you can take our short comprehension quiz (5-10 minutes) and sign up to participate in the study! The full study (after the quiz) takes up to two hours to complete, and participants will receive up to £30 in compensation for their contribution. Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to be named as contributing to this important Gaelic resource if you so desire! More details here: https://nlg.napier.ac.uk
If you don’t speak Scottish Gaelic or live outside of Scotland, you can share this blogpost with all the Gaelic speakers you know! Encourage them to participate or to spread the word to their friends. All in all, we hope to recruit about 100 people to participate in our study, and we have a ways to go before we reach this goal. If you don’t know what to say to your contacts, how about:
Researchers in Edinburgh are trying to build the first chatbots for Scottish Gaelic and they’re recruiting participants for an experiment paying up to £30! Find out more at: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/garg/2022/08/23/scottish-gaelic-chatbots-for-museum-exhibits/ or sign up at https://nlg.napier.ac.uk
(English Synopsis: How working on a nearly illegible word in a story taken down by Lady Evelyn over a hundred years ago helped solve the mystery of what exactly the term alaire means and whether it has a long or short vowel in Gaelic)
Seadh, ’s Lady Evelyn Stiùbhart Mhoireach à Siorrachd Pheairt a tha mi a-mach air. Bha mi riamh dèidheil oirre ach tha mi air leth taingeil dhi an t-seachdain-sa, oir dh’fhuasgail i snaidhm cànain dhomh a bha a’ cur dragh orm o chionn fhada.
Tha facal car annasach sa Ghàidhlig aig a bheil dà chiall gu gur eadar-dhealaichte a-rèir coltais: falaire. Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach, tha e a’ ciallachadh am biadh a gheibhear aig tìodhlacadh (o shean, b’ e sin aran-coirce, càise agus drama) air neo nàdar de dh’each. Nuair a bha mi ag obair air na h-innteartan seo san Fhaclair Bheag, chùm mi fa leth iad. Ged nach robh mi buileach cinnteach dè am freumh a th’ aig a’ bhiadh tìodhlacaidh, ar leam gur e dà fhreumh eadar-dhealaichte a bha seo ach air an robh, an dèidh linntean, an aon chruth air co-thuiteamas. Gu fortanach, bha co-dhiù am biadh furasta a gu leòr a thaobh cèill is litreachaidh. Ach abair snaidhm a bh’ anns an dàrna facal…
Anns a’ chiad dol a-mach, cha robh e cho furasta fiosrachadh dè dìreach a’ chiall a th’ aige. Lorg mi rudan mar na leanas:
alaire, s.f. ‡Brood mare. 2 see falair.
falair, -e, -ean, s.m. Ambler, pacer (of a horse)
falaireach, †† a. Prancing
–d, s.f.ind. Ambling, pacing, curvetting, stately motions of a war-horse, prancing. 2 Canter.
falairich, v.a. Amble
56A. Galloping, pacing. Fâlereachd, A[rgyll].
Am faclair aig an Urr. Tormod MacLeòid:
FÀLAIRE, -EAN, s.m. (Fàl, turf) An ambler, pacer, (of a horse,) a mare
Am faclair aig Athair Ailean MacDhòmhnaill:
FÀLADAIR, 24. a swift rider as if riding a fairy steed or fàlairidh. [Fàlairidh. Heard it used by old men to mean a horse. J.M.]
FÀLAIREACHD, 26, galloping.
DASG fàlaireachd, another word for ‘marcach’. [NOTES: note added – riding.]
Faclair an Duinnínigh:
FALAIRE, g. id., pl., -RÍ, m., an ambler, a pacing horse.
FALAIREACHT, -A, f., an ambling pace; act of ambling, pacing; American handgallop; the flaw in horses of moving both legs on each side alternately; the gait of a spancelled goat, etc.
fàlaire, an ambler, mare, Ir. falaire, ambling horse; seemingly founded on Eng. palfrey. The form àlaire exists, in the sense of “brood mare” (McDougalls’s Folk and Hero Tales), leaning upon àl, brood, for meaning. Ir. falaradh, to amble.
Mo ghaol air Dineen A bharrachd air sin, bha e a’ nochdadh an-siud ’s an-seo ann an seann sgeulachdan mar Buachaille Caora Caomhaig:
“Am bàs os do chionn, a bhéist,” ars esan, “gu dé d’ éirig?” ars esan.
“Ó ’s iomadh rud sin,” ars am fuamhaire, ars esan, “ach chan eil sìon a th’ agam nach fhaigh thu,” ars esan, “ach leig leam mo bheatha,” ars esan.
“Dé,” ars esan, “a bheil agad?”
“Tha,” ars esan, “a h-uile seòrsa agam,” ars esan, “as urrainn duine ainmeachadh,” ars esan. “Tha,” ars esan, “tha fàlairidh agam,” ars esan, “nach do … nach do mharcaich duine riamh a leithid,” ars esan.
Gu dè fon ghrèin a bh’ agam an-seo ma-thà? Nàdar de dh’each math, a-rèir nan seann-sgeulachdan, ach dè dìreach? Agus carson a bha an fhuaimreag a’ dol eadar fada ’s goirid, fiù ann an leabhraichean a bha a’ sgrìobhadh nan stràcan gu cunbhalach? Tha cuimhne agam gun dug mi sùil airson falaire ann an eDIL aig an àm, feuch dè an cruth a bh’ air an fhacal seo san t-Seann-Ghaeilge, ach cha d’fhuair mi dad.
Aig a’ cheann thall, an dèidh dhomh cus ùine a chosg air an aon fhacal mar a thachras uaireannan, chuir mi romham am facal a chur ann le fuaimreag fhada, leis gun robh e a’ nochadh ann an uiread a sgeulachdan mar sin. Ach gach turas a chunnaic mi falaire no fàlaire ann an sgeulachd, chuireadh e dragh orm. Unfinished business, mar a chanas iad sa chànan eile.
Feasgar an-diugh, bha mi ag obair air ceartachadh agus thàinig mi gu sgeulachd ùr air an robh Lasair Gheug a chaidh a thogail aig tè NicGilleMhaolain ann an Srath Tatha le Lady Evelyn ann an 1891 nuair a bha Gàidhlig pailt san sgìre fhathast. ’S e làmh-sgrìobhadh car seann-fhasanta a bh’ ann, bachallach bachlagach, agus gu math mì-shoilleir ann an cuid a dh’àitichean, lethbhreac de lethbreac de lethbreac is dòcha, mus deach a sganadh. Ach co-dhiù, stiall mi orm gus an dàinig mi gu leth-bhèarn:
Rudeigin a’ tòiseachadh le à, rudeigin, dà litir le ceann suas, agus rudeigin eile. Ge be ciamar a thionndaidh mi e, cha robh dad a’ bualadh orm. Dh’fheuch mi an uair sin an sgeulachd a lorg ann an tùsan eile, air teans gun deach a chur ann an clò-bhualadh ’s gun robh lethbhreac nas soilleir acasan. Cha d’fhuair mi lorg air an tionndadh Ghàidhlig ach thachair gun deach an tionndadh Beurla fhoillseachadh agus bha sin ’na chuideachadh mòr dhomh. ’S e a’ Bheurla a leanas a chur Alan Bruford air an earrann seo:
We will kill the king’s graceful black palfrey, and leave it on the landing.
Palfrey? Each? Bha mi air na sgrìobh MacGilleBhàin air dhìochuimhneachadh agus cha robh à?ll/bb/bh/tl/th/??? fhathast a’ dèanamh ciall sam bith. Cha robh dad a’ nochdadh sna tùsan àbhaisteach fo palfrey. Nuair nach bi slighe eile agam, feuchaidh mi eDil gu tric, car mar oidhirp dheireannach – agus nochd na leanas air an sgrìn:
falafraighf. (OF palefrei) a palfrey: falafraigh alafraigh IGT, Decl. § 13 . alafraidh ‘na héruim, ex. 639 . inghean … ┐ falabhraigh uaine fúithe, Each. Iol. 37.26 . g s. Inghean na Falabhrach Uaine, 38.4 . ar édach h’alafraidhe, IGT, Decl. ex. 640 . .xx. falafraidh, Fier. 111 . pl. tuc eich ┐ falafracha [sic leg.] dó, AU 1516 . an ḟalartha ghorm `the blue Ambler’ GJ vii 90 ff .
Agus mar chlach às an adhar, bha an dà chuid fhios agam dè bha san sgeulachd seo (àllaire) agus dè bha am facal fàlaire a’ ciallachadh agus nòisean carson a bha e a’ dol eadar fada agus goirid (a bharrachd air folk etymologies mar fàl). ’S e am badan de chonsain am meadhan an fhacail palfrey a bu choireach. Cha robh -lfr- nàdarra sa Ghaeilge no sa Ghàidhlig agus stob iad fuaimreag eile a-steach an toiseach: falfr– > falafr-. Mar a thachras ann an Gàidhlig an-diugh fhathast ann am faclan aig a bheil fuaimreag-chuideachaidh (mar eisimpleir falmadair /faLamədɪrʲ/). ’S e an rud inntinneach a th’ aig an fhuaimreag-chuideachaidh gu bheil e air leth làidir agus a’ tarraing beum air falbh on chiad lide agus ma dh’fhaighnicheas tu de dhaoine aig a bheil Gàidhlig o thùs, chan urrainn dhaibh a ràdh le cinnt an e fuaimreag fhada, leth-fhada, no ghoirid a th’ ann. Ar leam gun robh làmh aig an -f- ud a bharrachd is e a’ crìonadh air falbh agus dh’fhàg sin facal againn aig an robh fuaimreagan caran às an àbhaist. Tachraidh rudan mar sin uaireannan, mar eisimpleir, tha calpa /kaLabə/ car às an àbhaist oir chan fhaighear an fhuaimreag-chuideachaidh le -lp- a ghnàth ach ’s e colbtha a bh’ ann o shean, le fuaimreag-chuideachaidh ach fo bhuaidh -th- dh’fhàs am b ’na p.
A thaobh na cèille, ’s e each air leth luachmhor a bh’ ann am palfrey o shean. Bha iad comasach air ceum rèidh ris an canar ambling sa Bheurla, falaireachd, agus rachadh na h-eich seo astar fada ’s iad ri falaireachd. Cha chreid mi gun robh e riamh a’ ciallachadh brood mare gu sònraichte ach gun robh luchd nam faclairean a’ dol claon beagan leis gur e facal boireann a th’ ann am falaire. Ach ma dh’fhaoidte gun robhar deònach orra mar brood mares cuideachd… ma bha iad cho luachmhor, ’s e each mar sin a bhiodh tu ag iarraidh airson searraich a thoirt dhut, nach biodh? Co-dhiù no co-dheth, air a’ char as lugha, tha cinnt agam a-nis dè seòrsa each a th’ ann!
Cha chreid mi gu bheil fuasgladh glan ann a thaobh litreachaidh an fhacail seo. ’S ann goirid a tha e san Fhaclair Bheag a-nis oir, mar is trice, glèidhidh a’ Ghàidhlig feadhainn fhada ’s ghoirid sa chiad lide agus ’s ann goirid a tha e ann am palfrey. Ach facal inntinneach gun teagamh, cothrom tràchdais do chuideigin is dòcha a tha dèidheil air eich agus fòn-eòlas – ach a-nochd, òlaidh mi slàinte Lady Evelyn, ’s bochd nach robh na cothroman aice-se a bhiodh aice an-diugh ann an saoghal an rannsachaidh, ach ’s math gun robh i ann!
The study of folktales can reveal a lot about cultures from around the globe, including the movement of people and ethnic groups.
I recently came across a ‘Hero Tale’ that caught my eye, entitled Am Breabadair agus an gille glas or The Weaver and the Grey Lad, in the Tale Archive, copied from an edition of Tocher (no. 42, 1989). The story is recited by Hugh MacPhee in Gaelic, recorded by Dr. Margaret A. Mackay in Alberta*, Canada (transcribed by Peggy McClements and translated by Donald A. Macdonald). I was raised in Alberta, and so the biographical details of the reciter piqued my interest. The tale in Tocher includes an interesting footnote: ”Emigrants from the Hebrides continued to settle in Western Canada well into the twentieth century, and Hugh MacPhee was one of a group from Benbecula and South Uist who were settled on lands near Clandonald, Alberta, in the early 1920s. His family was one known for its storytellers, including almost certainly the Donald Macphee so vividly described by J.F. Campbell in the introduction to Popular Tales of the West Highlands (I, pp. xxi-iii): this is a gift which Hugh’s son, Alex Norman MacPhee of Vermilion, Alberta, still keeps alive.” You can read the tale in full below.
Alex Norman is actually listed on the Tobar an Dualchais website, and you can find out more information about him here. The website states that “Despite spending the vast majority of his life in Western Canada, Alex did not lose his mother tongue, and was well versed in the culture and history of the Gaels on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Alex Norman MacPhee, Tobar an Dualchais website.
If as Tocher states, Alex’s ancestor is in fact the Donald Macphee described in Popular Tales of the West Highlands, what a great treasure for the MacPhee family it is to have such a wonderful and detailed account of your ancestors and their dwellings in their home country. Read the full account here.
There is a significant population of people of Scottish ethnicity in Canada, in fact the 2016 Canadian Census lists “Scottish” as the third highest ethnic origin among its respondents. The Maritime provinces are well-known for their Scottish diaspora, but Alberta less so. Even so, evidence of Scottish culture and influence can be seen across Alberta, with plenty of Albertan place-names originating in Scotland, such as Calgary, named after Calgary Bay in Mull by Lieutenant-Colonel James Farquharson Macleod (1836 – 1894), who served as Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police and was born in Drynoch on the Isle of Skye. Similarities between Calgary, Scotland and Calgary, Canada start and end with the name, however! Other places include Banff, Carstairs and Airdrie to name a few. Alberta even has an official registered tartan.
If you’d like to look up records of emigration from Scotland, including ship passenger lists from 1890 onwards, visit the National Library of Scotland.
*It is important to recognize that the province known as Alberta is on First Nations lands across the boundaries of Treaties 6, 7 and 8. The Numbered Treaties of Canada have a complicated history and I encourage readers to find out more about them and the effects they have had on the indigenous people of Canada and their way of life. Lieutenant-Colonel Macleod, who I mentioned earlier, was one of the major signatories on Treaty 7 in present day Southern Alberta. The treaty was signed in Fort Macleod, named after him.
Downtown Calgary By AceYYC – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, wiki commons
Calgary Bay, Mull by Traveler100 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, wiki commons
Am Breabadair agus an gille glas or The Weaver and the Grey Lad (click on the photos to see them full screen):
There is a lot of cross-over in my two jobs as Archive & Library Assistant at The School of Scottish Studies Archives (SSSA) and Copyright Administrator working for the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project, as I work with the same collections for both.
Recently I came across this card from the “Informants index” in the Tale Archive.
It is not unusual to see material restricted in the archive, but many of the closures and restrictions at SSSA tend to be retrospective where we have screened archive material or when we discover ‘special category’ data is discussed. It is slightly more unusual – in our collections – to see material restricted from the earlier days of the School, such as this recording from 1974. As there is the potential that transcriptions of these exist, and that these may soon be digitised and published, it is important to look into this further.
As you may remember from some of my earlier posts, there are several places within the archive to look for further information – the first is the Chronological Registers containing summaries of fieldwork recordings.
RESTRICTED: not to be available to non-members of the School before the year 2000: “Blue”
This was the first time I encountered a restriction from this period with a future date attached. The year 2000 may have been chosen as a date to be sufficient for period of restriction due to a number of reasons, but it seems somewhat arbitrary without any further information. The three bawdy anecdotes are summarised here, along with other bawdy riddles and songs, but there isn’t too much here to tell us about how “blue” it might be.
Something to remember about this point of the history of the School of Scottish Studies was that it was a Research Unit; in the 1970s SOSS had begun to offer undergraduate courses at 1st and 2nd year level and offered supervision for Postgraduate research, but it was not yet established in offering it’s own degree courses and the collections were not widely open for access. However, this notice does suggest that there was – or might be in the future – access to others beyond UOE.
Alan Bruford kept helpful notes on much of his fieldwork and his contributors and so I next checked these to see if there was more information about this contributor, Mr Hughson.
Context is a wonderful thing! As well as giving us information about Mr Hughson’s blue riddles – or guddicks, in the Shetland dialect – this gives such a great insight into how Bruford approached fieldwork – from pre-interview telephone calls, interesting information about the interviewee and the importance of the person’s contributions for the ongoing research at SOSS. It also shows the bonds of trust between fieldworker and contributor, which would seem to be a driving motivation in Bruford restricting the material. There is no further indication why the date was chosen for the embargo, but I think it’s fair to assume it was a point in time in which it was assumed Mr Hughson would have passed away.
I had a listen to the recording itself and the blue material includes three bawdy songs, one which includes a Peeping Tom; an anecdote which infers bestiality (SA1974.199.B4); a story of three women discussing what they think a penis looks like and then meeting a willing man to help them in their research (SA1974.199.B8) and a tale of a fellow who is given medicine to assist with fertility but which has an extraordinary affect on the size of his manhood (SA1974.199.B9).
Of course, we can remove the restriction on this material now (a mere 22 years after it’s intended embargo date!) but we do still have an ethical responsibility to ensure our records are up to date and that we inform our service users that this material may cause potential offence. While this material was intended to be funny by the contributor, there are triggers here for many people in some of these pieces, for example, sexual abuse and unwanted sexual attention. In cases like this, we ensure that we include a text file with the digitised recording, so that staff can flag issues to our readers, before they begin listening. This is something that will need to be considered when making transcriptions and recordings available online.
Since 2008 people from across the UK have celebrated Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month each June. Through celebration, education and raising awareness, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month helps to tackle prejudice, challenge myths and to amplify these voices in wider society. At The School of Scottish Studies Archives, we try to share relevant material in June from our own collections, which highlight Traveller life and experience; this material is a rich seam indeed and it’s a privilege to hold Traveller oral testimony here.
To celebrate #GRTHM here on this little corner of the internet, I wanted to share something from our Tale Archive, from someone whose name appears again and again in the indexes and transcriptions – Alasdair “Brian” Stewart (1911-2008).
Alasdair “Brian” Stewart was of the Sutherland Stewarts, a family of the Highland Traveller tradition who can be found throughout our collections sharing tale, tradition and song. He was nicknamed Brian, due to his place of birth (Ach a’ Bhràigh) and he learned much of his repertoire of Gaelic tales – particularly hero tales – from family members, such as his uncle Ailidh Dall Stewart (1882-1968) and his grandmother Susie Stewart (1846-??).
Alasdair “Brian” Stewart, (far right), with his wife Ina. Pictured with SOSS staff Ian Fraser (left) and Donald Archie MacDonald. Image by Alan Bruford (C) SSSA (1974)
Brian was recorded a several times by fieldworkers from the School and in 1978 he was the focus of a volume of Tocher and I thought that it might be interesting to share Hamish Henderson’s recollections of meeting Brian and also a tale from him, transcribed for that volume.
It was the discovery, in 1953 and 1954, of an enormous wealth of folktale among the travelling people of Aberdeenshire that made me determined to look for oral narrative in Gaelic among the North Highland travelling folk. […] What we discovered that summer exceeded all my expectations. The semi-nomadic Stewarts of Lairg – the ‘summer walkers’, as the local crofters called them – turned out to be the custodians of a folk-cultural heritage even more voluminous than that of their North-East counterparts. Although every single member of the group could be considered a tradition bearer, the principal figure- and acknowledged champion – among them was blind AIec Stewart, better known as Aili Dall. This amazing old hero had a version of Am Bròn Binn (The Sweet Sorrow), an heroic lay now very rare, and stories of Oisean and the Féinn as well as a vast store of wonder tales and other Marchen. My notebook, already packed with information about travellers recorded en route, was soon full of the names of other Stewarts and Williamsons who, as Aili Dall thought, would have material of interest for us; and among these I wrote down the name of another Alec Stewart who was a nephew of Aili’s, whose nickname was Brian, and who was working in the Forestry and living at Culrain.
When I got back to Edinburgh this information was passed on without delay to Calum Maclean, and Calum followed it up the same summer. His own beautifully written account of his meeting with yet another Alexander Stewart – ‘Alasdair mac Phàdruig,’ whom I had recorded at Tomich, Muir of Ord, a few weeks earlier while on the way to Sutherland – and with old Grace, Alasdair’s mother, will be found in Chapter VI of his book The Highlands (recently republished by Club Leabhar, with a preface by Séan O Súilleabháin). Alasdair mac Phàdruig told him many hours of stories in the Ord Arms Hotel, and was still telling them right up to the time Calum had to rush to catch a train to Brora. Unfortunately Calum did not locate Aili Dall and his entourage when in Sutherland – they were of course on the move at the time- and the onset of the serious illness which then beset him made subsequent collecting much more difficult.
Consequently I returned myself to Ross-shire and Sutherland in 1957 and 1958 and in both years spent several weeks travelling around with the ‘summer walkers’. It was during the second of these tours that I went to see Brian in Culrain. Unlike his uncle, who still kept up the ancestral summer caravan through the great cleared straths of Sutherland, Brian was permanently settled in a neat little house called ‘the Bungalow’, kept spotless trim by his charming wife Ina. Had I not known of Briarn’s impeccable traveller lineage, I would have taken him at first sight for member of the laity – a crofter, or what-ever. It became immediately clear, however, that he was exceedingly and justifiably proud of his traveller Stewart ancestry, and was eager to speak about their way of life. (Since retiring from the Forestry three years ago he has spent part of every summer driving along the roads he travelled with horse anrl cart as a boy, and cleaning up the wells and camping sites used by his people – some of which must have a very ancient history).
Prospecting for stories and other lore from Brian, I found that his repertoire to a large extent duplicated that of his Uncle Aili Dall – nor was this strange, for he had learned most of his stories from old Susie, Aili Dall’s mother. Uncle and nephew thus had a common source for much of their material. Old Susie died in 1938 aged 9l; this means she was born 13 years before the publication of the first volumes of Campbell of Islay’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands, and must have learned many of her stories orally in the mid 19th century from relations born before the end of the 18th century – from folk, therefore, who in all likelihood were travelling the roads while ‘Ossian’ Macpherson was still alive.
Brian’s versions of the tales offer many interesting points of comparison with the versions told by his uncle, and the recording – and, if possible, re-recording – of his complete repertoire seemed an obvious necessity.
Hamish Henderson, Tocher 29 (1978)
The story I have chosen (transcribed in Gaelic as it was told, and translated into English) is A’ MARAICHE MAIRNEAL, a variant of ATU433B King Lindworm – a tale type that often deals with maidens disenchanting serpentine husbands. Donald Archie MacDonald thought that Brian’s version was unique to the Sutherland Stewarts. (Click on the image below to access the pdf of this tale.)
For further reading of Brian Stewart and his storytelling style, you can read Carol Zall’s article in Scottish Studies Vol 36:
Fear aig nach robh sgeulachd idir or Why Everyone Should be Able to Tell a Story, Translation from “Stories from South Uist” (Angus., Campbell, John Lorne. Stories from South Uist. United Kingdom: Routledge & Paul, 1961)
‘A Man with no Story’, by Elizabeth Kerr, Maclagan Manuscripts, p.2391, c.1890
The manuscript reads: “Sometimes, at a Ceilidh, a person found himself severely pressed to relate an ursgeul, when perhaps he did not wish to do so, or felt unable. Here is an example of ingenuity in such circumstances. He would begin with all seriousness as follows: On one occasion a woman and her son had a Dun cow which they wished to sell, and so they set out with it to the market. They had a good long distance to go, and what but, before they reached the market, the cow stumbled, and fell into a hole, and could not come out. The boy got hold of its tail to pull it out, and when he was pulling, and pulling, away came the tail with him, and if the Dun Cow’s tail had been stronger, my ursgeul would have been longer.”
“The love of stories is hardwired into us all; it is one of the strongest ways we connect with one another and share our experiences. Great stories, well told, can evoke indelible images in our minds and bring contemporary and traditional cultures to life. Every culture has its stories to tell, and Scotland has a particularly rich heritage of stories and storytelling to spotlight and celebrate. These include our local tales, oral traditions, great stories told in books or on screen – all inspired by our country, our culture and reflected back by many diverse voices and across the widest range of forms.” (Museums Galleries Scotland)
This week’s blog post will take a behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in digitizing an archival collection.
My job in the Decoding Hidden Heritages Project is to scan and document the contents of the Tale Archive here at the SSSA. The Tale Archive is comprised of paper documents separated into folders depending on their classification (ATU number, Romantic Tales, Supernatural Tales, etc.). There is also a collection of corresponding index cards for these documents.
The Tale Archive at the School of Scottish Studies Archive
As with most archival collections, various stationary items like staples, rubber bands and tape have been used over the years. Although their use was innocent and common-sense at the time, people looking after historic and archival collections now are aware that these items can present conservation issues. Staples can distort and tear paper and card, and metal has the potential to react chemically with its environment and certain materials it comes into contact with. Plastics and rubbers are particularly notorious for deteriorating in historic collections, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Deterioration of plastics is still a relatively new area of study among conservation experts, and methods of dealing with deterioration and alteration of plastic collections will continue to evolve in the coming years.
“Plastics are a new class of materials and their individual weaknesses are little known and often unexpected. Traditional display and storage methods accelerate deterioration of plastics, and the ensuing chemical and physical damage can be unattractive, highly corrosive, irreversible—and largely un-treatable. Because of the diversity and versatility of plastics, they have been used in a huge range of common objects since their introduction in the 19th century. Unfortunately, for the first part of their history, their long-term properties were not well understood. Older plastic objects can deteriorate more rapidly and in a greater variety of ways than those made from traditional materials. More recent plastics may also deteriorate rapidly as a result of planned obsolescence, such as biodegradability.” – Canadian Conservation Institute Guidance on Caring for Plastics and Rubber
Rubber reacts to oxygen over time and can become brittle and sticky. The rubber band in the photo below had to be carefully taken off the affected index card to ensure no text was lost.
Sticky tape will lose its adhesion over time and will come lose and discolor paper as can be seen in the photos below.
Projects like this one are a great opportunity for collections to be sifted through and to deal with any conservation issues present. As I go through the paper and cards to prepare them for scanning, I carefully remove any items that will prevent the documents from being scanned safely or that may harm them in storage over time. Paperclips and rubber bands are carefully removed and replaced with acid-free paper, which will prevent any further deterioration so the documents can stay legible for future generations to benefit from. If the paper/card is fragile and removing the deteriorated elements would do further damage, then it is left as found. I also have access to a special overhead scanner for these documents that takes a scan from above and does not come into contact with the document. Feeding fragile documents through the usual scanner could destroy them – and probably the scanner, too!
A bit of a top tip from the National Archives’ Managing Mixed Collections Guidance to use at home is to not store photographs next to rubber: “Vulcanised rubber emits hydrogen sulphide and carbonyl sulphide, gaseous pollutants that are the main agents responsible for tarnishing silver and causing photographs (which include a silver component) to fade and yellow. Rubber bands are made from vulcanised rubber, so it is important to ensure they are not used in close proximity to photographic materials.”
Have questions? Feel free to comment on the post and I will happily try to answer!