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A treasure chest of oral histories

March 13, 2012
Calum Maclean recording Angus Maclellan and hi...

Calum Maclean recording Angus Maclellan and Mrs Neil Campbell at Frobost, South Uist - Image via Wikipedia

A key feature of digital history is its capacity to surprise.

My good pal and cycling buddy, Iain Monk, who’s from Benbecula in the Western Isles, never knew his paternal grandfather, who died before Iain was born.

But looking on the web for clues about his  family history, he came across his grandfather’s voice recorded more than 50 years ago as part of a project to preserve Gaelic song and stories.  It was an astonishing and moving discovery which Iain will always treasure.

That recording is now part of a new and wider web collaboration, unique in Europe and probably the world for its scope and range of partners.

The website is  Tobar an Dulchais which translates as Kist of Riches in broad Scots. or Treasure Chest in plain English.

And brimful of treasures it is too – for genealogists, for oral historians to have a real insight on early interview techniques, and,  above all, for the ordinary visitor. Some 26,000 recordings are available – mostly Gaelic but also covering  dialects from all over Scotland with connections to Canada, Ireland and beyond.

Have a look – it is searchable by county or by surname. It brings together on one site collections from the National Trust for Scotland  the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and BBC Scotland. Much of the driving force has come from Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye.

What you don’t really get is  a flavour of the personalities – like Hamish Henderson, co-founder of the School of Scottish Studies with fellow poet Calum Maclean.  The Amercian folkorist Alan Lomax was a great supporter.

Hamish survived Dulwich College and Cambridge University, he worked with the Quakers to rescue Jewish people from Germany. During the war itself he was the British officer who witnessed the Italian surrender by Marshall Graziani.

Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson- courtesy of The Scotsman

He really found his element as a poet and folklorist – and this site features his field recordings of travelling people in Scotland. Like Calum and Alan, he was another of those Magnificent Men with their Recording Machines.

Hamish brought the 8th Eighth Army anthem “ D Day Dodgers” to wider attention which pleased my dad (who, incidentally, described himself as an old 8th Army “warhorse” long before its current purely equine application). The song was later made famous by Hamish’s friend Pete Seeger.

He first came into money in 1949, winning £600 with the Maugham prize for poetry and promptly more doubled this with a £10 bet on a horse which came home at 66 to one.

For decades, the BBC, still under the dour influence of his fellow Scot, Lord Reith, ignored him. That is partly because it was a key player in the “No Buts, it’s got to be Buerla”  Brigade which was never that keen on Scots Gaelic and even less keen on the musings of gypsy folk.

But it  also had a lot to do with Hamish’s unrelenting passion for various left-wing causes.    The newly-established  Hamish Henderson Trust  is now seeking to catalogue and preserve his own considerable archive.

So it is belatedly fitting that the BBC is now a partner in this wonderful website. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of Tobar an Dulchais as Iain has.

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