Oral History & Archives – Connecting Scotland’s Sounds

By Andrea Thomson, University of Oxford

In April 2017, I was delighted to lead a seminar on Using Oral History Recordings for Research at the Oral History & Archives – Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference. The day’s varied programme focussed on the interplay between oral history and archives, and was hosted in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow by the Scottish Oral History Group, Scottish Oral History Centre (University of Strathclyde) and the Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Project. Delegates enjoyed a day of lively and engaging presentations and workshops, and participated in a number of thought-provoking discussions around access and future engagement with archived oral history.

I first visited the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive at the University of Edinburgh whilst a Research Assistant on the AHRC-funded project A History of Working-Class Marriage in Scotland, c.1855-1976 at the University of Glasgow. The project adopted as a framework the life course stages of a marriage or cohabiting relationship, and therefore explored the history of love and courtship, cohabitation and/or marriage, separation and/or divorce, and finally, widowhood. This historical research was set within an overarching investigation of family forms and structures within Scotland, and the legal and policy framework around this at a national level. In addition to the original oral history interviews conducted as part of this research, the use of archived oral testimony offers further insight into Scots’ experience of marriage and family during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The School of Scottish Studies holds thousands of recordings gathered in Gaelic, Scots and English by fieldworkers who worked across Scotland and its diaspora since the School was first established at the University of Edinburgh in 1951. Amongst much other fascinating material, these archived recordings feature music, songs, folklore, rich biographical detail and accounts of local history. On visiting the School’s Sound archive, I was struck immediately by the extraordinary detail and expansiveness of many of the narratives recorded.

Vivid first-hand accounts of men and women born in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century provide otherwise elusive detail, not just of the prevailing cultural traditions but also of the economic and social lives of many Scots, many of whom are underrepresented in the documentary sources for this period. This is the case, for example, where those who were interviewed lived in geographically remote locations or as part of travelling communities. In the course of the Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference, I was especially keen to highlight the extent to which women’s voices, both young and old, as well as those of children, are represented in the Sound archive.

My own research, which looked at family, marriage and marriage breakdown in late twentieth-century Scotland, similarly drew on oral history. This has previously led me to consider the impact of hearing the original spoken word in understanding historical experience. As explored in the theoretical literature, an original recording gives a sense of distinctive characteristics that are routinely lost in the transition from audio-to-paper, including in the form of emotion, intonation, accent or dialect, for example.[1] This seems especially relevant in light of the diversity and richness of language, accents and dialect in evidence in the School of Scottish Studies Sound archive.

When we are able to hear actual ‘voices from the past’, as is the case with this material, what people share and describe feels even more immediate. The Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Conference this year served not only to demonstrate this, but also provided a very timely overview of some of the exciting research that uses archived oral history testimony, which is currently under way. Do check out the Scotland’s Sounds website and their tweets @ScotlandsSounds for the latest updates.

[1] See for example Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London, Routledge (2010). There is now also a Companion Website for the second edition of Oral History Theory, which provides valuable supporting material to extend and enhance the book’s comprehensive treatment of the application of theory to oral history analysis.



‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick

During the week beginning the 13th November ’17 we held an ‘Oral History Week’ at Warwick as part of our re-launch of the Warwick Oral History Network. Our aim at the network is to provide opportunities for anyone involved or thinking about getting involved in oral history (or any related area) to come together to share ideas, our experiences, and best practice. The nature of running a network for researchers in higher education is that our population is fluid as new and existing colleagues move in and out of the field – and of course the institution itself. In consequence, every couple of years we need to remind people of who we are and what we do, and to encourage new members to join us. WOHN

This year the network has been very fortunate to have Stéphanie Panichelli-Batalla, based in Global Sustainable Development, join me as a co-organiser, and also cementing the interdisciplinary nature of our network, which we have always seen to be a key strength of our group. With the goal of fostering new connections, chances for discussion, and potentialities for collaboration in mind, Stéphanie and I decided to hold an ‘Oral History Week’ as a way of advertising the network to our Warwick Colleauges.

We kicked off the week with a joint seminar with the Centre for the History of Medicine on the 14th where Kathleen Vongsathorn, a historian from our History department here, gave a fascinating paper on “The Place of Birth: Mothers, Midwives, Birth Attendants and Choices about childbirth in C20 Uganda”. Kathleen’s research is based upon hundreds of oral history interviews conducted with mothers, midwives and other medical practitioners, traditional birth attendants, and community leaders throughout Uganda.

Kathleen then joined us the following day for a workshop on conducting oral history research where she, Stéphanie, myself and Alison Ribeiro de Menezes (Modern Languages) talked about our own experiences of oral history. We had a diverse range of experiences to reflect on: Alison spoke about beginning a new project about Chilean exiles, as someone coming from a background in Literature and new to oral history research; I discussed my experiences of using archived oral history interviews for my current project on Jewish motherhood in England and Israel, and how this compared to my previous research where I had conducted my own interviews; Stéphanie talked about the challenges she has faced in finding interviewees among Cuban medical practitioners, the difficulties of securing their trust, and the ethical implications involved; and Kathleen shared her experiences of conducting oral history interviews in Uganda, including working with translators, and the challenges this can bring. A really rich and interesting question and answer session followed where we discussed.

Our final event of the week took place on the 16th, where we were very luck to be joined by Nathalie Nguyen of Monash University who presented her oral history research with Vietnamese diaspora in Australia. Her talk, and the discussion that followed, touched on many interesting areas, such as the importance of generational difference in the interviewer/interviewee relationship and the role of language in the shaping of a narrative. It was a great end to a really successful week and we look forward to another ‘Oral History Week’ in the spring!

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

Oral History and Cuba: challenges and successes


By Dr. Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla
Assistant Professor in Global Sustainable Development and Co-director of the Warwick Oral History Network
University of Warwick

Last month, the first Special Issue on Oral History and Cuba was published by the Oral History journal (Vol. 45 No. 2). It presents papers on vary varied areas of Cuban society, with a particular focus on the way oral historians and participants address sensitive topics while doing oral history research in a communist country such as Cuba.
The project of this special issue started in the fall of 2014. Olga Saavedra de Oca and I came up with the idea of organising a workshop on Oral History and Cuba. We both struggle with the fact that doing research on Cuba can sometimes be quite challenging because researchers are often too easily added to an ideological box that either supports the Castro brothers’ revolution or criticizes it. In this case, we decided to organize an event that would unite academics from Cuba and from Miami, as well as academics in the UK working on Cuban exile or Cuban society within Cuba. Although this might seem challenging to some, it was a real success. The event took place in 2015 at Aston University, we were lucky to have, among others, Maria Estorino, former Chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, Dr. Ana Vera Estrada, renown oral historian from the Instituto de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello in Havana, Professor Elizabeth Dore, oral history expert on Cuba here in the UK, as well as Professor Paul Thompson, who attended the event and offered some excellent concluding remarks.
The event was so well received that we both agreed we had to continue with this initiative and we decided to submit a proposal for a Special Issue, which would go in the same direction: present work of academics from varied backgrounds and perspectives on Cuba, but who all have the same goal in mind: offer a voice to the Cuban people to complement the existing official history of the Cuban Revolution. The Oral History journal was interested in our proposal and the result of this collaboration has recently been published in the latest issue of Oral History.
The Special Issue starts with an introduction, co-written by Olga Saavedra de Oca and myself as guest editors, on dealing with sensitive topics in communist countries. Here, we attempt to provide an overview of oral history research in Cuba. Cuba is of particular interest because it is one of the few countries –with China—where oral history research is carried out while the communist regime is still in place. Passerini has referred to the limited representation of oral history research in communist countries , however this special issue shows that despite the limitations, oral history research in Cuba is possible and it is taking place and growing.
The five papers presented in the special issue offer varied perspectives of diverse areas of Cuban society, such as family, memory, migration, collective identity, sexuality and gender. However, each of them focuses in particular on the way in which sensitive topics are addressed in the oral history interview by both, researcher and participants, and how the different approaches impact on the interview process itself.
My article presents the story of two Cuban doctors who worked as internationalist healthcare professionals in the 1980 in Nicaragua, but then struggled to re-adapt to Cuban life upon their return. This led them to leave Cuba and move to the United States with their families. However, in both cases, the life that was expecting them there was nothing like the American dream they had hoped for. By allowing these two men to share their side of the story, the paper reflects on the admirable Cuban internationalist solidarity programme and on the impact it has on its participants.
The second article by Kepa Artaraz (University of Brighton) presents the analysis of collective identity construction within the Cuban intellectual cultural world. It explores the crucial role played by the intellectuals within the revolutionary process, as well as their limitations when trying to define themselves as individuals and as a group while remaining within the limits of the Cuban revolutionary discourse.
Artaraz’ paper is followed by Ana Vera Estrada’s article on the closure of the sugar mills in the Cuban provinces of Matanzas and Artemisa. In this paper, Vera Estrada presents the restructuring process, which took place in 2002, and the impact it had on the lives of workers. This closure was devastating for many, especially for the older generations, whose lives had revolved around sugar for several generations.
The fourth paper is by Dr. Daliany Kersh (King’s University) who analyses the social impact of the economic crisis of the 1990s, also known as the Special Period. Kersh explores in particular the additional burden that was put on women during that period, which has led to many referring to it as a feminised crisis. In this paper, Kersh discusses the possible reasons behind the discourse of the women she interviewed.
Finally, the last paper is by Olga Saavedra Montes de Oca (University of Sussex). This paper is a little different as it offers an interdisciplinary perspective on transgender and family in Cuba. By combining photography and oral history interviews to Cuban families with a transgender member, Saavedra analyses family as a space and place where identities are negotiated. She also explores the impact of having a transgender person among family members on the family as a whole.
The Special Issue ends with a conclusion by Elizabeth Dore, reflecting on the current situation of Oral History and Cuba, especially since the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were reinstated in December 2014.
Although it can still be challenging to do oral history in Cuba, each of these projects shows that there is indeed an oral history mini boom in Cuba taking place, as Elizabeth Dore calls it in her conclusion. And she adds: “The collection, taken as a whole, demonstrates the role of oral history as a way to challenge who talks about the past, and for what purposes.” The purpose of this special issue was to give a chance to the Cuban people themselves to tell their story of the Revolution, whether they still live in Cuba or are living in exile, and whether they support the revolutionary government or not.
We will be launching the special issue at our next workshop on Friday 23 February 2018 at the University of Warwick. More information will follow on the Warwick Oral History network webpage. All welcome!

Table of Content of the Special Issue:
“Dealing with sensitive topics in communist societies: oral history research in and on Cuba”, by Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla and Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca
“Cuban doctors in Sandinista Nicaragua: challenging orthodoxies” by Stephanie Panichelli-Batalla
“Constructing identities in a contested setting: Cuba’s intellectual elite during and after the Revolution” by Kepa Artaraz
“The closure of the sugar mills narrated by the workers” by Ana Vera Estrada
“’The epicentre of the crisis’: gender roles and the division of labour in the private sphere during the Cuban Special Period, 1990-2005” by Daliany Jerónimo Kersh
“Opening other closets: remembering as a transgender person and as a family member” by Olga Lidia Saavedra Montes de Oca
“Opening the tap: doing oral history in Cuba” by Elizabeth Dore

The hazards of oral history

When I first heard the news that an Italian doctoral student had gone missing in Cairo, during the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2016, I had a bad hunch. Doctoral students usually don’t go missing, do they? My hunch was proven right, though, and Giulio Regeni’s corpse, showing signs of terrible torture, was found a few days later in a ditch on the outskirts of Egypt’s capital.

Unfortunately there is nothing extraordinary about stories of violence and death. What changes, at most, is the level of the horror inflicted upon the victims, especially when these are innocent civilians. But the idea that a promising doctoral student, registered at Girton College, Cambridge, found death in such a barbaric way, left a mark on me.

My dismay grew as troubling details emerged: 28-year-old Regeni was conducting research on Egyptian trade unions and labour rights, and it appeared that he was targeted by Egyptian intelligence services precisely because of his research. It was Mohammed Abdullah, the local head of the street vendors’ union and Regeni’s guide during his field work in Cairo, who had alerted Egyptian authorities to his work on labour movements, a sensitive topic in post-Mubarak Egypt. Clearly, Regeni was suspected of espionage and was being monitored by Egypt’s National Security Agency, when he disappeared on January 25th 2016.[1]

The reasons for Abdullah’s betrayal turned out to be economic. Abdullah had helped Regeni by offering advice and introducing him to potential interviewees, but then he started asking for money. A video that was released earlier this year shows Regeni speaking to Abdullah, who secretly recorded the conversation. When Abdullah asks Regeni to give him grant money in order to pay for medical treatments, the Italian doctoral student replies that he cannot give him grant money for personal reasons. Instead, he offers to apply for a so-called scholar activist grant from a British nonprofit group.[2] This, apparently, was enough to sign his own death warrant.

What struck me in this story, other than the terrible details of Regeni’s assassination, was the fact that we as researchers run risks when doing field research, in particular if this involves sensible data and human participants. It reminded me of an oral history interview that I conducted a few years ago, as part of my postdoctoral fellowship on the legacy of Italian second-wave feminism. I had written to a feminist association in Milan, which at the time was raising funds, through crowdfunding, for the creation of a women’s centre in the heart of the city. One of the promoters, a renowned feminist activist lawyer of the second-wave generation, enthusiastically invited me to come and visit the future women’s centre, where work was in progress. At the end of the visit-interview, she gently suggested that I could, perhaps, get hold of money from my university to support the cause? Slightly embarrassed I tried to explain, like Regeni, that grant money can only be used for research costs and expenses, not crowdfunding. I too proposed, vaguely and unconvinced, to apply for some other grant, making it clear that this nevertheless involved a formal procedure and specific requirements.

Given the general difficulty of securing internal funds, at least in my experience, I did not pursue my offer, and in the end I think I just made a personal donation. Of course the invitation of my stylish, feminist lawyer friend to help finance a worthy project is miles away from Abdullah’s greedy claims on Regeni’s grant money, and I can’t even come close to thinking that I may have run the risk of torture by local mafia (although I do find the idea of a feminist criminal gang intriguing). Still, it made me wonder about interviewees’ reasons to participate in an interview, how these might possibly influence their account, their behaviour towards us as interviewers, their (un)availability to liaise with other potential interviewees.

These are relevant issues for researchers working on delicate and controversial topics (war, genocide, social movements, human rights), who at some point of their project will find themselves engaging with human participants. Naturally, university ethics committees do their best to limit risks by assessing potential conflicts of interest and dangerous situations, prior to the field research period. But often this implies no more than ticking boxes on a checklist and getting it signed by a supervisor. After that, it’s down to you.

Oral history manuals also don’t speak much of personal risks; the usual advise is to do a check on interviewees in advance, meet up in public locations, etc. They don’t explain, though, how to avoid being tortured to death by secret services…

Of course the Regeni assassination is complex and strongly determined by (geo)political factors, and I in no way am saying that oral historians are risking their lives. But it might be worth thinking about some of the hazards of oral history interviewing. Perhaps ethical committees should be made more involved in field research after approval, and universities could reconsider their guidelines on protecting students and researchers? In the least, they should be prepared to take some level of responsibility, especially when students put their lives at risk for the benefit of research.

A timely opportunity to discuss the challenges of oral history will be the upcoming joint conference of the Oral History Society and the Oral History Network of Ireland, Dangerous Oral Histories: risks, responsibilities and rewards, held at Queen’s University Belfast on 28 and 29 June 2018. Details and a CFP can be found at this link.

Andrea Hajek, Independent Researcher


[1] Although the case is still open and unlikely to ever be solved, the most credible thesis is that Regeni fell victim of a conflict between two competing security agencies in Egypt, and that his death was a message to foreign activists and governments “to stop playing with Egypt’s security”.  Declan Walsh, ‘The strange twists in the case of Giulio Regeni’s disappearance in Cairo’, New York Times, 15 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/magazine/giulio-regeni-italian-graduate-student-tortured-murdered-egypt.html.

[2] Stephanie Kirchgaessner, ‘A year on, Giulio Regeni death casts shadow over Italy-Egypt relations’, The Guardian, 25 January 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/25/giulio-regeni-death-italy-egypt-libya-cambridge-student.

Conference report: OHS 2017 – Remembering Beliefs – The Shifting Worlds of Religion and Faith in Secular Society


This year’s Annual Conference of the Oral History Society took place on July 14th and 15th this year in conjunction with Newman University and Leeds Trinity University. The theme of the conference was belief and non-belief and the different ways in which the use and practice of oral history can bring new understandings to this complex subject.

In recent years, belief and non belief have developed new significance. What might once have been valued as something individual and private in many contexts only a generation ago can now be a matter of open identification and even confrontation and judgement. In seeking to understand what has changed, memory has an important part to play: identifying how belief and non belief have played out at the level of family, community and society; recognising how people engage in the practices of belief and experience the institutions of organised religion. For reasons perhaps of prejudice, perspective and communal difference oral historians have largely neglected the topic of belief and non belief.

As the conference programme noted, ‘oral history offers the possibility to move debate outside the confines of institutionalised religion both conceptually and practically, pushing the boundaries of what is meant by belief. Indeed, it offers the ideal approach to understanding manifestations of belief and secularism at an individual level while tracking their relationship to shifting expressions of broader cultural norms and the conferment of identity.’ Over the two days of the conference there were a range of papers that demonstrated the ways in which oral historians can open up the subject of belief and non belief in interesting and innovate ways. While diverse in topic, the speakers all spoke to the methodological challenges in understanding belief, secularism and religion, and particular panels considered how we might understand the process of secularisation through oral history testimonies; the inter-subjectivity in interviews on belief and non belief; the role belief plays in shaping memory; the interface of religion, belief and cultural/ national identities; belief and education; belief and non belief in social, political and cultural transformations; the shifting the narratives of religion away from an institutional base; gender and established religious institutions and sects and movements.

The three key note speakers offered many important insights on the nuances of belief and non belief and the how these are experienced. They also raised useful points about the issues of placing non belief within oral histories of religion and the challenges of terminology – what do we actually mean by the terms belief and non belief. In his paper on ‘Secularisation and the self: new theory from oral history’, Callum Brown showed us how oral history is a way of understanding religious decline. Tina Block’s paper, entitled, ‘Oral Histories of Unbelief: Exploring Narratives of Religious Decline in Postwar Canada’ revealed how some atheist parents baptised children so they wouldn’t be ostracised or seen as ‘weird’ and that some atheists in postwar Canada didn’t even discuss their non belief with their spouses, such was stigma. Finally, in her paper ‘Generations of (un) belief’ which drew on a number of different research projects she had carried out in the UK and in Egypt, Abby Day argued that we should see religion as a sub set of belief.

A further highlight for me was the really interesting panel on religion and its place in LGBTQ lives with papers by Jane Traies on the intersections of faith, belief and sexuality among older lesbians, George Severs on inter-generational oral histories of HIV/AIDS and George Townsend on seeing and being seen: public bathing, homosociality and homosexuality at ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ in Oxford. All in all it was another great conference and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference on ‘Dangerous Oral Histories: risks, responsibilities and rewards’ to be held at Queen’s University Belfast.


Angela Davis, University of Warwick


Conference report: Spaces of Memory

This month’s post is written by the organisers of the ‘Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting’ Conference (11-12 May 2017), Flora Derounian, Amy King and Chad McDonald. Flora, Amy and Chad are all PhD students at the University of Bristol and organise the Memory Studies Research Cluster for the AHRC South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. 

In mid-May, the Memory Studies Research Cluster of the SWW DTP held its first conference. Spaces of Remembering and Forgetting began with a screening of Chasing Shadows introduced by director Naomi Gryn. The film follows Naomi’s father, Rabbi Hugo Gryn, as he returns to his hometown of Berehovo, which he left when he was deported to Auschwitz at the age of 13 (along with his family and 15,000 other Jews). The documentary and Q&A explored ideas around memory and place, the role of the witness and the duty of remembrance.

Memory Studies Conf 1

The conference began with a Question Time-style debate on oral history with Tim Cole, Grace Huxford, Josie McLellan and Sarah Street. Questions from the audience included:

“In South Africa we have eleven official languages, which are connected to power and knowledge systems. How should we think about the associated power relations of language and the role this plays in oral histories?”

The panel reminded us that interviewer and interviewee may not share the same framework of meaning and differences may arise within communities too. Language is unstable and meaning changes over time, so interviewers must be aware of the context in which language is used. Finally, the panel said that the language of experience may be different to the language of retelling.

“How can we give new life to archived oral history recordings?”

Archives are an underused source of oral history recordings, but using existing recordings changes the nature of oral history and a new methodology may be required. However, the digital will encourage more engagement with existing interviews held in smaller archives.

The panels kicked off with a fascinating and complimentary set of papers given by Flora Derounian, Charlotte Walmsley, and Ayshka Sené. The papers interrogated how women are exceptional bearers of national memory, and featured compelling excerpts from video and audio testimonies with nuns and ex-Resistance fighters. The originality of the next panel was apparent to the audience, when Martin Hurcombe and Pip Gregory explored artefacts of memory such as commemorative boxes given to conscripted soldiers and cartoons. Both papers presented unusual methodologies with which to read memory. Fittingly, the final panel was something of a look to the future, with Steven Paige poetically presenting his findings and reflections on the labyrinth archives of the Library of Congress, and Anna Varadi exploiting online resource ‘Netflix’ to see what can be said about contemporary nostalgia in television. Although but a snapshot of the papers presented, it should now be obvious that the conference was an opportunity to showcase the original and exciting work which is being undertaken in the field of memory studies.

The day closed with a fascinating keynote lecture from Dr Juliette Pattinson, who presented the findings from her latest co-authored book Men in Reserve. Juliette started her talk by discussing the popular perception of the British Home Front as having been populated only by women, children and the elderly. Her research showed this to be false. The project team collected and analysed 56 oral history interviews to shed light on the largely forgotten stories of men who worked in the reserved occupations, exploring why these men had been forgotten and how their stories challenge our understanding of masculinity during wartime.

The research had a personal dimension for Juliette because her grandfather, Jack Gale, was a member of the reserved occupations as a policeman. For a short version of the talk, see Juliette’s recent TEDx talk hosted at the University of Kent.

Memory Studies Conf 2

The Memory Studies Research Cluster wishes to thank the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership for funding the conference. We are really looking forward to holding future events that bring together oral history and memory studies. Please follow us on Twitter for updates: @MemoryStudiesSW.




Reflections of an oral historian working with school pupils

There has been a welcome increase in discussions among academic oral historians about the role that method can play in schools. In this blog article, I wish to highlight the very positive impact that engagement between academic oral historians and school pupils can have on those involved, based on my experience as project leader in a collaborative project between the Scottish Oral History Centre (SOHC) and Springburn Academy.

The Models of University and Schools Engagement (MUSE) Project was launched by the University of Strathclyde in 2013, with institutional funding matching a national initiative supported by the Research Councils UK (RCUK). The aim was to promote collaboration between universities and schools across the UK, encouraging academics to work with young people at their schools and on university campuses. The SOHC elected to participate in a project with Springburn Academy, and I was installed as project-lead while undertaking my PhD. Springburn was chosen by the Centre due to the traditional relationship of the area with heavy industry, and the subsequent impacts of deindustrialisation, a key focus of the SOHC’s research activity. The project was designed to work with pupils outwith their usual curriculum, in order to differentiate the project from their ordinary school activities. In the two full school years that the project was conducted, the participants were in their fourth year of high school, aged between 14 and 16. The project was designed to be extensive, with weekly meetings, and a number of undergraduate students also participated.[i]

Springburn Academy is located in the parliamentary constituency of Glasgow North East, one of the most deprived areas in Britain. When the project began, Glasgow North East had the third-highest level of child poverty in the UK, and the provision of free school meals in Springburn Academy was three times higher than Scottish averages. Pupils are less likely to go into further and higher education than in other areas of Glasgow, and there are high-levels of organised criminality in Springburn and the surrounding housing schemes. The socio-economic rise and decline of the area is a story of heavy industry and subsequent deindustrialisation. Springburn developed from scattered farm dwellings to the growth of locomotive manufacturing; by the beginning of the 20th century, Springburn was the locomotive capital of Europe, with the North British Locomotive Company established in 1903. There was a substantial growth in population and immigration from Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, as Springburn became a self-contained community on the periphery of Glasgow city centre. There was substantial investment in local amenities and leisure activities, symbolised most clearly by the Springburn Winter Gardens, a Victorian glasshouse opened in 1900 as a gift to the community from locomotive magnate James Reid. The decline of the area was as dramatic as its growth. The break-up of the British Empire, a failure to diversify beyond steam locomotives, and high levels of emigration had a substantial impact on the socio-economic position of Springburn. North British Locomotive closed in 1962, and there was no new industrial development to replace the jobs being lost. The story of Springburn is one replicated in deindustrialised communities across Britain, with large increases in social deprivation following the closure of staple industries. Springburn therefore offered an opportunity to engage young learners with a complex piece of recent local history framed through their contemporary experiences, and to use oral history narratives to explore these further.

At the outset of the project, there was an informal discussion with the pupils over what they knew about their area, currently and historically. The responses given were somewhat typical of the internal stigmatisation of deprived areas, particularly deindustrialised areas.[ii] More interesting for this project, the pupils had very little concept of what Springburn had been, the industries that had dominated the area, or its role in the economic success of Glasgow as second city of the British Empire. Some had only minimal awareness that their grandparents had had some relationship with the railway system. Therefore, the project was designed to introduce this local history in a practical way, so that it could also improve their own  academic skills and performance. In the first year of the project, we focused specifically on the locomotive industry; in year two, we utilised the abandoned Springburn Winter Gardens as a physical symbol of socio-economic decline.

This approach allowed us to introduce pupils to archived records and to demonstrate how historians gather the information required to access the past. It was also a fantastic way to illustrate complex historical themes in a way that was relatable to the pupils and to their own lives. Moreover, this process sought to further examine their negative views of the locality and offer an insight into the historical development of their community.

Oral history was introduced as a crucial aspect to our investigation. Pupils received a substantial programme of training in oral history, tailored to their academic level and capabilities. Through using local history as the focal point of our analysis, we could demonstrate why oral history is utilised by academic historians. We recruited Springburn residents to participate in oral history interviews conducted by the pupils under my supervision. Many had worked in the locomotive industry, and the pupils designed an interview schedule to probe some of the themes that we had discussed over the course of the project. The narratives that emerged provided in-depth personal recollections of Springburn, giving pupils the lived experience of their locality. The pupils analysed the transcripts and examined the relationship between the testimonies and the archived materials that had been consulted, identifying where the narratives offered greater explanation and personal accounts of the decline of Springburn’s industry. Emerging from this, in both years of the project, were well developed and coherent presentations on the history of Springburn and on the use of oral history in conducting local history projects, and the pupils’ own reflections on their experiences.


Personally I can see many positive aspects of coordinating an oral history project with school pupils that can hopefully encourage others to conduct similar initiatives. Firstly, it was refreshing to work with young learners outside of a ‘formal’ learning environment. There was no examination or coursework at the end of the project; the main purpose was for the pupils to enjoy doing historical research. The second aim was to give young people the opportunity to learn more about their local area and to enhance their knowledge beyond the contemporary socio-economic problems faced in North Glasgow. This local-level history cannot feasibly be covered in the national curriculum. Thirdly, by using an oral history approach, the pupils could take the information that they had received through documentary sources and discuss them further with respondents. This is a simplistic benefit of using testimonies for academic oral historians; however, for young learners with substantially less knowledge of historical research methods, it allowed them to access ‘living’ history. Whilst the pupils may still have a negative, stigmatised opinion of the local area, they now have a much greater awareness of the reasons behind this and – hopefully – a better understanding of the impact of decline on those who lived through deindustrialisation.

As outlined above, engagement with this type of project was a very positive experience for me, for the Scottish Oral History Centre, and for Springburn Academy. It feels wrong to end with a negative note, but unfortunately that mirrors the end of the project. In 2017, I was informed that this project would not continue, as the RCUK funding had ended and the institution would not continue its support. As a result, the relationship formed between the Centre, the school, and the pupils came to an end and the project has not continued to develop. It is therefore important for all academic oral historians considering this type of project to explore the strength of institutional enthusiasm, and consider other funding streams that could provide longer-term support to facilitate relationships between oral historians and school pupils.

Andy Clark, University of Stirling


[i] For a more extensive discussion of the development of the project, see Clark, A. (2015), ‘Collaborating with schools: challenges and opportunities for oral historians’. Oral History, 44: 107-115.

[ii] See Hastings, A. and Dean, J. (2002) ‘Challenging images: tackling stigma through estate regeneration’, Policy and Politics, 31 (2): 171-184 and Perchard, A. (2013) ‘“Broken Men” and “Thatcher’s Children”’: Memory and legacy in Scotland’s Coalfields’, International Labor and Working-Class History Vol.84: 84-98.