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. 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.
 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.