View of a Fieldworker

We are always encouraging people to get involved with our Project, whether as a volunteer fieldworker or transcriber, or as a willing interviewee.  As well as valuing the oral history interview for its own sake we are also keen to encourage and facilitate opportunities for people to get together and learn from each other about the community they live in.  In this month’s blog post we hear from one of our East Lothian volunteer fieldworkers, Janis Macdonald, about her interest in social history, how she came to be involved with the RESP and what she has learned from her participation.  To date, Janis has carried out 14 interviews with 17 interviewees and, as the following report demonstrates, she doesn’t seem to be thinking of hanging up her microphone anytime soon!  We’re very glad to hear this!

For as long as I can remember I have had an interest in family history. I was very close to my maternal grandparents and I used to love encouraging them to share stories of when they were younger. Both were local and came from large families. However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realised how little I actually knew about their early years. My nana used to deliver Sunday papers for her father, regularly cycling miles out into the country from Haddington. My papa went to school in Prestonpans. I also knew that, as the oldest child he took on responsibilities for the well being of his siblings.

My grandparents – William and Helen Cunningham

On reflection now, I realise that most of the memories shared with me were from their married years, and the childhood years of my mother and her four brothers. My grandfather worked for the local Council and my grandmother for a local baker. I know they both had bikes and that my grandfather, having driven a Council lorry for many years, found the size of his first car challenging and it was regularly to be found parked quite far from the kerb! It’s often too late when we realise how little we know about our families.

Tracing family trees can give us names, dates and places but it is the social history that catches my interest. The Ethnology research project is helping us ensure that we can build our knowledge. People share their stories and this contributes to the pictures we have of when our relatives were younger.

I became involved in the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project after attending a Haddington Remembered session with my uncle. At that event Ruth, one of the John Gray Centre archivists, asked if I would be interested in helping with fieldwork and later Mark, one of the project researchers, contacted me. He arranged a short training meeting for myself and two other interested volunteers.  The session covered how to use the recording equipment, guidance on conducting interviews and there was also time to make some practice interviews.  Now that I’m a fully-fledged fieldworker, I find I prefer to refer to the interviews as conversations.  The term interview can seem a bit intimidating! Mostly I have engaged in guided conversations though, as I like to have a little knowledge of the person I am talking with!

My first conversation was with my mother-in-law and her twin sister. I felt a bit anxious beforehand but as they started talking I relaxed and it was good fun. One lesson I learned was that when the recorder was switched off the stories kept on coming!  Mark gave me feedback on this first interview and commented on the electrical noise throughout the recording. It was my mother-in-law’s air mattress – a noise that we had become so used to that we didn’t give it a thought! Mark’s feedback was supportive and reassuring and he uses his experience to comment on recording levels, types of question and where there might be opportunities to elicit more information.

Everyone has a story to tell. I have had the privilege of talking with a number of local people who have grown up in East Lothian. Some may have similar experiences but each story has personal reminiscences which bring our County to life. East Lothian used to be called Haddingtonshire. The name Haddingtonshire conjures up a different way of life from East Lothian and, to my mind, lends itself to a more rural description. Rural links come across quite strongly in many of the conversations I have had.

It is also a real privilege to talk with people about East Lothian. It can be humbling to hear of their early years and make comparisons with those of today’s children. Despite what may appear to us now as hardships, their memories are usually positive and the importance of family and community comes through very strongly.  I have been fortunate to know mostly all the people I have talked with, and my family has known their families. This connection has made these conversations all the more interesting to me. I can put faces to some of the personalities they mention, or even add to the reminiscences. Older people who knew my mother, and even those who knew my grandparents have told stories that I can make links to. Having lived in Haddington all my life, I too can remember the High Street shops as they were in the past: visiting several stores to acquire everything on the list  – no credit cards, no scouring shelves for specific brands, no home deliveries and everyone had their own shopping bag!

As a volunteer fieldworker with the RESP I have been encouraged to follow my own connections and ideas while allowing each person the opportunity to speak about what matters to them. The people I have recorded have come from a wide range of backgrounds and our conversations have been varied – ranging from the drummer of a popular local band to a retained fireman working in Haddington. Stories I have heard cover a wide range of subjects too and have included changes in local businesses, school experiences, memories of World War 2, fashion, fishing life and Haddington Pipe Band. Although I have chatted with many older people, including a gentleman who is 101, I am also keen to record some school pupils in order to have contrasting experiences.  And so there’s plenty to get on with and lots of people willing to share stories. Today’s events are tomorrow’s memories!

Janis Macdonald

November 2019





East Lothian: A Regional Ethnology – Spoken Word

The East Lothian study has been underway for about 18 months now. In that time, 24 folk have become fieldworkers and over 70 interviews have been recorded. The interviews have taken place in communities throughout the region including Ballencrief, Cockenzie & Prestonpans, Dunbar, East Linton, Garvald, Gullane, Haddington, Musselburgh, North Berwick and Pencaitland.

The interviews conducted so far cover myriad subjects including, amongst others, schooling, farming, World War II, shops and shopping, monastic life, town and village life, game-keeping, police work, food etc. A flavour of the range of subjects discussed can be heard and read here.

During this period we have also worked with Musselburgh Museum to digitise a collection of reel-to-reel tapes with interviews of folk from Fisherrow, Musselburgh and Wallyford which were made in the 1970s and 1980s. This series has added a further 70 recordings to our collection.

Our work in East Lothian continues and there is still plenty of time to get involved, either as fieldworkers or interviewees, or both!  Fieldwork is an enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved. Of our East Lothian volunteers few had any experience of this kind of work before they got involved.  The equipment is easy to use and full training is provided in sessions lasting 2-3 hours.

Over the coming months we will be travelling around the region to let people know directly about the project by mounting an exhibition of photographs. All will be welcome to come along to hear more about the opportunities for getting involved. Notice of these events will be available here and on our Twitter feed – watch this space!

You can also get in touch to ask any questions or register interest in coming along to a training session or open event by going to the website and following the links

Mark Mulhern, October 2019

Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered

Recording ‘The Artists Town’ past and present.

Mark Mulhern, European Ethnological Research Centre

One of the ambitions of the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project (RESP) is to encourage and to facilitate individuals and groups to carry out fieldwork based research borne out of their own interest. So it was with great pleasure that we welcomed the opportunity to work with the Kirkcudbright Harbour Cottage Trust on their project – ‘Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered’.

We provided training and supplied recording equipment to enable the team of 16 volunteer fieldworkers from Kirkcudbright to record folk from the town on their memories and experiences of artists associated with the town.

The results of these labours make a significant addition to the overall collection of material on D&G which the Project has built-up. In addition, this collection of recordings is a rich source of information for anyone interested in finding out more about the work of artists and their place within a place.

A clip from each of the interviews is presented on the RESP website. These clips can be directly accessed by clicking on the name of each interviewee below.

Copyright in these recordings is shared between the European Ethnological Research Centre and the Kirkcudbright Harbour Cottage Trust.


Flora McDowall and Hilary Alcock for Kirkcudbright Harbour Cottage Trust

Inspired by a cluster of rapt exhibition visitors listening to an older resident recalling the painter Charles Oppenheimer, the Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered project was born.

Between November 2017 and November 2018, a Kirkcudbright Harbour Cottage Trust team of 16 volunteers carried out 38 interviews with local people who recall the bohemian artists and makers living in the town during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.   Names such as Jessie M King, E A Taylor and Charles Oppenheimer are synonymous with the town, but others were equally popular residents, actively involved with community life.  These include artist David Sassoon, ‘‘the Godfather of Scottish studio pottery” Tommy Lochhead, multi-talented craftsman Tim Jeffs, pastel portraitist Lena Alexander and painters such as Ann and Alistair Dallas and ‘Bill’ Miles Johnston and his wife Dorothy Nesbitt.   Most were incomers to the town attracted by its association with E A Hornel, but the painter John Halliday was born in Kirkcudbright.  Halliday formed strong bonds with the artists’ colony of the time, propelling him onwards to start his career at Glasgow School of Art.

The first port of call for help with the project was David Devereux, formerly Curator of the Stewartry Museum, who provided enthusiastic support and advice.  David suggested contacting the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project and The Ewart Library, Dumfries.  Alison Burgess, the Dumfries & Galloway Council Local Studies and Information Officer and Regional Network Representative for the Oral History Society, was on hand to help.

It transpired that there had already been a large recording project undertaken in Dumfries & Galloway by the Regional Ethnology of Scotland Project.  Through the EERC we could access recording equipment, expert help with the necessary paperwork and have a home for the resulting recordings at a national level.   There the recordings would become part of the larger study, professionally transcribed and properly preserved for the future.

Making the recordings was a rewarding experience for the volunteers and the participants.  Everyone who contributed had something fascinating to say about the artists, post war life in the town or growing up in Kirkcudbright.   It was a steep learning curve for the volunteers, only one having done anything similar before.   The recordings are not formal, but conversational and relaxed with various interruptions from clocks, doorbells, squeaking furniture and chinking teacups … but no less interesting for that.

Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered moved on to a new phase when support was secured from Dumfries & Galloway Council and The Galloway Association of Glasgow to use the recordings as the basis for two short films.  The services of the BAFTA award-winning young film maker James Alcock secured, the team went on to produce two, six-minute films, ‘Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered’ – which features oral history recording participants and some of today’s artists – and ‘John Halliday, Child of the Colony’.  The films can be accessed on YouTube by clicking below:

Kirkcudbright Artists Remembered

John Halliday Child of the Colony


Recording Clips:

Pamela Baillie

Elizabeth Brown

Andrew Campbell

Joe Campbell

David Collin

John Corrie

Alastair Dallas

Marion Devlin

Neil McGill Duncan

Lindsay Forbes

Jane B Gibson

Elizabeth Gordon

John Halliday

Richard Haslam-Jones

Jim Henderson

Willie Henry

Sam Kelly

Alan Kinnear

Wilson Lochhead

Janette Millar

David Mitchell

Helen Murray

Lesley Priestly

Valerie Sadler

Sheila Semple

Anne Shackleton

David Shackleton

Daniel Shackleton

Joseph Sassoon

Donald Shamash

Amy Smith

David Steel

Hazel Twiname