Scotland holds arguably one of the most important collections of traditional cultural material in the world, the School of Scottish Studies Archive. Begun in 1951, the archive of tapes, records, manuscripts, books and 10,000 photographs covers song, story, customs and history from the Gaelic-speaking Highlands to the Scots-speaking Lowlands. Now a proportion of its contents are to be made available on-line through a huge digitalisation project.
The project will include merging similarly valuable records held by BBC Scotland and The National Trust for Scotland’s Campbell Collection. It is called Tobar an Dualchais or ‘Kist o Riches’, and is an initiative of several partners, headed by Sabhal Mòr Ostaig from Skye, the Gaelic education, research and development agency.
‘As far as I know, there’s no equivalent to this anywhere,’ says Dr Margaret Mackay, SSS Archive Director, ‘although I believe the Irish Traditional Music Archive may be doing something similar, and the Smithsonian, too, with its “Save Our Sounds” project. Our goal is to get this material across the globe and also to return it to the communities where it first came from generations ago. The material is priceless’.
Indeed it is, perhaps the Gaelic component above all. Early collectors realised this, like Alan Lomax, who was taken around the Hebrides in the fifties by Calum Maclean, brother of Sorley MacLean: Lomax hadn’t appreciated that such a tradition existed in Europe. Séamus Ennis likewise, ‘loaned’ by An Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann to assist collecting in the Hebrides was amazed at what he found. Professor Séamus Ó Duilearga, too, Director of the Commission, was simply astounded by the scope and quality of Hebridean tradition, calling it like ‘all Scandinavia and Continental Europe rolled into one’; Ó Duilearga later became instrumental in founding the SSS.
‘The time is right for the project,’ explains Dr Martin MacIntyre, the project’s Director. ‘Everything’s coming together, including the University of the Highlands now functioning. However, not everything that we and the NTS and the BBC hold can be included yet: we have limits, despite this being a £2.6m enterprise. In Phase 1, we’ll process 12,000 hours of material and in later phases, a further 6,000 hours. Priority will be given to digitising the tapes done in various formats over the years by the likes of Alan Lomax, the very early Gaelic recordings of John Lorne Campbell of Canna and Hamish Henderson’s work. Sadly, our manuscripts aren’t included in this nor modern fieldworkers’ notes. We need to find a way of digitising them eventually because they’re obviously important too.’
Twenty-one people will be employed, and a Project Manager. They’ll comprise digitisation and administrative staff, eight ‘community cataloguers’, and a full-time copyright worker.
‘The cataloguers are crucial,’ explains MacIntyre. ‘Their task is to work on the material in the areas where it comes from. They’ll be based in their own homes and will have local knowledge and appropriate language and computing skills. We’ll send them regular deliveries of DVDs from digitised tapes which they’ll then process and return. “Processing” means listing and annotating a DVDs contents, and adding any information about the “informant”. That’s the source singer or whatever. The material from the three collections will be merged to give uniformity. So, if you wanted to know everything ever recorded from a particular district, you could find it. Or perhaps you wanted to know every singer who ever sang “Uamh an Oir” or even mentioned it – a click of the mouse would tell you’.
‘Material will be available to anybody with access to a computer at home, school or local library. Even on the most basic equipment using old 28k modems. We want the material to be a resource, to stimulate debate, bring people together and enrich life generally. It could be used for talks by local history societies, say, or arts groups. Also, naturally, it could trigger memories, causing people to bring new material forward: that’s what Hamish called the “Carrying Stream”. However, the cataloguers won’t act as researchers, although they’ll encourage local bodies and scholars to record new finds.’
A venture as bold as this poses challenges. MacIntyre and Mackay don’t minimise these. ‘No,’ says MacIntyre, ‘but we don’t fear them either. We did a pilot project here already, you see, testing things like the actual technology, copyright, etc. PEARL (“Preparing Ethnological Archives for Research and Learning”) hopefully ironed out any significant bugs. I think we’re well prepared.’
Unsurprisingly, people are generally wishing PEARL’s successor well. It is, by any standards an exciting venture which could deliver great benefits in terms of scholarship as well as promoting pride of place and encouraging greater involvement in genuinely local, rather than mere globalised, culture. Yet there is some scepticism about it. This stems partly from perceived aspects of it and partly from the role that the SSS Archive may have in it.
It appears that the SSS Archive no longer has the reputation it once had in Scotland – although of course Tobar an Dualchais if successful could help to rectify that. Major Scottish cultural figures, and even former staff members, have accused it of complacency and a low productivity. ‘Regarding its scholarly output,’ says Bill Innes, a prize-winning Gaelic writer, broadcaster and scholar who has used the SSS’ archives for research, ‘if an American university had what the SSS had, there’d be countless publications out by now.’ Poet and publisher Joy Hendry concurs. ‘I heard rumblings about this twenty years ago – but I think they got away with it, protected by Hamish Henderson’s international reputation.’
Allied to this, the Archive’s current drive to promote its collection is generating a certain cynicism because of a perceived past unwillingness to facilitate access to it. There are accusations of exclusivity. Sheila Stewart is one person who has made them. An accusation coming from such a source – from a member of the celebrated Traveller family from Blairgowrie who gave Hamish Henderson untold folklore treasures – is serious indeed.
‘We were made to feel it was impossible to get out recordings of family members,’ she says, ‘but now they want to put it all round the world! Years ago, I tried twice to hear recordings of Auntie Bella, Auntie Jeannie and Uncle Andra; I’d have loved to have heard the speaking they gave to Hamish. I was told I’d have to pay! To hear my own family! Finally, Margaret Bennett got it for me. The School of Scottish Studies has never done anything for me.’
It would seem unwise to have apparently alienated the Stewarts, given their iconic status. (An equivalent might be to upset the Coppers in England or the Mooneys, say, in Donegal.) But complaints aren’t limited to older established groups alone. A well-known young professional musician (who wishes anonymity) recalls as an SSS student trying to access a recording of his grandfather on behalf of his great aunt, but being rebuffed. ‘She’d bequeathed it in the first place. I found using the Archive was an off-putting business. We visited it at Induction but weren’t encouraged to use it later.’
These sorts of views surface not infrequently. In fairness, there are their opposites: singer and songwriter Adam McNaughtan, for instance, knows of no particular problem of accessing material. However, against this somewhat unpromising background, there is another far more worrying issue developing. It is that of what happens to the material once it goes on-line: who will profit from it financially, and should they, and how?
Worldwide, creative artists are already feeling the negative impact of new technology on their incomes (copying of CDs, etc). Amongst the School’s informants (or heirs) are people who may derive income from material they have given to the SSS previously. They might object if they found that others were using what had once been theirs or their families’. The ominous shadow of Moby looms, the American pop singer who is accused of rifling Alan Lomax’s folklore recordings for personal gain on his albums.
Mackay and MacIntyre are sensitive to this. ‘It’s crucial that the rights of performers and composers are respected,’ says Mackay, ‘particularly in this age when they often aren’t.’ ‘I agree,’ says MacIntyre. We work on the basis that people contributed generously to us here in the hope that their material would be heard and used for the general good. I really believe that the gains of what we’re doing outweigh any losses. We’ll show the utmost respect for contributors’ rights, they won’t be infringed.’
There is no reason to doubt these good intentions. However, at the technical level alone, safeguarding a person’s intellectual property is increasingly difficult. ‘Yes,’ agrees MacIntyre, ‘we’re going to “watermark” material as a protection. But you can’t effectively stop someone infringing copyright. For instance, the sound quality of computers these days is so good that all you’d have to do is to hold up a high quality mike to the computer and you could get away with anything.’
That assessment might be honest, but is nevertheless discouraging. Informants typically have not co-operated with the SSS hitherto for personal gain, of course. Yet some do copyright their material for their own use in broadcasting, performing and writing. What they may face now is causing anxiety.
‘I know that it’s the putting of things on the Web that’s behind it,’ says Dr John McInnes, a former lecturer at the SSS for thirty years and an Honorary Fellow. ‘It’ll worry people who’ve given material to the SSS but whose livelihood is performing. Will they be able to use their material that’s been put on-line? People need more reassurance.’
‘It’s certainly our responsibility to ensure that we have clearance to put songs onto the internet,’ says Mackay. ‘Our copyright officer will do that, we’ll have a special form for it. How we see it is that an “informant” – a source singer, say, or his/her relations – will be asked to grant copyright to us for the project. That doesn’t mean their work just becomes the property of Edinburgh University – although the University has rights in that it may have financed the making of the recording. There are shared rights and responsibilities; it’s very complicated. Sometimes people won’t want material that they’ve given us to be used publicly. It may be satirising a neighbour or friend, say. We must recognise that there exist rights within the oral domain just as there are in the written media.’
Such rights might be asserted more vigorously than in the past, argues Dr Margaret Bennett, Gaelic singer and scholar and lately an SSS lecturer. ‘I don’t know if they’ll get agreements easily. Out of interest, I asked people in a bothy session in the north-east if they’d accept signing material over to the School of Scottish Studies, for example. They said “No disrespect, of course, but we might have a CD to think about sometime in the future…’’.’
If nothing else, the obtaining of copyright is likely to be complex. ‘Take Jeannie Robertson,’ says Sheila Stewart ‘she never signed anything. Well, none of us did, we just trusted Hamish. But it all seems different now, I won’t let them put out anything of Jeannie’s. Honestly, I don’t think the SSS will bother to contact everybody. Even if they could find them: they’ve got things in the archive that they don’t know who it’s from. I went to one of their public lectures on the “Berry Fields of Blair”. They played somebody singing, they said it was by old Davie Stewart, it wasn’t, it was a man MacPhee from Perth. After the talk, Maggie Mackay admitted they didn’t know who was on a lot of their tapes.’
The payment issue is similarly fraught. Bennett believes that there would be disquiet amongst informants if it were thought that Edinburgh University, say, stood to profit by the digitising process. Hendry, however, believes that the fees issue might be eased if not actually solved outright. ‘It might work if, say, the project got together some key informants or their surviving relatives and agreed on a fair percentage for all informants. It might be fifty/fifty, perhaps.’ But it would not be straightforward. ‘I think it’s atrocious,’ says Stewart. ‘I’ve got my material now in my books, so they cannae get the copyright of that, all of it is copyrighted by me. I won’t sign copyright to the SSS, so they’ll not put me on the Web without permission. I wouldn’t sign over as much as a chorus to them. When we gave our stories to Hamish in the fifties, we never signed anything saying the SSS could do what they liked with them. All the material was handed down to me orally by my forebears; nobody should have copyright but me. I’m the only one of my generation left in the family, and that is my heritage.’
Of course, informants might at least be willing to have their material digitised even if not subsequently put on-line. ‘We could work with that,’ says Mackay, ‘because one reason for this project is to preserve what we’ve got: some of our old tapes are deteriorating. We believe digitised copies won’t. But we wouldn’t put things on-line if asked not to. Separating material already digitised but not to be put on-line would be difficult. It would be a fine line about whether we could make a catalogue of those non on-line materials. However, whatever people want, we have to adhere to.’
It is to be hoped that these difficulties can be resolved. An otherwise praiseworthy endeavour would be at risk and could collapse in acrimony. This would be very regrettable. There are clear advantages to be gained from Tobar an Dualchais, for Scotland and the wider world community. As MacIntyre says, ‘We hope this will be a model of good practice, particularly for our Celtic neighbours. I completely believe in what we’re doing, it’s incredibly valuable.’
Published on 1 May 2003
Steve McGrail is a singer and writer from Scotland.
Steve McGrail is a singer and writer from Scotland.