Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Kist o Riches

For the last few years, I've been working for the Kist o Riches - a landmark project to digitise, catalogue and place online tens of thousands of recordings of Scottish traditions. Most of these recordings are drawn from the archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, whose fieldworkers began collecting material in the 1950s using the then newly-available portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. The recordings document many different aspects of traditional culture, ranging from detailed descriptions of traditional crafts and working practices to performances of the traditional music and songs that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years.

Hamish Henderson with Traveller 
storyteller Alec Stewart in 1958
The Kist o Riches project - or Tobar an Dualchais in Gaelic - began in 2006 with the aim of turning these recordings into a modern digital resource, and by the time we launched our website in 2010, we had around 16,000 recordings online. We've managed to almost double this number in the past year and a half, and are working hard towards getting all of the recordings online in the near furture.

My work for the project has focused on cataloguing the Scots- and English-language traditional songs in the School of Scottish Studies archive, many of which were collected by the celebrated folklorist Hamish Henderson (1919-2002). The School has well over ten thousand of these song recordings, and they offer important insight into Scotland's traditional song culture. Our website contains many hundreds of recordings of important traditional singers such as Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath, Willie Scott and other source singers for the Scottish folk revival, yet there are many fantastic contributions from singers who are much less well-known, but whose recordings are hugely important nonetheless.

Jimmy MacBeath
In listening to and cataloguing these thousands of recordings, the Kist o Riches team has essentially been conducting the first ever wholesale review of the content of the School's sound archives, and as a result we've uncovered many interesting tracks, some of which may not have seen the light of day since they were originally recorded on reel-to-reel tape. For the Scots song recordings, we've made a point of cross-referencing these tracks with major song collections, including the Child ballads and the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, and we've also made good use of other internet based resources to provide supplemental information. This approach has led to some interesting discoveries which promise to shed light not only on individual songs, but also on the nature of the oral tradition. One aspect I'm particularly interested in is the interaction between the oral tradition and printed songs.

I've been singing traditional songs for most of my life, and listening to these tapes has been an enormous privilege. As a Dundonian, I've revelled in the recordings made by Hamish Henderson of Mary Brooksbank (1897-1978), the famous Dundee poet, songwriter and activist. Not only does Mary sing her own songs on these recordings, including her renowned Jute Mill Song, but she describes in detail the events that inspired her to write them.  Other of Mary's recordings offer an invaluable first-hand account of the events and circumstances that shaped her life, her beliefs, and her lifelong commitment to social justice. Mary Brooksbank is just one of thousands of people from all across Scotland recorded by the School in the 20th century, and these recordings are important contributions to our collective narrative - our cultural memory.

Lizzie Higgins of Aberdeen
In May 2012, I was appointed the Kist o Riches' Scots Artist in Residence, with a remit to promote the project and its recordings through performances, workshops, public talks and other events. This blog is a place for me to highlight some of the Residency projects I'll be undertaking in the coming year, using the Kist o Riches website as my primary resource. I'll also be sharing some thoughts on the legacy of our project and how the website can help Scots re-engage with their song culture - as well as looking in detail at some of the wonderful song recordings available on Kist o Riches.

If you haven't already visited the Kist o Riches site, you're in for a treat: www.kistoriches.co.uk

All photos copyright of School of Scottish Studies / Kist o Riches; photo of Hamish Henderson and Alec Stewart by Sandy Paton.


  1. Chris, the work you are doing is absolutely amazing. I'm a Highlander in my 40s who was brought up listening to many of these songs, stories and poems sung and spoken by Grandparents who are no longer here. As I've got older I realise the value of these work but in the absence of any recordings, feared them lost. I recently discovered your website through a free cd I was given and think it is brilliant. Please keep up the good work you are doing. It's truly amazing and will pass on so much to future generations. Thanks. Elaine. Aberdeen.

  2. Looking forward to this, Chris.