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24 Apr 2023

Unlocking the secrets of the Canna sound archive

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna archivist
A black and white photo of a man sitting with a recording machine in front of him. Another man in a white shirt sits holding the mouthpiece to his mouth.
Folklorist John Lorne Campbell of Canna records Dan Mackinnon in Lake Ainslie, Nova Scotia, 1937
To mark the anniversary of the death of folklorist John Lorne Campbell in 1996, Canna archivist Fiona Mackenzie describes the complexity of the Canna sound archive created by John and how we can access it today.

Folklorist John Lorne Campbell, ‘Fear Chanaigh’ (‘A Canna Man’), began his lifelong passion with Gaelic song in 1932, when he was studying at Oxford for his degree in Rural Economy and a second in Celtic Studies. As a teenager, he had heard Gaelic being spoken by workers on the family estate in Argyll, and then again in 1926 at the Oban Highland Games.

At Oxford, Professor John Fraser succeeded in engendering a strong passion in John for the Scottish Gaelic language, and in particular songs and folklore. Whilst John was studying for his MA, and as a respite from the pain of the untimely death of his brother Charles, he travelled to Nova Scotia in 1932 to visit the Gaelic-speaking descendants of the ‘cleared’ Scots peoples of the 18th and 19th centuries. This trip was to become the ‘launch pad’ for his folklore career, and he made many lasting and significant friendships during this period.

Upon his return, John moved to the island of Barra, where he hoped to hone his Gaelic language acquisition and learn more about the culture through his relationships with tradition bearers like John Macpherson, better known as ‘the Coddy’. Indeed, it was the Coddy who alerted John to the fact that the island of Canna was for sale in 1938.

In 1933 John wrote and published his seminal book, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, still regarded as a classic today. However, at this stage, he was not physically recording the songs. It was not until January 1937, almost 18 months after his marriage to fellow folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw of Pittsburgh, that he began to formally record the songs and stories he was hearing around him, on early recording technology.

John’s sound archive, which we look after on Canna today, is a unique collection of 1,500 internationally significant recordings, capturing the voices and lives of those around him, recorded over three decades. Many of these recordings are now digitised for posterity and are available online. However, the task of unlocking the secrets of those recordings is an unending one.

When John began recording songs and stories, he did so using wax cylinders. He had been advised by Prof. Fraser to contact an academic in Vienna who was also recording stories. This resulted in the Campbells acquiring a small clockwork machine, which eventually proved worse than useless. In 1936 the Irish Folklore Commission told John about a new Ediphone recorder that was becoming popular. John said: ‘This was a much more solid and robust – and heavy – affair that recorded on large wax cylinders that ran for about seven minutes and which could be scraped and re-used again – though ours never were scraped!

In this first year of owning an Edison, the Campbells made around 400 recordings and even took the recording machine (and their car!) all the way to Nova Scotia in 1937. These recordings are among the most precious in our archive, as they include rare recordings of the Mi’kmaq people. However, the recordings are mostly poor quality (due to age) and require considerable audio enhancement to become usefully audible.

John was an early technology geek! In the 1930s and 40s, he was keen to try out all the latest trends in recording technology. He started to using Presto discs and Webster wire recorders – the latter was bought in New York and promptly seized by UK Customs and impounded for 6 months. It was only freed through the intervention of a Scottish MP who was a supporter of the Saltire Society! Later, the Campbells moved onto using various early tape recorders and then cassette recorders.

This wide variety of recording techniques means that the sound archive is composed of several different ‘elements’. The quality of recordings is evident in each successive element. John also re-recorded many songs with advancing technology, so we have different qualities of recording on different formats. Unfortunately, this means we also have missing ‘gaps’ of songs that were deleted and re-recorded. There was no catalogue of recordings, and the formats were numbered but with no names of contributors or material recorded. We do have a basic ‘list’ of songs recorded by John and the names of contributors, but they often bear no resemblance to the elements of the archive. I have to use a variety of investigative and linguistic tools – diaries, photographs and notebooks – to tease out all the details! Thankfully, I am a Gaelic speaker otherwise the task would be somewhat more challenging.

Here is just one example of the challenges presented by the sound archive. When I am asked for a song by Ruaraidh Iain Bhain, the title requested might be ‘Craobh nan Ubhal’ (‘The Apple Tree’) but with no date or other information. First, I try to establish a potential date. Knowing that John mostly recorded Ruaraidh when he was living on Barra in the early 1930s, that means he was probably using the Edison machine. That’s a wax cylinder ‘element’ originally, which was possibly re-recorded onto acetate Presto discs. In John’s song list, the discs are listed using Roman numerals ... which doesn’t make matters any easier! Ruaraidh (or sometimes Ruairi or Ruairidh) is also sometimes listed by his English name: Roderick or Roddy Mackinnon. Over the years, members of staff and even John himself used different spellings of names, or alternative titles, which definitely complicates matters. It could be listed as ‘Chraobh nan Ubhal’, ‘Craobh nan Ubhal’ or ‘O Chraobh nan Ubhal’.

Once I have found the track, I may have to listen to a 45-minute-long piece to isolate the particular song, as the original tracks are not edited in any way. Again, my knowledge of Gaelic is an essential tool when listening, as it is easy to miss the start of a song.

Sometimes I am able to use the incredible online resource of Tobar an Dualchais to track down a song. This project began in the 2010s as a partnership between Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the BBC, the National Trust for Scotland and the School of Scottish Studies (SoSS) and has created a vast resource of Gaelic and Scots material.

It is fitting that we have a close relationship with the SoSS in particular, as John was the founder of the Folklore Institute of Scotland (FIOS), which went on to become the School. Much of our collection is included on Tobar an Dualchais website, with edited tracks and useful notes on the song or contributor. However, the edited tracks generally do not include all the background chatter that went on at recording sessions: the cars miaowing, or the door banging, or the clink of glasses! This is the value of us having the complete, unadulterated archive tracks.

Sometimes I will come across a track with no name or details, that does not appear on Tobar an Dualchais, and I will have no idea who, what or where the session was. An interesting recent example was when I came across a track that seemed to be a collection of people chattering, the sound of some sort of engine and (strangely) a school bell! I listened over and over again to Gaelic voices, a man shouting ‘It’s the gulls, it’s the gulls’! There was laughing, giggling, a car engine revving, and what was that big engine noise? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it was a plane! But why the bell?

I contacted a friend of mine who is a Scottish aviation history buff. He found out that in the early days of air travel in Scotland, often on rural airstrips, a church or school bell was rung to scare away the birds. At that point, I knew instantly what and when the occasion was! 7 August 1936, on the Traigh Mhòr on Barra, when the first commercial aircraft flight took off from the cockle strand! I knew that Margaret had taken images of the event and that we had a few seconds of her colour film. I also realised that the revving of the engine was John revving the engine of their car, to charge up the battery converter for the Edison recorder! I have paired Margaret’s film clip with John’s audio so that we might get a glimpse of the excitement of the occasion!

Fiona has pieced together Margaret’s short colour film clip of the first commercial plane flight from Barra, with John’s audio recording. It gives us a glimpse of the celebratory sense of occasion.

Being able to piece together moments of history using the wonderful archives on Canna is one of my greatest joys. I love selecting a track at random and trying to create a picture of the setting – be it Canna, Barra, Uist or elsewhere – and who was present at the time.

Together, the sound archive and the photographic archive (many of the archive images in this story were taken by Margaret Fay Shaw and are contained within the Canna Archive) form a unique encapsulation of a lifestyle that no longer exists. As a conservation charity, we are privileged to have this resource in our care.

Dip into some of the tracks on Tobar an Dualchais and hear for yourself the voices of your grandfathers, aunts, uncles, well-known Hebridean names and rousing community social events of the past. You may even learn something about yourself!