But of course one is always dealing with individuals, with individual collectors and their interests. Some of these of course being very comprehensive ones, some of them more specialist. And that, of course, sets a certain defining principle of what you find then in an archive. One of the things that sets ethnologists apart from people who look at the past, like historians and linguists and geographers and sociologists and so on, and who also look at the present because the present is as of much interest to us as the past ... Many of the techniques and approaches we use are quite similar. We’ve borrowed from other disciplines and other disciplines borrow from us, but one of the things that does set ethnologists and folklorists apart is that they tend to be the creators of collections for other people to use, so they may be collecting because they have a research interest in a particular topic but they also have the potential for wider use also in mind. And then, as opportunities began to arise for funding from the national funding bodies, research projects would be established that would both attract material, perhaps on a range of topics, into the archive and would also be the material from which publications of very specific kinds could be created. And the project on which I worked, for example, with the late Eric Cregeen, the Tiree Project as we called it, a series of linked projects, was funded by the Social Science Research Council, then the Economic and Social Research Council, to undertake a depth study using oral tradition and subjecting oral tradition to certain types of critique in a community through a period of change and we were able to undertake this critique because the community chosen, and was chosen partly for this reason of course, also has been fairly well documented in the estate records that relate to it. So we were able to see where the oral record was accurate to a remarkable degree in terms of dating and that sort of thing when you have other kinds of evidence to compare it against. Historians have tended to be a bit wary of using oral sources but if you have means by which you can subject those oral sources to careful criticism then you really can use them and use them as the communities themselves have used them, as a constantly refining process of evidence collecting.

  • Margaret Mackay
Thursday 17th June 2010