This webinar took place online on 25th August 2021.
We’re so excited to share the release of two pieces made by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Artist in Residence Jenny Sturgeon on a project she led with 30 participants. The films – which you can watch below – feature music, words and field recordings as well as archive recordings from the National Library of Scotland sound archives.
These residencies are made possible thanks to the support of the National Library of Scotland, British Library Sound Heritage and National Lottery Heritage Fund.
As Far North as Anything Grows
You can download the sound for this piece on Bandcamp here.
Pushing, Reaching, Falling, Replacing
You can download the sound for this pieces on Bandcamp here.
Jenny has made the audio pieces free to download, however if you’d like to pay for the track, all profits will go to highland rewilding charity Trees For Life.
By Cara Melissa Evans
Almost fifty years have passed since the events of the ship worker protests against the liquidation of UCS in Glasgow. This blog focuses on the audio recordings from the sound collection at the University of Glasgow, from those involved in the protests, along with news coverage and interviews. My name is Cara Melissa Evans and I have had the opportunity to work on this project alongside the National Library as part of my MSc course with the University of Strathclyde. I have analysed and listened to the collection to summarise and discuss the contents in this blog, as part of this project.
When we talk about history, we always think of physical history – books, museums, historical sites. We think to learn from history we have to read or see it, but another great way of historical learning sometimes goes overlooked: sound history. Instead of reading the words of historical people, we can hear them instead, from the preservation of technology and records. Sound engineering and recording has come a long way during the 20th and 21st centuries, but in doing so has allowed the preservation of audio history. We can now listen to the voices of the historical figures we read about, hear the emotion and the meaning within their voices. It connects us with a deeper meaning, and in the case of this collection, lets us connect with the people that felt so passionate about their jobs and livelihoods.
A protest meeting regarding the closure of the Shipyards Photo by the Morning Star
The stories of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and workers are ones ingrained in modern Glaswegian history. While the years have gone by, it is hard to deny the impact of these men and women upon working-class society in the area. Many Glaswegians will know someone or be related to someone involved, or even be someone involved in these events. Following the collapse of the company which had come to be known as UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders), the threat of over 6,000 job losses loomed following the government’s refusal to subsidise the company. This sparked mass protests from the workers who stood to lose their jobs – If this went ahead, then many of them would be unemployed and unable to provide for their families and themselves. The shipbuilding in Glasgow had deep history that stood to be lost also, and so the fight for the Upper Clyde began.
Protests automatically were the go-to to show resistance and upset at the decision. However, the trade unions involved feared that to simply protest would lead to the government closing the shipyards for good, rather than allowing other companies to purchase them. The answer was revolutionary: a work-in. The workers would not refuse to work, but instead would be the only ones working and operating the shipyards until a change in the policies were made. Within the collection, opinions are voiced on this topic and it is clear to see how controversial the decision to work-in was. To those against it, the workers were reckless. To those involved and for it, it showed the government what the people of Glasgow were made of.
The collection presents a mass of different opinions on the work-ins. Some recordings are less than 1 minute long, and others run up to 20 minutes discussing the events. Background noise can often be heard, due to the equipment being used to record these interviews and clips. There are many names in the collection that are intrinsically linked to these work-ins. Expect to hear from the likes of Jimmy Reid, the spokesperson of the work-ins, and John Davies, the Conservative government Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the time. Much of the collection talks in professional terms, discussing the policies and difficulties of the back and forth between the government and workers. While listening, the story of the protests and the passion of those affected by the policies can be heard – With rousing speeches, loud marches, and thunderous applause in response. The heart and passion of the working-class people involved in the work-ins is loud throughout, speaking of revolution and unity. The phrases and terminology used in speeches were to reflect on these issues, with an example being a speaker stating: “What a colossal uprising this is!”.
Spokesperson Jimmy Reid addressing a crowd in 1971. Photo by smn archive
Throughout these audio recordings, the working-class sense of unity is a theme consistent in the voices of the protestors. What these people were enduring came to resonate not only with the rest of Scotland, but many areas of Wales and England wherein the working-class people were suffering hardships under the Conservative government. The movement started to become about more than the shipbuilders, but about galvanising the people to seek better livelihoods and incomes for themselves, and better working conditions. The UCS work-ins were recognised around the world, and the response especially from within the UK began to grow sympathetic and supportive. It highlighted multiple issues that Scotland, as a heavily Labour-minded country at this time, held with the Conservative government regarding working-class people and their treatment. The passion can be heard clearly in the speakers, those who viewed the work-ins as a way to better conditions and situations for the working-class of not only Scotland, but Britain too. The UCS workers gained support from celebrities too, including John Lennon, Billy Connolly, and Tony Benn.
Signs at a protest voicing opinions and desires. Photo by Barrykade
In February 1972, the efforts paid off and the government gave in to the workers’ demands. Two new companies were established (Govan Shipbuilders and Scotstoun Marine LTD) and the workers had won out with their work-ins. After listening to the hardships discussed on the audio records, it must have been an overwhelming sensation of relief and pride that their efforts had led them to victory.
This collection is involved in a project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, in which the National Library of Scotland is working alongside multiple other institutions to preserve sound history. The project is run by the British Library and its 10 hubs across the UK, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The hope for the 3-year project is to digitise and preserve over 5,000 collections with the help from volunteers and collaboration partners. With the current climate and technology moving forward so rapidly, digitisation of these collections will keep them from getting lost and allow access to future generations to a special area of history. You can keep up to date with the project’s progression over at @ScotlandsSounds and with the hashtag #saveoursounds to be involved! Read more about the project here.
With thanks to Hub Project Manager Jeni Park for her supervision and coordination, and for allowing myself and others to undertake roles in this important and intriguing project.
For a broader history surrounding the protests and shipbuilding, see Crisis on the Clyde the story of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders by Jack McGill. London Davis-Poynter, 1973.
For a more general history of shipbuilding within the UK, see “Labour in the British Shipbuilding and Ship Repairing Industries in the Twentieth Century” in Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Workers around the World: Case Studies 1950-2010, edited by Murphy Hugh, Varela Raquel, and Van Der Linden Marcel. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) 47-116
by Rachel Gladstone, UOSH Volunteer
Having spent the vast majority of the first COVID-19 lockdown transcribing mountains of old family letters whose contents danced from stories of an all-girls Edinburgh boarding school, flew over Paris in 1815 before the Battle of Waterloo and sailed across the Suez Canal at the turn of the twentieth century, I thought that I was ready for my placement with the National Library of Scotland.
Little did I know that I would be thrown back, headfirst, into a University of Glasgow lecture theatre, listening to the poets of the Scottish Poetry Renaissance, reminding me why I decided to take Scottish Literature and Language as an undergraduate degree. I have dived headfirst into searching for poems charting the emigrant experience of the Scots diaspora in Canada with Malcolm Ferguson. I have walked the streets of Glasgow with William McIlvanney, consider life, love and sexuality with Edwin Morgan and that wide, wild expanse of Hebridean soundscape that encapsulates Sorley Maclean’s Gaelic poems- haunted though they are by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.
Little did I know that I would become intimately acquainted with Discogs and the BBC Radio Genome; particularly when the poetry reading or oral history had been taped over by a CD of Al Stewart songs, snippets of church services, or the end of a radio programme debating Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection! Walking the streets of old St Andrews and Leith, dropping into a meeting held by the Scottish Council of Tenants pulls the political and social struggles that Scotland faced throughout the 20th century into sharp relief as the ship building that held so much of Scotland’s economy together crumbled under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Hours of frantic searching later and I find myself listening to discussions on the power of steam railways, sitting as a fly on the wall on oral history meetings with the men who still remembered with fondness the days of steam railways.
Coming into this placement in the middle of an ILS MSc with the University of Strathclyde gave me some inclination of how the metadata gleaned from the recordings can be used to develop the British Library Sound and Moving Image Archive. What I wasn’t expecting were the head scratching moments when the cohort were introduced to (shock horror!) a different format of cataloguing than the one we are learning in class. Sitting on these discussions and listening to the ever-patient Rob Smith talk about the reasons why the traditional FRBR model is not suitable for archiving audio collections and why, when you get out of library school you have to use all of your knowledge of MARC fields and RDA formatting to essentially wing it the way the British Library wants you to, were fascinating. As an aside, Rob and Jenni both deserve medals for answering all of the e-mails that have been sent over the last few weeks in such a calm, patient, unflappable way. Can that be arranged?
The thing that I want to take away from this placement is the importance of stitching together stories in order to create a soundscape of Scottish history and culture. The oral histories, poems and memories of yesterday’s Scotland that are locked away on compact cassettes and minidiscs, need to be told. They need to be told because they tell a story of another time, of the joys and sorrows of communities remembering a culture and a time that goes beyond the occasional gremlin attack on the National Library of Scotland’s One Drive and the frustration of uncooperative Excel spreadsheets. They tell a story of a place, a time and a people who owe it to us to remember them with dignity and respect.
by Richard James, UOSH Volunteer
Before starting my university work placement cataloguing sound recordings for the National Library of Scotland as part of their ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ initiative, I wasn’t sure what to expect to hear on my first week’s recordings. As I approach the end of the placement, I’m still just as unsure what I’ll hear on my final weeks’ recordings – and therein lies both the fun and the challenge of what I’ve been doing for the last two months.
A given week’s recordings may feature readings given at the Scottish Poetry Library by poets both well-known and amateur alike, or they may chronicle the shop stewards’ meetings of Clydeside ship builders as they discuss the events leading to their famous industrial action, or they may simply recount the warm and humorous tales of former steam-engine drivers reminiscing about their days working on the railways in Fife. (Or, now and then, they may play random snippets of pop music with no explanation.) The exciting thing about this placement is, you never know until you hit play.
During the two months of the placement, I’ve learned a lot of useful and practical information regarding how to catalogue audio recordings: I’ve learned what sub-fields are and how to use them, I’ve learned how to find and choose subject headings, I’ve gained experience chasing elusive snippets of information down rabbit holes and various tips and tricks to ensure you don’t return from these warrens empty-handed.
More than anything else, however, I’ve learned how rich and interesting our sound heritage can be. I’ve heard stories of mobs of impoverished miners descending on the more affluent town of Thornton to raid the local shops, I’ve become invested in the surprisingly cloak-and-dagger politics surrounding the building of a leisure centre in St Andrews and I’ve found myself, to my own surprise as much as anyone’s, becoming entranced by Finnish poetry being read in the centre of Edinburgh.
I still have two weeks’ worth of recordings to get through before finishing and, although we know this last batch features oral histories gathered from residents of Leith in Edinburgh, who knows what stories will be revealed when I actually get the headphones on and listen to them. I know one thing, though: I can’t wait to hit play and find out.
by Fraser Linklater, UOSH Volunteer
Every year, Basement Tapes Day offers the public the opportunity to listen to unearthed analogue recording formats found at home, through the use of audio playback devices that would otherwise be difficult to access. This year Adam Low, a Glasgow-based DJ, promoter and producer, took the opportunity, afforded by the National Library of Scotland Moving Image and Sound team, to digitise recordings created by his father, Kevin Low, along with his musical collaborator Fiona Carlin.
The recordings, which comprise mainly of demo tapes from across a number of years, were digitised in-house by Conor Walker, the Audio Preservation Engineer at Kelvin Hall. Some were produced professionally at what was Wilf’s Planet recording studio on Broughton Street, Edinburgh, while others employ the basic technology of a 4-track portastudio, both producing equally rich and blissful results. The demos feature a plethora of unique and interesting compositions, ranging from feedback laden early-post punk, embellished with soaring alto saxophone lines, all the way to stripped back electronic numbers that utilise early drum machine and bass sequencing technologies. They stand as fascinating encapsulations of a time in Scottish music in which innovation and creativity met head on with the emergence of complex digital instruments, resulting in a synthesis of perfect pop music and computer-world experimentation. Interested to hear more about the context of the recordings, I met up virtually with Kevin for a chat about these tapes.
I kick off our discussion by talking about Kevin’s entry into the world of music. While working as a freelance photographer for the music press, Kevin attended numerous gigs in Edinburgh at the beginning of the punk scene. He describes seeing a number of bands such as The Clash, The Ramones and The Cramps perform in Edinburgh during the late-1970s. In particular, he recalls the feeling of rebellion and new-beginnings in the air, “it was incredible. It was the beginning of everything. It was the reset. It was the pull-the-plug-out-and-put-it-back-in-again moment.” We go on to discuss the formation of his band, a post-punk outfit with singer Fiona Carlin on vocals and himself on guitar. “We had never played any instruments, but we were really excited by the post-punk bands performing in Edinburgh at the time, the likes of Josef K and especially the Fire Engines … We went and bought instruments and knew somebody that was in a band, so they let us use their practice room. And then, we learnt how to play. I use the word ‘learnt’, but we really didn’t even know a chord. So I bought Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’, and learnt a couple of chords.”
Shortly after, the band were offered a slot supporting the Edinburgh outfit Visitors, a group Kevin insists to this day were a lost gem of Scotland’s post-punk scene. Thereafter, the band went on to release two singles, Penniless and Love of My Life, and perform a number of live gigs at venues across the city, refining their style of playing to an unmistakably classy sound representative of the time, awash with saccharine guitars and emotional vocal melodies that float through the simplistically arranged compositions.
After a fond reminiscence of rambunctious gigs at Clouds in Tollcross and the Picturehouse, Kevin explains the group’s evolution and eventual shift away from syncopated guitars towards a more club-inspired sound. He credits the nightclub scene in Edinburgh and the emergence of
the 12 inch single as catalysts for his change in musical approach. “We were getting excited by dance music and techno, and a bit jaded by the jangly sound of a lot of independent music… We started off wanting to sound like The Fire Engines, and then ended up wanting to sound like The System. Not the kind of sound you’d expect a boy from Montrose to want to sound like!” On the topic of nightclubs, Kevin goes on to name a number of Edinburgh haunts from days-gone-by; The Hoochie-Coochie club, Coasters, and Tiffany’s in Stockbridge. Concerning clubbing’s bearing on the sensibilities of musical groups at the time, he points out that “it just got into the bloodstream of the bands that were going to the clubs. It was a gradual thing, but it was a natural thing. It made sense when you think about it.”
Excited by the emergence of drum machines and bass sequencing, he sold his collection of punk 7 inch records in order to afford these new and expensive technologies. As a group, they began navigating the world of digital instruments without any formal knowledge of their workings. “You had to sort of shuffle through and learn. We didn’t know how to play guitars, just as we didn’t know how to programme sequencers – so it actually took months, through trial and error. And, going back to any of the musical notes or chords that are on these tapes – it’s all trial and error.” If it was trial and error, it must have been a lucky bit of trial, as throughout the more electronic recordings in question, notes from bass sequencers and synthesizers seem to bounce off carefully programmed drums with sparkling effect. Piecing together Kevin’s reflections with the audio from the tapes, it is impossible to tell the level of intuition that is channelled through the instruments. It doesn’t sound naive and elementary; rather deliberately paired back, sophisticated and stylish, with lively bass lines bringing form and momentum to sweeping melodies.
When the topic of conversation segways to tapes, he explains their role in facilitating a kind of music sharing that was until then difficult. “There was a lot of passing over and sharing music via that format. Some things would get passed about that you wouldn’t have found otherwise – I remember listening to Gil Scott Heron for the first time via a friends mixtape… Sharing demo’s was also big. You would get a demo of another group and then swap it for one of your own. The funny thing about that is that you don’t know where any of those tapes have ended up. One of our tracks ended up on some compilation cassette in Germany. I dread it because it says in brackets ‘live’ next to one of our tracks. That will sound horrendous!”
We close off the interview by talking about Kevin’s experiences sending music to John Peel, a hero for many music lovers of that time and beyond. He discusses waiting outside the BBC studio in central London, asking Peel to play a recording of their second single Penniless . “He was a really important figure for a lot of people. He also gave money to a lot of bands, telling them to put a record out.”
Throughout the conversation, Kevin is passionate to discuss his time making music and being immersed within Edinburgh’s rich artistic scene. He concludes by insisting that he never wanted to ‘become a musician’, he simply ‘wanted to create things’. To this day, Kevin still holds this passion, creating expressive art, portraiture and otherwise, through the medium of paints. Reflecting on the conversations as a whole, a common theme seems to be a strict dedication to making and ‘trying out’ within the artistic process, without which none of these recordings would be quite as timeless in their appeal. After all, without the digitisation of these tapes, I probably would never have heard them see the light of day. Happily, I have, and it excites me for any future encounter I might have with a mystery collection of tapes such as this.
Kevin Low now works as a visual artist, having shown his work throughout the UK and, most recently, in Australia. To find more about his art, find him on Instagram at @mrkevinlow or via his website https://www.kevinlow.net/ .
Adam Low is a Glasgow-based DJ, producer and promoter, running club nights under the banner of Partial and producing music through the alias Pigeon Steve.
I would like to extend a massive thank you to Kevin Low and Adam Low for allowing me to discuss the topic with them and listen to these recordings. Additionally, a special thank you is required for Conor Walker, without whom none of this would have been possible.
We created a 30-minute radio programme for art radio station Radiophrenia, which was broadcast on 10 November 2017. Have a listen in!
This programme features the following recordings:
- Cradle Song Medley | James Scott Skinner, 1909, National Library of Scotland
- Alistair Campbell & Betty Nichol, 1983, Scottish Borders Archives [Listen online here]
- Birds on Canna, 1951, National Trust for Scotland [Listen online here]
- Mairead nan Cuiread (Tha Mulad, Tha Mulad) | Kate Nicolson (and chorus), 1963, School of Scottish Studies Archives at the University of Edinburgh [Listen online here]
- Bobby & Gordon Hogg, 2007, Am Baile [Listen online here]
- Pathfoot Sounds by Suzy Angus & Janieann McCracken, 2017, University of Stirling [Listen online here]
- John MacDonald, 1980s, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery & Am Baile [Listen online here]
- Selkirk Pickin Night, 2011, Scottish Music Centre
- Jenifer Harley, 2011, West Lothian Archives
- A Tattie, a Neep and an Ingin | Harry Gordon, 1929, National Library of Scotland
- Donald Morrison, 1970s, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis | The Ness Historical Society
- Stella Henriques, 1986, University of Aberdeen Special Collections [Listen online here]
- Louise Welsh, 2014, OurStory Scotland
- Karolinka | Polish-Scottish Song and Story Group, 2015, Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen
- Alexander Smith, The Boatie Rows, 1976, School of Scottish Studies Archives at the University of Edinburgh [Listen online here]
- Josephine Neill, Mullwharcar, 1981, Vanishing Scotland
- Doris Crook and Fiona Macpherson, Scottish Working People’s History Trust [Listen online here]
- Ian Wilson, 2015, University of Dundee Archive Services
- Pooni the cat, 1949, National Trust for Scotland Canna Collection [Listen online here]
- House session, 2011, Raretunes [Listen online here]
- & Lyndsay Porteus – Deil amang the tailors, 2009, Raretunes [Listen online here]
- Scaffolding, Music Practice, the Doors, the Duet, Scottish Music Centre
- Stanley Robertson, 2000, Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen
Schools, community groups and youth groups responded to sound collections from Helmsdale (Timespan), Fife (Fife Cultural Trust), Glasgow (Glasgow City Archives) and Stronsay (Orkney Library & archives). Our partners Media Education facilitated these podcast sessions and liaised with 13 community radio stations to broadcast them on air. Have a look at the ‘making of’ film or listen in to the podcasts.
Have a listen in to Scotland’s past through our 2-minute Sounds like Scotland animated mixtape. It features clips from 12 audio collections held across the country from Lewis to Aberdeen and from Inverness to the Borders. The archive recordings span from 1909 to 2017 and were made on varied formats – wax cylinders, wire, shellac discs, open reel tape, cassettes and digital media. Enjoy birdsong, music, spoken memories and more.
Take a peek at this animation made at the AK Bell Library at a children’s workshop organised by Culture Perth and Kinross. This animation was created as part of the Connecting Scotland’s Sounds Hear Here programme of doctoral training and researcher residencies – a collaboration with the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities.