Engaging with Sound Archives: A Practical Guide

The recent and ongoing digitisation of sound archives has opened what was once a heavily fortified door onto a lost world of instrumental music, song, story-telling, and poetry. Now there are literally thousands of hours of recordings freely accessible at the click of a mouse (or tap of a screen), covering a wide range of dates, locations, and genres. However, being faced with such a wealth of resources can be daunting, and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply browsing at random, there seems to be a need for a guide to getting the most from sound archives. This blog post is intended in the same vein as my previous post on playing from old collections of music, and will be a practical guide to finding and getting the most from recordings in sound archives. As usual, my focus will be on Scottish fiddle music, but the guide will be of use to any traditional musician keen to engage with recordings in sound archives.

Sound Archives

Since the advent of recorded sound, fieldworkers have been amassing sound archives in an attempt to preserve customs and traditions they believed to be in danger of dying out. The classical composer, Béla Bartók, famously took to the hills of Hungary and Romania to record the folk songs of peasants which inspired many of his most famous works. In a Scottish context, fieldworkers were making recordings long before the School of Scottish Studies was established in 1951, with John Lorne Campbell and James Madison Carpenter, among others, preserving on record (or wax cylinder) the sounds of the ‘folk’ from the 1930s onwards.

Step 1: Finding Recordings in Online Archives


There are an increasing number of websites coming online which host sound archives. I’ve already written about the three main ones for Scottish content (Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, The Alan Lomax Archive, and BL Sounds) but there are many others, including Stuart Eydmann and the late Derek Hoy’s Rare Tunes, and (in a non-Scottish context) the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox, and Alan Jabbour’s Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier.


It’s important to spend time getting to know how each site works, as no two are the same! The advanced search function on Tobar an Dualchais is really powerful, allowing you to search across a variety of fields, but other sites are not so user-friendly and require you to spend time sieving through recordings by date, place, or performer. Do persevere, as there are some really super recordings to be found! Rare Tunes usefully tags each recording; for instance, you can find all the fiddle music featured on the site here.

Step 2: Finding Recordings in Non-Online Archives

In a day and age when it seems you can find anything and everything online, it’s important not to forget that the vast majority of information remains in a non-digital format. The same is true for archive recordings. For instance, the School of Scottish Studies has been unable to make many of its recordings accessible through Tobar an Dualchais due to restrictions created by the original contributors. As such, it is important to recognise the potential in visiting physical archives, such as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Significantly, anyone is welcome to search the physical archives (housed in a battery of card indexes) but it is necessary to make an appointment in advance.

Step 3: Engaging with Recordings

While sound archives used to be the exclusive preserve of academics, now that they are online they can be accessed by anyone, and used for a variety of purposes.

As a PhD Researcher, I still engage with the archive in quite an academic way: for my current project I’m combing through sound archives systematically, making a note of all relevant fiddle recordings which I will go on to analyse in pain-staking detail in an attempt to learn about performance styles. Such work is not hard to do, but it requires a considerable amount of time and concentration.

Peter Cooke’s Scottish Tradition series of cds was an attempt to facilitate the engagement of non-academics with the School of Scottish Studies Archive in an age before audio streaming via high-speed internet. Categorised by genre and location (e.g. Gaelic Songs from the North Uist Tradition), the series made what are wonderful recordings available for anyone to buy and hear. Online archives go a step further by making them freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

As early as 2000, Shetland fiddler, Catriona MacDonald, was engaging with the sound archive. She included a track on her debut album, Bold, which begins with an archive recording of Gibbie Gray, a fiddle player from Shetland who lived from 1909 to 1989, playing the tune, ‘Three Drunken Fiddlers.’ In the beginning, the archive recording is accompanied by MacDonald’s band, before she herself takes up the tune and the archive recording fades out. What is immediately apparent is the disparity between her’s and Gray’s performance style, yet at the same time, the track also highlights the roots and vibrancy of the Shetland tradition.

More recently, a collaboration between the School of Scottish Studies and Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin has seen eight young traditional musicians exploring the School’s Archive. The Archive Project began in June 2012 with the aim of creating ‘innovative new traditional music.’ Significantly, they didn’t limit themselves to the specifically musical content of the archives, but found inspiration in the stories and factual information, also.

Sound archives can also be used to research local or family history. Only last week I came across a contributor on Tobar an Dualchais who I believe to be a distant relative of mine! (See Andrew Gibson on Tobar and Dualchais). Tobar an Dualchais also makes it possible to search for recordings by place, enabling searchers to find recordings made on their doorstep!

In summary, sound archives can be used for a variety of purposes, including but not limited to: learning new tunes, studying performance styles, as inspiration for composition, and for local and family history. The only requirements are engagement, spending time getting to know the archive, and searching effectively! While there’s nothing wrong with browsing at random, with an aim or idea of what you want to find there’s huge potential to achieve something great. What’s stopping you?

Ronnie Gibson (30 August 2013)

Recordings of Scottish Fiddle Music in the British Library Sound Archive

The British Library Sound Archive features a wide range of content, including music, speech (dialects, story-telling, poetry, interviews, theatre, oral history), and sounds of the natural world, in addition to associated images are other materials of relevance. Among the musical genres covered are classical, jazz, traditional, and world, including a substantial number of ethnographic field recordings made in the UK and Ireland.

Unsurprisingly, given the efforts of fieldworkers at the School of Scottish Studies (which is home to the main collection of Scottish archive recordings), Scotland is not overly-well represented, but that’s fine, given we have Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches! However, the Scottish content that is included is unique to the site, and, as such, should not be overlooked.

As far as Scottish fiddle music goes, I have found six recordings, all from the Peter Kennedy Collection, and collected between 1954 and 1955. In addition, there are various recordings in the Reg Hall Collection made at the Aberdeen Folk Club on 23rd February 1973. They feature the famous Scottish folk group, The Gaugers (with fiddles included as part of the group).

John McCutchen was a shepherd at Maryhead Farm, Carsphairn, in Kirkudbrughtshire. At the time of recording (1954) his family had farmed there for ninety-eight years and three generations. He was a self-taught fiddler who played for dances. Significantly, all the tunes recorded here are dance tunes, and it is easy to detect in the rhythmic drive of his playing the connection with dancing. The tunes recorded here are:

1. Kate Dalrymple; 2. Meg Merilee’s; 3. Polka Mazurka; 4. Pease Strae; 5. Punch Bowl; and, 6. Triumph.

Click here to access the track.

Click here to access a photograph of McCutchen. He was evidently an old man in 1954, and is likely to be the John McCutcheon listed as a four-year-old child at Carsphairn in the 1891 census, making his year of birth c. 1887.

Alex Grant’s repertoire is distinctly different from that of John McCutchen’s. There’s a move away from the primarily dance function of playing the fiddle and towards an aestheticisation of the repertoire. It’s also possible to detect in these recordings the famous pointed style of performance particular to the Strathspey region and the North-East.

There are two tracks of Alex Grant’s playing (8:18 and 7:17 in duration, respectively). The content of track one includes:

1. Delvinside; 2. Sweet Molly; 3. George IV and George IV’s Reel; 4. Reel o’ Tulloch; 5. Mason’s Apron; and, 6. John McFayden of Melford.

The content of track two includes:

7. Balmoral Highlanders March, Ca’ te Stirks Strathspey,The Deil Among the Tailors (reel); 8. Whistle O’er the Lea, Rathe Bairdie (tune of Sean Triubhas); and, 9. Delvinside.

Click here to access track one.

Click here to access track two.

Click here to access a photograph of Grant.

John ‘Jimmy’ Garson was fiddler in the Garson Trio, along with his daughter, Iris, on accordion, and son-in-law, john Nicholson, on guitar. As an Orkney dance band, they play many tunes familiar from that circuit, but they also play tunes particular to Orkney. Track two (of three), features fiddle and guitar without the accordion, affording the opportunity to hear in detail the Orkney fiddle style, so often eclipsed by the Shetland fiddle style. The content of track one includes:

1. The House of Skeen (slow march); 2. The Four Stringer (strathspey composed by [Angus?] Fitchet); 3. Macdonald Black (composed by [Angus?] Fitchet); 4. Victoria Waltz.

The content of track two includes:

5. Greeny Hill March (composed by Garson); 6. King William’s March (fiddle and guitar); 7. Hornpipes: Arthur’s Seat, Eugene Stratton, Banks Hornpipe (‘Bonapotte’); 8. Catchkey Polka; and, 9. Jigs: Off She Goes, Dumfries House, ? House (with accordion).

The content of track three includes:

10. Highland Selection: Money Musk, Iron Man, (composed by Scott Skinner); 11. Venice Polka, Bluebell Polka; 12. Venice Polka (by itself).

Click here to access track one.

Click here to access track two.

Click here to access track three.

Click here and here to access photographs of the Garson Trio.

The recordings of The Gaugers are too numerous to list here. They can be accessed here by selecting Aberdeen from the list of counties. The fiddle style heard in these recordings was influenced by the folk music revival.

There may well be other examples of Scottish fiddle music among the holdings of this archive, but the search facility does not make finding them particularly easy. There is, for example,  45 seconds of unidentified fiddle music at the end of this track. It sounds Shetland to me… Anyway, as with all these on-line resources, it’s well worth making the time to browse. Who knows what gems you might find?

Ronnie Gibson (28 August 2013)