Friday, 7 July 2017

Carsluith: Sound and Content

We're delighted that our audio-visual technician, Colin Gateley, agreed to write a blog post for us.  The result is a posting which gives us a flavour, both of his work and his current project, the digitisation of a recent, and very welcome, donation on fieldwork recordings from Carsluith made in between 1972 and 2006.

I have been working for the EERC as an audio-visual technician, digitising and editing photographic and audio materials for a couple of years now. My background is in audio and digital imaging so the EERC work is something I enjoy from a technical perspective.  My job generally involves working on individual projects over a period of weeks or months. I particularly enjoy the problem solving and also the interesting content of the materials I get to work with.

Recently I’ve been digitising a collection of forty-five cassette tapes. These recordings are of interviews made between 1972 and 2006 by Dr David Hannay who interviewed residents of Carsluith about their memories of growing up, living and working in Casluith and the surrounding area. The tapes are conversational, and with a fairly consistent set of questions - Who lived where? What the interviewee did for a living? Who they knew? What they remembered? Some participants were also asked questions related to Dr Hannay’s family’s history, and these explored the connections between the Hannays and the local residents.

Dr Hannay’s 45 cassette tapes.

The aim of this project was to create high resolution WAV files of the cassettes (for archiving) and also MP3 files of edited versions of the originals.  While the archival WAV files are an exact copy of the original fieldwork recordings, the MP3 files were edited to remove extraneous noises which filtered out (where possible) to improve the listening experience and to make the speech clearer for the benefit of the person who would then be transcribing the recordings.

The cassettes themselves varied in quality, and there is evidence of expediency in the selection of tapes Dr Hannay used to record the interviews. Many seem to have been new while others were being re-used and had tell-tale signs, such as sticky-tape covering the protection tab hole.

Judging by the nature of the handling noise, it seems probable that the cassettes were recorded on a portable recorder with a plastic external electret condenser microphone. The quality of the recordings varied quite a lot.  Sometimes it seems the microphone has been placed too far from a quietly spoken interviewee, resulting in some very quiet recordings.  That’s the technician speaking, of course, and unless you are recording within a studio environment, there is always going to be some aspect of the recording sound which could have been better.  This remains the case today, even though the technology is so much more sophisticated and easier to use than would have been the case when Dr Hannay made his recordings, its usually possible to see how the recording quality could have been improved by making some adjustment.

Some recordings required very little editing while others stretched the ability of the software (and my ears) to bring the voices out from amongst tape hiss and noise introduced by the recorder itself, (either from a dirty or worn record head or other component deterioration), or environmental noises.  Sometimes these environmental noises can be identified, such as the sound of a Tilley lamp or oil burner.

On the left of this illustration the noise floor is relatively high in relation to the speech, masking some of the quieter parts. The right side shows a more intelligible balance between speech and noise.

Although I’m primarily concentrating on the sound, rather than the interview itself, when I’m working on a project of this kind I am also drawn into the recording content.  While working with this collection I’ve heard people talk about their experiences, some dating back as far as 1908.  Fragments that come to mind relate to all aspects of life: family members who went to war; the brother who had emigrated to Australia then returned from his new life to join his kin on the battlefield; the newlywed who died in a bombed hospital in France.
One interviewee recalled the first time they heard an automobile, at a time when most travel was done on foot or by horse and cart. In the days before widespread car ownership we find that the people of Creetown and Newton Stuart, like so many within rural or semi-rural communities, worked close to where they lived.  For many this was the local quarry, which produced crushed and monumental stone. Others were at the fishing on the Cree estuary with nets and baits specially adapted for those waters.

Other recollections included happy memories of the annual garden party at Kirkdale where locals were welcomed to picnic in the grounds of the estate. Health and medical needs, from childbirth to death are here too.  Remedies for common ailments are discussed and also the role of the local howdie, or midwife.  Humorous anecdotes are here too, such as one contributor remembering a time, as a child, when he saw a pig on top of the ruined Barholm Castle.

Taken together, this collection, through the clarity of the memories of those who were recorded by Dr Hannay, allowed me to know a time and a place that I had hitherto no experience of.  Thereby, I think, showing the value of oral history. 

Colin Gateley
July 2017

Friday, 9 June 2017

We were delighted when Julia Macdonald agreed to write this week’s blog post for us.  Julia attended one of the early Study training sessions and went on to make a fieldwork recording with her dad, David Brown.  More recently, as a friend of both Donnie Nelson and the Stranraer and District Local History Trust, Julia came to our assistance when we were looking for additional photographic images for the forthcoming Study Flashback, Stranraer and District Lives: Voices in Trust, and particularly the book cover. 


"I grew up listening to stories from my parents of what life was like when they were young.  My mum told me that during WW2, when she was a young girl, she would stand outside the family cottage and wave to the pilots as they took off from West Freugh.  On one occasion, an enthusiastic pilot flew by even lower than usual, clipping the chimney pot on the farmhouse roof as he passed.  She also remembered the sadness of seeing an Italian POW crying as he watched her playing with her friend.  The reason for his distress being that they reminded him of his own daughter at home in Italy. My dad's stories were about the pride he felt for his engine driver father, and about his experiences as a telegram boy, his time on National Service, how he coped when he broke both his legs, and his life as a racing cyclist. These stories were often filled with humour, and other times also tinged with sadness, and in my mind I was able to build a picture of what life must have been like when they were my parents were young. 

I'll listen to anyone telling a story.  I think social history, and the way we lived in earlier times, can so easily be forgotten.  I became involved with the Study when I went along to a training session which covered the purpose of the Study and gave advice on interview techniques and how to use the recording machine.  Gathering oral history interviews provides an ideal opportunity to listen to, and then preserve, the Wigtownshire - Galloway Irish accent and stories for future generations. 

Recently I was asked to help Donnie chose additional images, from the thousands in his collection, for the first Study Flashback, Stranraer and District Lives: Voices in Trust.  My first concern was to ensure that any selected images weren't so old that they were beyond the memory of those whose stories were being told in the book.  I also wanted to make sure that any images we selected reflected themes contained in the book, and could be recognised as local.  I found the whole process of finding the images Donnie suggested brought a smile to my face. People and places long since forgotten were brought back to life, and I was readily distracted by finding out the stories behind some of the photos – although this was not at all related to the task in hand!  I also went through family photo albums and it was there I came across a series of photos of Telegram boys posing at the bottom of the East Pier as they waited on the mail boat, or train.  By this time, the Telegram boys had progressed from push bikes to bikes with motors.  In some photographs, the lads balance precariously in pyramids - standing on the seats of the bikes and on the shoulders of each other.  These were tiny, and mostly slightly blurred, so I knew they wouldn’t be suitable for the Flashback.  The photograph we chose in the end was one taken by my dad - and the only one he wasn't in! 


Other photos of interest showed Stranraer shops (although not any of those featured in the Flashback), rural life, fishing and farming and a fair few of the ferries.  For me, the most interesting photographs are of people rather than just buildings or objects.  As an amateur photographer myself I have learned now to turn the camera on the audience, or on people, rather than the event, as I appreciate that in years to come that is what people will be interested in seeing.


I’ve been really pleased to be part of the Study in Dumfries and Galloway and plan to continue to add more material to this valuable resource in the future."


The image of the boys on the motorbikes is so fitting for our Flashback.  Although the interviewees whose recollections are presented within the book were certainly quite a good age when the interviews took place, they were young lads and girls during the period of time which provides the framework for most of the interview material in Stranraer and District Lives: Voices in Trust.  The youthful faces which beam out at you from this image remind us of that, and of the resilience of the people who lived during those times when war and death were sadly part of everyday experience. 

The other images included in this blog post are from Julia’s family collection: 1. Port Rodie and East Pier, 2. Telegram boys, East Pier, 3. David Brown, 1936 at Topsee Black Stables, 4. Telegram boy riding up Old Port Road, 5. David Brown

The recording Julia made with her dad, in July 2012, has been added to the Study archive.  Follow the link below to listen to an extract from that interview and to learn more about David’s time as a Telegram boy:


Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Transcribing for the D&G Study

I’m Sheila Findlay and for the past four years I’ve been transcribing for the Dumfries and Galloway Study, having worked on over one hundred interviews and sound extracts to date.  I studied Scottish Ethnology as part of my Economic and Social History degree at the University of Edinburgh and it was there that I was introduced to oral history and the art of transcribing.  Since graduating I have also transcribed for the SAPPHIRE (Scottish Archive of Publishing and Print History and Records) initiative.  I am a founder member of Penicuik Oral History Resource and have undertaken all aspects of oral history collecting while with it and have contributed to its projects aimed at making the resultant material available to the wider community.

When people ask me what transcription involves and I explain the mechanics of the process to them, they invariably respond by saying ‘Oh, like audio-typing.’  Well, yes, like that, but a lot more too.  The equipment I use is much the same: dictation software with a foot pedal to enable me to start, stop, fast forward and rewind (I do a lot of rewinding and restarting!); a set of headphones and my laptop.

An audio-typist will spend most of his or her time typing formal letters and documents and will be given grammar prompts such as where to insert commas and where one sentence or paragraph ends and a new one begins.  Also, they will most likely be familiar with the voices that they hear and will be familiar with the spelling of technical, legal or medical terms that occur because that is the environment they work in.  Background noise on the recording will probably be limited to paper rustling, phones ringing and the occasional knock on the door and conversation as the person creating the recording is interrupted.

Oral history recordings are quite different.  These involve an interviewer and one or more people who have agreed to talk to them about their life or a topic relevant to a particular project.  So, what I hear through my headphones is a conversation, usually a sort of question and answer session although sometimes the interviewer is a discreet presence who just helps the flow of the narrative along.  There are no grammar prompts for me, I have to judge where a sentence ends and, as the spoken word is quite different from the formal written word, this can be tricky.  A wrongly placed comma or full stop could lead to a slight change in meaning to the narrative.  I also have to consider whether what sounds like a statement might be a question.  For example the interviewer might say ‘You went to school when you were five.’  Is this a question?  Usually it is but until I hear the response I don’t know. 

Language is the next challenge.  While the audio-typist will be hearing Standard English, I hear a mix of that and Scots.  Usually an interview starts off in Standard English as both parties might be a bit tense and hesitant about what they say and how they say it but usually, before long, they will have slipped into their normal speaking voice.  I like this change, signalling that all parties are comfortable with what is happening.  Then the fun begins!  I was brought up at that time when working class children spoke two languages – that of the classroom and that of the playground.  I learned to read and write Standard English but spoke Scots to my friends and at home a midway version was used: Standard English infused with Scots words and phrases.  So, when transcribing, my problem is that I can understand what I hear but sometimes I don’t know how to spell it, as I was never taught to read it.  This is where the Concise Scots Dictionary is worth its weight in gold, although without knowing the spelling it can be tricky to find the word I’m looking for!  The spelling of place names, especially village and farm names, will probably be unfamiliar to me, and these may no longer even exist, so I have to do a search of any resources I have to hand, often the World Wide Web, to confirm the spelling.  Christian and surnames are a bit more problematic e.g. if a Willie Macdonald is referred to is this Willie or Wullie and Macdonald, McDonald or MacDonald?  Again, I try to track down the correct name but am often stumped.  If this is the case then I make sure I use my choice consistently throughout the transcription.  Many interviews include details of lost working practices and words associated with these may be completely alien to me so this is when I refer to the Scots Thesaurus for help.

Another language challenge is that the spoken word is quite different from the written.  It has a natural flow, not constricted by grammar and punctuation, and we often add bits and pieces to a narrative as we go along, as we remember them.  When, as a student, I first started to transcribe my brain had a wee issue with this and it used to unscramble what I was hearing and then present it as formally structured text in Standard English.  I wasn’t even aware that I was doing this until I checked back on my work.  Happily, this rarely happens now so I can only assume that my brain has trained itself to leave well alone and let my fingers type what I hear. 

I’ve already mentioned possible background sounds on the recording the audio-typist is listening to.  On an oral testimony there seems to be no limit to what might pop up in the background.  Some recordings are done in community premises such as libraries and arts centres and I can hear phones ringing, doors and lifts opening and closing, and the general hum of a busy public place.  However, most recordings are done in the informant’s home and I hear phones and doorbells ringing, clocks chiming, dogs snuffling and trying to get attention, cats meowing, family or friends popping in to check up on the informant and, the one I like best, the tinkling of china as a welcome cuppa is brought in to refresh the participants.  If the windows in the room are open birdsong and passing traffic sometimes make their way onto the recording too.  Occasionally a third person, who has obviously been sitting very quietly, surprises me by interrupting to correct a point or add some extra information.  When this happens I listen carefully for clues as to who this is so that they can be identified in the final transcription.

In the course of any conversation emotions and moods can come to the fore and oral testimonies are no different.  Once the participants have relaxed into the procedure, laughter is often heard and I can identify this on the transcription by [laughs] or [laughter].  Other emotions will be evident to the interviewer who can see body language and facial expressions but are not so obvious to me, although sorrow and sadness can, I think, be detected in a voice.  One particular interview I recall is of an elderly lady who spoke of Darkie, the working horse that the family had owned when she was young and how, when her father died, the horse wouldn’t allow anyone else to handle it.  Darkie was then requisitioned by the Army for World War Two but proved impossible to handle so was brought back to them.  The eventual outcome was that Darkie had to be put down, as it was felt that he was a danger to anyone near him, and on the day before this was to happen the whole family went to say their goodbyes to their faithful friend.  The anguish I could hear when this incident was being recalled, some seventy or more years later, was, I’m sure, as palpable as it must have been when the lady was present at this sad time.

The content of the interviews that I transcribe is much more interesting than a formal business letter and transcribing provides a wonderful opportunity to learn about a particular time and place.  The interviewees all have a unique story to tell and even if they have done similar things the experience will have been different for each of them.  For example, some liked school and others were only too happy when it came time for them to leave.  The range of information that an individual interview provides is wide.  Topics such as childhood, schooling, home life, work, community life and much more occur in most of them.  When a whole body of interviews is scrutinised they create a picture of a changing society.  The movement of people from the land to the towns as farming practices changed and the effect this had on communities; the impact of closing rail lines and the changeover to road transport; changes in leisure pursuits; the effect of World War Two on small communities; the loss of community events such as gala days and sports events; National Conscription and the impact it had on those men who had to leave their homes and work to serve in very different environments, all this and much, much more are reflected in the testimonies gathered for the Dumfries and Galloway Study.

So, I’m happy to transcribe and learn so much in the process rather than dealing with ‘Dear Sir…Yours faithfully’! 

Monday, 15 May 2017

How Time Flies

It’s difficult to believe that we are coming to the end of our initial 4-year study period in fair Dumfries and Galloway.  We’ll be continuing to support initiatives, such as fieldwork collecting, as well as individual projects, for example our collaboration with Moat Brae, for some time to come.  And our super colleague, Alison Burgess, will co-ordinate and facilitate ongoing activities so we’re looking forward to seeing how this Study will continue and develop into the future.  We are all excited to see, for example, how the fieldwork recordings might be used by school groups, researchers, artists, community groups and individuals to explore our shared history and also, perhaps, inspire new work. 

This move from one phase of the project to the next provides a great opportunity for us to reflect on the project so far and over the coming weeks we’ll be posting blogs from some of the many people who have contributed to our work together. On the spoken word side of the project over 300 fieldwork recordings have been made by 49 volunteer fieldworkers, covering subjects as diverse as experiencing Armistice Day as a small child to the challenges facing rural communities in the 21st century.  On the written side one of many highlights for me has been the publication of The Pocket-books of a Dumfriesshire Drover, edited by Willie Waugh, which can be read online   If you were at the Castle Douglas study gathering last November then I’m sure you will have enjoyed Willie Waugh’s talk about the family source material which led to this publication. 

The first Regional Flashback, based on the recordings made between 1999 and 2016 by The Stranraer and District Local History Trust, is now at the final proof stage with publication expected early summer 2017.   Trust members Christine and Eric Wilson, Donny Nelson and Nancy McLucas have been tremendously supportive during the preparation of this Flashback and we shall all be raising a glass when the copies arrive from the printers. 

If you’ve been involved in the Study and would like to write a piece for the blog, then please do get in touch with me at  There’s so much to discuss and to celebrate about the past four years, and the blog is a great space to do this.  The next blog post will be from Sheila Findlay, who reflects on the perils and perks of transcribing.

Caroline Milligan
Research Assistant