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