On the 23rd October the Centre, along with DASG (the Digital Archives of Scottish Gaelic), jointly hosted distinguished ethnologist Dr Margaret Bennett for a seminar and book launch. Dr Bennett, whose notable works include The Last Stronghold: The Scottish Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland (1989) and Oatmeal and the Catechism: Scottish Gaelic Settlers in Quebec (1998), spoke to honour the memory of Eric Cregeen and to launch the nine-volume edition of his journals. That work is the result of a project jointly funded by Grace Notes Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Both CSCS and DASG were honoured to welcome members of Cregeen’s family, who were in attendance of the event.
Before speaking about Eric Cregeen’s life and work, Dr Bennett began by telling how she first came to know of the noted social historian. While studying folklore in Newfoundland, Dr Bennett was given one of Cregeen’s fieldwork journals as an exemplar and was awestruck by the work that it contained. Later, when they met for the first time, Cregeen encouraged her to publish her work on Newfoundland. Cregeen was an inspiration to Dr Bennett and she feels honoured to have had the opportunity to work on Cregeen’s meticulously kept notebooks.
Eric Cregeen (1921-1983) was born in Yorkshire, but had family roots in the Isle of Man and would go back ‘home’ for summer every year as a boy. While he was there, he became interested in the Manx language and as a teenager began to learn it, writing phrases in his notebooks. Cregeen also began recording his grandfather’s stories from a young age, writing them down in great detail in his notebooks. He became the curator of a Manx museum and later came to Scotland off the back of a Manx language survey, where he sought to study the life of ‘ordinary folk’. Cregeen was employed as an extra-mural teacher by the University of Glasgow and taught classes in Argyllshire – he was a great advocate of adult education and believed in ‘learning for its own sake’. This was where he would meet his future wife, Lily. Cregeen took great interest in the students who attended his classes and found them to be endlessly interesting, he kept note of who attended each class – a mixed bunch, from Polish cobblers, to local blacksmiths to Lairds! Cregeen would often meet with his students separately and ask them to tell him all about their lives and the methods of their professions, one such student was Angie Henderson, a blacksmith from Tobermory, whose methods for making eel spears were recorded by Cregeen in great detail, complete with sketches. Cregeen also gained access to the Argyll estate papers as he wanted to synthesise collected tradition with quantitative records – this particular feat earned Cregeen the title of ‘greatest pirate’ from the eleventh Earl of Argyll as at this time it was virtually impossible to gain access to the Estate records in Inveraray castle (in fact, they have only recently been made available to the public). In 1966 Cregeen joined the staff at the School of Scottish studies in Glasgow, and continued to make trips into the highlands and islands to carry out fieldwork. From this time there survive numerous recordings, Dr Bennett played some of a tape from the archives in which Lachlan MacLeod from Grimsay, explains how to use a caschrom (for planting/harvesting potatoes and cutting seaweed for fertiliser). Sadly, Cregeen passed away at only 62 years old, leaving behind over 30 notebooks containing notes on all aspects of traditional Gaelic life, as well as numerous tape recordings of interviews. He is remembered by many as a significant social scientist and cultural scholar, and TC Smout named Cregeen as one of the most influential historians and anthropologists, during last year’s Historical Conversations series.
After keeping her husband’s notebooks in a box in their home for over 30 years, Lily contacted Dr Bennett to ask if she would be able to do something with them. Dr Bennett then decided that she would need a team of people to help her transcribe the journals and that is how the project began. Originally, it was estimated that there were around 2,500 pages, however in total the team – which includes one of Cregeen’s grandsons among its 10 members – transcribed over 4,000 pages. As a stipulation of the funding, the material contained within the journals had to be ‘given back’ to the communities from which it was collected, this resulted in workshops and other events being held in over 14 schools and community centres in localities covered in Cregeen’s journals. There was also a big exhibition held at Taigh Chearsabhagh, Museum & Arts Centre for the Uists. The collection of notebooks also includes Cregeen’s diaries, which provide illuminating commentary on persons and events, and as such are an excellent supplement to the recorded interviews preserved in the tapes. The notebooks contained lots of terminology in Cregeen’s descriptions of traditional Gaelic life and for this reason Dr Bennett contacted DASG for specialist help in transcribing the notebooks.
The journals are now available as a nine-volume set, which give a photocopy of each journal page with a transcription underneath. Dr Bennett explained that at the moment they are printed, rather than published, and as such do not have an ISBN and may contain small typing errors. Dr. Bennett finished by presenting DASG with a complete set of these books, which are also to be made available digitally via DASG. Dr Mark McConville, receiving the volumes on behalf of DASG, stated that they were very honoured to be the digital home to these archives. Dr Bennett stressed her hopes that the books would be used as a tool for further research and would spur more fieldwork, following Cregeen’s lead.