Music and story recordings saved on internet for ear of posterity

People will be able to listen to hundreds of Shetland music and story recordings made between the 1950s and the 1980s on the internet next year when a nationwide project is up and running and open to the public.

Kist o Riches brings together tens of thousands of recordings from all over Scotland including many hours of material from the Northern Isles. The recordings are a mix of stories, folklore, songs, poetry and instrumental music, recorded in various dialects of Scots and Gaelic.

Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, ERDF and many other sources, Kist o Riches is a treasure trove of material held by the School of Scottish Studies (University of Edinburgh), BBC Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland. These tapes have been digitised and catalogued on a website whose aim is to make them freely available to the general public, schools, historians, academics and musicians.

Kist o Riches’ Orkney and Shetland cataloguer Peter Johnson said that the website will be a fantastic resource that is bound to be of great interest to many people in Shetland and throughout Scotland.

He said: “I’ve checked the prototype website and it is really slick. It is easy to find the material you’re looking for. Whether it is fiddle music or stories you are researching there is a great deal there to listen to.

“It is amazing to hear Shetlanders from 50 years ago telling folklore or guddicks in their own dialect. I’d never realised there was an old style Fair Isle accent until I listened to some tapes recorded in the 1950s. There is a lot of Orkney material there too.”

The Shetland catalogue contains over 130 tracks from well-known Yell storyteller Brucie Henderson, who appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in the 1960s. There are also stories and true accounts from most areas of Shetland covering topics such as customs and supernatural beliefs, trows, whaling, the press gang, clearances and land ownership.

Mr Johnson added: “The recordings give you an insight into what life was like at the time they were made as well as what it was like in the early days of the storytellers – some of whom could remember the Victorian days.

“The project has been funded from throughout Scotland and there are still opportunities for other organisations to contribute funding.”

Many of the early Shetland recordings were made by Johnny Graham, Tom Anderson, Dr Albert Hunter and also Calum Maclean from the Western Isles.

Forty people are currently working on the project to digitise, categorise and edit the thousands of hours of material that will be available online. A great deal of the material is in Gaelic and was recorded in Scotland and Nova Scotia, some on wax cylinders by the pioneers of oral history recording. The project is known as Tobar an Dualchais in Gaelic, meaning “Well of Heritage”.

Part of Kist o Riches’ remit is to trace everyone who was recorded to seek permission to use their recordings on the website. Most of the people recorded in Shetland have been traced, but some permission has yet to be obtained from either the people themselves or their next of kin.

Permission to use recordings by the following people is currently being sought: Mrs Bruce of Burravoe, Yell, who was elderly when recorded in 1955; A J Williamson, probably from Yell, who sounds as though he was in late middle-age when recorded in 1955; Robert D Anderson, a resident of Whalsay and fiddle player who sounded fairly elderly when recorded in 1974; Betty Poleson from Whalsay who may have been born in 1908 and was recorded in 1974; Robert Irvine who was elderly when he was recorded in 1974 telling stories relating to the Nesting/Whalsay area; Mrs Mary Jean Peterson who is believed to be from Unst and was recorded in 1976; Robert Johnson, a halibut fisherman believed to be from Yell who was recorded in 1976; and John Irvine from the Nesting/Whalsay area who was a fisherman and fiddler and was recorded in 1961.

If anyone has information about any of the people listed or are the next of kin, please telephone Peter Johnson on (01595) 860363 or email Alternatively you can contact Emma Mackay on 05601 405208 and 01471 888602 or email her at Also, if you know that your own relatives were recorded for the School of Scottish Studies, please get in touch with Emma to find out more about the recordings.

The £3 million project has offices in Skye, South Uist and Edinburgh as well as individual cataloguers scattered throughout the country working from home.

It is hoped that phase two of Kist o Riches will see additional recordings made available on the website and its utility as a learning resource further developed, but this is dependent on securing additional funding.

For more information, visit


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