The Isle of Jura’s Oral History Project
Funded by: Argyll & the Islands’ LEADER programme 2007-13, HLF, Isle of Jura Development Trust (5%)
Project duration: 24 months
180 hours of new raw material, 77% of which has been treated and is now available to the public through a bright and easy-to-use searchable archive on the island. The material comprises a mixture of 91 interviews, on-location documentary-style recordings from 20 events, and 2 sequences of group recordings made in collaboration with the primary school and the Gaelic College on neighbouring Islay. In addition we digitised and hold 14 hours of vintage and creative material from private sources. 192 pages of transcription were created from a pool of 27 volunteer transcribers who received computer, typing and transcribing training through the project. The project was led and managed by a steering group of 8 individuals born between 1930 and 1996 and was hosted and overseen by the 6 volunteer Directors of the Isle of Jura Development Trust. The material was collected, processed, presented and publicised by a paid part-time project officer, with the help of an intern in months 20 – 22. We had a lot of interest and support from the archives sector, in Scotland and Britain, which was a great boost for us out on the professional and territorial fringes! In terms of publicity and distribution this also did us great favours; we’ve uploaded a selection clips to Scran, the digital learning arm of RCAHMS, where they can be heard in every school in the country and 18 library services. The project has also appeared in the Review of Scottish Culture 2013, in the Daily Telegraph and on the website of the National Archives.
The funding being a once-in-a-generation opportunity to capture the heritage of the island, we created and took as many extra opportunities as we could. (For example, the intention to create a display with the school children became creating 6 hours of charming recordings, making a display about that (including sound installation), pitching it to the galleries / museums / libraries in Glasgow and securing an 11-week exhibition at the Kelvingrove, taking half the school over on the plane for a school-trip to the exhibition opening, and also inviting members of the Jura Diaspora, connected funders and press…)
Over-reaching ourselves meant we over-achieved on our brief in 13 of 17 targets (76.5%). From a funders’ point of view, we don’t really get extra credit for doing this, but hopefully in time, having made more of a splash and developed a more extensive and accessible archive will carry its own rewards.
In this small community, we wanted to encourage people to take part without fear that they would be compromised, so we rather insouciantly evolved and committed to an editorial policy, and the contributors’ right to review their recordings and ‘silence’ passages on request. The implications were that the technical editing and creation of new derivatives took an extra 4 hours for every hour of audio, then there was all the individualised administration, before we could even start cataloguing, which is why not all of the recordings could be made ready in the allotted time.
It was great we had so many volunteers (the equivalent of more than 20% of the population) but it was very difficult to sufficiently empower them. The management task was intense as there were a lot of different strands going on at any one time, and the original project design to use volunteers of all ages and abilities as transcribers was flawed. It may have been better to use volunteers more in the interviews, perhaps sacrificing a little technical quality, to better share ownership of the material in what was to be a ‘community focused and led’ project.
In spite of the ‘extras’ listed above, there are outstanding questions : Could our collection be deemed comprehensive? Will it seem more so in time, and would that be right?
The instinct says no, never. We involved as many people as we could, as democratically as possible, but we weren’t able to include everyone, and not everyone was interested in being included. There were subjects we didn’t broach. Should we try to find a way of adding a narrative of the lacunae to the mix? If we now see that delivering a fully representative ‘community oral history’ is an impossible end result, could we have better achieved a whole community project by concentrating more on the process?
Also, is it objectively ‘good’ for the island to use its heritage as an asset?
To the Development Trust, who won the funding and hosted the project, this is a very positive idea, but in a local context it’s inevitably political. Does sharing personal stories divorced from their human sources, in an abstract medium, destroy the intimate transaction that happens when someone gives a story or memory? Can new audiences that have no experience of the delicate, dying culture of the West Highlands, and have no stake in the island itself, that do not know and love its characters, be trusted to empathise with what they hear? Should they too, not have to earn it?
Project publications arising from this project:
Our souvenir CD, ‘A Landscape of Lives’ available through the Jura Development website and iTunes
We’re a resident community of 200, but the numbers with island connections – through family, work or property – is much greater. Jura seems to make a big impression on those who know it, even briefly, inspiring a deep respect for nature and a passionate desire to belong there. The islanders really need one another; so much of the large island (same size as the Isle of Wight) is a wilderness, the weather has such a big impact on daily life, the economy is ‘fragile’, and the population is so critically small that every birth or every death is felt by everyone. With social orders often inverted when ‘out on the hill’, zero crime rate, and dominant old-fashioned values such as discretion, continuity and loyalty, it really seems a place like no other. It was a huge privilege to get to know people there through engaging with their personal histories.
Web link to this project:
Contact person: Mrs Jane Carswell
The Service Point, Craighouse, Isle of Jura, PA60 7XG
Telephone: 01496 820161