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Oral History

Billy Kay and Oral History

For a quarter of a century Billy Kay has collected oral history, which has been edited into more than two hundred radio documentaries and published in his Odyssey books and elsewhere. His work in this field acted as a catalyst for interest in the whole area of Scottish oral history, particularly working class oral history.

Odyssey: Voices From Scotland´s Recent Past (ed.) Polygon Books 1980.

Odyssey: The Second Collection (ed.) Polygon Books 1982

The Complete Odyssey (ed.) Polygon Books 1996

"[Oral history] allows you to explore history from the undergrowth, if you like, whereas until recently the history of the mass of the population didn´t really find its way into official archival material. The other advantage, I have found, particularly with the use I made of it in The Scottish Nation, is that it provides a degree of vital human insight. After all, history is not just about economies and governments, it´s about human beings, and Billy Kay should be congratulated because, almost single–handedly, he has developed interest in this in Scotland and scholars owe him a due"

Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh on his use of oral history as a source, from an interview by Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman October 29, 2001.

Critical response to the Odyssey series and books:

"It is an incredibly ambitious project that harks back to the great days of radio features....The Donegal and Kintyre programmes are radio classics…

Extraordinary aspects of the history of the past century are being reclaimed from ordinary people… The attraction of these programmes is their authenticity. This, and there is no doubt about it, is how it was. That they happen to be beautifully produced is a bonus"

Kathleen Rantell The Herald

Kay uses sound with a quite magical subtlety… This is an unforgettable programme. Each time I listen to it I am struck by the things in life we take too readily for granted, without reflecting on the diligence… our ancestors displayed in making Western society a tolerable place to live… In Scotland today the past is often advanced as a much better place to live in that the present. It was not. Billy Kay has demonstrated this conclusively, but in doing so, he has enhanced the dignity of our forebears.

Ian Mowatt on ´Poets and Pioneers´ in The Sunday Standard

The best book of the year is just out, the written version of BBC Scotland's memorable radio series Odyssey. It is a wonderful compilation of photographs, songs and oral history.

T.C. Smout The Scotsman

In producing ODYSSEY, book and programme, Mr Kay has pronounced on the power and passion of man´s evidence and has found him triumphantly innocent of killing off the past. It´s a verdict that all historians would do well to ponder on.

Trevor Royle The Bookmark

The distinction of the series and the book however… is in its vision. Every event is seen from the inside. It is social history from the lips of those who made that history, and for this reason alone, despite the absence of the element of sound – the very being of radio, the words come off the page of the book breathing, alive. Book and programmes witness to the producer´s appreciation of the importance of the cause which he serves, and the threat to an individual response to life by the requirement to a centralised uniformity… ODYSSEY has contributed, and contributes, to the recognition of our larger and deeper selves.

George Bruce The Scottish Review

Odyssey book Cover | Billy Kay | Odyssey Productions


The ground breaking Odyssey Series was produced for Radio Scotland and Radio 4 in the early 1980´s. The following is a list of the programmes broadcast in the series.

Series 1. 1980

From the Gorbals to Gweedore – the story of the Glasgow Irish

Fergusson´s Auld Reikie – the poetry of Robert Fergusson and the traditional music of 18th century Edinburgh

Gallant Sportsmen All – contrasting attitudes toward fox hunting in the Borders

Fishermen of Kintyre – the history of ring–net fishing

Five Denials on Merlin´s Grave – Robin Williamson´s celebration of ancient Welsh culture in Scotland

The Lanarkshire Lithuanians – the history of the Scottish – Lithuanian community in Scotland

Fife´s Got Everything – a humorous look at the Kingdom by John Watt

Mountain Men – the first working class mountaineers

A Weel Plou´d Rig – the working horses on the farms of the North East

St. Kilda – the life and death of St Kilda through the islanders reminiscencies audio

Series II 1981

Da Merry Boys – Shetlanders at the whaling

The Seven Men of Knoydart – the last Highland land raid

Neil Gow – a portrait of the great 18th c composer and fiddler

Glengarnock Steel – the story of the steel industry in North Ayrshire

Will Ye Gang wi me Lassie – wedding traditions throughout Scotland

Poets and Pioneers – Tiree emigrants in Canada

They Fairly Mak Ye Work – Dundee and the jute industry

The Pearl Fishers – pearl fishing in the Tay

The Clydebank Blitz – the German bombing of 1941

Off the Isle of May – the fishing traditions of the Forth explored by Archie Fisher

Italiani in Scozzia – the story of Scots Italians

On the Road – a tour of Switzerland with the folk band Ossian

Series III 1982

Gallipoli – the victims of Churchhill´s campaign recall the carnage audio

Mungo Mackay & the Green Table – the dictatorship in the Lothian Coal Company

Clan Neil of Barra – the oral tradition of a clan

Whisky´s Awa – the story of the Temperance movement

Poacher´s Nicht – Border poachers tell their stories and hide their identities

Glasgow Jewry – the story of the community

The Fisher Lassies – fisher queans away from home at the herring gutting

The ´26 – the miners lockout in Fife

The Bothy Lads – the days of the farm bothies in Angus

Up the Valley – Ayrshire´s lace weaving industry

Series IV 1984

The Booth Boxers – fairground boxers tell their story

Patagonia – Caithness migration to South America

The Clyde Rent War – the Clydebank rent strike of the 1920´s

Conchies – conscientious objectors in World War 1

Quariies and Crofts – the flagstone industry in Caithness

The transcripts of much of the oral history collected for the programmes are included in the book The Complete Odyssey

The Odyssey books are now, unfortunately out of print but you can still find them second hand on Amazon and they are available in libraries.

One of the most gratifying apects of recording oral history and fashioning them into programmes, is the effect they can have on people and culture. A good example of this is the book River of Fire by John MacLeod. John uses the oral history I collected in 1980/81 throughout his impressive book on the Clydebank Blitz, and it adds a moving, profoundly human element to an important work. In the Preface, John describes the Odyssey programme as "the best documentary on that experience which will ever be broadcast" while at the end of the book in his Sources section he goes on to describe it as "...a virtual tone poem of Clydebank voices free of any intrusive narration [and] which did much to revive wider awarness of the German assault on Clydebank. Almost 30 years on the recording has not lost its power to move and no better programme on the Clydebank Blitz will ever be aired."

Another response to my work which I value hugely, was written in the Radio Times in 1980 when the first Odyssey Series was broadcast. It was written by the late, great Scottish cultural force that was Hamish Henderson, and is reproduced in Timothy Neat's great opus Hamish Henderson A Biography Vol 2.

'In one of his prison letters the great Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci refers to the 'unknown Italy' and contrasts the piazza 'with its shouting and vain glory, with the secret labyrinth that lies hidden from the outsider'; he even claims that the gap between what one sees and doesn't see goes deeper in Italy than elsewhere. It's a pity Gramsci never visited Scotland, for I'm sure the contrast between the garish outer wrappings and the goods it contains can nowhere be more grotesque than here. What Tom Nairn has called 'the vast tartan monster' wallows everywhere in the foreground, and yet, if you get past him, you become conscious of an infinitely complex amalgam of cultures, languages and traditions, the heritage of a country whose ethnic multiplicity has been one of the chief sources of its energy and resilience, as well as its vulnerability...It is this ethnic diversity, these differing and at times mutually antagonistic Scotlands that Billy Kay starts to unveil in his ambitious series Odyssey in January 1980. What is evolving is a new and highly interesting radio-art form which blends oral history with poetry, song and traditional music…it resembles the Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker radio ballads of the 50's but the best of Kay's programmes seem to me to exhibit a quite distinct new identity.'

When he was researching the book, Tim asked people who had known Hamish to give their impressions of him and the effect he had had. This is what I said about his lectures at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University in the early 1970's:

'Hamish's presentations on Scots song were unforgettable - the word lecture duisnae convey what he achieved - you were aware that there was a warmth and a presence in the room as he ranged from Burns to the Ballads, often singing a verse or two himself but drawing in analogies from German and Italian culture and quoting from the great writers in those languages. It was Scotland the way it should be - proudly national yet completely and comfortably international in its outlook. Quite apart from the pleasure of hearing him, Hamish also showed me how to communicate directly with a live audience.'

To end, a few lesser known creative legacies from the programmes: the artist Tom McKendrick used the Clydebank recordings in an exhibition of his paintings depicting the Clydebank Blitz - one of which provides the striking cover image in John MacLeod's book River of Fire. Bill Bryden's feature film on St Kilda "Ill Fares the Land" used the story of an islander being given an orange for a bolt of tweed from the Odyssey book. The playwright Norman Malcolm MacDonald used my oral history of the Fisher Lassies in his play The Shutter Falls. The musian and composer Blair Douglas wrote a song and tune "From the Gorbals to Gweedore" based on the story of the Glasgow Irish. The singer/songwriter Karine Polwart wrote the beautiful lullaby "Baleerie Baloo" from her album Scribbled in Chalk based on the story of Jane Haining, the brave Scotswoman who died in Auschwitz, and who features in my programme The Mission to the Jews and in the book The Scottish World. Karine and I were on the Scottish team at the wonderful Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2003 and I told her the story of Jane's work with the Jewish bairns of Budapest. The Dundee Jute feature, They Fairly Mak Ye Work, became a radio and a stage play written by me and it was a great thrill to see it staged in two runs at Dundee Rep and one run in Arbroath. The Dundee Rep version had original music which was written, played and sung by the great Michael Marra. There is an audio cassette available out there by the Cast of the play together with Michael, while Mick has recorded songs from it like "Here Comes the Weak".

Finally, a story that would gladden the heart of Hamish Henderson himself. For the Odyssey programme Mungo Mackay and the Green Table, I was short of relevant music, so Rod Paterson and I sat down in my office in the old BBC premises at 5 Queen Street in Edinburgh and adapted a song from the North East of England coalfield - I think it was from Durham - and changed the chorus to the following:

Frae Newtongrange and Arniston, frae Polton an Gorebrig
Frae Birkenside tae Lasswade, Cockpen an Bonnyrigg;
Frae Rosewell tae Newbattle the Lothian men aw say
We're no the likes o ither men that works an eicht hour day.

Rod sang it in the programme, and I then put it into the Odyssey book as The Collier's Song. Later Rod recorded it with the Easy Club on the album The Easy Club. In the wonderful way of oral transmission it has now become a folk song sung by quite a few bands and traditional singers, usually with the title the Midlothian Mining Song. The excellent Jeana Leslie and Siobhan Miller recorded it on their album In a Bleeze and you can see the girls performing it on Youtube as well as a version by another band called 2duos. I love every version I've heard. I remember Hamish Henderson telling me how a line in one of his songs, "For we're Scotland's Grand Fianna" had been transformed into the memorable line by a minor poet "For we're Scotland's Grand Piana...", so Hamish would have raised a glass to the Collier's Song and its diaspora on the folk scene he did so much to create.