Eric Radcliffe Cregeen was a highly regarded scholar and fieldworker who combined anthropology, social history and folklore to make many significant contributions to the ethnological understanding of the West of Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, Eric was the son of Methodist clergyman Rev. James Pentland Cregeen and his wife Elizabeth (née Radcliffe). Both parents were originally from the Isle of Man, and the young Eric enjoyed school holidays on the island, developing a keen interest in the Manx language and culture. It was here that he began informal fieldwork, gathering bits of local folklore and history, and compiling lists of Manx vocabulary from local elders. He also began a lifelong dedication to detailed fieldwork journalling, beginning with his own grandfather's stories.
Eric's schooling moved to Cambridge in 1935 after he won a scholarship to Leys School, and he would go on to study History and Latin at Christ's College in 1939, with a keen side-interest in Anthropology. His studies were complemented during the holidays by his volunteering with the Manx Language Survey, closely modelled on the methodology of the Irish Folklore Commission. Copies of his recordings of local Manx speakers were deposited with Manx Museum, where Eric would go on to become Secretary and Assistant Director in 1948. His supervisor at the Museum was archaeologist and anthropologist Basil Megaw (1913-2002), who would later become the first director of the School of Scottish Studies from 1957-1969. Basil arranged for Eric to spend time at the Irish Folklore Commission, honing his ethnographic methods and strategies.
Eric spent a few years as a schoolmaster from 1950-54, after which he became an extra-mural teacher for the University of Glasgow, working in Argyll. In this capacity, Eric taught people from many walks of life, including the rural communities whose Gaelic traditions paralleled the Manx culture he knew and loved. He thus actively pursued fieldwork with those he encountered, beginning a decades long recording venture focussed on the west coast of Scotland. It was at this time that Eric met and befriended pioneering folklorists Calum Maclean and Hamish Henderson, who immediately recognised his talent and dedication to folklore collecting and documentation. Eric in turn recognised an opportunity to secure his sound recordings and strengthen links with academic collecting, and consequently deposited copies of his fieldwork audio in the School of Scottish Studies from 1956 onward.
Shortly before Eric himself was appointed Lecturer at the School of Scottish Studies in 1966, he completed additional studies in social history and social anthropology at Cambridge, leading to his specialisation in Social Organisation within the School. Of equal importance to his audio fieldwork was his diligent journalling, as seen in this passage reproduced by Margaret Bennett:
Wednesday 10 April 1968
(with Donald Archie MacDonald)
We drove around the island of Grimsay – peat & rocks & sea lochs, crofts beside the water with boats and lobster creels, & saw a man preparing 5 lazy-beds for potato planting [...]. He was Lachlan MacLeod, aged about 70. He had dug the lazy beds with a cas-chrom (unfortunately the job was finished), & was turning them with a heavy rake, then dibbling the potato eyes in with a wooden dibbler with a foot-rest. The lazy-beds were about 3 feet wide, with furrows on each side, made very straight. The sods from one furrow were laid on the ground, which had a dressing of seaweed [...]. Then covered with soil from the same furrow. The process was repeated, using the next furrow for making the next feannag. He measured the width of each feannag with its adjacent furrow by 5 lengths of his foot[...] He said very few people in Grimsay use the cas-chrom. But Grimsay is the only place in N. Uist where it will be seen at all. Until a causeway was made recently Grimsay was totally isolated [...].
Eric would follow up his encounter with Lachlan MacLeod in a 1970 recording trip, providing an even more detailed account of lazy-bed cultivation, including local terminology for the implements involved.
Among the many other significant tradition bearers sought out by Eric, a number stand out as particularly noteworthy. Dugald MacDougall (1866-1957) was the last in a long line of cattle drovers from North Knapdale, and had a great deal to relate about the practice of driving cattle to the Falkirk Trysts, among other places. In his article published to report the encounter, Eric relates:
He had never previously used, or even seen, a recording machine, yet he answered a series of questions on his life and experiences with a fullness of detail and a spontaneity of expression that give his account a unique value. It lasts for forty minutes and is in English, but he could equally well have spoken in his native Gaelic. Indeed the language he uses is Gaelic in its essential thought-forms and colour as well as more obviously in its cadences and pronunciations. The facts of a drover's life are there, probably more fully than in any extant oral source; but the account is more than a piece of informative social history; it acquires from the old man's telling and the artless changes of his mood a compelling and moving quality.
Eric also visited celebrated tradition bearer Donald Sinclair of Tiree (1885-1975), collecting over half of the nearly 1500 tracks of Donald's contained in Tobar an Dualchais; examples include this recording, in which Donald discusses his Sinclair ancestry, and this recording, in which he describes how his great-grandmother stopped a cattle-thief. A contemporary of Donald Sinclair, Donald Morrison of Mull (1885-1986)  was also recorded by Eric, contributing a variety of local lore, such as the Lament for the Factor Mòr, a satirical piece on the death of a much-hated factor.
Among his many other accomplishments, Eric was to be the co-founder of the Scottish Oral History Group in 1978, having previously taken part in discussions and conferences that led to the Oral History Society's founding in 1971.
Unfortunately, Eric Cregeen was to suffer an untimely death in 1983 at the age of only 61, and though he had left behind a truly enormous legacy in terms of his recordings, he was robbed of the opportunity to fully realise his ambition to publish his findings. However, fellow folklorist, Margaret Bennett, had had the opportunity to view copies of Eric's notebooks while a student, and later met and was inspired by him:
'Scotland, and folklorists globally, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Eric Cregeen for the treasure trove of recordings, photographs and journals he left, documenting the lives and traditions of crofters, fishermen, housewives, shepherds, cattle-dealers, drovers, blacksmiths, horse-dealers, carpenters, tradespeople, weavers, craftspeople, children, healers, whisky-makers, teachers and clergy. It is only fitting that we should remember him and look after his legacy in a way that he himself would have done had he had the opportunity.'
It is with this last sentiment in mind that Margaret went on to devote many years to publicising Eric's work, including in editing the collected papers titled 'Recollections of an Argyllshire Drover and Other West Highland Chronicles'. Margaret also led a Heritage Lottery funded project to digitise the 4000 pages of Eric's fieldwork journals and investigate how his insights might inform the goals of sustainability in the areas of Scotland he did so much to document.
Although there are already over 2000 tracks recorded by Eric Cregeen on Tobar an Dualchais, this in fact only represents a fraction of his total fieldwork contributions to the School of Scottish Studies, and many more will be added in the future.
References and Further Reading
BBC Alba, Eric R Cregeen – Thachair Sruth ri Steall, Trusadh, Series 11, episode 5, first broadcast 09 Feb 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002xtb [accessed 23 November 2021].
Bennett, Margaret, 'A Return to Sources: The Folk Life of Eric R. Cregeen,' Folk Life - Journal of Ethnological Studies, Volume 59 (2021), 115-127.
⸻, The Cregeen Journals: Pathways to Sustainability of Land-Use, Language and Culture (CSCS and DASG collaborative event, 23 October 2021), http://cscs.academicblogs.co.uk/dr-margaret-bennett-the-cregeen-journals-pathways-to-sustainability-of-land-use-language-and-culture-cscs-and-dasg-collaborative-event [accessed 23 November 2021].
⸻, The Legacy of Eric Creegen; a Treasury of Manx and Scottish Traditions (Lecture for Manx National Heritage, 1 July 2019), https://www.gracenotescotland.org/index.php/oral-history-folklore/eric-r-cregeen-fieldwork-journals [accessed 23 November 2021].
Cregeen, Eric R., 'Donald Morrison: Oral Tradition of Mull', Tocher 24 (1976) 289-319.
⸻, 'Donald Sinclair: Oral Tradition of Tiree', Tocher 18 (1975) 41-65.
⸻, Recollections of an Argyllshire Drover and Other West Highland Chronicles, ed. Margaret Bennett (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2004); reissued (Ochtertyre: Grace Note, 2013).
⸻, 'Recollections of an Argyllshire Drover with Historical Notes on the West Highland Cattle Trade', Scottish Studies, Vol. 3, Part 2 (1959), 143-163.
⸻, The Eric R. Cregeen Fieldwork Journals, 10 vols. (1939-1982), ed. Margaret Bennett (Ochtertyre: Grace Note, 2019).