First name Alan J.
Second name Bruford
YOB 1937
YOD 1995

Native Area

County - Midlothian

Parish - Edinburgh

Village/Place - Edinburgh

Person ID 14


Alan James Bruford was born and brought up in Edinburgh, and would go on to have a profound influence on the development and resources of the School of Scottish Studies in his capacity as Archivist, and later also Senior Lecturer, from 1965 until his untimely death in 1995.

Bruford was born in 1937 to a scholarly family; his father, Walter Bruford, was a professor at the Department of German at the University of Edinburgh and encouraged his son's academic inclination. As it happened, Walter would also be one of the key lobbyists in the late 1940s for the creation of the School of Scottish Studies.

Following his early education at Edinburgh Academy and Winchester College, Alan Bruford chose to read History and Anglo-Saxon at St John's College Cambridge, after which he returned to Edinburgh to earn his PhD. This doctoral research involved analysing the development of Irish and Scottish Gaelic folk tales from literary medieval Irish romances, and Bruford consequently spent a great deal of time in Ireland, including work at the Irish Folklore Commission. His thesis was published by The Folklore Society of Ireland as 'Gaelic Folk-tales and Mediaeval Romances' – considered both then and now as a seminal work on the topic.

In 1965, Bruford was appointed to the School of Scottish Studies as its permanent Archivist, responsible for accessioning and documenting the field recordings made by the School's researchers, which he did with a meticulous gusto. However, he also took upon himself the further roles of fieldworker and researcher; Donald Archie MacDonald, Bruford's long-time friend and collaborator, commented:

"He had already made some recordings for the Archives before he joined the Staff of the School in January 1965. However, his first major fieldwork exercise as a member of Staff was in South Uist in Autumn 1965. His own Progress Report for the period […] refers to this as follows: 'I spent a month […] in South Uist in order to improve my understanding and speaking of Gaelic; this was reasonably successful, though I cannot yet claim to be fluent. While there I recorded ten tapes of songs and stories and made one or two valuable new contacts: new tradition bearers can still be found even in such a thoroughly worked area."

Bruford's contribution to the study and preservation of Gaelic folklore is extensive and invaluable to our understanding of both of the Gaelic oral tradition and of life in the Highlands in the late 19th and 20th centuries. On the Tobar an Dualchais website, there are over one thousand recordings in Gaelic of traditional tales, song, and local information – much of which was recorded on field trips across the width and breadth of the Highlands and Islands with Donald Archie MacDonald, and often also with Mary MacDonald.

The majority of these recordings took place in the 1960s, and with a notable focus on areas of the Highlands where Gaelic was only spoken by the older generation such as in Morar, Kintyre, Sutherland, Jura, and Colonsay. Bruford also carried out a significant amount of work in Islay which has proved particularly important given the precarious decline of Gaelic in the latter half of the twentieth century. Notable contributors recorded by Bruford on the Mainland and in the Southern Hebrides include John Shaw of Jura; John MacArthur of Islay; Angus MacLellan of Mallaigvaig (1892-1978); and Dolly Ann MacDougall of Colonsay (1888-1975).

In addition to his work in the Gaelic-speaking communities of the Mainland and the Southern Hebrides, Bruford also carried out work in strong Gaelic-speaking communities in the Outer Hebrides and Skye, recording some of the most significant tradition bearers of the time, such as Nan MacKinnon of Vatersay (1903-1982); Kate MacDonald of Garryhallie (1897-1977); Annie Arnott of Linicro (1887-1978) and Mrs Mòr Stewart of Barra.

Besides his major interest in Gaelic narrative traditions, Bruford would conduct significant fieldwork all over Scotland, resulting in one of the largest collecting contributions to the School's archives. In the Tobar an Dualchais website alone, his fieldwork recordings number almost 2,500 tracks at the time of writing, and more will be added as time passes.

The breadth of his collecting interests is exemplified by his abiding focus on the Northern Isles, which Margaret MacKay tells us:

"[…] arose in part from his own family connections with Orkney but also from his vision in identifying there a rich source of material for the study of cultural traditions, language and both continuity and change in community life. With his breadth and depth of scholarship he could embrace the long sweep of the islands' history and their North Sea and North Atlantic connections as well as the detail of a legend, a tune, a recipe or a craft process."

Among his most prolific contributors in Orkney was Ethel Findlater of Dounby (1899-1973), from whom Bruford elicited not only many traditional songs, but a great deal of knowledge of foodways, customs and beliefs and other local traditional culture; take for example this account of the effects of the building of community halls on the local custom of 'the muckle supper'. Likewise, James Laurenson of Fetlar (1899-1983) had a great deal of local Shetland lore, including local supernatural encounters; in this recording James recounts how a ghost appeared to a man in Fetlar and pressed him into delivering messages of repentance for deeds committed in life.

In 1971, Bruford co-founded the journal 'Tocher' as a medium for disseminating findings from the School's research to the wider public, and he would remain its editor for the next three decades. In the same year, the School of Scottish Studies became a teaching institution, and Alan became one of its most gifted lecturers and post-graduate supervisors. Margaret Bennett describes his style as 'good-humoured, critical, provocative, encouraging, amusing…', while Shari Cohn recalls:

"For me, Alan epitomized scholarship at its best. His encyclopaedic mind, quick wit, and kind heart were qualities which I most admired about him. […] Though he was a private man, Alan would occasionally speak about his own experiences and those related to his own fieldwork. I will never forget those moments. They helped me appreciate Alan's sensitivity and his deep love for the story, and the meaning it has for the teller and the listener."

Alan Bruford died suddenly in May 1995, and was much mourned by his family, friends and colleagues; despite his untimely passing, he had already generated an enormous legacy of careful and insightful scholarship. An annual commemorative public lecture in his honour, focussing on his major love of folk narrative, was inaugurated by the School of Scottish Studies on the first anniversary of his passing, and continues to this day.

Some significant contributors recorded by Alan Bruford:

Ethel Findlater of Dounby, Orkney (1899-1973)
James Laurenson of Fetlar, Shetland (1899-1983)
Kate MacDonald of Garryhallie, South Uist (1897-1977)
Nan MacKinnon of Vatersay (1903-1982)
Brucie Henderson of Arisdale, Shetland (1891-1977)
Peter Pratt of Toab, Orkney (1880-1971)
Angus MacLellan of Loch Aoineart, South Uist (1869-1966)

References and Further Reading

Bennett, Margaret, 'Alan Bruford, 1937-1995', Folk Music Journal, 1996, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1996), 273-275

Bruford, Alan, Gaelic Folk Tales and Romances: A Study of the Early Modern Irish 'Romantic Tales' and Their Oral Derivatives (Dublin: Folklore of Ireland Society, 1969)

———, The Green Man of Knowledge and Other Scots Traditional Tales (ed.) (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1982)

———, Highland Fairy Legends (Ipswich: D. S. Brewer, 1978)

———, 'The Sea-Divided Gaels: Some Relationships between Scottish Gaelic, Irish and English Traditional Songs', Irish Folk Music Studies, 1 (1972-73), 4-27

———, 'Song Manuscripts and the Acquisition of Song Repertoires in Orkney and Shetland', in Singer, Song and Scholar, ed. by Ian Russell (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press), pp. 95-115

———, and Donald A. MacDonald (eds.), Scottish Traditional Tales (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994)

———, ———, Memory in Gaelic Storytelling (Edinburgh: School of Scottish Studies, 1979)

'Folklorist Dr Alan Bruford' (obituary), The Herald, 22 May 1995, [accessed 9 December 2020]

MacKay, Margaret A., 'Alan James Bruford, 10 May 1937 – 8 May 1995', Tocher vol. 50: Tales, Songs, Traditions: Selected from the Archives of the School of Scottish Studies (Spring 1995), ed. by Alan Bruford and Margaret Bennett, 1-4

MacLeod, Morag (ed.), Tocher vol. 52: Tales, Songs, Traditions: Selected from the Archives of the School of Scottish Studies (Spring 1996), special edition dedicated to the work and life of Alan Bruford

Wood, Juliette, 'Alan Bruford: A Folklore Bibliography 1965-1994', Folklore 107 (1996), 109-10

———, 'In Memoriam: Alan James Bruford, 1937-1995', Folklore 107 (1996), 91