Chapter 2 – The Peculiarities of Oral History

Chapter summary

Oral history is an interactive, intersubjective and creative process that springs from an engagement with memory. Some argue that oral history is a distinct genre of historical practice, unlike any other methodology, on account of the dialogue that takes place between the historian and the narrator, and the active shaping of that narrative in the process of the interview and thereafter. Alessandro Portelli identifies six elements that mark out oral history as intrinsically different or peculiar from other historical sources. These are orality, narrative, subjectivity, credibility, objectivity and authorship. To these might be added performativity, mutability and collaboration. The chapter also explains the distinctions between oral tradition, autobiography and oral history.

Discussion points

  1. Why should the historian take account of the orality of recorded speech, and what can it tell us about the meaning inferred by the speaker?
  2. What is the difference between speech recorded in a written document and that recorded as an aural source?
  3. In what sense is oral history a performance?
  4. Is the fallibility of memory a problem for the oral historian?
  5. What is the impact of the historian's active role in the creation of an oral history source?
  6. How is oral history different from oral tradition?


A: Reported speech in a written source

1. Shetland Archives Sheriff Court Precognitions: AD22/2/1/55: Agnes Hawick (Northmavine), child murder or concealment of pregnancy, 25 May 1854.

This extract (from a statement taken by the procurator fiscal in Shetland) from a female witness in a case of suspected infanticide or child murder demonstrates how orality can be muffled in written transcripts or reported speech. In this case the speaker would have had a distinctive Shetland accent and would likely have used dialect words. However, for the purposes of the legal system her words are written down in standard English, thereby losing the character of the speech.

‘I went up to her bedroom to see her, she was in bed and apparently very weak. I asked what was the matter with her and she told me she had overwrought herself and caught cold and was very unwell. From what she said of her state as well as from her appearance I had little doubt in my own mind that the report of her having been delivered was correct. . . having had a family myself I was satisfied both from what she told me of her state and from her appearance that she had been delivered but whither prematurely or not I had no means of knowing.’

2. National Archives of Scotland, AD14/91/169: Precognition: Elizabeth Brymer – High Court Dundee, 1891 (prosecution for Infanticide)

Here we have a witness in the Scottish High Court sitting in Dundee in 1891 reporting on her encounter with her servant who was suspected of being pregnant. The orality of her speech and the reported speech of the defendant is better captured here than in the Shetland case above – there is much more indication of accent and dialect. The court clerk has made the effort to transcribe her speech accurately as he heard it.

I said ‘Dear me Lizzie what is the matter with you? – you must be in the family way.’ She replied at the same time brushing her hands down the front of her person, ‘There is nothing the matter with me.’ I said ‘do not try to deny it, it will not conceal any longer – you look like a woman near her time’ and pressed her to tell me her time as I was concerned because of her being in a bedroom alone. She became silent and would not tell me anything then began to say ‘what about it’ (meaning the sleeping alone), ‘Oh let’s alone, I am vexed enough, dinna bother’s and dinna rage?’ She would not however give me any information as to when she expected to be confined. I pressed her to tell me who the father of the child was. She remained silent. I then said, ‘is it Davies’ – a man she had been keeping company with and she said ’oh it’s nae ether body’s’.


That night (Tuesday) my husband and I talked the matter over and resolved to send accused away next day. Accordingly, about 10 am Wed 24 June I called her into the parlour and said to her ‘have you made up your mind as to what you are going to do, as the governor I have resolved you will require to leave this at once.’ To my horror and surprise she said ‘Oh but I’ve hai’it? Mrs Aitkin – you will surely put up with me for a wee while longer.’

I said to her do you mean to say you have had your child during the night and all alone. She replied ’aye have I’ ‘and it’s been a gie nicht’. I asked her to sit down but she did not and then said ‘where is it’ and she said ‘it's in my room’. I asked her if it was alive and she said ‘no it's died’.

I said ‘was it alive’ and she said ‘aye but it gaed back.’

I asked her what she meant by saying it gaed back and she said it was partly out and then went back again. I said come to your room, let me see it. On the way she said I could ‘helps brawhe’ if I liked, that I was not needing to speak about it, that she would get a box and get it taken away – I told her she did not know what she was talking about and that it was more than she dare to try to put it out of the way. On entering the room she pulled a bedcover from under the bed and I then saw the body of a newly born female child.

The cord was cut close to the naval and the face and head were of a livid hue and the lips apart and I suspected the child had been suffocated.

I said Lizzie this is dreadful – to see that poor infant lying there, a little human being, lost for want of attention, if nothing more.

I asked why the child’s face and head were that colour and she said ‘may be I did that for I had an awful pullin’. ‘I did not do anything tilt.’

I asked her why she had not called me and she said ‘Oh I cried Mrs Aitkin’ and said she had had the child on the floor.

Further reading

  • J. Cruikshank in collaboration with A. Sidney, K. Smith and A. Ned (eds), Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1990)
  • A. Portelli, 'What makes oral history different?' in A. Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, New York, 1991)
  • J. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison, Wisconsin, 1985)