Folk, Jazz etc: A Kist we can clasp close to our hearts

A remarkable project has brought together voices from the past from across the nation. As of today these priceless recordings will all be available online - for free

• Calum Maclean, from the School of Scottish Studies, records Charlie Douglas of Kirk Yetholm, Roxburghshire

WHETHER YOU refer to it by its Gaelic title of Tobar an Dualchais, translatable as "well of heritage", or in Lowland Scots as Kist o Riches, the unique online archive of recorded folk song, story and experience which goes "live" tomorrow stands as possibly the most ambitious online oral archive of its kind in Europe if not the planet, harnessing the synapses of the wired world to give new and universal voice to the great unsung and the great untold.

Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, which will be formally launched at the University of Edinburgh tomorrow by the Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop, is the culmination of five years of digitising and cataloguing some 11,500 hours of recorded songs, tunes, folk tales, poetry and reminiscence from three main sources - the archives of the university's School of Scottish Studies, the Canna Collection now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, and BBC Scotland. Almost half of the 3 million project cost has come from the Heritage Lottery fund.

Some of the oldest of the 15,000 items digitised so far, from the Canna Collection, were gathered on early wax cylinder recorders as far back as the 1930s by John Lorne Campbell, Gaelic scholar and visionary landlord of Canna. Many other recordings date back to the heady early days of the School of Scottish studies in the 1950s, when the likes of Hamish Henderson and Calum MacLean carted cumbersome reel-to-reel tape recorders into Hebridean croft houses or travellers' benders, or sometimes just sat with their interviewee in the lee of a drystane dyke, recording a vanishing way of life.

Now the click of a mouse, or, for that matter, the prod of an iPhone, will give access - and free access at that - to these thousands of recordings in Gaelic, Scots and English. For scholarly researcher, song-trawling folksinger or casual amateur alike, it is indeed an unprecedented treasure chest of riches, gleaned from the length and breadth of Scotland, encompassing Shetland fiddler and Border balladeer, Hebridean crofter and Aberdeenshire bothy worker.

"The most ambitious cultural digital heritage project anywhere in Europe, if not the world," is how the project's chairman, former Runrig singer Donnie Munro, describes the archive."A visit to the website will be like talking to those who walked, talked, lived and worked decades ago."

During a recent visit to Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the college and national centre for Gaelic culture on Skye, which managed the project in partnership with the three source organisations, I met Mairead MacDonald, who as director has supervised the project's scattered, internet-linked network of digitisers, cataloguers, editors and copyright officers - as many as 40 at any one time. Apart from the office at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, there was a centre at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, while an office established in South Uist, which has taken on a life of its own, undertaking audio digitisation work on a commercial basis.

A mammoth task has been tracing copyright holders, either original contributors or, more often than not, their families. "Most people are very pleased to give their permission, and their families are usually delighted to know that the stuff has been recorded," explains MacDonald, a native Gaelic speaker from Skye, "but it's sometimes really hard to find them. At the time the material was recorded, of course, there was no anticipation of something like this happening. It would have been unimaginable."

Over its five years, the fascination of the project hasn't palled, says MacDonald. "Because I've been running it, I haven't had as much time as I would like to listen to the material. But whatever hassles there have been in dealing with technical or copyright issues or just the challenges of time and money, I don't think anyone ever tires of listening to it."

By way of example, she accesses Donald Sinclair from Tiree, a vast repository of songs and supernatural tales, talking in this instance in English about the efficacy of protective charms. Then the measured Gaelic singing of a waulking song, collected in 1949 from Kate McMillan of Benbecula, one of a little-known group of women singers from the island. Elsewhere you can listen in to travellers telling tales of the dreaded "burkers" or bodysnatchers, or recalling seasonal agricultural labour at the "Lothian hairst".

However, as MacDonald stresses, it's not all rural life and folklore. The Kist also reveals the reminiscences of Mary Brooksbank, the Dundee songwriter, best known for The Jute Mill Song, and a feisty political activist, giving a rare account of communism in the city in the early 20th century. Recorded, too, in their early days are some leading lights of the folk revival, such as Barbara Dickson and Archie Fisher, as well as such eminent song sources as Jeannie Robertson and Belle Stewart.

Expect some surprises, however.Singer and musician Steve Byrne, who worked as a cataloguer on the archive, has pointed out that some of the Kist's material questions our assumptions on "traditional" repertoire, revealing traveller singers reprising Harry Lauder songs and even the revered Jeannie Robertson singing with gusto an old Jimmie Rodgers number about hobos and freight trains.

Quite apart from providing universal access to this treasure trove of oral culture, in several instances the Kist has introduced listeners to the voices of their own departed forebears. Duncan Currie from Islay, for instance, has been reunited with the voice of his father, Alistair, who died when he was just one. On hearing the recordings, made for the School of Scottish Studies in 1953, Duncan was "overwhelmed by both sadness that I had never known my father and great pride that he was such a wonderful singer".

The archive's staff, too, were somtimes confronted with ancestral voices of their own. At Sabhal Mor Ostaig I met Fiona MacKinnon, a copyright assistant, who found herself listening to a recording of her great-grandmother, Julia, recalling her childhood on North Uist. "It was a revelation," MacKinnon told me. "I never knew her - she was 103 when she was recorded in the 1960s."

MacKinnon, 33, also from North Uist but living and working on Skye, has played the recording to her own children: "I don't know if they fully appreciate it, because they're only eight and six, but it's such a lovely thing. I can hear my own mother's voice in it - the similarities. It's just amazing."

• The Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website is fully accessible from tomorrow on www.tobarandualchais.co.uk