Obituary: Stewart Forson Sanderson, pioneer in studies and recording of folk culture and dialect

Stewart Sanderson, folklorist and linguist. Born 23 November 1924 in Blantyre, Nyasaland. Died 14 October 2016 in Yetholm, aged 91.

Stewart Sanderson, folklorist and linguist.
Stewart Sanderson, folklorist and linguist.

Stewart Sanderson was fond of recalling Benjamin Franklin’s statement that men of sound mind were not usually disputatious by nature, save for advocates and all men educated in Edinburgh.

He was born in Blantyre, Malawi (then Nyasaland), in 1924. His father, Forson, had taken up a post in Hawick High School where he became engaged to the head of languages, Wilhelmina (Ena) Pirie. Forson moved to Konjeni, south of Blantyre in Nyasaland to start a small tobacco estate, joined by Ena in 1923, where they married and where Stewart spent the first seven years of his life.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

He returned to Scotland for schooling, spending a term at Madras College in St Andrews, then attending George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. He excelled, leaving as Dux. He played piano and organ well and conducted the school orchestra.

From 1943-46 he served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, initially as a sub-lieutenant, in the Mediterranean. A posting to the operations room at Gibraltar was followed by fuel officer duties at Taranto, operations work in Naples during the Northern Italian landings, and postings to Malta and Alexandria. While in Taranto he started a life-long love for Italian language, culture and food. There are also stories of a £5 bar-room wager that he could run a Jeep on Italian gin. It emitted a bit of smoke, he recalled, and backfired, but managed to chug the required distance.

As the war ended he was posted to the island of Leros in the Dodecanese, where the remains of pre-war Italian naval facilities were manned by Italians and Germans, and garrisoned by Indian troops.

Returning to Edinburgh he resumed study, graduating in 1951 with a 1st class honours MA in English Language and Literature.

After graduating he travelled to Italy on scholarships, but returned to Edinburgh in 1952 to take up a position as secretary-archivist at the new School of Scottish Studies.

In 1953 Stewart married Alison Cameron, and they set up home in Duddingston, where they restored The Green, a lovely small Georgian house. With others in the village they arranged for the purchase and restoration of a cottage where Bonnie Prince Charlie had rested before the Battle of Prestonpans. Their hospitality was renowned.

Less well known than Stewart’s professional writing is that for about eight years from the mid fifties he co-wrote a weekly food column for the Scotsman under the pseudonym Gastrologue.

The School of Scottish Studies had been established in 1951. Housed in George Square, its programme included oral history, material culture, folk music and folk song, place names, social anthropology and aspects of archaeological illustration. Stewart’s first five years corresponded to a period of intense collection, establishing the framework for registration, archiving and transcription of recorded media and establishing the journal Scottish Studies, of which he became assistant editor. The school acquired collections such as those of Campbell of Islay, Mrs Kennedy Fraser, the Gaelic folk song and folk tale collections of Dr John Lorne Campbell, copies of the Gaelic material collected by Calum Maclean in the Western Isles, some of the now celebrated photographs of Dr Werner Kissling, and copies of Alan Lomax’s pioneering recordings of Scottish folk song. Stewart argued for the establishment of teaching to develop trained human resources, and for national ethnological institutions to be established along the lines of those in Sweden and Ireland. Stewart’s own research included studies of oral traditions of gypsies, material culture, fishing communities and folk beliefs.

Moving to Leeds University in 1960, Stewart became Director of the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies in 1964, and chairman of the School of English from 1980-83. In Edinburgh the School of Scottish Studies had been set up as a parallel activity to the linguistic survey of Scotland initiated a few years earlier. In Leeds, the two strands became interlinked.

They embarked on an ambitious survey of English dialects. Stewart’s move provided an opportunity to develop the first university teaching programmes in Folk Life Studies in the UK, and to establish an institute with archives and a research programme. In 1964 the Dialect Survey was formally combined to form the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies under his direction. He published, in collaboration with the late Harold Orton and Professor John Widdowson, of the 1978 Linguistic Atlas of England, still a fundamental work of reference. Further publications followed including Studies in Linguistic Geography (1985) with Widdowson and Kirk, and Word Maps: A Dialect Atlas of England (1987)with Clive Upton and Widdowson). Stewart was a Trustee of the Folklore Society from 1968-1979, and its President from 1970-73. He was elected Correspondent to the King Gustav Adolf Academy in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968, and served on the committees of the International Commission for the Atlas of European Folk Culture and the International Society for Folk Narrative Research. He was a governor of the British Institute for Recorded Sound from 1979-83. A one-year MA course on folklife studies was established and a Diploma course was accredited for those wishing to work in museums.

As chairman of the School of English in Leeds from 1980-83, he had to respond to funding cuts and arranged to transfer the archives of the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies for preservation in the special collections of the Brotherton Library of the University.

In retirement, Stewart remained active on the literature scene, chairing the Scottish Arts Council literature panel and grants to publishers panel, from 1983-1988, during a period that helped stimulate a boom in Scottish publishing and literature that continues to this day. In the Borders, where he retired to the Bowmont Valley and Town Yetholm, he and Alison contributed to local societies, including the Kelso Arts Appreciation Society. He also took part in the Talking Books project, reading books on to tape for people with impaired vision. He found time for family, travel, and visiting his favourite pools in the Bowmont, Kale and Ettrick Waters, until ill health and immobility intervened.

He is survived by Alison, his wife of 63 years, and children Mariot, David, and Gavin, and six grandchildren. Notwithstanding his Edinburgh education, Benjamin Franklin’s thoughts on all that this entailed, and long periods spent working with committees, he was not by nature disputatious, but will, rather, be remembered for his wit, warmth, erudition and generosity.