Working away quietly in the warren that is Edinburgh University’s department of Celtic and Scottish Studies (formerly the School of Scottish Studies), Dr Emily Lyle has become internationally respected as a ballad scholar, with a particular interest in such renowned songs of the supernatural as Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. However, she has also established her reputation through her pioneering work in developing a new theoretical perspective on oral culture by relating it to ancient mythology and cosmology.
Perhaps her most widely known contribution to Scottish folk music, however, has been her editing of the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, a mammoth repository of songs from North-East Scotland, collected at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries by Gavin Greig and James Bruce Duncan, which never saw proper publication until Dr Lyle, with a series of co-editors, oversaw its publication in eight volumes between 1981 and 2002.
Born in 1932, Emily Lyle grew up in the weaving village of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire. Today Kilbarchan is a “heritage village” with a weaver’s cottage preserved by the National Trust for Scotland, but she can remember being taken by her father to watch the last of the village’s hand-loom weavers at work in his home.
Her father, Peter Lyle, whose family had lived in the village for generations, was partner in the Glasgow book store W and R Holmes and edited Poems and Ballads of Kilbarchan, while her mother was the first Orcadian woman to qualify in law. Emily’s home environment, therefore, predisposed her towards study. She graduated from St Andrews University with a second-class Honours MA in English Language and Literature in 1954 and, although drawn to research, couldn’t find an opening so took a teacher-training course at Jordanhill College in Glasgow. Having gained a DipEd, she went on to teach English in Scotland, England and New Zealand before taking a lecturing post at Ripon college in 1961.
The Ripon post enabled her to take up research part-time and she found her way into ballad studies via a PhD at Leeds University for her study of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. With the aid of a Carnegie Trust Fellowship, she moved to Edinburgh as a research fellow at the university’s School of Scottish Studies in George Square, where she has remained ever since, inhabiting an attic room two doors along from the late Hamish Henderson’s eyrie.
She describes editing as “a quiet activity that only occasionally peaks at moments of excitement”. However, she adds: “One of those was definitely when the first volume of the Greig-Duncan Collection was launched at a ceilidh in the School in 1981, after long years of preparation.” Emily’s co-editors on the collection over the years have included Peter Hall, Andy Hunter, Adam McNaughtan, Elaine Petrie, Sheila Douglas and Katherine Campbell.
Other collections on which she has worked included, when she first came to Edinburgh, one associated with her native turf, the two-volume Andrew Crawford’s Collection of Ballads and Songs, covering Renfrew and Ayrshire, and she was also a co-editor of The Song Repertoire of Amelia and Jane Harris (2002), a family collection from Perthshire and Angus which was among the papers of Francis James Child (of “Child Ballad” fame) that Emily travelled to Harvard, Massachusetts to study.
More recently, in 2007, Fairies and Folk: Approaches to the Scottish Ballad Tradition continued her interest in the supernatural, which is also an element of her current work as associate editor in a collaboration between the universities of Edinburgh and Mainz in Germany to produce, for the first time, a critical edition of Sir Walter Scott’s seminal ballad collection, the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.
Tribute was paid to Emily’s work recently by singer and broadcaster Frieda Morrison, who, as artist-in-residence at the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, was involved in filming performances of songs from the Greig-Duncan Collection and putting them online. At the website’s launch ceilidh, Morrison took the opportunity to thank Dr Lyle for her tireless work “on behalf of every ballad singer in the world”.