Gordon McCulloch, who sadly died in June 2017, was an enthusiastic contributor to the early seminars in Sheffield which led to the founding of the ISCLR. In Britain he was best known as a folksinger. He was a member of the Ian Campbell Folk Group and later of The Exiles. He also sang solo and in ad hoc partnerships. Much of his musical work is still available via the internet.
As Gordon entered his twenties in the late 1950s and early 1960s, folksinging and socialist politics were closely entwined in his home city of Glasgow. One focus was opposition to nuclear weapons, in particular the US nuclear submarines based in the west of Scotland. Songs such as “Ding Dong Dollar” and “The Glesga Eskimos” reflected the sensibilities of the working class of central Scotland. Gordon has written about them in the strangely titled essay “a.k.a. Thurso Berwick” (Morris Blythman, who wrote or contributed to the lyrics of many of these songs, was a poet who employed the nom de plume Thurso Berwick). However, it is Gordon’s scholarly contributions to modern folklore studies to which I wish to draw attention here.
Before turning to that, I shall mention Gordon’s crucial role in a dramatic political event of 1962. The leader of the Labour Party in parliament, Hugh Gaitskell, was invited to speak at the May Day Rally in Queen’s Park, Glasgow. He was on the right wing of the party and supported the use of nuclear weapons, a point of view that was strongly rejected by many socialists and others in Scotland. The event ended in a riot. Stuart Christie, in his autobiography, My Granny made me an Anarchist (2002), describes how the trouble started:
Gaitskell was escorted onto the stage by some Labour Party dignitary who announced how proud he was to present to us the leader of the Labour Party. Gordon, who was sitting directly behind me… shouted ‘Confront, you mean!’ The roar of approval to Gordon’s interjection and hooting catcalls shook Gaitskell… ‘You’re nothing. You’re just peanuts!’ he shouted hysterically at a crowd of thousands.… Pandemonium broke loose as hundreds, including myself and friends… rushed to pull him off the platform…
Gordon went as mature student to study at the University of Stirling. This was during the regrettably brief period when David Buchan was attempting to establish a program in folk studies there. Gordon’s dissertation, “Flannelfeet and friends: Clyde-built legends and stories”, was a pioneering account of the modern lore of industrial West Scotland. It was through this that he became involved with Paul Smith and the “Sheffield School” of legend scholarship. His contributions to the early meetings may be found in the Perspectives volumes. “The tale of a turkey neck” appears in the first volume; “Suicidal sculptors” in volume II. However, Gordon’s participation in our seminars became much less frequent. This was not due to a fall in his interest in legends but because his personal circumstances made it difficult for him to attend. The lack of postgraduate funding or employment opportunities in folkloristics in Britain meant that he had to support himself by other work. In addition, his lack of an academic base meant that, when he did manage to attend, as an independent scholar he had to fund himself. Nevertheless, his continued desire to be involved may be seen, for example, in the paper, “Looking for legends in the Sunday Post”, which he and I jointly wrote, but which I alone presented in 1988. To the best of my recollection, the last of our seminars he was able to attend was that held in Paris in 1994.
Another collaboration arose when he was invited to contribute a chapter on Modern Legends in volume 10 of the multi-volume publication, Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Feeling he was not sufficiently in touch with current scholarship, he asked me to work with him on it. Sadly, ill-health meant that other plans he had for further writing on legends were unfulfilled, so this was to be his last contribution to the field. Re–reading that chapter, I can identify passages he wrote. His style was what I would characterize as “scholarly with a twinkle in his eye”.
That twinkle was particularly prominent when he wrote for a non-scholarly audience. I have in mind his “Did you hear about the vanishing hitchhiker?” in The Scots Magazine, September, 1983, and “Homo ludens in the dear green place” in A Spiel Amang Us: Glasgow People Writing (edited by Brendan McLaughlin), 1990. The latter dealt with the songs of supporters of the rival Glasgow football clubs, Celtic and Rangers.
Like all his friends, I feel a personal loss, but he is also a loss to the study of contemporary lore and legend.