Professor Sandy Fenton: Scholar of Scottish antiquities

 

Sandy Fenton was among the very greatest scholars of the Ethnology and Antiquities of Scotland of this age – or of any age. For 15 years he was a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, from 1979 to 1994.

My wife was one of the Board members, and they had the civilised habit of allowing paying spouses to come on their annual expeditions to those parts of Scotland well endowed with antiquities. Thus I saw at first hand Sandy Fenton's charming erudition, which was a marvel of serious scholarship to us all. Indelibly etched on my memory is Fenton's explanation of life at the Black House at 42 Arnol in the north end of the Island of Lewis. His written description, first published in 1978 and reissued in 1989, is the greatest record of a way of life that once dominated so much of the Highlands and Islands.

Sandy Fenton was born in 1929 at Shotts, then a mining town at the heart of the productive North Lanarkshire coalfield. Among family and friends were the Herbisons; Margaret Herbison was later to be the miners' MP, Chairman of the Labour Party (UK) and Harold Wilson's first Minister of Pensions. His father, also Alexander Fenton, and his wife Annie Stronach moved north to Turrif, where Sandy Fenton attended the academy and progressed to Aberdeen University.

Aberdeen had the tradition of sending its most talented graduates for further study in Cambridge and Fenton entered and completed the archaeological and anthropological tripos with an optional subject of Norse and medieval language. For archaeology he sat at the feet of Glyn Daniel, who educated us all on television, and at the feet of Meyer Fortes, the great anthropologist and expert on indigenous peoples.

Fenton was grateful for the inspiration of Cambridge before going on to complete a DLit in Edinburgh, which led to his becoming a Senior Assistant Editor of the Scottish National Dictionary between 1955 and 1959 combined with part-time lecturing in English as a foreign language. He became Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland, progressing to Deputy Keeper and Director. He combined this with being part-time lecturing in the Department of Scottish History at Edinburgh University.

As Rector of the University from 2003 to 2006 I know that the now flourishing Department of Scottish Studies regarded Fenton as one of their founders. Later he was to occupy the Chair of Scottish Ethnology and Director of the School of Scottish Studies.

However, Fenton was no insular, narrow scholar. He was a foreign member of the Royal Gustav Adolf Academy at Uppsala, Sweden, appointed in 1978, and of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1979. He was given the honour of becoming an honorary member of the Volkskundliche Kommision Fur Westfalen in 1980. In 1983 he was made a member of the Hungarian Ethnographical Society and became a jury member in 1975 – and subsequently for 20 years of the Europa Prize for Folk Art.

He was also President of the Permanent International Committee of the International Secretariat for Research on the History of Agricultural Implements. Hearing Fenton on site on some windswept landscape describing the use of a particular agricultural instrument in ancient and medieval times was a revelation. He was also Honorary President of the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group and of the Scottish Country Life Museums Trust. Many modest if interesting buildings owe their survival to Fenton's work.

Fenton's writing is characterised by the greatest detail teased out of ancient records. In the 1970s he illuminated the place names of Shetland and his book Scottish Country Life (1976, republished in 1999) won the Scottish Arts Council Book Award. His The Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland, (1978, republished in 1997) won him the Dag Stromback Award. In 1985 he published an essay under the title "If All The World Were a Blackbird", which he translated from the Hungarian. Almost as difficult as Hungarian is the language and dialect of Buchan, but Fenton's 1995 work Craiters – or Twenty Buchan Tales, and Buchan Words and Ways in 2005, really saved a subculture which but for Fenton would have vanished.

Professor Alexander Fenton, ethnologist and scholar of Scottish Studies; born Shotts, Lanarkshire 26 June 1929; Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland 1959-75, Deputy Keeper 1975-78, Director 1978-85; Member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland 1979-94; CBE 1986; married 1956 Evelyn Hunter (two daughters); died Edinburgh 9 May 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Sport
Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates scoring the winner for Aston Villa
football
News
Bill O'Reilly attends The Hollywood Reporter 35 Most Powerful People In Media Celebration at The Four Seasons Restaurant on April 16, 2014 in New York City
media It is the second time he and the channel have clarified statements
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn