Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Fireside yarns have informed, entertained, affirmed and taught - and still do, if we stop long enough to hear them by.

We are people of a written culture. It matters little whether we write with a pen, typewriter or computer, we pass on information about the past to the next generation mainly through the written word. As literacy spreads to developing countries, the practice becomes worldwide.

'Twas not always so. North American natives sustained their culture for centuries through word of mouth. Few African slaves who settled here ever learned to read, but their stories and sense of self did not disappear. Many of the Gaels who flooded these shores two centuries ago were illiterate, yet what a wealth of song and story they left their progeny. And there is little evidence that the early Acadians were people of the pen.

Before television, radio, Internet or films, folk sat around the fire in the evening. Stories were told; and fiddle or pipe might have been brought out and songs sung. Many songs survived long after the audience could understand either the words or the allusions.

Both oral and written accounts have advantages. The written word can be consulted afterwards, but it has the drawback that it abets lazy memory and poor listening skills. Oral tradition encourages generations to interact socially; however information can become garbled, exaggerated or sanitized.

In a typical immigrant Irish family, the patriarch was fluent in both Gaelic and English. His son understood Gaelic when he heard it, but could barely speak it. The grandson could recite some Irish words, but had no knowledge of it as a living language. Thus that stalwart of County Cork folklore, the gabhann saor with his cóta dubh, became the gibbon seer and the gothic dove, which meant . . . what? A visionary ape hanging around with a Norse pigeon? (According to Cork legend the saor was a great builder, to whom all sorts of antique stone structures were attributed. The second phrase translates as "the black cloak," supposedly the reason no one saw this figure in the dark.)

Yet oral tradition has a powerful capacity for preserving history. Recently I researched a genealogical article using the 1889 voters list for Tancook Island, NS. The fact that Leander Cross died as late as 1960 at the age of 94 struck me forcibly. When Leander was 21 he probably attended the funeral of his forebear, Harry Cross, in 1887. Harry was born in 1798; that young man, in turn, would have recalled his grandmother, Eva Catharina Spannagel who was born in Germany in 1739, since she lived until 1822.

Just think: Catharina emigrated with her parents in 1751, when she was 12 - old enough to know what was happening. She could have told her grandson, Harry, about it. He in turn lived long enough to impart the lore to young Leander. And Leander could have told anyone old enough in the 1950s to grasp what he said - someone who could tell the story today. Just three tellings of the tale could bridge 250 years, from the emigration in 1751 to 2005.

Or at least we hope it worked like that. There can be slips between an event and our living remembrance of it.

Here's another case: Marianne (1816-1909) was the great grandmother of Mabel (died 1992). Marianne's father told her of incidents that happened before she was born, and she loved passing the stories on. She retold her father's tale about "the old Frenchman dancing in the road with a white feather in his hat." Neither Mabel nor her mother knew who the Gallic gentleman was, or why he was cavorting in the streets. However, John P. Martin and Mrs. Katzmann, in their histories of Dartmouth, NS, inform us that the dancer was Nicolas D'Anseville, the exiled Royalist governor of St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon, who lived in the area from 1793 until Napoleon's downfall in 1814, which he celebrated in the fashion described. His secretary, Louis de Mizangeau, married a Nova Scotian, and Marianne's father's cousin married Mizangeau's daughter.

Oral traditions explain how Marianne could recount an event she'd never seen - and they continue to play a vital part in our heritage.

Dr. Terry M. Punch is the resident genealogist on CBC radio and editor of Genealogist's Handbook for Atlantic Canada Research.

Other Stories You May Enjoy

At the Bideau

The two dog tags on the chain were round and old, stamped with Christena J. MacDonald, Nurse, A.N.C. Base Hosp No. 6. U.S.A. Having found them in an old box in the basement of my husband’s house...

Summer Sanctuary

My husband, Ron, stepped into our cottage and bumped into the shiny, new, freshly delivered appliance.

The People Principle - Getting to Know Stephen Puddicombe

As a national reporter with CBC-Radio for more than a decade, Stephen Puddicombe’s coverage has ranged from the earthquake in Haiti and the invasion of Iraq, to reporting that the Bay of Fundy has...