He was the man who embarked on a “little retirement project” that turned into the biggest-ever oral history of people across the north-east in the last 100 years.
David Northcroft, who has died aged 79, lovingly compiled and collated the collective voices of the north-east, and not just of one generation, but a wide range of people who have lived in the region throughout the last 100 years.
The former educationalist decided to embark on his venture at the start of the new millennium and talked to farmers, footballers, captains of industry, cricketers, showbusiness figures, charity stalwarts, war veterans, women who served as the linchpins of their communities… anybody with a story to tell who lived in in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray.
At the outset, he told me he had no idea how the work would gradually expand and develop, as his caseload of subjects increased from 10 to 20 and thence to 100 and ever upwards.
I genuinely believe we are living in a region which is well worth celebrating as a stronghold of clear and firm values.”
But eventually, he assembled more than 600 taped interviews, which were lovingly transcribed, and will eventually be bestowed to his former university as a legacy for future generations.
He told me: “I didn’t want to restrict myself to any one group of people or profession.
“But I also concentrated on the so-called ‘ordinary’ folk who have kept our north-east communities ticking over – plumbers and farmers, fishers and district nurses, rural primary school teachers, joiners and factory hands.
“The aim has been to create an archive which will be deposited at (Aberdeen) university and help provide a comprehensive insight into everyday life in our region during the course of the 20th Century and beyond.
“Indeed, a few of my earliest interviewees could recall the outbreak of the First World War.
“I am privileged I could record their memories for posterity.
“I think the result is a unique portrait of a tumultuous century, as seen from the perspective of those who lived through it in the north-east.
“I hope the work I have done will come to be valued as a record by which future generations will be better able to understand – not just in historical or sociological terms, but in human terms – what life was really like.”
Mr Northcroft’s labours yielded four books: Grampian Lives, Volume I, 1900-1950; Volume 2, 1950-2000; and Aberdeen Lives 1 and 2: At Work And Play.
They featured sections on the contributions to the city’s cultural life made by its artists, musicians, writers and recent “incomers”, with specific chapters based around some of Aberdeen’s most notable sons and daughters, such as Buff Hardie, Sheena Blackhall, Barney Crockett and Jimmy Scotland.
They were handsome tomes, replete with vivid images, ranging from sepia-tinted photographs to pictures and selfies snapped on mobile phones.
Even that feature – the rapid growth of new technology from personal computers and iPhones to XBoxes and drones – illustrated the radical rate of progress that has taken place in the last 20 years.
Yet, Mr Northcroft – who lived in Muchalls in Aberdeenshire and was married to Kathleen, with two sons, Jonathan and Mat – was among those who believed that, in some respects, the more things changed, the more they remained the same.
He said: “I genuinely believe we are living in a region which is well worth celebrating as a stronghold of clear and firm values.
“Some I have noticed include stoicism, reliability, respect for the climate, soil and sea, an abiding sense of communal solidarity and a warmth and willingness to help our fellow men and women.
“Of course, any project which spans the lives of several generations is bound to throw up debate.
North-east people are warm and hospitable and they demonstrated it by giving their trust (and their fly cups) to me – in most cases a stranger.”
“And I’ve looked at to what extent in our age of electronic devices, credit card existence, shifts in the traditional pattern of family life and the collapse of old industries, our traditional qualities still hold.
“Is the 20th Century – as captured by my witnesses – really a story of welcome progress? People will have many different views.
“But I thought it was crucially important to collect the reminiscences and perspectives of those who actually saw their brothers come back from the trenches in 1918, or endured the privations of rationing in the 1940s and 1950s, or lived and worked in fishing communities where death at sea was an all-too-common occurrence.”
A keen sportsman with a deep love for cricket, Mr Northcroft’s passion was passed on to his sons.
Jonathan is a football writer with The Sunday Times and Mat is a former referee who officiated at many games across the north-east.
Mr Northcroft told me, when we met in 2019, how the project had started with his relatives and acquaintances but, as his interviewees were quick to suggest further people, the numbers rapidly grew.
He said: “Another rich source was the correspondence column of the Press & Journal, where I was able to find promising letters that referred to the past, often on a ‘then and now’ basis.
“I soon discovered two things. Firstly, that everyone has a story to tell. And secondly, north-east people are warm and hospitable and they demonstrated it by giving their trust (and their fly cups) to me – in most cases a stranger.”
He has left behind a treasure trove of memories.