Born: June 26, 1929; Died May 9, 2012.

Professor Alexander Fenton, who has died aged 82, was one of the outstanding ethnologists in Europe. Tall and handsome, this linguist, writer, poet, painter, educator, musicologist and athlete reflected more than a touch of Renaissance Man, as well as possessing a humour whose use and performance throughout his life never lost its Aberdeenshire base.

Educated in Auchterless, Aberdeenshire, and Cambridge, Sandy Fenton grew up multilingually, speaking Scots at home, learning English and French at school, and graduating in English at Aberdeen University while also learning German. He studied Old Norse at Cambridge, gaining fluency in Danish, Swedish, Faroese and Icelandic. The study of onomastics (place names) led him into Gaelic, Welsh and Erse. Until the end of his life, he read German and Hungarian daily. He had some grasp of Slavic tongues, though confessed himself defeated by Basque.

Professor Fenton had more than 300 publications to his name, a quantity whose quality provides an invaluable resource for the study of European ethnology and the place of Scotland within it – and all stemming from what the author modestly termed "an interest in folk and their ways of doing and speaking". He wrote on food, tools, processes, vernacular buildings (he was instrumental in forming the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group) and on the development of ethnology as an academic subject.

He proved a remarkable internationalist and a natural communicator. Dr Margaret Mackay, director of the European Ethnological Research Centre at Edinburgh University wrote in the festschrift created for his 80th birthday: "There is scarcely a country in Europe where his work has not been published." Thus appears If All The World Were A Blackbird, a translation into Scots of Hungarian poems (1985); A Polish Baptismal Feast written for his local paper, the Turriff Advertiser (1982). His writings covered Aberdeenshire sayings; kilns in Shetland; coffee-drinking in Scotland; Orcadian customs written in German and published in Hamburg; breadmaking in Hungary; UK draught oxen for the Czech Republic; pork as a Scottish rural food for Switzerland; Scottish pack-horse transport for Denmark; seaweed manure for Portugal; and articles and contributions to learned ethnological journals in Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the USA.

His energetic espousal of ethnology – the branch of anthropology that analyses human languages, religions, technologies and cultures – as an academic subject proved a driving force in the study of it in universities beyond Edinburgh, notably Aberdeen.

His 80th birthday in 2009 proved a remarkable occasion for celebration: it had been half-a-century since an appointment to the National Museum of Antiquities, following work as lexicographer and assistant editor on the Scottish National Dictionary, working under David Murison from Fraserburgh and alongside Dr Joyce Collie from Aberdeen.

Forty years before, a first visit to Slovakia confirmed sustained European involvement; 35 years since he first engaged with university teaching; a quarter of a century since he had created the Review of Scottish Culture; and two decades since his founding of the European Ethnological Research Centre. He was appointed first Professor of Scottish Ethnology there, and the centre now has a base in Celtic and Scottish studies.

Born in Shotts (but actually the son of a souter from Drumblade in Aberdeenshire who took on the croft of Pitglassie in Auchterless near Turriff), he wrote: "Ethnological wisdom begins at home", and home life sustained him through his life, from an Aberdeenshire croft to the home in Edinburgh he and his wife Evelyn created for their family.

His natural brightness was encouraged by parents and teachers, and he funded his way through Aberdeen University both by working on an uncle's Deeside farm at weekends, and entering Highland games for prize money. His Bieldside lodgings proved "sic a caul hame" that he formed the practice of studying until he was chilled, then going for a training run to warm up ready for the next bout at his books.

The regime brought its own reward. The Aberdeen University student became an outstanding half-miler, though he preferred the mile, with a personal best of 4 minutes 29 seconds on grass. He gained a half-blue while at Cambridge, and on one of the few times when he ventured outside the mile, it was a 10-mile track event where he challenged a field which included Olympian Chris Brasher.

He proved the final director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, and during his seven years there from 1978, the staff he hired included Charles Burnett, who has gone on to make a distinguished career in heraldry; and Muriel Gray, the presenter and writer.

He was a voracious reader, booklover and book user to the end of his life. Not unexpectedly, books lined every available wallspace of his home in Blackford, Edinburgh; what intrigued visitors was a front room given over entirely to books piled from floor to ceiling.

His daily speech was Scots. He spoke it, wrote it and conversed in it, and he and his wife Evelyn derived particular pleasure in the company of folk from their native Aberdeenshire, and conversation in what he called "God's own tongue".

Professor Fenton became ill and frail in the last few months, but worked right to the end, submitting poetry to a magazine only last week.

Coincidentally, his final publication (with Mark Mulhern) – an editing of pictures and diaries in Swedish of the field trip by bike of two Scandinavian ethnologists through the Western Isles in 1934, and their recording of maritime and material culture – was published on the day he died.

Professor Fentone was appointed CBE in 1986.

He died in his adopted city of Edinburgh, and is survived by Evelyn née Hunter, his wife of 56 years; daughters Eileen and Lesley; and grandchildren Alexander, Sophia and Anna.