Bothy Culture and Beyond: A Live Lasting Culture
The last time the GRIT orchestra took to the stage I was just so moved by the whole thing that felt I needed to write something. And so again! The second project for the GRIT orchestra saw the realisation of a bold and daring vision from Donald Shaw and Greg Lawson: an epic theatrical arrangement – complete with aerial dance and trail stunt bikes – of Bennett’s second studio album ‘Bothy Culture’ at the SECC Hydro in Glasgow. If the original live show GRIT was about a celebration of lost voices – of remembrance – then this year’s event was an unapologetic and euphoric celebration of Bennett’s life, energy and vision. Bothy Culture is dance music first. Everyone was as high as a kite.
In amongst all the spectacle, and despite the flashing lights of the international stage, perhaps the most moving moment of the night was when lone piper Findlay MacDonald silenced the audience with ‘Cumha Eachainn Ruaidh nan Cath/Lament for Red Hector of the Battles.’ It was just one of those moments. Ethnologists might call this communitas. You just know it when you feel it. It is ‘the sense of sharing felt by a group when their life together takes on deep meaning and collective awareness,’ ‘a moment in and out of time,’ ‘the experience of in-betweenness,’ ‘the gift of togetherness.’ There is something magical about it. [i]
For many people of my generation, Bennett was something of a cultural hero. He was one of those artists who was ready to try and make headway, in spite of everything, from beyond, outside the norms. In the mythological hero’s journey, ‘the effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world.’ [ii] This resonates here: Bennett stepped outside of his own culture, wandered through many world cultures, found the connections and – with poetic and liminal freedom – connected with something vital and created something new. His music is rooted in the traditional culture of the Highlands and Islands, but it is augmenting, welcoming, embracing. It has a life force and an energy that demands to be reshaped, to continue. Musiccal Director and conductor Greg Lawson reminds us,
“The most incredible thing about the music…is that it was all written by one person. All of the sounds that you’re going to hear, a full orchestra – made up of people from different disciplines – have had to come together to replicate the ideas and concepts and the feelings of one young beautiful man. The thing to remember is that it’s dance music. It’s celebration music.” [iii]
It has been 20 years since Bothy Culture was first released. I was only just a teenager, only just beginning to discover a world of music and poetry that would become a part of me. Bothy Culture is holidays on Mull and Iona, fish and chips in Tobermory, white beaches, turquoise sea and lochs fringed with yellow irises. Bothy Culture is wild, late student night parties into the morning. It’s long road trips to the Isle of Skye. On Saturday night, under the shadow of the re-created Cullin ridge, while dancing away in my wee ‘trad trance’ (as my pals like to call it), I couldn’t help but reflect on the long journey that had taken us all to that shared moment, and where that sheer cultural energy might yet take us.
On a national scale, the marker of 20 years also has poignant political and poetic resonance: 2017 saw 20 years since the Island of Eigg celebrated its iconic community buy-out – a hugely significant milestone in Scotland’s land reform story:
Twenty years on we now have land reform legislation in place, a £10 million per annum government Land Fund financed by imposing business rates on sporting estates, and over half a million acres of Scotland now held by dozens of local land trusts. That’s getting on for three per cent of our land area, and the Scottish Government has set the goal of doubling it by 2020. The tiny channels that campaigns like Eigg, Assynt and Gigha opened up have become the conduits through which a much more mainstream political flow has followed. [iv]
Celtic Connections’ artistic director Donald Shaw has given special focus to the Eigg community at this year’s festival. On Sunday night, revellers enjoyed a re-staging of island’s (in)famous ‘anniversary ceilidh’ which marks the island’s Independence Day each June. Shaw remarked, ‘it’s quite an amazing achievement…and they have used music in a powerful way.’ He understands the deep connection between music and community, and that land is the shared fabric of community. Poetry and music, of course, have always played a vital role in politics, in land reform:
“At surface level, it is a question of politics. At a deeper level, it’s a question of poetics…If you get politics and poetics coming together, you can begin to think that you’ve got something like a live, lasting culture.”
This is a bardic politics – people resourced by poetry. Poetics (literally: ‘the making)’ in this context, goes beyond the literary form of poetry to take in both music and song and other, deeper forms of creativity. To use Hamish Henderson’s famous pronouncement, it is when ‘Poetry becomes People.’ This was pivotal to the land movement at that time. Land activist Alastair McIntosh reflects,
“I think of a time during the Eigg buyout campaign – it was in 1996 – when, to get the fundraising rolling, the broadcaster and activist Lesley Riddoch organised a gig called Not the Landowner’s Ball. It was held in the Assembly Halls of Edinburgh. The late (as is now) Angus Grant of Shooglenifty whipped his fiddle into spindrift spirals of shamanic ecstasy. The crowd responded. I have never before, nor never since, danced in such a frenzy. This was the magic happening. This, we knew, was Eigg “happening” – manifesting from some realm invisible before it manifested outwardly…I doubt that any who were there that night would not have felt the bedrock skirl of Scotland’s metamorphosis”
The years leading up to the success of Eigg had certainly seen ‘poetics quickening at the grassroots.’ In the 1980s, in terms of music, the likes of Runrig, Dougie MacLean, Karen Matheson and Capercaillie were ‘something of a wake-up call’ for many (speaking personally, it was really Karen and Capercaillie who started my love of Gaelic and music in the first place. My favourite song was what I called the ‘blue yellow’ song, ‘hù il oro’ – it was ‘Coisich a Rùin,’ 1991). Spreading out from Barra, the Gaelic Fèisean education movement began the process of ‘reconnecting people to their cultures, their music and their untold stories’. The decade of the ’90s welcomed a wave of new bands and artists – Shooglenifty, Gordon Duncan, Martyn Bennett among the most iconic – who embraced new influences from other genres and composed new material, pushing the boundaries of tradition to pave the way for future generations.
Since then, we have seen a generation grow up, and we celebrate 25 years of the kaleidoscopic Celtic Connections. In recent times, we have all felt that cultural energy, witnessed a blossoming of cultural confidence and consciousness. There is evidence of a live, lasting culture all around, and increasingly so. What will the Scotland of the future look like? Bold, open, rooted, yet connected to the world. At nights like ‘Bothy Culture and Beyond’ we get something of a tantalising glimpse, where possibility becomes possible. But there is much work to be done.
In a series of essays on ‘cultural renewal,’ writer Kenneth White calls for need to ‘reground’ – to reconnect with ground on which we stand. The very rocks under our feet. White’s project is a geo-poetics: world-making. ‘A country,’ he writes ‘begins with a ground, a geology. When it loses contact with that, it’s no longer a country at all. It’s just a supermarket, Disneyland or a madhouse.’ If there is no deep culture, if everything is merely ‘invented’ or ‘constructed,’ then everything (and everyone) becomes disposable, seen simply in terms of resources at hand, ready for exploitation, for profit. A stereotyped culture staged for tourists. In a society that has lost contact with ground, the question of national identity becomes paramount, obsessive; it is ‘the mask of deep set alienation.’ [vii]. We see this manifest in the headlines of our daily politics, particularly in many aspects of the ‘culturally regressive’ Brexit. [viii]
The ‘great disease of our time,’ writes McIntosh, is meaninglessless.’ If anything like a real turning of the times is possible, we need to reconnect country and ground. We need minds that that can draw the ‘significant lines together’ through history and culture and open up new ways of ‘inhabiting the Earth’ in this place.
In order to begin this work, White appeals to an expanded understanding of culture beyond the narrow sociological conception currently prevalent in policy today. To explain this, in crude terms: sociology understands two basic components of culture: ideas, symbols and activity on the one hand (practices), and artefacts (material objects) on the other. Underlying this conception lies the conviction that the more ‘culture’ a society produces – books, plays, paintings, sculptures, installations, concerts – the more ‘successful’ it is (it is, of course, easier to measure it that way). In this ‘society of noise and flashing images,’ the ‘best and the most necessary gets lost in the rush.’ White writes,
“This object-ridden, activity-frantic consumer-culture gets nobody anywhere and its marketing administration becomes a business in itself, blind to any deep purpose.”
And this was written before social media and its relentless opining, and, indeed, before the broader ideological shift in cultural policy towards audits, data capture and cultural measurement in our ‘era of public management’ took full hold. The question, White writes, is ‘whether any deep purpose is still possible.’ [x] I am much more of an optimist. There are great people everywhere. We just need a big beautiful gesture.
This is where we need ethnologists. Ethnology/anthropology understands culture as way of life; as an ongoing, unfolding, creative process, constantly reshaping in new and meaningful forms. In the collective sense, it begins with a group of individuals – community, region or nation. Within an expanded anthropological notion of ‘art,’ the emphasis on ‘creativity’ recognises the artist in every human being. This is not the notion that everyone can ‘be an artist’ in a conventional sense; rather it is the power of the human body to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. The poetic, in this context, becomes synonymous with human potential for constantly ‘making the world new.’ [xi].
Understanding culture as a process emphasises its generative power and shifts from the question of what culture is (to insert into some category or box), to how it happens. Our heritage is not a collection of fixed objects and practices from the past which have to be ‘re-performed’ in present. [xii] Traditional music is not a ‘heritage practice’ that can be boxed up or that exists in aspic, as some might imagine; rather, it is characterised by constant re-creation, re-animation and re-working of material. It has life on the carrying stream.
“But then there’s art. And in art, when it’s founded and grounded, that is, when it isn’t just another aspect of the circus, that we recover…that part of ourselves that lifts us from the society of noise and lets us participate in the universe.”
Art that is ‘founded and grounded’ comes from the Earth. It is not solely concerned with the category of ‘the artist’ or with narcissistic self-expression, but rather with a depth of meaning, connection and with the creative process itself. It has a world; it is the articulation of a whole sense of being.
“A world emerges from the contact between the human being and the cosmos, represented by the Earth. When that contact is intelligent, sensitive, subtle, you have a world in the full and positive sense: a satisfying context, and interesting and life-enhancing place.”
This grounding is a feature of the work of many artists in Scotland, past and present, emerging from a direct and intimate experience of the landscape. It’s there in the early Gaelic poets, in Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, in the writing of Nan Shepherd and her living mountain. In recent years we had Karine Polwart’s stunning, expansive ‘Wind Resistance.’ Her work just stands out as something vital. Or Duncan Chisholm’s new album ‘Sandwood,’ in all its exquisiteness. This is the kind of art that makes my heart sing. Of his pilgrimage to North West Sutherland, Chisholm writes :
“The pink glow of the sand and the myriad colours of the rocks, red, brown, green, yellow, grey and black. The perpetual spray in the air, moulding the light, bringing a haze across the sun and infinite salt to my lips… Here is where I stood on the rocks and imagined the music that I would create and in doing so made my own eternal link to this beautiful place.”
This art is highly aesthetic. Not in the sense of ‘a matter of taste,’ but rather, as opposed to the anaesthetic experience, it is when our senses are operating at their peak; when we are present in the current moment, when we are resonating with the excitement of the thing we are experiencing and when we are fully alive. It is a direct encounter with the world.
For White’s geopoetics, world is always open world.
“From the smallest rivulet, via a network of rivers, one arrives at the ocean. A little geology allows one to know that not all the stones on the local beach are necessarily of local origin, that glaciers may have brought them in from elsewhere. Likewise, from a layer of local rock one can move across nations and continents. An informed look at the sky will see not only wind-driven cloud, but the tracks of migratory birds. To all of which must be added the movements of population and language…”
This is is world we find on the wing’s of Polwart’s geese, in Chisholm’s soaring fiddle. Bennett’s work too embodies this open world. His ‘brave new music’ is both founded and grounded; it is rooted, yet bursting at its banks. Whole worlds rise up in his music. Punjabi, Turkish, Scandinavian, Irish cultures as well as rave, techno, break-beat are all a part of his palette – yet this music has an unmistakable Scottish inflection, a local colour and tonality in its instrumentation and incantation. Bennett wrote, ‘it’s time for us to face our own reflections in the great mirror of our cultures,’ inviting us to contemplate at once the difference and universality of human world culture, and our connection with our own place.
“A healthy culture is one which, although guiding us toward some articulations of experience rather than others, embodies a diversity of ecological and subjective possibilities. It is an indication of the integrative power of a healthy culture that difference becomes the basis of creative diversity rather than conflict, something which is celebrated rather than feared”
Speaking of rocks and movement, of poetics and politics, Bennett’s ‘Hallaig’ is perhaps the centrepiece to his album, quietly political in its beauty, and giving new life to the unmistakable precenting voice of Somhairle MacGill-Eain/Sorley MacLean. The poem, originally in Gaelic, is named after a deserted township on the island of Raasay, the poet’s birthplace. It is a reflection on the nature of time and the historical impact of the Highland Clearances, leaving an empty landscape populated only by the ghosts of the evicted and those forced to emigrate. It is poetic that many of those lost lifelines from the diaspora have found their way back through music.
This is perhaps where the importance of the ‘bothy’ in Bothy Culture as a totemic symbol comes in to play. A bothy may seem unremarkable in itself, but holds deep and significant importance in Highland culture. It is the source of the most memorable or important experiences of people’s lives – of gathering and companionship, of togetherness, of conviviality, of sharing stories, music and song. Of communitas. At the heart of it, this is what Bennett’s Bothy Culture was getting at: whether the rhythmic entrainment of the rave or nightclub or the cultural intimacy and conviviality of the bothy, both are a vital a source of this dynamic life force – a feeling of connection to something outside and beyond our own individual, corporeal existence. White calls it ‘the Beautiful Thing’:
“What emerges from that contact is the ‘Beautiful Thing’, the interpenetration of the body-mind and the cosmos, and not just the starry void at that, but a universal field transcending the seeming division between matter, psyche and spirit.”
I began this piece reflecting on the inseparable link between the politics of land reform and the poetics of a deep culture. We have come a long way since the shaking of the bedrock 20 years ago. If you’re anything like me, you will dream often of Eigg’s Independence Day party on a national scale. But the need to reground goes beyond and deeper than any political yes/no or any referendum. It’s about how we choose to live in this place, how we inhabit the earth.
Looking out from the Cuillin ridge, then, where might all this cultural energy yet take us? We need to radiate this creativity, joy, delight and sense of community outwards. We can’t keep it for ourselves. Why don’t we (re)connect with the movement for land reform? A poetic deluge at the grassroots? There’s a feeling in the air. Poetic time is not linear. Ideas come into focus when they need to.
Just this week we had news that the Island of Ulva was successful in gaining consent to buy the island for the community and has launched it’s crowdfund. Community Land Scot released its plans for radical new plans to deliver rural generation, to ‘regenerate ‘lost townships’ decimated by the Highland Clearances.’ The desire to reground is there in Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts campaign. But this need for reform does just apply in rural settings or beautiful Hebridean islands that so easily capture the imagination. Our housing, streets and land are acutely affected by economic policies and ideological forces which span the globe but manifest locally. In our cities, we must resist the commercial forces that are being unleashed and challenge the hidden injustices under our feet.
Our ability – collectively or as individuals – to enact any kind of political change is intimately tied to our ability to make sense of the world around us. We need knowledge. We must dig where we stand; our own personal roots, as well as our place in history and culture, is where we must start. [xx] We all live in communities in specific places ‘where roots are put down and pulled up in the course of time, and memories make dreaming the future possible.’ [xix] All politics on its own can do is to react or cope with the current situation. The artist articulates, expresses and thinks confidently about who we are and who we could be. Ours can be a bardic politics, resourced by poetry and by music. When you get politics and poetics coming together, you get a live, lasting culture, and a country connected to the world.
Get stuck in. Wherever you are. Liberate your creative instinct. Refuse to be rattled. Write things. Create things. Read more. Take action. Organise in village halls or city community spaces. Go and read more of Sorley MacLean’s radical poetry. Learn Gaelic. Go outside. Get on a bike. Switch of your smartphones. Listen to Martyn Bennett’s music. In his own words,
“I hope when you listen or dance to these tunes you get a sense of your own roots. If you push back the pressure of Urban development for a second you might remember where you came from. Go climb a mountain and see. ”
[i] Turner, E. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. 2005
[ii] Eliade, M. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1989, pp. 508-511.
[iii] Lawson, Greg. Trailer to Bothy Culture & Beyond, Film produced by studio 27
[iv] McIntosh, A. ‘Some Contributions of Geopoetics to Modern Scottish Land Consciousness’ 2017
[v] White, K. ‘Re-Mapping of Scotland’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004, p197
[vi]: McIntosh, A.‘Some Contributions of Geopoetics to Modern Scottish Land Consciousness’ 2017
[vii] White, K. ‘An Outline of Geopoetics’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004, p201
[viii]Michael Russell MSP, ‘“Sweet the Cuckoo’s Sound” Argyll: Place, People and Neighbours’
[ix] White, K. 2004, p230
[x] Ibid. p230
[xi] Bachelard, G. The Poetics of Space.1969
[xii] This is evident in setting up oppositions like ‘tradition’ and ‘innovation’ for example (cf. Creative Scotland), the dualism of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, or the bizarre notion in policy that ‘heritage’ is somehow separate from ‘culture.’ It’s also evident in attitudes towards Gaelic and Scots languages seen as heritage languages that can be exploited rather than live, living languages.
[xiii] White, K. ‘Meditation on Winter’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004 p59
[xiv] White, K. ‘An Outline of Geopoetics’ The Wanderer and his Charts: Essays on Cultural Renewal. 2004, p 245
[xv] Duncan Chisholm 2017
[xvi] Kidner, D. Nature and Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity 2001
[xvii] Martyn Bennett
[xviii] White, K. 2001
[xix] Kockel, U. Re-visioning Europe: Frontiers, Place Identities and Journeys in Debatable Lands. 2010
[xx] A gentle word from an ethnologist. As a cultural project, this is not about reconstructing the past. It is not about nostalgia or about mirroring earlier Romanticisms; it is about finding the lifelines and looking forwards. It is about inspiring a process and re-engagement with culture in this place. Be careful and have respect for precious things.
[xxi] Martyn Bennett