Out of Step: Reeling around our Cultural Stramashes

Earlier this year, a curious cultural kerfuffle occurred at a ceilidh at Brasenose College, Oxford. Scottish students variously described the freshers’ bash as ‘inauthentic’, ‘problematic’, and ‘culturally appropriative’. The fact that the band was English, “while not necessarily an issue if they gave an authentic ceilidh”, made various Scots feel that “the event had little interest in recreating an authentic [Scottish] ceilidh”. Before long, the student newspaper ran a small story on the whole affair, focussing on the grovelling apology from Brasenose’s Junior Common Room (the archaic Oxbridge version of student unions). Soon after, eagle-eyed journalists at the The Sunday Times and Daily Mail came sniffing, sending out mass-messages to Brasenose freshers in search of their latest puff-piece on ‘snowflake students’ – and this time with some jock-bashing to boot!

The reaction to the whole affair was, predictably, one of ridicule and bewilderment. One middle-aged man (for some reason an avid follower of the Facebook feed of a student newspaper) commented: “Brasenose to apologise for insufficient emergency counsellors to deal with traumatised Scottish students… Should I trigger warning this?” Others were equally scathing in their dressing-down of PC culture gone mad.

Yet this inevitable mocking did not stop a group of Scottish students from complaining, nor from the Junior Common Room leader from apologising. Indeed, they went as far as to make assurances that the Burns Night ceilidh – due to happen in a few months from now – will be “as authentic as possible”, whatever the hell that means.

The affair was an odd one, not least by the apparent supposition beneath the complaints that ceilidhs are an exclusively Scottish tradition, and that there aren’t other Celtic variants. But the Brasenose case was not an isolated incident. Rather, controversy around Scottish culture – and in particular Scottish dances – have been a recurrent theme in Oxford for some time now. The most common subject of such discussions is the so-called ‘Caledonian Society’.

Like many students leaving their families for the first time and arriving at a new university, I kept an eye out for a society which would make my aching homesickness a little more bearable: a place where I could meet fellow Scots abroad, and maintain a cultural identity that felt increasingly stifled amidst the blitz of essays and new experiences. But almost as soon as I’d arrived I was given warnings by various older and wiser Scottish students. “Oh don’t go there,” they would say. “It’s just posh English people pretending to be Scottish.” This stereotype spread beyond the limited contingent of Scots. When one of my girlfriend’s pals – who had not yet met me and did not know I was Scottish – heard that I was going to that term’s Caledonian Ball, their first reaction was to exclaim how I must be upper-crust posh, and to wonder whether I went to Westminster or Harrow. This all confused me. How could the only Oxford society to claim such a clear Scottish connection be so associated with upper-class students from the south of England, and be so despised by so many actual Scots?

When I did eventually go to the ball, not really of my own initiative but to fill the numbers in a party of friends I was close with, I found out what my peers had tried to warn me about first hand. Outside of our group, I did not meet a single person hailing from north of Berwick. Several I met did claim they regularly went on family holidays to large estates in the Highlands. More still seemed to know each other from the ‘reeling circuit’, and thus had met each other at black-tie balls across the country. When I told fellow ball-goers that I was from Dunfermline – a truly Scottish-sounding place – a look of surprise filled their faces.

Perhaps my fellow Scottish students and I were just ignorant. For some reason, despite our varying levels of privilege, there was a dance circuit so posh exaggeratedly Scottish that it was almost a caricature, and it had completely skipped over our heads before now. It was such a far cry from my only experiences of Scottish dancing – either conducted in school gym halls, with (faux-)reluctant laddies paired to the lassies; or a rather more riotous affair in some poor soul’s living room – that it seemed positively alien to me, so much so that even the abundance of wine couldn’t stop my skin from itching every time I saw another tartaned up toff, speaking in exquisite Thames Estuary English, guzzle another glass in between sets.

But what are we really angry about it? Let me be clear: I don’t think of myself as an Anglophobe. At the time, I felt genuinely disgusted at some of the vitriol going through my mind. I have no doubt the same applies to all the other Scots so irked and angry at these ‘Caledonian’ balls, and to those Brasenose students furious at that English ceilidh band.

What claim do we really have over dressing up in tartan and dancing to some reels? I’d like to think we were aware of the myths of Highland culture, and its ‘rediscovery’ in the 19th century. As English-speaking lowlanders, are we not also taking a culture that never really belonged to us, and then morphing it into something unrecognisably alien to suit our own ends?

There’s a strong case – not often heard – for the bastardisation of Celtic culture and the impact it still continues to have. There are real pressing issues of social justice to be addressed in Scottish Gaelic communities, most of which are the consequences of centuries of oppression and dispossession. As a Lowlander with no expertise in the area, I’m not really qualified to discuss that here.

But I can speak for why the Highland culture we grew up with – as construed and appropriated as it is – became such a source of discontent in these instances. I don’t think any of the students who called the Brasenose ceilidh ‘culturally appropriative’ really meant what they were saying. They were just angry that something so ingrained in their identity was being made so unrecognisable. Perhaps more pertinently, it was the fact that something so strongly associated to their childhoods and their senses of home – for they were but freshers leaving the nest for the first time, lest we forget – was not being made the source of comfort they so desired when they went to the ceilidh, but rather a source of perturbed alienation at what lay before them. They couldn’t really expressed how it felt. Neither could I. But boy did we feel it.

Scottish culture is an evolving clash of imagined identities, built on ever-morphing myths and a chaotic sense of history. Since devolution and the 2014 referendum, it has become politicised in ways it has never been before. We have to navigate a history in which we are simultaneously the perennial underdog, under attack from a larger neighbour on the one hand; and then also an active and willing part of the largest Empire the world has ever seen on the other. And that is only if we dare to misconceive our country as an homogenous whole, and not one built on division, migrations, and cultural and physical exterminations. Scotland – like all nations, though perhaps more than most – simply does not fit into such simple narratives. Its place in our minds is always up for reimagination. What are we to make of such a stramash of identities, a boiling pot of appropriations and reconfigurations?

I can’t speak for a country, but I don’t think many Scots believe that English people (or Lowlanders, for that matter) wearing kilts or playing in ceilidh bands are guilty of cultural appropriation. In fact, I think most of us would be outraged at the mere suggestion. Most of us, at heart, realise the tartan-mythdom at the heart of our national traditions. Nobody sees them as a sacred part of our culture, not to be sullied or tampered with. Rather, they’re something that should be welcoming to all, a key component of the gregarious and inclusive national image we so like to project.

But that doesn’t devalue the sense of unease felt by students who, in an alien city hundreds of miles from their home, felt a certain sense of discord and dissonance at the dances and songs of our collective childhoods being morphed beyond recognition. This is particularly true when those dances are dictated and dominated by a land-owning cultural elite, whose links to Scotland are limited to boozily bougie reeling circuits, as well as the the odd grouse-hunting expedition on their Highland estates. Because when we see them all – in their black ties and tartan trews – something quite fiery is provoked from below our hired kilt jackets: a kindling sense of kindred spirit towards those who suffered under the Clearances and saw their cultures and homes obliterated. This imagined affinity, provoked by Scottish folk culture’s fascination with Jacobitism and the unprecedented social upheaval of the country’s landscape post-1750, feels tangible now more than ever. Their struggle is now embroidered so vividly in our country’s collective memory – and made so material by the unparalleled land inequalities that still pervade to this day – that it is hardly a surprise that tensions are beginning to surface. Because when a ceilidh becomes an exclusionary space, with the Scots in the room feeling most out of step, can we honestly blame those at these Caledonian Balls and their like for feeling perturbed?

These tensions may be confined to a rather detached Oxbridge bubble at the moment, a problem exacerbated by the fact that these universities are populated only ever so sparsely with Scots – adding to a sense of isolation. But I suspect their experiences are not entirely unshared amongst those who have been to similar events, particularly as increased conversations around cultural appropriation in the last decade – while well-intentioned – have also increased our perceived cultural differences and defensiveness of our own traditions, languages, and histories. The anger over VisitScotland’s toursit-friendly rebranding of còsagach and lifestyle bloggers subsequently turning ‘coorie’ into the new ‘hygge’. As our nation’s identity continues to find new ground – and a resurgent sense of English nationalism positions itself as at odds with its neighbours – perhaps we might all begin to get a little bit more sensitive about who’s calling the steps on our Gay Gordons.

 

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This article was a runner-up in the 2019 Ian Bell New Writing Award

Comments (7)

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  1. Topher Dawson says:

    I recognise this. The acute discomfort is coming from being with toffs, not English people. Toffs in Scotland do ceilidh dance/balls too, but the word “ball” identifies oncoming toffs before one is committed to dancing with them. Ceilidhs in Scotland tend to be more egalitarian although not always. Going to Cambridge was quite an eye opener for me; the peaks and troughs of the class structure loomed much larger in that landscape.

    As to cultural appropriation, that happens all the time, as Scots Zydeco bands will tell you.

  2. Graeme McCormick says:

    Why didn’t the Scottish students just organise their own ceilidh?

  3. Josef Ó Luain says:

    “The White Heather Club” produced and broadcast by the BBC from Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Drive in the 60’s – now that was cultural-appropriation.
    Real, working ceilidh-bands: need not apply!

  4. Gordon McShean says:

    I had been a wee Glesga keelie, starting during the war, played my accordion in the dark bomb shelters and wearing my kilt at cub scout gatherings. Later, as a teenage, I took part with others in trying to rid of every Elizabeth 11 sign. But as the coronation stuff I became more active, taking part in the Johnstone armoury escapade (that had been planned by me friend, the SNP National Secretary Robert Curran), Following that (seeing Robert’s example) I found it necessary to leave Scotland (unaware that this would be forever).
    I have kept my Scottish identity even as I found new hames – in Germany, America and New Zealand.,and I have followed our Scottish national news, made contacts with other Scots when I could – and attempted to keep my Celtic feelings. But I regret reporting of one unfortunately I was offended when some “real Scots” an a New Zealand social organization – after having had asked me to performs a Burns reading – treated me very badly after learning of my most recent book RETIRED TERRORIST (which focuses on my life as a exiled nationalist). I hate to admit that a don’t always like our Scots!

  5. Alf Baird says:

    Pretty sad really, that some Scottish students still ‘aspire’ to Oxbridge. What do they expect there?

  6. Back in Scotland says:

    This is so recognisable. Having enjoyed many wild and fun ceilidhs while at university, I went on to attend RMAS Sandhurst. Once, against my better judgement, I attended a ‘Reels Club” practice session, while in my senior term. I found myself surrounded by shrieking and braying ‘toffs’, in an exact facsimile of that in the article. I eventually left, after being lectured on how to correctly to a basic dance step, by a young gentleman from the Home Counties. I learned my dance steps every year in a Scottish [state] school, and honed my skills of inclusion and welcome by dancing with the many foreign and British students who would flock to our ceilidhs, while at university. It didn’t matter if the dance went wrong, or if your dancing had a different ‘accent’; it only mattered that you left laughing and feeling welcome during your stay in our country.

    The Reels Club was about exclusivity, and of a romanticised but ultimately controlled Scottish identity. One which, despite being Scottish born and bred [perhaps even because of it] was denied to me. I was probably the only person not privately educated, that night. I suspect I was definitely the only Gaelic speaker.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    Perhaps for a lot of Scots, ceilidh culture is as put-on as it is for the Oxford students in this article, just as wedding outfits are put on for rare occasions.

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