Songs and Singing: A Wellspring for the Future 

It has been a season of music up here in the north. Blas festival a celebration of Highland language, music and culture hosted gigs, events and ceilidhs in village halls from Aviemore to Barra, Strathy to Stornoway and Skye. We had a ceilidh in our local hall here up on the hill too. In defiance of the dark and the cold at the back end of the year, one of the most human things we can do is to gather together to enjoy music and song.

One event at Blas which means ‘taste’ or ‘accent’ was a showcase in Inverness Town House by the young folk involved in Fèisean nan Gàidheal’s Fuaran project. Performances included a beautiful song Ìle nan Cluan found and sung by Catriona Nicolson; Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh sung by Chloe Bryce a searingly political commentary about the clearances in Sutherland making way for the sheep; and Fàilte Dhruim Fionn, an ancient pibroch song by Alix Aburn, among many others. Giving voice to these songs and tunes keeps the stories and histories alive, bringing them back into the world and the realities of the present.

Fuaran which means a ‘wellspring’ was first set up in 2014 to encourage a new generation of Gaelic speakers and singers to actively engage in the research and collection of Gaelic songs in their local areas. It was wonderful to see this project come to life after having had a very small involvement through my work with ethnological community enterprise Local Voices. Along with singer Magaret Stewart and collector Angus John MacDonald, we enjoyed a day together sharing tips for finding songs in archive collections, doing fieldwork interviews and reflecting on the importance of ‘citizen fieldwork’ for the future.

Collectors & Collections

Scotland is often thought of as having a particularly strong adherence to its ‘folk’ traditions. One of the reasons for this is that our traditional cultures have been particularly well-documented thanks to a long tradition of collection which goes back at least to the 18th century.

Few other countries in the world possess such an exceptional store of audio field recordings. Among the most significant of these collections is the School of Scottish Studies Archives at the University of Edinburgh which, since 1951, has amassed thousands of hours of recordings by folklorists such as Hamish Henderson, Calum Maclean and many others. The scale and variety of this material covers everything from songs, instrumental music, tales, proverbs, customs, weather lore, accounts of work such as fishing and crofting, ways of life and oral histories. You can get lost in there for days.

Public access to this material was historically limited to the fragility of wax cylinders and reel-to-reel tapes, but with developments in digital technology, a great deal of this material is now accessible on the online resource Tobar an Dualchais / Kist O Riches (Well of Heritage / Treasure Trove). This also brings together BBC Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland’s Canna Collection, collected by John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw in the 1930s. Tobar an Dualchais has inspired many contemporary artists and is a fantastic educational resource of invaluable significance to current and future generations, enriching our understanding of Scotland’s past and present.

Within these collections, it is often the creative voice of the many contributors that is celebrated  and rightly so such as Flora MacNeil or Calum and Annie Johnston from Barra or the Travelling families in Perthshire. The folklorists, collectors and activists played a vital role in keeping this culture alive too. At the Scottish Traditional Music Awards in Aberdeen earlier this month, ethnomusicologist Dr. Peter Cooke was recognised for his work on the many musical traditions in Scotland. Cooke is one of many whose names are not well-known the late Professor John MacInnes, Dr. Emily Lyle, Morag MacLeod, Margaret Bennett to name but a few without whose quiet attentiveness and care we might not have access to such cultural riches. Each generation owes so much to the generation that came before.

An Appeal for Cultural Equity

Local culture is a commons that is increasingly threatened by an over economised and standardised modern world. Our cultural expressions are all-too-often commodified and inscribed on lists or sold as ‘heritage,’ but heritage for whom? These songs are not merely archaic relics of an imagined past, as some may argue; neither, for that matter, can they be reduced to cultural products for export. They are a creative resource for now and for the future. Tradition is rooted in place but it is not fixed in history; it is an open, ongoing and living process of meaning-making, open to new ideas, new voices and new influences.

In the face of the political, social and environmental crises facing humanity in the 21st century, it is vital to reflect on the importance of memory, imagination, myth and meaning  those forms of creativity and collective consciousness that sustain us as humans. The idea of ‘cultural sustainability’ was perhaps first popularised by folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in this ‘Appeal for Cultural Equity’ in 1972. He wrote then,

“A grey-out is in progress which, if it continues unchecked, will fill our human skies with smog of the phony and cut the families of men off from a vision of their own cultural constellations. A mismanaged, over-centralized electronic communication system is imposing a few standardized, mass-produced, and cheapened cultures everywhere…
The human species not only loses a way of viewing, thinking, and feeling but also a way of adjusting to some zone on the planet which fits it and makes it liveable; not only that, but we throw away a system of interaction, of fantasy and symbolizing which, in the future, the human race may sorely need.”

Today, Lomax’s call for cultural equity takes on new meanings. That future is now. Recovering ways of viewing, thinking and feeling becomes not just a matter of cultural democracy, but an ecological and existential imperative.

The world is dying as a result of our forgetting.

Earlier this year, a UN report on global biodiversity found that humans have put as many as 1 million other species at risk of extinction, by altering or destroying three-quarters of the world’s land environments, two-thirds of its marine habitats, and 85 percent of the most important wetland regions. There is a causal link between cultural and biological diversity. In many cases, damage to cultural and linguistic diversity comes first, followed by a disregard and abandonment of indigenous knowledge. This severance leads to a profound human-ecological disconnect, alienation and loss of meaning, with desperate environmental consequences.

“As we face a potential emergency in biodiversity loss from human activity and human-caused climate change, these complex interactions of language and biodiversity are a reminder that our cultural lives are wrapped up in the natural world too. Just like an animal species, our languages evolved in the context of the environments that surrounded them. When we change those environments, we threaten much more than just the physical living things that thrive there.” (‘As Animals and Plants Go Extinct, Languages Die Off Too,’ Vice, 20 Nov 2019).

Language and its creative expression through song and story encodes human memory and experience. Songs are honed to the rhythms and patterns of speech which are connected to the land itself. Together they form a cultural ecology which passes on knowledge of flora and fauna, geological forms, seasonality. If we allow languages and cultures to die, we directly reduce the sum of our knowledge about the environment. Recovering meaning, then, is an ecological imperative.

Reconnection and Reconciliation

The current global capitalist system is inextricably linked to coloniality, defined not only as an unjust economic model, but also as a hierarchy of ways of being and knowing which still marginalises non-western cultures and histories. We cannot talk about ‘sustainable development’ in any meaningful sense without understanding the nature of coloniality. Addressing our growing planetary crisis requires the difficult and collective work of decolonisation.

One frightening response to the destructive effects of globalisation is a retreat into entrenched ethnicities, manifesting in an obsession with questions of who ‘belongs’ and who does not. We are seeing this play out with Brexit and right-wing populism across Europe. As our climate crisis worsens, there is a very real threat that such divisive polarisation morphs into forms of eco-fascism.

I have written previously about the sensitivities of speaking of coloniality in a Scottish context. Iain MacKinnon has written recently about the trauma and effects of the colonisation on the Gaelic mind, particularly when it comes to education. In a different context, across the globe, as Michael Newton has written in a recent blog, the heritage of the Scottish Highlands ‘has often been co-opted to support disturbingly conservative agendas, whether it be imperial militarism, colonial nostalgia, toxic masculinity, repressive religion or white supremacy.’ This is, he writes, a nuanced, messy, ugly and knotty topic, which needs to be untangled.

One of the aims of contemporary ecological thinking is to bring forward the many and diverse forms of culture that are overshadowed or silenced by dominant narratives of empire, of power and globalisation. An argument for cultural sustainability is never a competition between cultural rights; to frame it as such is to perpetuate the systems and structures of oppression that divide us. We need to open up spaces for learning and dialogue, reflecting on shared experiences of dispossession, dislocation and subjugation, always in the spirit of reconciliation.In this context, giving new voice to these old songs becomes a radical act.

Local Culture

Advocating for local culture is not about reifying places and forms of non-capitalism as untouched or outside of history as part of some sort of romantic hankering for paradise lost, it is to stand up against the destructive and homogenising forces of capitalist modernity. In our collective efforts to give shape to the imagination of alternatives to the current order of things, there is much inspiration we can find in place-based cultural and ecological practices. Within the wider movement for degrowth and sustainability, the re-appropriation of the ‘local’ in all its multiplicity and contradictions is part of a radical agenda: the revitalisation of ecology and democracy, working towards a shared vision of a thriving, equitable and convivial society.

We need to act with care and criticality. The fashion for the appropriation of pick and mix folk cultures from across the world, devoid of any context or local understanding, is itself a form of un-reflected colonialism. While we may be able to create sustainable ways of living drawing from different cultures across the globe, it is wholly unwise to attempt this without first understanding these elements in their original contexts (and the consequences of taking these out of those contexts).

As humans, we have the magical ability to engage in acts of history-making – to discern and disclose new ways of being, to transform the ways in which we understand what it means to be human.

One small way to reconnect sensitively with our humanity is through the simple act of listening with care, tenderness and reciprocity. Ethnological work values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience and understands the importance of our ecological connection to our local worlds. Such cultural awareness and respect for what has come before can carry the collective values that can sustainably generate the responsibility necessary for transforming and sustaining our cultural, social and natural environments into the future.

This is the kind of connecting work that gently underpins Feisean nan Gaidheal’s citizen fieldwork project Fuaran. To quote Alan Lomax again,

“Even in this industrial age, folk traditions can come vigorously back to life, can raise community morale, and give birth to new forms if they have time and room to grow in their own communities. The work in this field must be done with tender and loving concern for both the folk artists and their heritages. This concern must be knowledgeable, both about the fit of each genre to its local context and about its roots in one or more of the great stylistic traditions of humankind.

Wherever the principle of cultural equity comes into play, these creative wellsprings begin to flow again.”



Featured Image Credit: Evicted Family, Lochmaddy, Outer Hebrides, 1895. © Scottish Life Archive, National Museums of Scotland. Licensor

Martyn Bennett image from Grit: credit Bj Stewart

Comments (4)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thank you.

    Much to reflect on here. I was interested in the way my mind paused when you wrote of ‘ethnological’ in the context of Scotland! Perhaps the process of mental decolonisation is still underway within me and I am not as ‘decolonised’ as I imagined myself to be. When I recovered, I thought that, maybe, I now understood a little better Paulo Freire’s concept of conscientisation.

  2. Peter Shepheard says:

    Congratulations on an excellent article. The rediscovery of our traditional songs and music and understanding of local forms of traditional culture remains of great importance. When the TMSA was founded in the mid 1960s, an aim at the heart of its founding principles was the bringing of traditional singers and musicians into the wider public domain and bringing about of a revival within local communities. These aims are of no lesser importance today. We have burgeoning numbers of young singers and musicians – but very few of the older generation of oral tradition bearers who inherited their local traditions of songs and music from family and neighbours.

    Of course, we have access to the older generation through the digital online resource of Tobar an Dualcais/ Kist of Riches. However, there is still no better way to gain an understanding and love of a culture than by meeting tradition bearers – by being a ‘collector’. And this is eminently still a very worthwhile way of approaching an enthusiasm for traditional song or music.

    Peter Shepheard
    Balmalcolm, Fife

  3. Alastair McIntosh says:

    I see people point to socioeconomic surveys and say “Scotland’s just the same as everywhere else.” This kind of cultural depth, a bardic tradition deep rooted in the people and the land, points to very much more than that, and to what it means to be a peoples (plural in a unity). Well done Mairi. You are doing incredible work. The likes of Hamish H would have felt so vindicated, and happy, to see it. “When poetry becomes a people” -HH.

  4. John McLeod says:

    “The world is dying as a result of our forgetting.” This is so true. And more than that – not even a capacity to realise what is happening or to mourne for what has gone. It is time to work together to imagine and build a future that allows folk knowledge to be retrieved and to flourish. Certainly within the Gaelic, but not just there – everywhere that people live, there are wellsprings to be nurtured. Or – as in Alastair’s book about walking through the bogs of Harris in the rain – dug up again.

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