The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation

By Porter, James | Folklore, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation


Porter, James, Folklore


How is it possible to do justice, in the limits of this lecture, to the folklore of Northern Scotland, a relatively vast, unevenly populated area--roughly one sixth of the land area of the British mainland--that stretches from Iona in the west to Unst in the Shetland Isles, from the Angus and Perthshire glens to the Outer Hebrides? It would be relatively easy, I suppose, if superficial and repetitive, to summarise the folklore that has been amassed over two and a half centuries. It would be less easy, but probably more instructive, to survey the lore that has spread from this region as a result of extensive and prolonged emigration over the same period.

It would also be useful, no doubt, to discuss the work of students of the region in the past century and a half, from John Francis Campbell of Islay to John Lorne Campbell of Canna, from John Gregorson Campbell to Walter Gregor or Margaret Fay Shaw, or even the obscure Janet Henderson of Wick, who towards the end of last century wrote to the Folklore Society offering them a book on Caithness folklore.(1) Finally, given the need to rethink our concepts and methods from time to time, we might review, with special attention to Northern Scotland, changing notions of folklore and folklife, ethnology, material culture, oral tradition, and the like. Recent discussions have taken place on the relationship between ethnology and folklore (Fenton 1993) and between folklore and identity (Oring, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Glassie 1994). Folklorists still grapple with terminology as they trace the lineage and current meaning of "keywords" such as tradition, art, text, group, performance, genre, and context (Feintuch 1995). To these should certainly be added special usages of more recent vintage, such as heritage and cultural tourism (see Fladmark 1993; 1994; Brewer 1994; Wells 1996). Relating concepts of this sort to contemporary work on Northern Scottish traditions would be a daunting but not unmanageable task.(2)

But I prefer to do something different and set forth what I see as a set of current discourses constructed around the folklore of Northern Scotland. I use the term "discourse" because it implicitly rejects the idea of folklore as solely a product of communal imagination or individual aesthetic sense. Rather, the production of folklore is also intimately related to power relations in society, to economic factors, to public institutions and to academic disciplines (see Tilley 1991, 153). My justification for this stance lies in the huge population shifts that have taken place in Northern Scotland, not merely in the past twenty-five years but in the past two hundred and fifty years, and the abuse of the Highlands in particular by human agency such as "improvers" or absentee landowners. The first of these population displacements was due to the coming of North Sea Oil around 1965 and immigration into the North East associated with it; the second to the upheaval of the Highland Clearances, the mid-nineteenth century potato famine that is better known from Ireland, and land improvement (Devine 1988).

Older discourses on the folklore of the North of Scotland, as elsewhere a century ago, tended to dwell on its decline due to change and progress--the "devolutionary premise" that Alan Dundes identified as explaining the supposed decline of folk traditions (1969). But certainly the declaration, in 1835, of the Cromarty stonemason and folklorist Hugh Miller was typical: "I see the stream of tradition rapidly lessening as it flows onward, and displaying ... a broader and more powerful volume as I trace it towards its source" (Quoted Dorson 1968, 31). That concept of folklore devolving or diminishing embodied a set of older discourses constructed around the notion of folklore as survivals from an earlier stage of culture, or folklore as historical source. Ultimately, I want to contrast these with a newer set of discourses and challenges as they affect the production of folklore: namely, folklore as cultural continuity and folklore as an emergent feature of contemporary life. …

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