Hawick Traditions in Place Day

Guest blog by Erin Farley

20th September 2014

The Traditions in Place Day in Hawick took place in the Textile Towerhouse museum, bringing together traditional artists from Hawick and the surrounding area – musicians, storytellers and dancers – with museum staff, researchers and heritage professionals, to explore different perspectives on the question of how to represent, nurture and record Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Scottish Borders.

Guest blog by Erin Farley

20th September 2014

Hawick Town Centre c Visit Scotland

The Traditions in Place Day in Hawick took place in the Textile Towerhouse museum, bringing together traditional artists from Hawick and the surrounding area – musicians, storytellers and dancers – with museum staff, researchers and heritage professionals, to explore different perspectives on the question of how to represent, nurture and record Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Scottish Borders.

The day opened with Joanne Orr outlining Museum Galleries Scotland’s approach to working with intangible cultural heritage. The communities surrounding museums should be integral to deciding which aspects of ICH to engage with, and how to represent them. The current challenge facing MGS is how to create an effective network of grassroots engagement through which to locate these aspects, and, once they’ve been found, how to represent them within museums or galleries. Their aim is to create an inclusive picture of who is doing what in places around Scotland (no matter where the tradition originated). But this cannot be a static picture – by definition, we are talking about living, moving culture, and this is where the problems of representation come in. One of the ways in which this has been done so far is through visual art – such as the Home From The Sea project in Cellardyke, for which the front windows of houses were decorated with backlit photos of past inhabitants, with front rooms turned into living museum spaces as their inhabitants discussed a certain object connected to local seafaring history with visitors.

The first of the locally-based artists to speak was the storyteller James Spence, who held us mesmerised by tales in Borders Scots, both the grand narratives of Thomas the Rhymer’s early life and humorous anecdotes about Jeddart characters heard from his father – both equally enthralling. He was a powerful demonstration of the importance of the everyday ways of speaking and being in  shaping our cultural life. James is dedicated to telling the stories of Jedburgh – “the toon” – which don’t make their way into official history books. He tells the audience of his experience collecting stories from people – someone would tell him “Whae me? Oh, you don’t want to speak to me, I don’t know anything!” and direct him to a better informed person. Who would then tell him “Whae me? Oh, you don’t want to speak to me!” … And so on.

As someone who’s done a lot of oral history work, his experiences were familiar to me. History in the words of people who’ve lived it is incredibly valuable, and oral history and story-collecting experiences feel to me like a more formalised version of the oldest method of education known to humanity – listening to people who’ve experienced things. However, the frequency with which people dismiss the value of their own experience can be disheartening. While ideas of spoken testimony and lived experience may be more accepted in academia these days, there’s still a lot of hegemony-battering to be done if people can’t feel confident that their own culture is worth listening to. 

Dr Lori Watson gave us her perspectives on music and song in the Borders, speaking as a musician first and an academic second. Her talk was underpinned by the question ‘Where are you from?’, frequently asked on the music scene when meeting new players. There are many answers to that question, both personal and musical ones. Lori explored some of the distinctive threads of Borders traditions of song, fiddle and pipes, and how musicians in the area have learned from one another. We were still no closer to knowing what the one right answer to ‘Where are you from?’ might be, but there were plenty of possible routes to be traced.

Danders from the play Bondagers, NLS Next, we heard a local example of how traditions don’t always stay put in an archive once they’ve been recorded. While collecting material in the late 90s on the dance traditions of the Borders, Karin Ingram, at that time a fieldworker with the now defunct Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust found a film of dancers – the women dressed in the traditional bonnets of the bondagers. Although they were able to pinpoint the field where the dance took place, the identity of the dancers remained a mystery. A woman attending a talk by Karin on the ongoing fieldwork brought a friend – who transpired to be one of the women in the film, made in the 1930s when she was in her teens. They weren’t bondagers – that costume was one worn by the dance team for competitions, highlighting their Borders heritage – but they were all young farm workers at the time, and had been about to travel to London for a dance competition when the film was shot. They were even able to re-create a photo of the women in the team – sadly minus one who had passed away – on the exact same spot as an archived one taken seventy years ago. This is archiving of traditions at its best – as a resource which is open to input from the people creating the traditions it represents, where ideas and conversations can come on and off the page – or film – as needed.

Heather Doherty from Museums Galleries Scotland gave an outline of one of the ways in which MGS has been working to catalogue Intangible Cultural Heritage, through a ‘Living Culture Wiki’ which is left to practitioners to update and edit. As with most projects involving the internet, there is huge potential, and many potential problems. The wiki requires careful moderation to make sure people are not using it to promote a commercial product – and the question of whether to, or how to, sensitively record or represent traditions which break laws (such as sectarian songs in Scotland) remains problematic as ever for those curating a resource. The Wiki format is open to misinformation, too, and the question of whether certain songs are anonymous or have a known author raises the further one – does it matter? Is a song less important in tradition if we know who wrote it? Tell that to the Freedom Come Aa Ye. While a Wiki is great as an open place for cataloguing tradition, it’s not enough – Heather emphasised the need to get a step beyond that, to create a hub for re-engaging with traditions and sharing knowledge.

Looking back to a very different way of cataloguing traditions, Donald Smith gave a spirited defence of Walter Scott’s value as a collector and folklorist (often denigrated by some modern scholars in the field.) His work shows that he must have been deeply engaged with the current folk traditions of his day, and it can’t be denied that he continues to play a role in the traditional arts – his collections are still important sources, and a new edition of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, combining song texts with tunes, is to be released soon.

Steve Byrne's Local VoicesSteve Byrne, of Local Voices, demonstrated the potential that archive material can have in conjunction with a sense of place. The motto ‘Dig where you stand’ is a key tenet of Steve’s practice, and much of his work has been in his native Arbroath. The increase in digital technology makes it increasingly possible to bring material from centralised archives, such as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, back to the places in which it was recorded. Steve gave an outline of his own recent work in Arbroath, including singing workshops with primary schools, and talked about future plans and possibilities – the increasing availability of digital mapping technology has potential for local cultural projects. He also emphasised the importance of training fieldworkers from within the community as far as possible during these projects.

The day then moved into an open discussion, chaired by David Francis, although ideas had been flying around after talks and during breaks since the morning. Falling two days after the referendum on Scottish independence, there was a wider sense of needing to find a way forward, politically and within the arts and heritage world, underpinning many of the discussions. But one of the main concerns, as always, was how to make these connections between heritage organisations and traditional artists when there is so little funding available. As Intangible Cultural Heritage is a newcomer to the museum scene, there is no funding specifically set aside for this. Working with funders has potential to be tricky for artists as well, as there is often a disconnect between what the funder expects and how the artist would like to work. However, increasing awareness means there is a movement towards more funding for Intangible Cultural Heritage by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Tradition is often currently thought of as something that should be spontaneous and unfettered by commercial gain – a ‘natural’ process – but reality dictates that tradition bearers need to make a living. Working with schools and other educational institutions in the future was also mentioned, and the Curriculum for Excellence’s interdisciplinary and active learning focus means there could be plenty of opportunities.

However, a main topic of discussion was that of how to continue the momentum built up at these meetings. While ‘networking’ is often mentioned, the process of actually creating an effective self-supporting network which becomes more than the sum of its parts is harder to pin down. It is important to make sure that, in any collaboration with museums or other organisation, that individual traditional artists are able to keep control of their creative process and output. An effective network would be able to help define how arts and living culture is seen and funded, and change the wider agenda towards locally based projects. There were mentions from some of the Hawick artists of arranging regular meetings to talk about their work and projects with one another. Meanwhile, TRACS is looking towards the next Traditions in Place day, to take place in Inverclyde. The question ‘where do we go from here?’ is as open as that of ‘where do you come from?’, but the energy in the room on Saturday was a definite sign that the journey will be a good one.

Erin Farley is an oral history researcher working with sustainable heritage development company Nae Boundaries.