Traditions in Place

The Traditional Arts Working Group report of 2010 looked at how the traditional arts might be supported within local areas, particularly when those arts are unique to or strongly associated with that area. 

Inverurie, 29 March, 2014


The Traditional Arts Working Group report of 2010 looked at how the traditional arts might be supported within local areas, particularly when those arts are unique to or strongly associated with that area.   The report suggested that this might be done in several ways, all stemming from organisations and practitioners on the ground.  First that these are best placed to identify local material; second that organisations and individuals might be able work more effectively if grouped into a conscious network, particularly now that there are national networks for local ones to link to and be supported by.   Lorna McLaren, then YMI co-ordinator at Aberdeenshire Council, had established Tradlinks as part of her work there, which was an initial coming together of education providers.  Tradlinks sat within the Aberdeenshire Youth Music ForumTraditional Music Forum members based in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire met in March 2013 and identified a range of common interests.

Furthermore the recent Living Culture Report produced by Creative Scotland and Napier University recognised a need to identify good practice in exploiting the potential of locally based living culture in adding value to the cultural tourism offer across Scotland while at the same time working to safeguard these forms of cultural heritage.  It found that Living Culture is an untapped resource and that the great majority of the stakeholders they interviewed are in favour of linking living culture and tourism.

The report identified a significant opportunity in Scotland, grounded in the available resources and demand, to create new tourism experiences for visitors based on living culture, but noted ‘a reciprocal failure of communication and mutual lack of understanding on the part of the cultural and tourism sectors.’

Their recommendation was for the creation of two or more exemplar Living Culture and Tourism ‘pilot’ projects be taken forward to establish coordinated collaborative activity and provide models of best practice.  Furthermore, the report recommended that local and national organisations with a focus in cultural tourism place the promotion of traditional arts and living culture higher up their agendas and integrate them with national and regional tourism development and marketing strategies.

Napier University had previously done some work aligned to the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage and had begun work on a ‘Living Culture wiki’, an archive of distinctive traditions and customary material within Scotland, accessible and updateable by the public at large.  This project has been taken over by Museums and Galleries Scotland, which is keen to see it revitalised and brought to its full potential.


The meeting drew people with a wide range of experience and from different fields, including primary education, cultural tourism, non-formal adult education, higher education, media, tourism, archives and libraries, and the local authority.  Presentations were focused on available local resources and the scope of local activity across the different art forms.

Jackie Ross reported on a number of initiatives, including an oral history CD from the Mearns, and the Durris Trail.  In her work with children she uses the dictum that ‘writing sails on a sea of story’, and works on the basis that storytelling is the bedrock of literacy.  Children are often liberated by the freedom of telling a story, where they can change details and make the story their own.  Literacy is not the only or best means of expression.

On the networking front, the Grampian Association of Storytellers is not active at the moment due to a shortage of capacity.  The North East, however, remains an important site for oral culture and tradition bearers.

Tom McKean from the Elphinstone Institute emphasised the need to think about context when accessing archive material.  He outlined some of the traditions with which the Elphinstone has a strong connection including the St Combs Flute Band, Boaties at Boddam and the Bothy Ballads.  The Elphinstone also has a close working relationship with the James Madison Carpenter Collection of songs, shanties and folk drama.

Pat Ballantyne and Lorna McLaren described the work of Cosmo Mitchell (d.1935), a dancing master and entrepreneur whose work is archived in Aberdeen City Library.  They also touched on the relationship between local dance hall proprietors, such as the Donalds, and the kind of dancing that was offered to the public.  Pat and Lorna also brought attention to the massive archive of material gathered by the RSCDS, and discussed the notion of a ‘correct’ house-style promulgated by that organisation, contrasting it with the more informal practice of ceilidh dancing and the reelers.  In terms of resources for dancing they advised us not to forget the dance band musicians themselves, as well as the relative newcomer on the scene, the dance caller.

Heather Doherty from Museums Galleries Scotland and Kirsty Duncan of Aberdeenshire Council both spoke of the potential of contextualising the objects to be found in museums and the work that could come from exploring and realising the stories around them.  Kirsty outlined aspects of the Council’s Placemaking Project, which has finished the first round of its work in identifying possible projects with communities across the Shire.  In a later presentation Heather described the current status of MGS’s work with the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Living Culture) project, which is currently being supported by a PhD student, Danilo Giglitto, who is investigating improvements in the IT connected with the Living Culture wiki.

The Greig Duncan collection was the focus of Tom Spiers’s presentation.  The sheer size and scope of the collection is testament to Greig and Duncan’s thoroughness despite Greig’s initial scepticism that they would find much material at all.  Greig also took a contemporary approach to his collecting in that he insisted on recording texts as he found them – no censorship.  Tom’s work with the Collection is now available in the form of a teacher and pupil resource ‘Fan I was Young’.  He also commended ‘Folk Songs of North East Scotland’ compiled by Kath Campbell of the School of Scottish Studies.

Finally, in his presentation, Steve Byrne of Local Voices noted that communities often lack the skills to identify what makes them unique, what is worth knowing and caring about.    He described how Local Voices aims to train people in documenting and using local traditions – language, dialect, song, story, music and memory – in order to promote a sense of place, advocating the local as a window to the global.

The day concluded with a discussion on the prospects for building on the gathering and the development of a regional network.  The formula People + Place = Culture was proposed with three strands of activity characterised as:Kennin, Collaboration, Opportunity.

Models of practice were examined;  the Tradlinks network which came out of the Aberdeenshire Youth Music Forum, and the model of the ‘Mothership and Hubs’ based round the Elphinstone Institute, being two of the most notable.  The gathering was reminded that there is potential for developing projects through schemes such as Aberdeenshire Council’s Heritage Education Partnership.  There was some discussion about the possible role of a physical centre, but that this was seen as less of a priority than sharing communication, information , networking and co-operation /collaboration across the region.

There was general agreement that the cohesion and success of any network development would depend on the identification and development of specific tasks.  Donald Smith and David Francis of TRACS undertook to consult further on what those tasks might be.

There was widespread agreement that the coming together of the different art forms within the traditional arts, the museums sector and local authorities was greatly to be welcomed, and that future developments were keenly anticipated.