What is Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH for short)?
Simply put, you might know it as “tradition”. Essentially, it’s the stuff in our heads, our skills, our knowledge as communities and societies – very often that which is passed down through generations. It includes traditional songs, storytelling, dancing, customs and rituals, how we celebrate at different times of the year, and the things we craft from the environment around us – sometimes quite literally! Very often, these practices are expressed in local languages, such as Scots or Gaelic.
Sometimes these skills relate to buildings or making physical items, but it’s the traditional knowledge that is key. So while you might produce a basket, build a dry stane dyke or thatch a roof, it’s the skills and knowhow you have – which you probably learned from someone else in your community – that are the intangible bit.
Where does the concept of ICH come from?
You’ve probably heard about UNESCO World Heritage sites – those apply to the built environment: significant buildings or structures created by human hands that we want to look after, preserve and record for posterity. In Scotland that includes places like New Lanark, the Forth Bridge and the Old and New Towns in Edinburgh – all recognised by UNESCO.
In the 1970s, countries started to recognise that most international policy in this area was geared towards physical or tangible heritage. Who was looking after the folk songs, the dances, the stories and other cultural expressions of humanity? Famously, the government of Bolivia wrote a letter in 1973 outlining their concerns, highlighting what they saw as issues caused by globalisation and mass media relating to the exploitation of traditional cultures.
Part of the story goes back to a certain song called El Cóndor Pasa, made famous by Simon & Garfunkel, but with a complex history amongst the traditional peoples of the Andes in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. For more on that, see folklorist Valdimar Tr. Hasftein’s work here: Making Intangible Heritage (iupress.org)
Over the next 30 years, countries began to discuss frameworks for how to safeguard such intangible heritage. In 1989, UNESCO published its Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, which paved the way for the 2003 UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Just like built heritage, UNESCO has an international list of recognised ICH practices from around the world, including those at risk of being lost. Countries who sign up are asked to make their own ‘national’ lists of the ways of life and cultural expressions that are important to them.
What else is it known as?
Some people would call it ethnology or public folklore, some might call it simply local traditions, or living culture. Folkways, folklife, the songs, stories, dances, customs, what we know about the environment where we live, our skills as craftspeople – they are all part of ICH.
Why are we using such a fancy term?
Words like ‘folklore’ or their translations in other languages can often have a negative connotation for historical or political reasons; to avoid any misunderstandings, a more neutral term was decided upon. At TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland), we think because it is a recognised international convention, that we should continue to use the internationally agreed term, alongside our existing vocabulary on traditional arts and culture.
How does UNESCO describe ICH?
UNESCO has identified 5 “domains” or categories of ICH.
- Oral traditions and expressions; including local languages as the mode of expression
- Social practices, rituals and customs
- Knowledge and practices relating to nature or the universe
- Traditional Craftsmanship
Who decides what should be included as ICH?
Communities themselves decide on what they want to celebrate and safeguard as part of their local traditions. They can choose to put them on their national inventory and if they want to submit a particular practice to UNESCO for its world list of intangible cultural heritage. Ireland, for example, has its musical traditions of harping and uilleann piping inscribed on the world list, along with the traditional Gaelic sport of hurling.
Who has signed up? What has Scotland / the UK done about it so far?
As of late 2022, 180 countries have ratified the UNESCO 2003 convention. Along with several majority anglophone countries, the UK has not yet signed up. However, in 2007 the Scottish Government indicated its desire to safeguard ICH in Scotland, and commissioned work to examine this.
The most recent report on ICH in Scotland was commissioned by TRACS along with partners at Museums Galleries Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and Creative Scotland; the report was published in 2021: Mapping Intangible Cultural Heritage Assets and Collections in Scotland – TRACS (tracscotland.org)
Although the UK hasn’t signed up yet, organisations can still apply for accreditation as advisers to UNESCO on ICH. In 2012, Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) became a registered Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) for ICH in Scotland. TRACS has recently submitted its own application.
MGS hosts the ichscotland.org site which will soon be enhanced to become a national inventory for ICH in Scotland.
What are some examples of ICH in Scotland?
Oral traditions and expressions include: storytelling, bothy ballads, waulking songs, the Traveller languages Cant and Beurla Reagaird, the piping notation system called Canntaireachd
Performing arts include: traditional music, song, dance, storytelling, clàrsach, piping traditions, Scottish stepdance, folk drama such as Galoshins
Social practices, rituals, festive events include: First footing, the Burry Man of South Queensferry, Ba Games in the Borders and Orkney, town galas, guising, traditional foods, wedding ‘blackenings’ in fisher communities, Hogmanay, Beltane
Knowledge & practices of nature & the universe include: superstitions of fisherfolk, plant lore, harvest traditions, weather predictions
Traditional craftsmanship includes: instrument making, basket weaving, dry stane dyking, knitting traditions, boatbuilding, straw working, roof thatching
Some of the above is captured in online resources like Tobar an Dualchais.
Why do we need to look after our ICH?
Organisations like TRACS think it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the kinds of local differences and distinctiveness that form part of our identities as individuals, families and communities. That means through our songs, stories, dances, customs and all the knowledge and practices that relate to where we live. Sometimes these practices are seen as everyday expressions or skills, “just something I do”, so they can often be taken for granted, and in time, become lost or forgotten.
No matter where they started off, we believe that traditions are great tools for helping communities feel confident in themselves, better equipped to recognise local diversity and to positively engage with cultures from other parts of the world.
What is TRACS’ role?
TRACS engages with ICH throughout its work with traditional arts, whether it be the Scottish International Storytelling Festival or the People’s Parish project, which helps local communities to tell the story of where they live. In 2023, TRACS has applied to UNESCO to become an accredited advisory organisation on ICH, with its vast expertise and networks in traditional arts, working with practitioners and communities.
TRACS’ work at policy level on Intangible Cultural Heritage ensures that traditional arts and crafts are kept on the agenda when it comes to government strategy and funding.
TRACS and partners will form an ICH Advisory Group for Scotland, looking to formalise a national approach to ICH safeguarding but very much rooted in local communities.
TRACS is co-hosting an ICH conference on 26 May 2023 at Birnam Arts Centre in Dunkeld. If you would like to attend and find out more about ICH, please book your ticket in advance (spaces are limited).