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GARY WEST - Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation

GARY WEST - Voicing Scotland: Folk, Culture, Nation
Luath Press ISBN 978-1-908373-28-1

There are many people on the traditional music scene who know Gary West through his presenting the BBC Scotland programme Pipeline and through his involvement with groups such as Clan Alba and Ceolbeg, but maybe not so many are aware of his high academic standing within Edinburgh University’s Department of Scottish and Celtic Studies. These differing, yet related, strands of his background give him an ideal platform from which to consider the themes of this excellent volume.

As we progress the largest constitutional debates about our future, what is the position of our cultural identity – what is it and where is it headed? This seems at first glance a heavy topic (as indeed it should be), but Gary has drawn on his own personal thoughts and experiences to illustrate the debate in an entertaining and accessible manner. In order to consider the direction that “traditional arts” can move into the future, he examines the story of tradition in Scotland and how that story has been given voice.

It starts with an overview of the perennially difficult area of what tradition is, placing it within the internationally-agreed definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage. (How ironic that the Scottish Government supports this, but, not being a sovereign nation, cannot sign up to the international convention.) The role of the Folk Revival is discussed, including the extent to which it wasn’t really a revival here, more of a returning to wider consciousness of something that had never really gone away, but had become something more observed in private rather than public performance.

Gary then seeks to place the tradition within the wider world, looking at how location, or place, has been an influence. He skilfully uses the examples of Martyn Bennett, Gordon Duncan, Davy Steele, Adam McNaughtan and Rod Paterson to illustrate types of affinities between people and places, showing how a writer or composer can start “within the parish” yet still have their gaze fixed on far further horizons. The long and bloody entanglement of Scots and war gets a thoughtful chapter, with the works of Hamish Henderson, Dick Gaughan and Nancy Nicolson being particularly drawn on. Following this, we have a consideration of the relationships between writers and the land, with the North East traditions highlighted.

Having drawn together all these strands, the book then looks to contextualise the future of the tradition, placing it securely in a world of electronic communications and media. As Gary says: “If it continues to be deep, to consider its roots as well as its onward journey, not to be shackled by them but to be nourished and inspired, then it can continue to speak to the world in ways which can help to build a positive globalisation, voicing humanity, voicing Scotland.”

A thoroughly well-researched, well-written and well-argued book, this deserves a wide audience and shouldn’t just be marked “file as folk”.

Gordon Potter


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This album was reviewed in Issue 95 of The Living Tradition magazine.