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Reviewed by:
  • Scottish Life and Society: Oral Literature and Performance Culture
  • Donald Braid
Scottish Life and Society: Oral Literature and Performance Culture. Ed. John Beech, Owen Hand, Fiona MacDonald, Mark A. Mulhern, and Jeremy Weston. Fwd. by Alexander Fenton. Intro. by Mark A. Mulhern. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, Vol. 10. (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2007. Pp. xxii + 616, list of figures, list of contributors, foreword, acknowledgments, abbreviations, glossary, introduction, index.)

This book contains a diverse collection of essays that survey facets of the oral literatur e and performance culture of Scotland. As such, it is a wonderful introduction to the range of traditions, approaches, research analyses, and fieldwork practices that have been and are being pursued by researchers. The authors have included numerous texts, examples, illustrations, and photographs that usefully complement the book’s historical and theoretical discussions. The text is also a bibliographic gold mine, with each chapter providing detailed notes and sources relevant to the particular approach and topic being discussed.

The domain of the book is ethnology. As Alexander Fenton notes in his foreword, ethnology is “concerned with questions of national, regional and ethnic identity, with all social levels and their interactions, with urban and industrial as well as rural matters, and in general seeks to look very broadly, using in some degree the methodologies of social anthropology and sociology, though still retaining the historical base” (p. xvi). Within this broader field, the book focuses on practices that cluster around face-to-face interactions where “the human voice is the carrier of the message” (p. 4) or where human expression is conveyed with the augmentation of musical instruments or through the body “as instrument . . . in entertainment and artistic expression” (p. 4).

The book is divided into three sections: “Narrative and Verse,” “Song and Music,” and “Dance and Drama,” and the editors direct repeated attention toward including regional traditions (Gaelic Scotland, the Travelling People of Scotland, emigrant communities) and [End Page 381] viewing Scottish traditions within international contexts. “Narrative and Verse” deals mainly with oral storytelling—in both Lowland and Gaelic communities—and Gaelic verse traditions, although one brief chapter discusses proverbs. The ballad in all its myriad forms is prominent in “Song and Music,” along with chapters on song traditions, chapbooks and broadsides, bagpipes, fiddle, harp, and the folk song revival. The “Dance and Drama” section is the least developed, with only five chapters that deal with art music, child lore, dance, drama, and a seasonal folk drama tradition akin to mumming.

Some chapters are primarily descriptive, developing the history of field collection efforts, surveying the areal spread of traditions, or documenting how traditional arts have been and are being taught. Other essays adopt a theoretical or critical perspective, tackling specific issues, such as the origin and function of bothy ballads, the politics of using traditional evidence for historical research, or the construction and negotiation of Scottish identity and tradition.

Importantly, however, the essays in this collection are neither structured to cover topics in a uniform way nor selected so that subsequent essays fill in details to provide a coherent overview of performance traditions. Instead, the essays unfold according to the theoretical orientations and interests of the individual authors. At times, I yearned for complementary treatment of topics where there was none: for example, the chapter on the bagpipes is largely limited to the social function and social history of pipers; the chapter on the fiddle touches on history, design, function, and stylistic issues; the chapter on the harp deals with key distinctions in terminology and design in early harping traditions and only briefly surveys recent history. Similarly, although the ballad is the topic of a number of chapters, almost no attention is paid to musical dimensions of ballad performance.

As a consequence of the autonomy of individual chapters, the book reads more like a mosaic of a complex whole—with each essay adding another, sometimes contrasting or conflicting, piece of the overall puzzle. Nonetheless, I find this mosaic quality to be a strength of the book because readers will often find a multiplicity of approaches, theoretical orientations, and interpretations of a single topic. For example, the seminal folk narrative collector John Francis Campbell (1822–85) is...


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