Dancing to the SNP’s tunes

Scottish music and culture is playing second fiddle to an increasingly nationalist and socialist agenda

James MacMillan

Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition and Policy
, published earlier this year by Routledge, is a revealing collection of academic papers on Scottish folk and traditional music which grew out of a conference in 2014 at the University of Newcastle. It begins with a section focusing on “Policy and Practice”, which is a series of enunciations on the sociology and politics of Scottish folk music, and gradually deals more and more with the actual music as the chapters proceed. Its editors are Simon McKerrell, Associate Dean for Research and Innovation (Social Sciences) at Newcastle, and Gary West, an ethnologist at Edinburgh University and a past board member of Creative Scotland, the arts funding body north of the border.

As someone who has loved the “vernacular” musics of both Scotland and Ireland — learning country dancing as a boy, and playing and singing in folk clubs and pubs in my twenties — I’m thirsty for any further information and research which expands my engagement with the tradition. Indeed, many Scottish “classical” composers in recent years have expressed this engagement and fascination in their work.

However, for the editors of this book, the 2014 independence referendum is the “seminal moment in Scottish culture”. They claim that “musical nationalism is today on the rise, and as much as some commentators wish to divorce music from nationalism, music continues to be crucial in the construction of national identity and belonging precisely because of its affective power.”

They go on: “There are numerous striking examples of Scottish cultural and civic nationalists building support for independence in and through traditional music . . . Scottish Government collocation of traditional fiddling and piping with nationalism in their political videos and in tourism marketing . . . in a striking example of cultural nationalists supporting a determinedly civic nationalist campaign by the Scottish National Party.”

Other musical styles are given short shrift because they can’t or won’t fulfil this particular agenda. Scottish pop music is dismissed: “There is arguably a Scottish school of popular music and musicians, but like the art music tradition, their musical habitus is located in an Anglo-American world.”

These popster quislings are named: “Big bands such as Simple Minds, Hue and Cry, and Texas are all hugely successful popular music bands that came directly out of Scotland, yet were working in a broader Anglo-American musical imaginary that is far less interested in nationalism than their folk and traditional counterparts.”

And “classical” music? The editors are quite clear — they write of the “mythologisation of dead, male, white composers in the art tradition” and that “it is safe to say that the ‘pale and male’ lineages of composers of classical music still hold great signification in the public square.”

For this, they blame “those Tory politicians who have repeatedly sought to reinstate and aggrandise ‘dead, white Germans’ within the English GCSE and A-Level music curricula”. They must have missed that my Confession of Isobel Gowdie is on the English A-Level music curricula too — a piece about a Scottish witch by a living Scottish composer, admittedly as pale and male as the book’s two editors.

So there we have it — it’s the fault of the Tories. And the Anglo-Americans. And maybe even the Germans too. Might there be some kind of attempted power grab going on here? Not just for the right to define real Scottishness and Caledonian musical purity, but for the government funding and policy alignment that might go with it?

Some of the book reads like an extended love letter to the SNP government’s culture minister, and a complicated, in-depth funding application to Creative Scotland.

McKerrell  bemoans the fact that “fewer than a quarter of Scottish state schools provide bagpipe lessons” and that there is a bias therein in favour of classical musical instruments.

The editors have helicoptered in an article which didn’t appear at the original 2014 conference, one by another ethnologist, Mairi McFadyen (from Edinburgh University), perhaps on the basis that the original collection wasn’t quite nationalist and socialist enough. She proclaims: “By 2014, almost all public political statements from traditional musicians advocated an independent Scotland.” She celebrates the influence of the philosopher Antonio Gramsci, founding member and one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party, on the work of Hamish Henderson, the legendary folklorist of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies. His most famous song, Freedom Come All Ye, glorifies John MacLean, Lenin’s emissary to Britain. McFadyen rams the point home by quoting McKerrell: “The politics of traditional music in Scotland has always been ‘a mix of communism and internationalism’.”

The underlying premise of this collection, its extra-musical priorities and ideological biases alarmed me. The separatist political tribe now controlling education and culture in Scotland have thrown caution to the wind. The actual music, the actual art, the actual culture, the actual learning are now playing second fiddle to nationalist and socialist dogma. Cultural life in Scotland is narrowing. And fearful.

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