Ghetto na Gàidhlig - Opinion - Music

2007 - 2021

Book Review: Thinking in Pibroch

Dougie Strang reviews Voicing Scotland, a new publication written by musician Gary West and published by Luath Press


Voicing Scotland is a timely examination of the nature and role of art and culture in contemporary Scotland. Timely because the 2014 referendum will not simply be about economics or politics; it will also be about who we are and how we define ourselves, and it seems that, irrespective of the outcome, the very fact of the referendum has encouraged fresh interrogation of our cultural identity. Voicing Scotland is also timely because of the ongoing critical focus on Creative Scotland – most recently expressed, for example, in the open letter to its chairman, Sandy Crombie, from one hundred Scottish artists, musicians and writers.

Many people will know the book’s author, Gary West, as presenter of Pipeline, the weekly piping programme for Radio Scotland; or through his music: he’s a renowned piper himself who has performed solo and with bands such as Ceolbeg and Clan Alba. West is also a lecturer in Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and it’s mostly with that hat on that he’s written this book. However, though scholarly, Voicing Scotland  is neither dry nor stodgy and whilst the first couple of chapters do give an overview of the development of Scottish Studies, a primer perhaps for undergraduates, the meat of the book concerns itself with questions of interest to a much wider audience.

Given his background, it’s no surprise to find that West’s main focus is the traditional arts: Scotland’s songs, stories and music – what UNESCO describes as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ – and I found it refreshing to read someone argue so passionately for their continuing relevance within contemporary culture. West makes it clear from the start that he believes the traditional arts provide an important counterbalance to modern globalized culture, to what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’ “where nothing stays still long enough to solidify into anything of substance” (p11). At the same time, Voicing Scotland resists any easy or rigid dichotomy between the two, insisting that “tradition is not the antithesis of change”, that “tradition flows, that it, too, is liquid.” (p13).

These ideas are most fully illustrated when West discusses the work of fellow musicians Gordon Duncan and Martyn Bennett, of whom he says: “Their gift was to have both the ambition and ability to stand inside their tradition and look outwards. They understood that a healthy, vibrant tradition cannot rely solely on faithful replication of what has gone before. There has to be innovation as well as emulation.” (p.88).

West writes knowledgeably about Duncan and Bennet and he shares with us his sadness at their early deaths, as well as that of singer/songwriter Davey Steele, his former band mate and friend. The book serves as a fine tribute to the three of them and celebrates the continuing importance of their work and of others such as Michael Marra, whose recent death we now also mourn. In part, it’s this intimate knowing and sharing that gives Voicing Scotland its richness: an exploration of cultural concepts that is also a personal account, that is anchored in the actuality of people’s lives.

It’s a wide-ranging book, exploring the roots of tradition as well as the response of traditional artists to ideas of ‘place’, ‘community’ and ‘war’. I was particularly taken by West’s discussion of the relationship between culture and geography, and specifically his exploration of the connection between music and the land. A connection most clearly demonstrated, he suggests, when we listen to pibroch, the ‘classical music’ of the bagpipes.

As an illustration, West gives an account of the life of Pipe Major William MacLean and of his apprenticeship to Malcolm Macpherson, a renowned 19th century piper from Badenoch. In extracts from recordings from the School of Scottish Studies, made in 1953 when Maclean was in his 70s, we read of his journey, aged 18, from Greenock to Badenoch, and of his time spent learning from MacPherson.  It’s a fascinating story, told through excerpts from the recordings and with West’s elegant, thoughtful commentary.

Thanks to Tobar an Dualchais, you can listen to those recordings and many others online, and what they point to is a symbiotic relationship between music, land and culture. West goes even further when he tentatively suggests that by so immersing himself in pibroch, MacLean’s thought process, the way he structured his memories, was somehow aligned to the  patterns of the music itself: “He was thinking in the language of pibroch.” (p154). It’s a wonderful notion, a kind of psycho-mimesis which adds an even deeper layer to the relationship between player, music and environment, and it would be a fascinating area for further study.

Whether you’re a fan or not of pibroch, I urge you to read this book and then try listening again.

Voicing Scotland provides a largely upbeat account of the state of the arts and West happily admits that he is a positivist when it comes to assessing their role. He even has some good things to say about Creative Scotland, whilst acknowledging that not everyone will share his view!

More importantly, West delves deeply into Scotland’s cultural ecology and in the final chapter he gives a succinct analysis of the work of writers such as Tom Nairn who, in the last quarter of the 20th century, helped instigate an intense period of cultural reappraisal. A period when, in particular, the twin icons of the kailyard and tartanry were confronted and rejected. West doesn’t dispute the necessity of such a reappraisal, but he does suggest that it had a profoundly negative effect on the traditional arts, creating “an embarrassed rejection of any cultural form or policy that appeared on the surface to promote the mythical Scotland of tartan and kailyard.” (p162) This resulted, he believes, in a “substantial barrier to the wider acceptance of folk music and other forms of cultural tradition, for on the surface they seemed just too close to Nairn’s double-headed monster for comfort.” (p162)

Thankfully, we have moved on from the crippling ‘Scottish cringe’ and whilst there’s still plenty of kitsch to be found, it no longer defines or restricts Scottish culture. I  think West is right to be positive, to celebrate what Hamish Henderson called the ‘brave new music’ of folk like Martyn Bennett, and he’s right to insist on the continuing importance and vibrancy of the traditional arts in Scotland. Whether we have the best structure in place to support and promote those arts is an entirely different matter.

Voicing Scotland by Gary West can be ordered here from Luath Press, price £12.99

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  1. Scottish gardener says:

    Sounds good, hope to pick up a copy sometime. Thanks for the review.

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