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Detail of “A Highland Dance”, 1780, by David Allan: The nationalist agenda prefers bagpipes to classical instruments

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.”
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