Càirdeas nam Pìobairean (Hamish Moore’s organisation, The Fellowship of Pipers) prepares to present the 2016 School of Traditional Scots and Gaelic Song, Music and Dance in Barga.
I am very happy to be writing again for barganews and this time, a somewhat in depth article, concerning the forthcoming school which will take place in the Conservatorio di San Elisabetta in Barga Vecchia between the 17th and 24th September 2016.
I established a similar school, “Ceòlas”, in the heartland of Gaelic culture on The Hebridean island of South Uist twenty years ago. The coined name, Ceòlas is a combination of two Gaelic words namely, ceòl which means music and eòlas which means understanding.
The Barga School is philosophically based on the principals of Ceòlas and I will outline the important historical background in this article.
Over at least the last 250 years, social, political and religious forces damaged and or changed Scotland’s culture to such an extent that by the middle of the 20th century much had been lost or changed beyond recognition, leaving only unrecognisable remnants which came to be generally regarded but misrepresented as a true perspective of Scottish culture.
The fragments of the older culture were held on to in the geographical and social fringes of the country e.g. the Gaelic singing of The Western Isles and parts of The West Highlands, The fiddle playing of Shetland and Orkney, the Doric singing of the north east and Angus, the ballads of the Borders and on the social fringes, in the traditional singing and in some cases piping, passed on orally from generation to generation by the travellers of Scotland.
Much of what was left has been rescued and saved as a result of “The Folk Revival” which started evolving in the middle of the 20th century. One of the key figures in this vital process was Hamish Henderson, an academic, poet, author, song writer and literary scholar who lectured and worked in The University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies for most of his life. Hamish went out to these geographical and social fringes documenting and recording as much of this precious material as was possible. It is now permanently held in the archives of The School of Scottish Studies for the Nation.
The most extreme example, in my mind at least, of a geographical fringe is the isolated island of Cape Breton in the province of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada where, as a result of the infamous Highland Clearances, hundreds of thousands of Gaelic speaking highlanders settled at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. There were in fact 150,000 native Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton by the middle of the 19th century.
Their isolation, their faith, the hostile environment they encountered and their love of their culture were all factors in them holding on tenaciously to, and celebrating, their precious language, music, song and dance that they had brought from the Highlands of Scotland.
They preserved a fiddle and piping style, orally learned which is in complete sympathy with the rhythms and tempi of their hard shoe percussive step dance. Current research demonstrates irrefutably and corroboratively that these styles of dance and music existed in Scotland. Pat Ballantyne, one of our tutors at The Barga School, has recently completed a PhD thesis on this very subject. I am delighted, and it is a particular privilege, to welcome to the school, two of our Cape Breton cousins, Derrick Cameron who will be teaching guitar accompaniment to traditional music and his wife Melody who will be teaching Step Dance and fiddle.
During the last 250 – 300 years in Scotland however, profound changes were taking place which would have far reaching and long lasting consequences on our culture.
Gaelic language and culture suffered near genocide and through the law, humiliation and systematic beatings in school for speaking the language, it nearly suffered extinction.
My daughter did higher Gaelic at school and went on to study it in sixth year studies. She was the only pupil in her year and despite repeated attempts and requests to her native speaking teacher we were never successful in getting him to actually talk to her in his native tongue. I can only think that a deep rooted shame would be at the heart of this sad situation.
Piping was effectively high jacked by the British Army when the Highland Regiments were raised at the end of the 18th century and with the introduction of piping competitions during the same period our once rich and diverse piping styles and varied instruments, an integral part of our folk tradition, were subsumed and the culture narrowed down to being associated only with the military and with competitions. As a result the standard of the instruments and the technical expertise of the players improved. The consequences, however, were catastrophic for the music and with standardisation of the tunes and an ever increasing emphasis placed on complex technique for the purposes of judging competition, our dance music was changed to such an extent that no relationship remains between the music and the dance. The expansion of The British Empire saw the pipes being taken to every corner of the globe and the bagpipes being associated solely with Scotland, the army and colonisation. This is despite the fact that pipes originating in North Africa three thousand years ago and spread to the Middle East, through Eastern and Western Europe to every European country, each developing their own characteristic form of bagpipe and music associated with it. Scotland was one of the last countries to receive pipes and yet to the majority of people, is its sole representative.
Hamish Henderson wrote a song which has become so popular that it has entered our folk tradition; The Freedom Come All Ye’, a song many think should be our national anthem because it reflects the sentiments and feelings of a modern day Scotland. It is an outward looking, internationalist and progressive, egalitarian song of peace.
So relevant and informative of what we will be teaching here in Barga next week. A typical sentiment of the song is carried in the lines :-
“Broken faimlies and lands we’ve herriet,
Will curse Scotland the Brave nae mare nae mare”
The hope and prayer is that:-
The families we broke as we marched imperialistically into their countries will never more hear the strains of The Scottish Pipes playing Scotland the Brave or any other tune for that matter used in a similar military context.
What a wonderful hope for our world.
Fiddling and singing suffered similar fates through competition and the adoption of, and emphasis on, classical styles. Somehow we learned either subliminally or consciously that our culture was inferior without the process of classicisation.
When I established Ceolas, a fiddler and teacher from Uist said – “I don’t know why that Hamish Moore is bringing fiddlers from Cape Breton to teach – they don’t even know how to hold the fiddle”
This one statement exemplifies and typifies the attitudes which came to dominate our culture in Scotland, the antithesis of what was held so dearly in e.g. Cape Breton.
Our step dancing evolved into highland dancing through adopting the rules of ballet. Once the dancer was taken out of hard shoes and put into ballet pumps, pointing of the toes and elevation were then possible and highland dancing is nothing more than a classical and balletic form of step dancing driven by the results of competition and it now resembles a sport rather than, by any stretch of the imagination, dancing.
I am happy to report that during the last 60 years of our cultural renaissance in Scotland, Gaelic is no longer in decline. There are Gaelic medium schools all over Scotland including our major cities. Traditional music, including piping is expanding beyond expectations through movements like The Feis where thousands of children have learned traditional music. Step Dance has been re-established and we can now complete a degree course in Traditional Music or Piping. Our Celtic Connections Traditional and World Music Festival held every January in Glasgow is the biggest of its kind in the world with over 100,000 people attending each year.
It’s not just in traditional music that things have changed. The Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe is now the biggest arts festival in the world. Jazz, classical music, the theatre, comedy and literature have undergone similar exponential growths. Scotland has emerged to become one of the most important artistic and creative centres in Northern Europe.
So – what of Barga and The School here?
Firstly we will eschew the stereotypical view of what Scottish Culture is – the parody of itself which was a politically motivated creation.
We will be rediscovering and celebrating with the help of the best of our tradition bearers our beautiful past traditions which have been saved for us, are now main stream, and represent a living tradition. The school in Barga is just a small strand of the exciting movement which has overtaken Scotland.
More than this we will be breaking down the artificially created barriers between the different elements of our tradition.
For this reason we study two disciplines, each interrelated and we come together at the end of each day for an integrated session. Each of these parts when re-united will support and enhance each other and the product will be greater than the sum of the parts. There will be tears of joy and sadness when alchemy is achieved.
If anyone is interested to witness all of this, please feel free to join us as an observer, or for a small fee, actually take part in, and experience the magic of our daily teaching sessions.
Barga will provide the rest: – The Conservatorio, the wonderful welcoming people, the spectacular food, the beauty of the city where magic happens and the chance and random meetings will constantly take place in piazzas and inspire a tune or a song – living – soaring – maybe even to heaven.
SOGNI D’ORO. – Hamish Moore 09/09/2016