As an ethnologist, I’m interested in the various factors that shape people’s identities and behaviours, both on the national and local level. In fact, my starting point is often a single individual, their immediate surroundings and peer groups, then their family, their local community and then their geographic region.
I have a particular interest in exploring how issues of national and local identity are expressed in the songs and poems written everyday people.
I also have a strong interest in the Scots language and its oral literature, especially the political and social aspects of speaking and writing in Scots in contemporary Scotland.
These aspects of cultural life in Scotland are documented through fieldwork – that is to say, actually going and talking to people and observing what they do in their day-to-day lives. Sometimes these recording projects are focused on one specific aspect of a person’s life, such as songmaking or storytelling, but sometimes the aim is to capture a more general recounting of a period in a person’s life – their oral history.
One of my main focuses within Scottish ethnology is the sub-field of folklore, which includes the study of traditional arts such as folk songs, stories, dances, instrumental music and crafts, and also lore such as proverbs, riddles, place names, and so on.
My main folklore interests are traditional ballads and the community-building aspects of folk song. I also collect and study contemporary legends – better known as ‘urban legends’ – when I can.
The thing that links all of these things is tradition – a mechanism for cultural memory that passes on valuable customs, beliefs and practices. Understanding the way that tradition works is key to understanding individual, family and community culture.
In Spring 2018, I will begin a PhD at the Elphinstone Institute looking at ways in which traditional arts might form the core of a cultural approach to place-based education in Scotland.
Most of my work as an ethnologist and folklorist is carried out through my company Local Voices, which I co-direct with my colleague and fellow ethnologist and musician, Steve Byrne.
Local Voices works with a range of different social groups in communities across the country to collectively explore, document and promote aspects of local language, dialect, song, story, music and memory, with a focus on revitalising those elements of local heritage and culture which are at risk of being lost or which are currently under-acknowledged. We also provide or facilitate access to resources, expertise, training and mentoring for local communities to gain confidence in exploring their own memories and traditional culture on an ongoing basis.
Our projects aim to encourage interaction between older and younger generations to promote shared community identity, a sense of place, and an awareness of the value of the local in the globalised age.
To find out more about our work, visit Local Voices’ website here.