In 2017 I was delighted to join the national council for the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, directed by Norman Bissell. In November I was elected as Assistant Director and joined the editorial group for the centre's online journal Stravaig.
It is a joy to join fellow ethnologists Chris and Steve on the Local Voices team. Together they have a wealth of experience and knowledge and have really led the way with their approach to applied ethnology and place-based traditional arts education in Scotland. They create deeply thoughtful projects that encourage children and communities to connect with each other, with their place and with their past, modelling an educational approach that places relationship, culture and personal and community empowerment at the centre of learning.
In an increasingly rootless, alienating and commercialised world, where so many are predisposed to looking out to mass media culture, the consciousness-raising work of organisations like Local Voices is vital. Our cultural memory and local traditions are important not as ‘relics of an imagined national past’ or ‘cultural products for export,’ but as a creative, vital and meaningful resource for the future. The Local Voices approach highlights the importance of seeing tradition as rooted in place but not fixed in history, rather as a living tradition moving forward through time in a way that is inclusive of all those who live here.
In August 2017 I officially joined the team at The Shieling Project up in Glenstrathfarrar, near Beauly. The project is a community enterprise, working with schools, teachers and local community exploring our landscape's past to help shape a more resilient future. The project is a microcosm of a lived philosophy of placemaking underpinned by ethnological and ecological values.
What's it all about?
We can learn a lot from the shileing tradition about ourselves, our food, heritage and sustainability. In the past, each summer, young people used to help take the livestock up the hill to the shieling, camping there in small bothies, learning about the world beyond the village. Today, you might learn how to milk a cow, make butter and cheese, cut peats, weave, dye or re-build shieling huts. We also delve into the stories, songs, poems and place-names of the shieling. From this rich traditional heritage, we can understand the changing landscape and understand the skills needed to sustain our rural communities.
I curated a weekend of Highland events under the banner '57 Degrees North' for Architecture Fringe 2017. Initiated by a group of architects, designers, photographers, engineers, visual artists, curators and musicians the Fringe is an independent contributor-led series of projects and events across the arts which explores architecture and its impact. The theme for the 2017 programme was INFRASTRUCTURE and included work from around 260 contributors over 50 projects in 37 venues.
Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS), based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh is the national network for traditional arts. The organisation is made up of three art form networks: the Traditional Music Forum (TMF), The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) and the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland (TDFS). I have worked for all three in various capacities.
I have worked for TRACS in a freelance capacity since 2012, supporting various aspects of their policy, development, events programming and delivery. From June 2015 - June 2017 my specific role was as coordinator for the Scottish Storytelling Forum. This involved working directly with artists and creative practitioners, supporting the needs of a distributed creative network, creating opportunities and platforms to showcase work and supporting artists with professional development and advice. I organised several development days facilitating workshops for exploring creative practice as well as peer-led opportunities to reflect upon, discuss and seek to address challenges, issues and opportunities. The second main area was working with the public to widen access to and participation in traditional arts activities across the country and to enable storytelling to engage with key areas of Scottish life and society. This involved working with local authorities, schools, community groups and local cultural, artistic, educational organisations to build relationships. The third area was working at a strategic level to advocate and demonstrate the value of traditional arts to the policy environment. I organised a national conference in partnership with BEMIS Scotland exploring the cultural potential of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) as a creative pathway to active citizenship.
My role also involved contributing the programming of the summer festival TradFest Edinburgh | Dùn Èideann and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival (SISF); liaising with venue (Scottish Storytelling Centre) and box office staff; contributing to the Celtic Summer School with workshops, guest lectures and the occasional performance (song); contributing to the development of the People's Parish project and commissioning and editing the network’s biannual print magazine Blethers.
I was delighted this year to work creatively with my Dad, poet Ian McFadyen, on a wee show called 'Why The Birds Sing' as part of Edinburgh's TradFest Dùn Èideann The performance was developed from an earlier show which took place in Neidpath Castle as part of Peebles Arts Festival 2006, 'As Long As We Both Have Wings' (then performed with friends from Tweed Theatre).
Because they have song
Not because they have answers
Is why the birds sing
'Why the Birds Sing' is a collection of Ian's writings - prose, poems, owersettins, stories, music and song in Scots and English - which celebrate the magical world of birds. The script material is divided into two halves and four quarters. Mythical Wings reflects on birds in myth and folktale; Down the Tweed takes us on a bird-watching journey down this silver river; Lovebirds considers how birds are reflected in our love stories; and finally, we head Up the West Coast and out to the Islands.
Nichtingale, robin, peacock, cockerel, hoolit, kingfisher, raven, swallow, deuks, chooks, curlew, peewit, swans, blaikies, seagulls, wee starlin, corncrake, sparra, dunnock, twite, puffin, corbie, geese...
“Many of my poems emerge as a response to the landscapes, soundscapes, creatures and features in the natural world. Many were written long before I encountered the term ‘geopoetic,’ but I think many of them may belong under that umbrella, in so far as I understand it. They divide, superficially, into those that arise from the green hills of the Borders - a land of trees and shining rivers, especially the Tweed; and those that arise from the West Coast and its Glamour of Islands, especially Mull and Iona, and our retreat in North West Sutherland - an entirely different land with ocean, mountains and vast open spaces. My poetry is simply a response to being alive in these places. Many poems derive from encounters which stick in the mind and insist on being written about.”
— Ian McFadyen
With huge thanks to talented friends Chris Wright, Zarya Rathe, Ella Leith and David Francis who helped the birds come to life - perhaps we'll do it again one day!
IONA IN A SOFT LIGHT, SUMMER ‘94
The year the islands opened to us that first day,
west all along the Pilgrim Way.
Loch Don shone mother-of-pearl,
with thin pinks and blues,
but before we reached Bunessan,
Loch Scridian and everything beyond it
was a blaze of burnished gold.
“We’re going there,” we told the children.
The headlands of Ardmeanach opposite
lay layer upon layer in that light
like the leaves of some
great green book of the Earth.
“Set fair till Friday,” they said at the ferry -
and it did last the week. Across the sound,
Iona crouched like a green cat,
a sphinx on shining water that turned
turquoise over white sand in Saint Ronan’s Bay.
Baile Mor was horse-lanes hedged with fuchsia.
On the straight way to the Hill of the Angels,
the breeze smelled of yellow bedstraw.
This time we could afford
to let the last ferry go,
and to take sole possession
of the White Strand of the Monks
in a slanting sun.
We looked west from the Hill of the Seat,
to where the sea becomes an ocean -
watched that glamour of green islands
as they sharpened into silhouettes
before a sun that burned
on an immensity of copper, pewter, gold.
And then, by Ardionra,
in soft light and an air sweet with hay,
a voice that we had only ever read about,
but knew at once, as surely as you’d
recognise a unicorn if one stood in your path
and stamped at you. That such a furtive beast
should advertise so stridently!
A corncrake - northern nightingale,
and bird it surely was, for we flushed it
from an uncut rocky patch
and glimpsed the stomping, hunchbacked sprint
for cover at the field’s rough edge.
A brief indignity,
for it soon resumed its calling
in the dusk through which we strolled away
reflecting, “This is only the first day.”
I have contributed to the University of Edinburgh's Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies as a tutor and occasional lecturer on both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in interdisciplinary Scottish studies, ethnology and folklore since 2009.
My specific role as Teaching Research Assistant (2013 - 2016) was to co-ordinate, design, develop and deliver a new online postgraduate curriculum in Scottish Culture and Heritage/Cultur agus Dualchas n h-Alba (a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands).
The programme engages with the wealth of popular tradition in Scots and Gaelic (based principally on the School of Scottish Studies sound archives and the Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches website) and with national and international debates relating to culture and creativity in the 21st century. Theprogramme included online webinars with guest lecturers/practitioners (which I would co-ordinate and host each week), one-on-one tutorials, pre-recorded lectures, creative short videos (with guest creative practitioners) and audio podcast lectures. Modules included ‘The Traditional Arts in Scotland,' which covers variously music, song, story, dance, poetry and emphasised the crucial role the traditional arts have played in bringing a unique stamp to the nation's creativity; ‘Tradition and Modernity,' which considers current debates in cultural policy and how wider structures impact upon creative practice and performance in contemporary contexts (this module brought in creative practitioners to share experience of practice in the field); and ‘Resources and Research Methods' where students learned new skills such as preparing material for broadcasting and podcasting.
From 2013 - 2015 I was actively involved with the non-party creative cultural campaign for Scottish independence, National Collective. As a volunteer core organiser, I contributed to the organising and programming of both local events and the colourful touring festival Yestival. You can read my contributions to the website here and you can explore the Documenting Yes photographic archive here.
Fellow organiser Jenny Lindsay and I reflect on our experience of the campaign in the video below, speaking at 'Poetic Politics: Culture and the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, One Year On' conference held at the National Library of Scotland and organised by Katie Ailes and Sarah Paterson. Jenny and I from 17 min.
My reflections on role of traditional arts in the referendum have been published as a chapter in Simon McKerrell and Gary West's edited collection Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk Culture Nation (Ashgate, 2018)