Stuart McHardy and Gary West: Unlocking the Secrets of Scotland's Past, EIBF2012, Review

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Stuart McHardy, Gary West, Donald Smith (Chair)

Stuart McHardy and Gary West made something of an odd couple in their joint appearance in Pepper’s Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with Donald Smith as Chair.

Given the different nature of their interests, it felt as if the event was something of a shotgun marriage, based on little more than ethnicity.

McHardy’s most recent book offers a re-assessment of those problematic people, the Picts, upon whose enigmatic pictorial art (worse puns than that one filled the air at this event) generations of Scots have become fixated. Because the Picts have left few other traces of evidence, their stone monuments have formed the focus of numerous studies, despite which activity much contention about their origins, social organisation and belief systems, continues to rage within and beyond academia.

McHardy has attempted to place the Picts in a European as much as a Scottish context. Many of the audience questions were addressed to McHardy, but what struck this reviewer was how ethno-centric (i.e., purely Scottish) the focus remained.

Being interested in post-colonial (i.e., post-Roman) Britain as an early example of other post-colonial experiences, much of this contribution, particularly audience responses, left this reviewer wishing more attention had been given to Gary West and his new book, Voicing Scotland.

West is in a unique position to comment intelligently on the impact of what has become known as the Folk Revival in Scotland. Both a student and now eminent teacher of Scottish ethnography, West is also a skilled piper and folk musician with a firm grasp of both Scottish musicology and the social and political aspects of the tradition.

He also has the ability to tackle the issues which a post-modernist viewpoint throw up to challenge the assumption that all indigenous cultures must inevitably succumb to the pressures of late capitalism, either surrendering to a repackaging for corporate branding and re-presentation in a global context, or withering as an irrelevance in a post-nationalist age.

Voicing Scotland is part history, part social enquiry and also a meditation on the nature of popular tradition and custom and its possible future in a globalising world. For all the good will behind it, Scottish culture needs a more effective vehicle than the already much-praised Brave to represent its best side on the world stage.

It’s the ‘where and what next?’ question that West courageously asks in Voicing Scotland and which still awaits an adequate answer.

Event: 16 August 2012, 11:00am