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‘Understanding Scotland Musically’ was an AHRC Early Career Fellowship I undertook in 2014-15.

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The research aimed to develop new understandings of how contemporary traditional music is used in the construction of Scottish identity both in performance and through the media.

Devolution in the UK, and the rapid expansion of the New Europe have led to a rise of importance of regional and national identities within the context of globalization of musical communities. What was once considered kitsch tartanry has been re-mythologized and now hybrid sounds from Scottish musicians portray a newer, emergent sense of national identity. Increasingly, musicians are performing deterritorialized and commodified music which is shifting attention away from musical provenance and authentic ideology towards more transient sonic identities and blurring established musical genres. These changes have powerfully altered Scottish music and identity and this research will investigate how Scottishness is performed in, and as, traditional music at this crucial moment in the public life of an increasingly (dis)United Kingdom. This project therefore aims to provide a nuanced understanding of the musical politics of identity, and to influence policy makers and key stake holders in challenging older mythologies and representing newly defined regions and minorities in the UK as a whole.

Here are the basic research questions I pursued:

  • How is contemporary traditional music used in the construction of identities in contemporary Scotland?
  • How are these identities constructed as discourse around music, and music-as-discourse?
  • What are the implications of changing Scottish musical identities for national and regional music policies within a changing political context?

The project concluded in 2015 and the key outputs from this research were:

  • Book Monograph: McKerrell, Simon. (2016). Focus: Scottish Traditional Music, (London & New York: Routledge)
  • Edited Book: McKerrell, S;, West, G(Ed.) (2018). Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition, Policy. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
  • Research Article: McKerrell S, (2014). Traditional arts and the state: The Scottish case. Cultural Trends
  • Encyclopaedia Article: McKerrell S, (2017). ‘Scotland: Music in History, Culture and Geography’, The SAGE Encyclopaedia of Ethnomusicology.
  • Encyclopaedia Article: McKerrell S, (2017). ‘Scotland: Contemporary Performance Practice’, The SAGE Encyclopaedia of Ethnomusicology.

In essence the key finding of this research was that musical participation on a regular basis through time was the most important factor in developing a sense of belonging in this musical community (in contrast to older notions of authenticity and ethnicity or place of canonical repertoire).

The key findings of this research grant were evidence from the mediatized and social discourse from the community of practice of Scottish traditional music that demonstrated:

• Authenticity in Scottish traditional music can be considered as a social discourse about negotiated belonging to ‘Scotland’ and ‘Scottishness’
• That age, gender and literacy make no substantive difference to the community definitions of what ‘Scottish traditional music’ is, but that the key factors identified in defining this musical genre emerge in ranked order of importance, that Scottish traditional music should be: 1) ‘orally/aurally transmitted’, 2) ‘composed in a traditional style’ and 3) ‘sound traditional to me personally’.
• In many respects, the community of practice for this genre extends across territorial boundaries and nations. Musical deterritorialization is well established in Scottish traditional music.
• Actual musical performance is a very strong part of this musical genre with longevity of participation a key distinguishing factor amongst the community.
• The community of practice in STM is extremely well educated and demonstrates potentially very high rates of active participation when compared against the general population of Scotland.
• There is no statistically significant relationship between age and the degree to which respondents actively connect either in person, on social media or watch/listen to Scottish traditional music online.
• One of the key findings of this research is that the longer that someone performs STM, the more regularly they perform.
• In general, it is remarkable how similar the entire cohort’s views upon the definition and performance contexts are across gender, age, residency and educational qualifications are. This may suggest that participation in this musical genre itself constructs a strong and cohesive sense of belonging that is based in practice and aesthetics that can override other major social categories (needs testing further of course). Social cohesion for policy.

A summary of the basic questionnaire results Who understands Scotland musically basic results.

I also created several videos during the research of short interviews:

Watch Gary West’s keynote presentation at the Understanding Scotland Musically conference

Shona Mooney on Scottish traditional music

Simon Thoumire on Scottish traditional music

Marie Fielding on Scottish traditional music

Ian Muir on Scottish traditional music

Roddy MacLeod MBE on Scottish traditional music

Please do get in touch via the online form if you have any questions about this research project.