Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mouth Music for the People: Capercaillie, Scots-Gaelic Culture as a National Symbol, and the Global Celtic Stage, Part 1

This blog post was originally given as a paper presentation at the Singing Storytellers Symposium, 11 October 2014, in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. Part 1 of 2.

When the Scottish band Capercaillie produced their first album Cascade in 1984, they were considered a “traditional” folk group, born from the folk revival and built on the same super-group model as Planxty and the Bothy Band. They played for concert audiences, used traditional acoustic instruments, and their repertoire was drawn from traditional dance tunes and songs in the Scots-Gaelic language. However, seven short years later, their sound was markedly different and they had broken into the UK top 40 charts. What had changed? While not abandoning their Scots-Gaelic songs and traditional dance medleys, Capercaillie had infused that music with popular stylings. They also added to their repertoire a new type of song, English-language and rock-style, usually with nationalistic political overtones. Why did they do this? What led them to construct this unique sound and identity?

Capercaillie’s music is a product of two negotiations: first, between local, national, and transnational audiences, and second, between traditional and modern styles. These negotiations resulted in the articulation of the dispossessed Scots-Gaelic speakers in Scottish nationalist discourse, using a transnational commoditized Celtic aesthetic. The dichotomy between local and global forms the heart of Capercaillie’s nationalistic music: on the one hand, they work to break down class barriers and promote a feeling of unity in their own country, while on the other, they market their own small rural culture to the world as distinctive and timeless. 

What is Scottish nationalism?

Scottish nationalism is basically the idea that the Scottish maintain themselves as culturally distinct, a nation without a country. Anthony D. Smith suggests that the traditions or languages that define a country are not as important as its persistence as a separate identity, and he gives Scotland as an example of his concept of an “ethnie” which survives despite multiple cultural groups and languages. More important for creating a separate identity are one, shared cultural symbols and two, conflict with other groups (1).

Scotland’s specific symbols and conflicts, however, have changed over time. Scottish culture may have initially been Irish culture, but after Scotland became a colony of England in the fifteenth century, the Scottish nobles went to England and assimilated, thereby increasing the marginalism of the majority of Scottish people. Later, the Scottish upper class instigated a revolt against English cultural supremacy, first declaring that Scotland was really the cradle of Gaelic culture and second claiming several “invented national traditions” such as adopting the Highland bagpipes as their national instrument instead of the harp and wearing tartan clan kilts, invented by an English Quaker industrialist and capitalized upon by English textile companies (2). While the upper class was creating their own proud national identity based on a Romanticization of the Highland culture, they continued to oppress the lower classes, instigating a series of mass evictions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries collectively called the “clearances,” which affected mostly the poorest and predominantly Gaelic-speaking populations, who either emigrated overseas or resettled on the rocky west coast. Approximately fifty thousand of those evicted ended up on Cape Breton Island.

Globally-made local symbols

Cultural symbols do not always come from within an ethnie, however. According to Veit Erlmann, cultural products can be defined and created in a negotiation between the nation and world stage (3). In other words, perceptions of a nation can be adopted as true expressions of their local culture. This phenomenon is called global imagination, or “glocalization,” and Desi Wilkinson gives as an example the Celtic tourism of French Brittany, where neither the tourists nor the local inhabitants care if the music comes from Brittany as long as it fits into their imagined local aesthetic (4). Something similar has occurred in Scotland.
Music has been for many years part of the global image of Scotland. Across Romantic Europe, people were already familiar with the upper-class version of Scottish music, an indicator of a vibrant native culture full of “highlanders" and "tender lassies.” This version of Scottish music was popularized by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Berlioz and the military Highland Regiments. At the beginning of the 1800s, as Gaelic-speakers were being driven from the their lands, the poetry of upper-class nationalist poets Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott was put to music, further defining Scotland’s culture across the world. The music of the Scot-Gaelic lower class, however, was until recently neglected in the annals of Scottish history.

Scot-Gaelic as national, political culture: a new thing

With the decline of the English-assimilated upper class during the twentieth century, Scottish nationalism finally moved to the middle and lower classes, as the Scottish once again found themselves perceived as a backwater nation, this time a nation of oppressed blue-collar workers upon which the rich English (and the rest of Europe) depended. Only in the twentieth century did this nationalism become political and not just cultural. This political fervor peaked first in the 1990s with the first move for Scottish autonomy, and of course again a few of weeks ago. While the Scottish still do not have their own country, they continue to push toward greater autonomy. Earlier in the twentieth century, as part of the national identity crisis, some called for  deconstruction of Scottish tartany myths, now seen by some as oppressive and belittling. This search for new identity coincided with the folk revival, which had started in the United States and soon spread to Ireland and Scotland. With the elevation of folk music explicit in this movement, Scotland finally turned its attention to its few Scots-Gaelic-speakers for production of a new national culture, as these people symbolized Scotland’s own state of repression. This old cultural capital could be used to redefine the Scottish people against the English hegemony, with a new emphasis on autonomy.
By the time of this crisis, the Scot-Gaelic culture had been dying a slow death for some time. Casualties of Scots-Gaelic soldiers in World War I had effectively halved the number of Scot-Gaelic speakers, and that number has dwindled to around sixty thousand today, about 1% of Scotland’s total population. Considered one of the poorest in the country, this small population lives almost entirely on the west coast and islands. They have kept alive, however, a vibrant and distinct music tradition, especially with regard to Scots-Gaelic songs.

Next week, I’ll delve more into Capercaillie’s music and how they specifically tapped Scottish tradition and the global Celtic culture. Read part 2 here.

(1) Anthony D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (New York: Routledge, 2009).
(2) Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: University Press, 1983): 15-42.
(3) Viet Erlmann, Music, Modernity, and the Global Imagination: South Africa and the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
(4) Desi Wilkinson, “‘Celtitude,’ Professionalism, and the Fest Noz in Traditional Music in Brittany,” in Celtic Modern: Music at the Global Fringe, ed. Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2003).

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