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Women and Scotland

Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon

Women in Politics and Culture

Living Culture in Scotland: cherished by women, commandeered by men?

Alison McCleery


Where Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is concerned, inevitable tension exists between a perceived cultural requirement to ‘preserve’the authenticity of traditional practices and societal pressure or even legal necessity to adapt. If ICH is truly to constitute living culture, it must evolve if it is not to persist only as an anachronistic and outdated practice. Gender awareness represents one form of contemporary social norm unlikely to be top of the agenda of self-selected populations of ICH enthusiasts who tend to be both older, and old-school. Yet former bastions of testosterone – and alcohol-fuelled masculinity, such as Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festivals and Scotland’s ubiquitous Burns Suppers of haggis and whisky renown have started to change, even if some contend that they have capitulated to sanitisation in the name of political correctness. This chapter examines such tensions between cultural rights and social norms with particular reference to gender and ICH in contemporary Scotland.

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1In an article on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) – otherwise referred to as ‘living culture’ – in England, Smith and Waterton postulate a dominant understanding of heritage which perceives (material) heritage as good, safe and tangible, and associated with anodyne narratives surrounding established, objective and immutable values of aesthetics, reality and authenticity. That understanding has no truck with dangerous narratives of the ‘affect’ of heritage that, in turn, are associated with the recognition, scrutiny, acceptance, reworking and renegotiation of cultural, social and political values and meanings. For, as is argued elsewhere (McCleery and Orr), it is but a small step from recognising that ICH carries risks to legitimising the sense of place, belonging and identities that those values engender, something that (for England) raises politically difficult issues associated with concepts of a disunited kingdom. These issues were clearly identified and defined by others more than a decade previously, when it was observed that such cultural values, meanings and narratives tend to leak out into our everyday social contexts to underwrite individual and collective national and/or sub-national community identities (Abercrombie and Longhurst).

2It is against such a background that the UK Government has chosen to date not to sign the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. In their commentary upon that UK Government decision, Smith and Waterton extend their argument to further theorise that the UK (by which is essentially meant England) has rejected the intangible precisely because of difficulty in reconciling the notion of intangibility with that dominant understanding. This is both ironic and perverse, given the frequent criticism of UNESCO by social anthropologists who argue that, in its interventions in the realm of ICH, UNESCO adopts a stance which privileges a fixation with museification of cultural processes (Amselle, quoted in Bortolotto); such a stance is, however, consistent with the thread of the discourse which perceives the intangible to be disruptive, a thread which itself is a product of the thinking that cultural heritage is inalienably aligned with material objects (Bortolotto). The UK, it seems, shares UNESCO’s own misgivings, yet still prefers to remain outside the fold. For Scotland, on the other hand, the situation is very different, as McCleery and McCleery observe; with a growing sense of its distinctive national identity and national political coherence, Scotland positively embraces the divergent and politicised concept and actuality of ICH – which legitimises the sense of place and underwrites collective cultural, sub-national community identities. Yet, paradoxically, despite ICH being the subject of cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament expressed in the course of parliamentary debate at Holyrood in Edinburgh, the Scottish Government cannot ratify the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. This is because signing up to UN conventions and charters is a matter reserved to the UK Government in Westminster.

3In this piece, which focusses upon ICH and gender in Scotland but references a wider geo-cultural context of strands of potential social unacceptability and political incorrectness, it is argued in an extension of Smith and Waterton’s premiss, that ICH is not as uncomplicated or intrinsically ‘good’ as meets the eye or as UNESCO as its self-appointed guardian would prefer to or, more charitably, is bound to, portray it. Furthermore, Scotland’s enthusiastic, and arguably uncritical, assumption and enfolding of ICH brings with it inevitable tensions and dilemmas which may be irreconcilable without undermining the intrinsic meaning and values of ICH. If ICH, or ‘living culture’ is to live up to that important appellation, which implies that it is owned and also practised by people on the ground in their local communities, this inevitably entails a bottom-up ‘affective’ understanding of ICH. Thus free from bureaucratic interference and influence, it is able to express the intrinsic identities, including the politically incorrect prejudices, of its owner practitioners, albeit as long as they are, in characteristically vague UNESCO terminology, non-discriminatory ICH practices consistent with a framework of emergent global ethics (Bortolotto). The dilemma for UNESCO in listing a practice as ICH is what version to opt for and how to resolve the tension between so-called authenticity and political correctness, attributes which may be mutually exclusive. Inevitably, UNESCO opens itself up to what Grenet and Hottin (17), referring to ideas of Tornatore have described as the possibility “d’extraire… [le PCI]… des affects et des émotions”, in other words extracting ICH from its context of ‘affect’ and emotion. To list may be to condone; Scotland is not immune from this challenge, albeit in microcosm.

4Following an overview section in which the meaning of ICH is defined and explored against both a philosophical and a pragmatic context, this essay moves on to consider fundamental tensions in the sustaining and particularly in the promotion of ICH, whether by grass roots practitioner organisations, by government at any level or by arms-length bodies, as for example in the area of tourism. In the end, the challenge may boil down to clashing worldviews and arguably irreconcilable elements of the same liberal perspective that, after alleged racist and sexist incidents in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in December 2015, sought to continue to embrace migration while rejecting sexism (Spiegel Online). Case studies, drawn largely but not exclusively from Scotland, will be used to exemplify complex and difficult challenges, whether directly gender-related or bearing upon gender indirectly. All of these represent live issues currently confronting ICH and its champions, issues which cannot simply be ignored in the fond hope that they will evaporate. In interpreting these challenges as illustrated by the various case studies, if answers cannot immediately be provided, nevertheless the opportunity will be afforded to raise salient questions. This is important, if only to be able to find a way to circumvent, at least partially, Graham’s provocative but nonetheless justifiable claim that heritage is as much about forgetting as remembering the past.

Intangible Cultural Heritage: an overview

5‘Cultural heritage’ is a familiar concept that can evoke strong associations and, in addition, sometimes strong emotions. However, what can fruitfully be termed ‘culture’ actually incorporates far more than people often realise. For instance, if individuals are asked to say what they think cultural heritage actually is, or where it can be found, answers are likely to involve the traditional ‘homes’ of culture such as museums, galleries, monuments and historic buildings. In short, there seems to be a common belief that heritage resides primarily in material artefacts or ‘things’ that have cultural (and usually also historical) significance and that can be seen, examined and, in some cases at least, touched. However, cultural heritage does not just consist of collections and monuments; it also encompasses traditions that go beyond the material and are living expressions inherited from ancestors and cascaded to descendants. While people understand in some sense that these traditions do form part of their heritage and are perhaps vaguely ‘cultural’, they often nonetheless perceive a sharp distinction, in terms of value to their society, between these living and seemingly ordinary, everyday ‘practices’, and the apparently special material objects and artefacts that they have been brought up to understand as culture. However, due primarily to the work of UNESCO and its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, it has gradually become more widely considered that these non-material practices have just as much right to be accepted as a valuable part of humanity’s cultural inheritance (McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping).

6ICH has been broadly defined by the 2003 Convention as being activities or practices that fall within the following areas: oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship (UNESCO, 2003). In other words, the Convention is concerned with as diverse as possible a range of activities within these areas, currently practiced rather than historical (and the knowledge underpinning them), that are central to people’s individual and collective identities, and thus to the culture of their nation. Further, it has adopted the policy that it is for individual states to decide how best this can be achieved within their own borders. The idea is that each country should use UNESCO’s broad definition as a starting point to decide what should and what should not be considered as ICH as defined by practitioner communities within their own particular cultural landscape (McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping). UNESCO – in common also with other likeminded national- and local-level proponents of the philosophy of according ICH a helping hand – invokes and undertakes bureaucratic intervention in the matter of its safeguarding; whereas, in a previous era – arguably pre-globalisation – living culture was spontaneously transmitted from generation to generation and was recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, thus providing them with a sense of identity and continuity. Promotion of, and by implication respect for, cultural diversity and human creativity is what the Convention is seeking to achieve (UNESCO Convention; McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping).

7In pursuing that that goal, UNESCO, as noted above, neither prescribes or proscribes; rather it has adopted the policy that it is for individual states to decide how best this can be achieved within their own borders. Central to the Convention is the concept that countries should not simply be defining or creating a record of such practices (although this is in itself desirable); they should also be implementing measures to ensure the continuing viability of these ‘living’ activities i.e. fostering the practice of the ICH in question (UNESCO Convention; McCleery and McCleery). Scotland, as previously observed, is not signed up to the Convention, for the reason that enthusiasm for ICH and the existence of a Scottish Parliament do not of themselves overcome a fundamental and insuperable difficulty that signing up to UN conventions and charters is a reserved UK Government matter, as distinct from a devolved Scottish Government matter. Fortunately, Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), the organisation which promotes material heritage in Scotland, adopted the far-sighted perspective that material and immaterial heritage are inextricably linked and approached the ENrich team at Edinburgh Napier University to carry out an exercise to identify, develop and test an optimal way to scope and map ICH in Scotland (McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping; McCleery and McCleery). So it was that the Edinburgh Napier team, in partnership with MGS, and subsequently with substantial three-year funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), examined initially two issues: firstly, given the UNESCO definitions, what should be considered, from the specific standpoint of Scotland, to be ICH; and secondly, what is being done or should be being done to protect this ‘living culture’ in the most effective (and cost-efficient) way. The decision was taken that Scotland’s intangible heritage or living culture should be defined in the most inclusive way possible, as compatible with the 2003 Convention, such compatibility reflecting the expectation that at some future date Scotland would be able to be a signatory (McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping; McCleery and McCleery).

8While the UNESCO definition of ICH provides a starting point, it is inevitably general in nature and requires clarification in terms of how it relates to Scotland’s culture. In other words, the project team had to decide what can, in fact, be considered to be within the scope of ICH in Scotland. The Convention, for instance, leaves it to individual nations to decide whether practices that have a non-indigenous origin should be considered to fall within the scope of a nation’s ICH, even if they are now practised there. It was decided that, in line with contemporary Scotland’s profile and with the Scottish Government’s commitment “to serve all the people of Scotland, regardless of a person’s race, religion, culture, ethnicity, or other background”, as broad a definition of ICH activities in Scotland as possible was appropriate: there would be no discrimination based upon the apparent point of origin of a practice, nor would there be discrimination because of different levels of impact of or participation in activities. The defining characteristic of this project was, therefore, its focus on inclusivity, on ICH in Scotland, and its awareness that ICH as living culture changes and develops over time. Such a definition of ICH allowed for the incorporation of as diverse as possible a range of practices and knowledge that exist within Scotland and reflected a form of civic rather than ethnic nationalism (McCleery et al., Scoping and Mapping, passim).

9ICH in Scotland is in fact remarkable for its diversity, which arises from a number of factors, including: a persistent sense of regional identity within Scotland; the existence of distinct linguistic communities within Scotland; and a long history of immigration (as well as diasporic emigration). These factors not only preserved this diversity but also permitted the adoption and adaptation of ICH originating in particular migrant communities. For more than a century, groups of ‘new Scots’ in successive waves have brought with them aspects of ICH from their communities of origin. Yet it cannot be denied that sustaining ICH within these groups in Scotland faces a number of challenges: second and subsequent generations of migrants often wish to abandon practices associated with the ‘old world’ of origin; ICH originating in particular language-based practices such as story-telling may be lost as knowledge of the language itself declines; while the nature of ICH inevitably changes as a result of transplantation to the ‘new world’ of Scotland (McCleery et al., Old World, New World; McCleery and McCleery).

10Especially in metropolitan areas where both ICH is exposed to the full onslaught of globalised, homogenised culture, and where in communities of new Scots there may be less inter-generational socialising, there is a risk that ICH may not be safeguarded in the way that it has been previously through generational cascading. This phenomenon is not, obviously, confined to communities of in-migrant ethnic Scots. Yet it cannot be denied that the specific challenges relating to ethnic minority issues compound those relating to age. First-generation new Scots are active in and know about specific ICH and its expression and celebration; however, they tend to lack Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) awareness and even be fearful of it. By contrast, later generations possess ICT knowhow, particularly with regard to blogs and wikis, but lack the ICH wisdom of their elders, oftentimes ignoring, or dismissing it. Far from introducing the possibility of culture clashes and socially unacceptable manifestations of ICH, the risk with the living culture of well-integrated migrant communities is that such integration hastens the homogenisation of identity and the early demise of any living culture associated with the point of origin (McCleery and Bowers).

ICH, Cultural Rights and Political Correctness

11It is seen from the foregoing that the challenges of ICH are fickle in their presentation. In their rush to conform and to reject parental norms and values, the young may seek to suppress all vestiges of their former (ethnic) identity and with it the diversity in ICH so prized in Scotland. Furthermore, clashes of culture do not arise exclusively from recent and still raw in-migration scenarios. Contemporary horizontal (across space) geo-cultural tension finds a parallel in less contemporary and vestigial vertical (through time) historico-cultural friction. In answering the important question of what to do about politically incorrect or morally questionable ICH, a key concept is that of ownership. Ownership determines the important matter of who decides what living culture should be promoted, although there may be a right of selection, e.g. to the UNESCO list, and there may also (require to) be a right of veto, residing in the forces of law. What, for example, should be the ‘correct’ reaction to groups such as the exotic-sounding Traditionalist American Knights led by their Imperial Wizard? Followers of this distinct and distinctive cult dress up in remarkable hand-made robes and claim to reject violence and hatred (Traditionalist American Knights). In reality, they constitute a branch of the white supremacist organisation the Ku Klux Klan.

12Closer to home, an Orange Order event held in Glasgow’s city centre in June 2015 was promoted by its organisers as a ‘cultural and heritage day’. Yet to its many detractors, who condemn the Orange Order as a sectarian organisation, it was a celebration of “bigotry and intolerance” (Learmonth). In the aftermath of the event there was a call for Scotland to face up to its “‘secret shame’ once and for all” (Burns). That “secret shame” is imported from across the Irish Sea, where simmering Loyalist and Republican sectarianism erupted at the end of the 1960s into more than two decades of overt terrorism, which officially ended only with the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998. An online petition opposing the Glasgow event was signed by more than 20,000 and up to 28,000 people, depending upon which media source is consulted (Milmo; Cameron); others opted for more direct action – the woman who launched the petition had to delete her Facebook and Twitter accounts after receiving death threats. A well-known Irish journalist and historian, Ruth Dudley Edwards, who is the author of what her publishers claim is an intimate portrait of the Orange Order, declared that she was “appalled by that petition against this culture and heritage day… founded on ignorance, bigotry”. She in turn received tweets which ranted: “got your sash ready for Saturday ‘hatefest’ against Catholics [?]”; “up to your knees in Irish blood [?]” (quoted in Learmonth). The campaign Director of Scotland’s leading anti-sectarian charity, Nil by Mouth, insisted that it was time for a change and that a summit on Loyalist and Republican parades should be established, along with civilised and constructive debate. Yet academic sociologist Dr Michael Rosie, a member of the Independent Advisory Group on tackling Sectarianism, commented both that the event was an important step in the Order’s evolution into becoming transparent and that a tolerant society meant it had to put up with things it didn’t like (Armour; Milmo). The logic of any such argument inexorably leads to a focus on ICH owners and users, notably when power relations come into play.

ICH, Gender and Authenticity

13At one level, ownership of ICH is all about cultural rights; at another level it is also about gender rights. Towards the end of the month of January of each year, the largest fire festival in Europe takes place in Lerwick, the capital of the Scotland’s North Atlantic Shetland Isles. The centrepiece of this event is a torch-lit procession culminating in the burning of a replica Viking galley or longship, testifying to the enduring influence in the islands of the Vikings, who arrived in Shetland over 1000 years ago. The ‘Up Helly Aa’ in Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, is the largest of several such fire festivals which take place on the islands, and to the casual observer the proceedings appear to epitomise authentic Viking ferocity, albeit falling short of raping and pillaging.

14This inevitably raises the question of what constitutes ‘authenticity’. As a term, ‘Up Helly Aa’ dates only from the late 19th Century, the event itself having evolved from earlier Yuletide and New Year festivities, a notable element of which involved the burning of tar barrels by rival groups of masked revellers. At around the same time the celebrations were moved back into January and the tar barrels were replaced by the setting alight of a Shetland ‘yoal’ or traditional boat decorated with a dragon’s head. Secondly, a far more elaborate element of disguise – ‘guizing’ – was introduced into the new festival. Thirdly, a torchlight procession was inaugurated. Simultaneously the festival ‘organisers’ were entertaining the idea of introducing Viking themes. The first signs of this new development appeared in 1877, but it was not until the late 1880s that a Viking longship – the ‘galley’ – appeared, and as late as 1906 that a ‘Guizer Jarl’, the chief guizer, emerged. Following the First World War a squad of Vikings, the ‘Guizer Jarl’s Squad’, began parading through the streets, nowadays wielding fiery torches. Today, approximately one thousand local ‘Viking’ guizers are involved in the procession itself, while the festivities involve the participation of much of the town (Up Helly Aa; Promote Shetland; Hart).

15The origins of these festivities do not date from the Dark Ages; nevertheless they were instigated at a time when women were regarded as less important than men and were denied access to certain activities today considered to constitute human rights, such as voting. Given that Norsemen are associated with male-oriented and - dominated customs in traditional and popular culture, the festivities evolved to reflect this archaic and chauvinistic culture. Women, even today, habitually take part in the festival only in the supporting and, arguably, degrading roles of ‘hostesses’ who cook for and clean up after the male star performers, as they process around a series of ticketed festival venues or ‘halls’ offering food and beverages and which vary from community centres, local schools, and the town hall to the ro-ro ferry terminal. Yet, as is clearly demonstrated by the timeline above, it is difficult if not impossible to identify a moment in time which encapsulates the ‘authentic’ Up Helly Aa. Whether rising early to prepare food for their menfolk or staying late to tidy up after them, as well as supervising the children and putting them to bed solo throughout the dark winter – while the men spend their evenings building the longship and bonding – constitutes ‘cherishing’ICH is up for debate. What is more certain is that Up Helly Aa would not survive without it.

16What about authenticity? What is it? What version of ICH should be promoted, who should perform it (and for whom)? What if ‘authentic’ICH should clash with contemporary values and norms? Is Lerwick’s annual Up Helly Aa fire festival all harmless fun or is there a dark underbelly? Is to participate in the safeguarding of a controversial ICH practice to condone it? Such questions are not limited to Scotland, where they need not trouble UNESCO. Turkey is signed up and its Mevlevi Sema ceremony is inscribed on the Representative List of the ICH of Humanity. Traditionally, the ceremony’s whirling dervishes were male only, but more recently there have been women practitioners (although with Turkey’s current Islamic ‘turn’ it remains to be seen whether this development will be reversed). In the meantime UNESCO has neatly sidestepped the issue of gender and the matter of which version is authentic, which is politically acceptable in the context of a western liberal democratic worldview, and which should therefore be listed, by making no reference whatever to the gender of the practitioners in the inscription or to the underlying issue of who decides on who is permitted to participate (UNESCO Culture). Similarly the ICH in Scotland Wiki coyly reports, in a mastery of understatement, that “up until the Second World War, the Up Helly Aa festivities were predominantly of a working class male nature” (ICH Scotland Wiki [a]).

17A fundamental problem with listing is that the practice is then frozen in aspic. Yet an intrinsic aspect of living culture is that it is living. Inevitably this calls into question the issue of authenticity and brings it into conflict with evolution of ICH. As noted above, as gender equality has moved up the agenda in western democracies, so Up Helly Aa’s ‘Viking’ practices have become increasingly controversial and perceived as counterintuitive to the ideals and aspirations of a modern civil society. The matter is certainly divisive; a visitor to the Daily Telegraph’s Up Helly Aa Gallery site posted the following cringe-worthy comment of the islands/islanders: “[i] t’s good to see that they’re still keeping their traditions alive, and that the Health and Safety and Diversity Management Officers haven’t yet descended on them en masse to ensure proper representation…” (quoted in Lawson). The author of the post may be disappointed to learn that Up Helly Aa 2015 witnessed the first example of a female Viking leader or ‘Jarl’ leading one of the Up Helly Aa festivities, even if this development occurred at a minor festival on one of the smaller islands, with the main festivities in Lerwick remaining exclusively for male participants. In parallel with the reporting of this significant event, the Shetland Times conducted a straw poll to assess what people thought about the possibility of change: 68 % of an unspecified population believed that it was time for a change; while 32 % agreed with the view that it went against tradition (Johnson). Against that context, it might be expected that visitors would challenge a practice which relegates women to these demeaning roles. But in fact they have tended to remain silent on the matter and most will leave delighted by the ‘traditional’ spectacle and innocent of the stark divide in attitude of the local populace (far less the wider world). Put another way, the commercial potential of the ICH is working in favour of its sustainability, however politically incorrect its substance. Thus to participate in the safeguarding of a controversial ICH practice may be perceived as to condone it.

18The need to be aware of the dangers of gender stereotyping is not limited to perceptions of Vikings (or neo-Vikings). Another example of shifting gender perceptions within Scotland’s borders is associated with the national poet, Robert Burns, an icon celebrated widely in Scotland on the anniversary of his birth, 25th January. Haggis is traditionally eaten at Burns suppers. Burns’ poetry is read aloud and in particular his Address to a Haggis is declaimed as the haggis is ‘piped’ into the dining hall and toasted by all present with a dram (a glass of whisky). However, the detail and character of this event has changed with the changing times; whereas formerly these were distinctly masculine events where much alcohol was consumed with all that that entails, nowadays women are admitted. There is a toast to the lassies and a responding toast to the laddies, while there are vegetarian alternatives to traditional haggis as well as non-alcoholic beverages for those with dietary preferences. Notably, the custom of Burns suppers has been exported abroad along with the poverty-induced diaspora – which dispersed Scots to the four corners of the world. Whether at home in Scotland, or abroad in Australia, Canada or the United States, where Burns celebrations have been adopted, assimilated and adapted beyond diaspora and beyond all recognition, there is an argument that where living culture is concerned, evolution is inevitable and not inevitably bad (McCleery).

19Nevertheless, there remain areas of ICH in Scotland where commandeering by men persists, although it is less clear whether these are cherished by women or merely tolerated. ‘Ba’ games’ is the Scots term for stylised ball games which are traditionally played in the market towns of the Scottish Borders. The game, also played in the North Atlantic Orkney Islands, represents a version of medieval football played in these parts of Scotland, around Christmas and New Year. ‘Ba’’ is basically mob football, or village football, where two parts of a town have to get a ball to goals on their respective sides. The two sides are called the ‘uppies’ and the ‘doonies’, depending on which part of town they were born in, or otherwise owe allegiance to. The ball must be manhandled, and play often resembles rugby more than football, taking as it does the form of a moving scrum. The game moves through the town, at times going up alleyways, into yards and through streets. Shops and houses board up their windows to prevent damage. However, unlike traditional mob football, people are generally not hurt from play (Chalmers; So, is it the case that men both decide and star while women facilitate and service, as seems to be the case with Up Helly Aa in Shetland? A women’s version of the Orcadian Ba’ Game was tried in the 1940s, immediately following the Second World war, when women succeeded in demonstrating their ability to undertake more than solely domestic tasks. Today, however, young women tend to join in with the youth teams, as the women’s game was abolished in subsequent years. History records the reasons for its discontinuation as being a general public dislike for female participation in a very physical and public spectacle, the attitudes of the time holding that it was unladylike (Fournier; Tait).

ICH, Gender and Equality

20The Bevvy Sisters, who sometimes play at the annual Celtic Connections trad (itional) music festival in Glasgow, are one of the few Scottish traditional music acts not dominated by men. At that Celtic festival in 2017, there was a discussion on “Exploring Music and Gender”. Rachel Newton, who took part in the discussion, is a singer and harpist who performs with the groups The Shee, The Furrow Collective and Boreas, as well as in her own band. She had taken to social media to ask some questions after voting in the Scots Trad Music Awards, having been struck by the lack of women represented in the ‘Live Act of the Year’ category (three females out of 39 band members) and wanting to express concern that live Scottish traditional music seemed to be dominated by men. She was interested to know why the woman’s role in a headlining festival act is so often the lead singer in a band full of male instrumentalists. A couple of years previously The Shee was even told that they were not getting booked to play a festival because it already had its ‘girl band’ for that year (Newton).

21The social media response was overwhelming. In the post about The Shee it was mostly a call to name and shame the festival, but to Newton that didn’t get to the root of the problem. Subsequent exchanges made her realise what an important topic gender in traditional music is for many people working in the industry, and that it was something worth discussing further. What could be done to encourage a positive and inclusive shift towards gender equality? One of the main issues to come out of the discussion at Celtic Connections was the need for detailed research into female representation at festivals and other performance platforms across the country; and not just as performers, but as artistic directors, technicians, agents, managers and board members. Exactly why was it that the many females learning to play musical instruments through Fèis movement tuition groups, or studying folk and traditional music at university, often did not go on to forge a career in performance on the same scale as their male counterparts? Aside from maternity issues, other suggested areas for improvement covered included quotas, mentoring and the need for more female role models, creating networks, and how to tackle ongoing childcare issues (Newton). In point of fact, the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, in the spirit of its equality and social justice mission, had already made a useful and positive start to providing answer (s) to such questions and acting upon them with its Women and Work Partnership Project (Webb). Celtic Connections Director Donald Shaw is simultaneously optimistic and realistic, stressing that if festivals such as Celtic Connections make a point of expressing positives around what women bring to music and what music brings to women, then that might embarrass platforms in other parts of the world that do not give women proper representation. However, it is perhaps telling that the Celtic Connections office, despite being asked several times by Guardian reporter Kate Molleson for the gender ratio of the 2017 artists, was unable to supply the answer. Molleson was unforgiving in her assessment that it was indicative of a lack of general discourse around the subject that the festival was neither championing 50/50 gender representation, nor even talking about the balance (Molleson).

ICH, Gender and Ownership

22From the early 19th Century, around the coast of Scotland, there have been regular rowing competitions between local teams. The St Ayles skiff, based on the small Fair Isle fishing boats used in Shetland and Orkney waters, is ideally suited to racing. One group of St Ayles skiff rowers is the ‘Portsoy Skiffettes’, a group of women aged from their early 20s to those who have retired. Founder members of the Portsoy Coastal Rowing Club community venture, the women have come together weekly in Portsoy in Aberdeenshire since 2012 to train together. The group was inspired by the St Ayles Skiff Team at the 2011 Scottish Traditional Boat Festival when it was in Portsoy. In order to start rowing, they had to build their own skiff. It was described as “amazing” how quickly a group of enthusiastic women of all ages and backgrounds, got together to build a St Ayles skiff. Most of the ‘Skiffettes’ had no previous woodworking experience, and so appreciated advice and help offered by local (male) ‘technical advisers’, The boat was launched in March 2013, painted a vibrant bright pink and named Soy Quine, which means ‘Portsoy Lass’ in Doric dialect. “What a great feeling” as the Skiffettes paraded Soy Quine through Portsoy with community supporters tagging along, despite the rain. It is recorded that the smiles on their faces testify to how much it meant to them all. Thus the Portsoy Skiffettes became the first UK all-girls traditional boat building team in the UK, although there are precedents in Portland, Oregon; and Tasmania, Australia (Rowing for Pleasure; Portsoy Skiffettes; Portsoy Coastal Rowing Club).

23Following the launch of the Soy Quine, the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival committee asked the Skiffettes if they would compete in the St Ayles skiff rowing regatta in June as part of the Boat Festival. They decided universally that this would be a splendid idea (Scottish Traditional Boat Festival; Portsoy Skiffettes). The lead up to the boat festival constituted a period of intense training as Soy Quine was in the programme for her first regatta and the Skiffettes wanted to give their all. As the races included categories for Women, Men & Mixed crews, they realised that they needed to open up membership to any men brave enough to don a pink life jacket and row a pink boat! All enjoyed the competition immensely; the expanded team came 4th in the mixed over-50s race, while the Skiffettes were placed seventh out of nine skiffs overall and awarded a trophy for the most enthusiastic newcomers. In a neat reversal of conventional gender norms, the Skiffettes subsequently lent a hand to local men enthusiastic to build their own lime green Soy Loon (or ‘Portsoy Boy’) skiff. Together the two groups, Skiffettes and ‘Skiffers’, now form the fully constituted Portsoy Coastal Rowing Club (PCRC) which is a member of the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association (SCRA). The rest is, as they say, history (Portsoy Skiffettes; Banffshire Journal)). The Skiffettes have continued both to row and grow, taking part in both Scottish regattas and also the World Skiff Championships. The group’s vision and mission statement states their commitment to the advancement of: women’s participation in coastal rowing; heritage and culture; education and community development; and equality and diversity (Portsoy Skiffettes; Banffshire Journal). In supporting adult women of all ages to come together in pursuit of a shared interest in traditional boat building and coastal rowing, the group permits members to participate as little or much as is possible in the context of wider family, work and social lives. To ensure that no one is excluded on the basis of cost, all training and equipment is provided by and owned by the Portsoy Skiffettes. When the Skiffettes started, they benefitted from support and input from existing clubs; therefore the promotion of coastal rowing and facilitation of new clubs is an important goal in the PCRC constitution; open days offer anyone the chance of a ‘shottie’ in Portsoy, or in the neighbouring coastal communities of Cullen, Banff and Burghead.

24Noyes describes a situation where the effect of democratisation upon the Patum festivities in Catalonia has resulted in a cultural icon being transformed into a brand, in other words commodification; Sandroni observes how the elevation of Samba in Brazil to the status of ICH has failed to assure equitable distribution of the benefits across the whole ‘community’. It is argued here that the Skiffettes, while undoubtedly a cultural icon, could not be construed as a brand (although coastal rowing is listed on the ICH Scotland Wiki ( [b]). What is noteworthy is that the group has managed to combine practising living culture for their own interest and enjoyment with pump priming more general and widespread community enterprise and economic development (Portsoy Community Enterprise). This exemplifies how, rightly or wrongly, living culture has travelled a long distance from its position of relative bureaucratic marginalisation described by Grenet and Hottin, extending beyond the cultural and through the social, as alluded to by Bortolotto, to embrace Grenet and Hottin’s political status, encompassing the impact of power relations, as well as somewhat troublesome economic status, encompassing the influence of development imperatives. In respect of the latter, tourism predictably constitutes a key component, creating as it does opportunities and threats for ICH which are discussed elsewhere (Bowers et al., Living Culture [Creative Scotland]; Bowers et al., Living Culture [ENrich]; McCleery and Bowers).

Discussion and Conclusion

25As is evident from the foregoing case studies, where ICH is concerned, there is an inevitable and perhaps intrinsic tension between a perceived cultural requirement to try to ‘preserve’ the authenticity of traditional practices on the one hand and the social and sometimes legal necessity to adapt and evolve in order to move with the times on the other. Yet if ICH is truly to constitute living culture, then it is bound to evolve if it is not to wither on the vine and persist only as an anachronistic and outdated practice from a previous era. The vexed question of authenticity – what it is and, more particularly, when it was, in relation to a specific manifestation of living culture – is further complicated by the matter of ownership of ICH. It is not only UNESCO that sets great store by emphasising the criticality of ensuring that the decision as to what ICH should be safeguarded, recorded, and, most important of all, practised, is one that should rest with communities and groups on the ground, categories which Bortolotto contends are never clearly defined by UNESCO or ever defined at all. If ownership is indeed paramount in this way, then there is a fundamental challenge to be faced in respect of controlling or policing the ICH which emerges from these same communities and groups on the ground. Gender awareness – or indeed any other form of what may be perceived by some as pandering to political correctness – may not be top of the agenda for self-selected populations of enthusiasts who are more likely than not to be older, and also old-school, in outlook. Change will take time; Rome was not built in a day.

26That having been said, Scotland, as was demonstrated earlier, is not the same as England, whether in its political complexion or in its approach to the matter of living culture and gender, issues which are in any case necessarily bound up with each other. So it is that Up Helly Aa in Shetland is beginning to adapt. Similarly, Burns Suppers – formerly a bastion of testosterone- and alcohol-fuelled masculinity – have evolved and, arguably, improved (although others might contend that they have capitulated to sanitisation). Traditional music in Scotland may be behind the curve but is certainly now aware of its gender limitations, even if frank change is not yet securely on the horizon. Meanwhile, the activities in Portsoy represent a beacon of exemplary living culture attributes and attitudes, which have succeeded in bringing about positive change in the shape of cultural and social, as well as economic, capital for the whole community. If Ba’ Games in Scotland seem stuck in the time-warp of a gender-inappropriate past, this is perhaps more on account of conservative attitudes towards physical differences between the genders and less on account of purely culturally derived standpoints vis-à-vis gender. Mob football/ street rugby is dangerous whether for male participants or potential female ones; shopkeepers who routinely board up their windows are undoubtedly more exercised by the risk of damage than the gender of the individual causing it.

27If there is any single critical conclusion to be drawn from this assessment of ICH and gender in a Scottish context, it is that as a label, ‘living culture’ is far preferable to ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Not only does the latter often fail to convey the essential meaning of immaterial heritage but it also tends to convey quite the opposite message of being untouchable in the sense of being immovable and inflexible. The ‘living culture’ identifier, on the other hand, more easily accommodates itself to the possibility of evolution, an evolution which Scotland, with its emphasis on civic rather than ethnic nationalism and, by extension, peopled rather than gendered approaches to expressions of ICH, finds no difficulty in accommodating. ICH in Scotland may once have been commandeered by men and cherished by women; and that situation may well persist in other less enlightened countries including England, where ICH continues to be perceived as a threat rather than as an opportunity. Scotland’s women and men, supported by the Scottish Parliament, together practice and celebrate her ICH and for the most part facilitate a progressive interpretation of what that encompasses, in spite of acknowledged challenges yet to be resolved. It is therefore ironic that in aspiring to sign the Convention on ICH, Scotland may also be committing to signing up to a less flexible and more bureaucratic interpretation of her living culture, specific forms of which will be fossilised from the date of their listing forward. In the meantime, UNESCO recognition for Scotland’s ICH may be unfortunately absent but inclusivity and fluidity in the matter of her living culture are strikingly present.



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Currently Professor of Economic and Cultural Geography and Director of Research and Innovation in the Business School at Edinburgh Napier University. She was previously Director of the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science, based at the University of Edinburgh and incorporating the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre for Scotland. As Director of the ENrich Centre – Edinburgh Napier Research in Cultural Heritage –, she leads research and publishes widely in the area of living culture in Scotland and beyond. She has recently given presentations at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, both in Washington DC.

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