The myth of backwardness

Tides have turned. It is a huge relief and satisfaction to have witnessed the swell of respect for pibroch since I started lessons at the College of Piping, Glasgow, in 1981. In coming to understand how such a dignified musical tradition fell to such a low cultural standing, and what is now helping to restore its confidence, I found this article by Alastair McIntosh thought provoking:

Ronald Black is now retired from his position as Senior Lecturer in Celtic at Edinburgh University. It always dismayed me that he was never given a personal chair. The reality is that he belongs to a different educational tradition than the mainstream of our more anglicised universities.

That mainstream, resting on the Oxbridge and public school model, is one in which the function of education is to further refine and advance the specialised interests of an elite. It was this ethos that pushed Gandhi to say that his life’s greatest disappointment was “the hard-heartedness of the educated.”

Like in colonial India, Oxbridge has too often been aped in Scotland. Celtic studies were OK so long as they could be managed, like Macpherson’s Ossian, into classical mode, or buried in desiccating and under-funded anthropological archives.

Celtic studies could be paid lip service only where they did not emancipate a colonised cultural spirit. That spirit, as Jim Hunter points out in On the Other Side of Sorrow, had been successfully inferiorised through cultural invasion, thereby internalising its own supposed backwardness.

Refusal to collude with the myth of backwardness is vital; there is still considerable distance to travel, emancipating the cultural spirit of pibroch. But, at another historical resolution, backwardness is no myth: Oxbridge is no longer the enemy. It is our own piping institutions who persist in aping a managed, dessicated order long after the South has moved on.

Explore posts in the same categories: Wider context

2 Comments on “The myth of backwardness”

  1. Arvey Mcfarland Says:

    Dear Mr. Brown,

    Thank you so very much for a wonderful website!

    I am now fifty-seven, working and living in Salt Lake City, Utah. I spent all of my formative years in Crianlarich. During the period of my youth my principle musical interest was the Beatles, James Brown, and Motown. My father encouraged me to learn the pipes, so I started taking lessons whilst simultaneously learning the string and electric bass. Playing the pipes pleased my parents and grandparents, but playing the electric bass in a rock or soul music band was my ticket to meeting gorgeous birds!

    Around the time of my sixteenth birthday my dad moved our family to San Francisco to start a helicopter service. The pop music scene there had exploded and my skills as a bassist blossomed there whilst my piping fell into dormancy – until I returned home to Scotland in 1980. I was touring Blair Castle when a piper somewhere on a lower floor began playing a pibroch. I didn’t know the name of the piece, but as I sat down to listen, I experienced a musical epiphany. The melody of the urlar resonated with my soul, and since that time I’ve never looked back.

    When I returned to San Francisco I immediately I found a knowledgable and talented piping teacher living near Stanford University, Ken Sutherland, and I resumed my study of the great music. Within a year I began plying my piping skill at all the highland games (so-called) competitions on the west coast. Next, I developed an interest in learning the Gaelic of my parents and grandparents and fell in love with Gaelic singing and folk music. With that, and over time, I became disillusioned by the rigid dogma of the ‘expert’ piping judges who insisted on THEIR interpretation of pibroch – an interpretation that my ears could not reconcile with Gaelic music tradition. I also grew weary and sickened by Scottish cultural stereotypes – historical lies perpetrated on the unknowing masses designed to sell merchandise online and at the games and ‘clan gatherings’. Finally, I grew resentful of massed pipe bands marching in British military fashion . . .

    Six months ago I discovered Allan Mac Donald’s ‘Dastirum’ and experienced a second musical epiphany. I listened to each pibroch over and over again whilst studying your remarks in the album booklet. To my ears, the pibroch on the album possessed the same lyrical quality and ‘soul’ of Gaelic folk singing; and the history you cited in the booklet was true. Alas, here were two guys finally getting it right! Next, I ordered Fhuair Mi Pog, Colla Mo Run, and The Highland Sessions . . .

    In conclusion, thank you for your work and dedication in helping Gaeldom re-discover our musical and cultural roots and traditions – for ‘setting the record straight’. I am now beginning to feel free of a Scotland that has been imprisoned by liars, thieves, slavemasters, and especially the kooks who dwell in a ‘tartan never-never land’.

    Moran taing!
    Arvey Mcfarland

  2. Neal Jackman Says:

    Arvey, excellent expression of thoughts! Neal Jackman

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