School of Scottish Studies to put spotlight on performers

Lori Watson PIC: Louise Bichan
Lori Watson PIC: Louise Bichan
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Saturday saw the Scottish folk scene don its glad rags and converge on Aberdeen Music Hall for the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards ceremony. Always an exuberant event, it showcases how traditional and related music has developed a profile which would have been unheard of 30 years ago. The allied traditional arts of dance and storytelling have tended not, however, to enjoy such wide exposure. But now Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, home to the renowned School of Scottish Studies Archives, has launched a ground-breaking MSc programme in Traditional Arts Performance which, for the first time, will combine music with dance and storytelling.

The new course gives the School of Scottish Studies its first formal performance programme, at a time when it has been marking the centenary of one of its founder members, Hamish Henderson (a plaque in whose memory was unveiled outside the school’s archive in George Square earlier this month), and is anticipating its own 70th anniversary in 2021.

Hitherto, the department and school tended to produce folklorists rather than performers. However, its staff includes performing musicians such as Professor Gary West, Chair in Scottish Ethnology but also a well-known piper and broadcaster. And in preparing the new Masters course they have enlisted singer and fiddler Lori Watson, who combines her talents as an acclaimed performer (and a former Scots Trad Award winner), steeped in the traditions of her native Borders, with academic credentials, having taught at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and who holds Scotland’s first artistic research and ethnomusicology doctorate in Scotland.

West and Watson describe the new programme as “the first masters course we know of anywhere” combining traditional song and music with dance and storytelling. Taking up her Edinburgh post as a lecturer in Scottish ethnology, Watson found herself plunged not only into designing the new course, but into the Henderson centenary, among other things curating the Rebellious Truth concert celebrating his legacy at last January’s Celtic Connections. That legacy also impinged on the thinking behind the course, she recalls. “One of the first things I did was get into the Hamish Henderson Archive and found his old lesson plans at the school. While my role was to contribute to the design of this performance programme, performance and participation, singing and playing, had been in Hamish’s lesson plans from the very beginning. So it’s always been there, just not formalised as a main focus.”

West, who as an ethnology student was a recipient of these lecture notes, agrees: “At no point did I ever play anything to be formally assessed. So this is a huge step for us.”

He reckons the time is right, with Scottish traditional arts as a concept more in the public eye. “This is another important step, with a major Scottish university giving recognition to these art forms.”

The new MSc is international in its outreach, with applications already arriving from the United States and China. The programme (for which some bursaries are available) will enable traditional musicians, dancers or storytellers to develop their particular skills at postgraduate level and contextualise creative skills as performers, curators, producers or whatever. “They can explore tradition in detail,” says Watson, “looking at historical and archive sources and collaborating across the art forms to make new work.”

The School has complemented this venture into performance studies by consolidating its musician in residence post, with multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Vass occupying the post for the next three years.

“I think almost everyone in the traditional arts community would agree that music, dance and storytelling are deeply, fundamentally interwoven,” says Watson, pointing out that the Scots Trad Awards are very much music and song-orientated, although there is a dance band category (and dance is integral to Mairi Campbell’s Pendulum Band which appears at tonight’s awards). “It’s about time that dance and storytelling were formally recognised too.” Jim Gilchrist

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