This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and February 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

The People’s Parish – Singing Our Own Song

TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) is an organisation which brings together the main traditional art forms of music, dance and storytelling, and seeks to position them as a resource for contemporary life and creativity. TRACS is in the early stages of a major project, The People’s Parish, which aims to enable people to shape and share the story of their own community, and to find meaning in it by combining local stories and traditions with local creative voices.

Our starting point is acknowledgement that the world is in a state of profound crisis but that, by digging where we stand – echoing a guiding principle of cultural commoning that our cultural life first and last is local - we have the means to start addressing that crisis.

Our vision is of a revived and enriched civic life, with flourishing communities, characterised by their members’ sense of well-being, good health, civic engagement, radical democracy, social justice (equality, distribution of wealth, power, privilege), and respectful relationships with nature and each other (1). We envisage communities bound together by a sense of place; by a connection with what makes a place different from another – local details, landmarks, geology and geography, resources (the natural dimension); by a connection with the ‘layering’ of a place – of what has happened in the place before the present day and how the resonances of past events persist into the present (the cultural or human dimension). As a recent study put it: "The nature of inequality, distinctive histories and our individual experience intersect in the stories that grow up around places. Those narratives of place in turn shape our responses to individuals in those places" (2). The renewal of the social and civic fabric is both goal and means. And it is urgent.

PeopleIn order to flourish in the present and in the future, communities also need a relationship with their past, their collective memory. It is our contention that two of the chief ills of our time are alienation and loss of meaning. Culture, nature and society constitute the lifeworld of the individual, which he or she interprets to find meaning. Meaning - its assignation, communication and interpretation - is the central element of culture, the product of individual minds responding to and navigating reality. A community is any group capable of sharing meanings.

One way of addressing the problems of alienation and loss of meaning is by identifying, exploring and sharing aspects of cultural memory linked to place. Within cultural memory we are interested in the possibilities of the ‘folk voice’, the overlooked and vernacular voice, as opposed to official accounts and the perspective of those with political and economic power.

The traditional arts are a collectively created and re-created expression of the people’s encounter with geographical, historical, psychological and social circumstance, including the processes of settlement, relocation and dislocation. And so they offer a unique way of understanding the heritage, character and identity of a place.

By identifying, exploring and sharing the folk aspects of cultural memory, communities can enlarge their cultural capital and claim cultural equity for it. Tangible and intangible assets, developed in many cases by unknown hands and minds, and which may have been hitherto undervalued, can be given value and have their value recognised both inside and outside communities.

Peoples ParishWe propose, therefore, that communities develop resources and tools for exploring the folk voice within the cultural memory ('singing their own songs again’ (3)), using it to share knowledge of the past, and to explore and express its creative possibilities for social, educational and economic benefit, for example through cultural tourism. The pivotal point of any project is the piece of work which will stand as the community’s expression of how it sees itself and how it wishes to project itself to the world. Like Georges Rivière’s ‘Eco-Museum’ concept, the work generated by the People’s Parish will be "a mirror in which a population could seek to recognise itself and explore its relationship to the physical environment as well as previous generations; also an image offered to visitors to promote a sympathetic understanding of the work, customs and peculiarities of a population." (4)

In light of this we propose local networks of engaged individuals and organisations, supported by skilled field-workers. The field workers can map the local traditional arts ecology, negotiate with, guide and work with local groups and in communities to identify strengths and weaknesses, initiate projects which explore tangible and intangible material, and work creatively with the knowledge developed.

The value of this approach does not need to be demonstrated from scratch. The field of creative community development has attracted much attention in recent times and numerous studies have concluded that "active forms of engagement - actively creating, exhibiting and participating – have better outcomes in terms of social capital". (5)

The Peoples ParishWhy the ‘parish’? It is true that the parish is closely associated in people’s minds with the church.  And it is also the case that over two hundred years ago, at the close of the eighteenth century, ministers of religion were asked to write the story of their parish for the Statistical Account of Scotland.  But the parish is not only an area of ecclesiastical concern but a civic one as well. The parish was the unit of government in Scotland right up until 1930 and the civic parish boundaries are still used by the Census as a way of classifying and comparing information. The origin of the word is Greek – para, ‘beside’ and oikos, ‘the dwelling’ - indicating that area that is within reach and close to home. ‘Parochial’ comes from the same root though it gives ‘close to home’ a negative connotation.  However ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’, which also come from the same root, are concepts of large scope - which suggests that the idea of the parish need not be inward-looking and bounded. William Blake invited us to "see a world in a grain of sand". And, in that sense, the life of the parish can refract and distil wider concerns.

But, at the end of the day, boundaries are just lines on a map. And "boundaries are less important than centres" (6), where people form associations and social affinities. The parish boundary and the area it encloses nonetheless provide a useful reference point, and a marker against which to gauge shifts in settlement, the reconfiguration of communities and the orientation and re-orientation of their members.

The intention of the People’s Parish is that, unlike the old Statistical Account, Scotland’s story should be told not by a few professionals or central institutions, but by the people who live and work in each of Scotland’s 871 ancient civic parishes. In short, the People’s Parish aims to produce community-generated artwork in any medium and any genre. The result will be not only a local resource but also a multi-faceted and evolving mosaic of humanity and nature in Scotland as a whole in the first quarter of the new century.

David Francis, TRACS

David Francis

David Francis is a musician and dance caller, with wide experience of traditional music in Scotland. He is currently studying for an MLitt in Folklore at Aberdeen University. David is part of the management team at TRACS and has been involved in the Traditional Music Forum since it started as an ad hoc advisory group for the old Scottish Arts Council. He works with Simon Thoumire on the Distil project, plays a bit of guitar and writes songs, calls dances and recently began dabbling in storytelling as well. He likes to tell traditional Scottish stories, which he sometimes puts into contemporary settings. He has also dipped into the Irish Cuchulain stories and plans to do more with those in future.

We will be taking a short break from the Our Cultural Commons article series over the festive period. We hope the series so far has given you plenty of food for thought. We will return in the new year with second half of the series and exciting plans to bring all of these pieces together!

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(1) The Carnegie UK Trust hypothesises that ‘everyday relationships and kindness are prerequisites for other types of community activity’ and ‘a broader sense of social capital.’ Zoë Ferguson, Kinder Communities: The Power of Everyday Relationships (Dunfermline: Carnegie UK Trust, 2016)

(2) Ferguson, p.18

(3) The phrase is Steve Byrne’s via Sven Lindqvist.

(4) Georges Henri Rivière, La Muséologie selon Georges Henri Rivière (Paris: Dunod, 1989), p.142

(5) H. Graham, R. Mason and A. Newman.  Literature review: historic environment, sense of place, and social capital (Newcastle: International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, 2009)

(6) Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982), p.25

Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Courtesy of TRACS