The Place Between Folklore and Politics

As part of our ongoing series on working while undertaking a PhD, guest writer Liam Alastair Crouse brings us into his world as a PhD student and researcher/caseworker for a Member of Scottish Parliament. How much do the worlds of folklore and politics have in common? More than you might think, Liam says.

It’s all research in the end. Whether trawling through digital archives and academic articles or websites and policy documents: the correct information needs to be drawn out and put forward in a reasoned, persuasive way. An email is a speech is a thesis.

It doesn’t really matter if it’s research for my PhD or for my job, working for the local Member of Scottish Parliament (MSP). Both my academic and professional pursuits make use of similar and interchangeable skills. What I learn in one vocation can usually be adapted into the other – if not in a direct capacity, then at least in terms of perspective. To use a lesser-used Gaelic idiom (something I do a lot), they’re like two cabbages from the same stock.

For half the week, I learn how to be a folklorist: reading journal articles, refining research methodologies and comparing narratives. The other half is spent as an MSP researcher and caseworker. It can be a struggle to balance priorities, due dates and rapidly developing incidents with the passive but persistent need to chip away at my literature review. ‘Work’, as I call it, seems a continual and constant assembly line of topical issues directly affecting my local community. The PhD, on the other hand, is iterative and measured. It’s a complex project with a due date that seems an eternity away. And seven years is as much an eternity as any other professional commitment I’ve had.

There are myriad intersections for work in folklore, language and politics. For example, bilingualism is a prominent feature of life in the Hebrides, and that is reflected in the local politics. Alasdair Allan MSP speaks English, Gaelic, Norwegian and his native Scots, in which he holds a doctorate from the University of Aberdeen. Angus Brendan MacNeil, the MP for the Western Isles constituency (or Na h-Eileanan an Iar as it’s officially known), speaks Gaelic, English, and is similarly captivated by Icelandic. Although I am slowly acquiring some pidgin Swedish from my partner (who styled us as the Scandinavian Trinity the other day), Gaelic is the preferred medium of communication.

Folklore and politics have long been intimately linked. From the town bard satirising the laird to the independence-by-way-of-traditional-song revolution of the Baltic States in the 1980s to the sinister appropriation of the volkstum in blood-and-soil ethno-nationalism, politics has shaped folklore, and vice versa.

Folklore can be a compelling tool for politicians – and not necessarily in a malevolent man-behind-the-curtain way. Whether appealing to common morals or national spirit, or referencing well-known folk heroes and motifs, making use of cultural material helps politicians get the message across to the public. Everyone does this. How many times have you heard politicians invoke the American Dream or the spirit of Dunkirk?

Employing powerful themes and imagery is an important part of speech writing. Last year I was tasked with gathering material for a speech on the topic of climate change in the Scottish Parliament during the COP26 Summit. Sea-level rise is an emotive topic in South Uist. The island, comprised of a low-lying sandy Atlantic seaboard known as machair, is among the most vulnerable places in Scotland when it comes to the predicted impacts of climate change.

Uist folklore contains numerous enigmatic items which perceive and interpret sea-level rise, something I explored in an article for the West Highland Free Press that came out in November 2021. There is an arresting poem on this topic that was collected by Alasdair MacGilleMhìcheil (Alexander Carmichael), compiler of a significant compendium of Gaelic folklore from the 19th century, Carmina Gadelica. It prophesises that the ocean will inundate the island: “the walls of the churches shall be the fishing-rocks of the people while the resting-place of the dead shall be a forest of tangles, among whose mazes the pale-faced mermaid, the marled seal, and the brown otter shall race and run and leap and gambol – like the children of men at play”.

The speech opened with this passage and finished by highlighting the threat of climate change to humanity and its intangible culture. I was pleased that the speech struck a cord both on the island and wider afield. It even got a positive mention in Magnus Linklater’s column in the Times – no mean feat for SNP MSPs, I was told by a colleague.

My involvement in politics at a local level also influences my PhD studies. From day to day, I am busy with casework – helping constituents access public services or raising community concerns about connectivity or crofting policy. It’s rewarding work by its very nature. The political and policy aspects of the job – anxieties about the viability of the Gaelic language or ageing island demographics – also provides real-life insights into how the same community may have reacted to similar circumstances over the last two centuries. Understanding how the historic community interpreted and reacted to internal and external stimuli will be a central crux of my PhD project.

Liam Alastair Crouse is a part-time PhD researcher in his second year studying through Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI and based in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. His PhD project, termed the Hebridean Macroscope, utilises novel computational methodologies to investigate the digital sound archives made accessible by the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website, contextualising them within 190 years of folklore collections in Scottish Gàidhealtachd.

One thought on “The Place Between Folklore and Politics

  1. Steve Webster says:

    There’s also a story written down I guess for the first time around 1870 about a time when Uist and Harris were joined, when “the great sea was a grey mossy wood”.

    Do you know it ?

    Liked by 1 person

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