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The Oral Tradition
Scotland thrives on storytelling, poetry and song. The written word has not been a major factor in transmitting fact or fiction through the ages. Scotland has had a shorter history of the written word than many cultures. The primary source of history and knowledge has been the human voice speaking and singing tales of the past, stories of the present and imaginings of futures yet to come.
I have been witness to fierce arguments between Scots, and Scots and English, about the veracity of aspects of Scottish history. Where have these people come by their knowledge? The written word, certainly, but also, often, knowledge handed down through generations, knowledge learned through song, knowledge cradled in tradition...
The Romans conquered England thoroughly enough to establish the written word as a lasting form of documentation and communication. Not so Scotland, on the borders of which the Romans built The Antonine Wall, a mark of where their influence ended. The Romans celebrated their achievements in building the wall on Distance Slabs, some of which still survive today. Before the Antonine Wall or Hadrian’s Wall had been built Agricola led a mighty Roman force against the Caledonians; they met at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD. Tacitus wrote about this confrontation between clashing cultures – as the Romans saw it civilised versus uncivilised - putting words into the mouths of Rome’s Caledonian enemies. Yet no-one can say for certain where in Scotland the battle took place.
The Christianisation of Scotland started in earnest with St Columba, who set up a monastery on Iona in the sixth century. Columba’s deeds were recorded by Adamnan, the ninth Abbot of Iona, close to a century after Columba’s death.
Scotland’s history has often been recorded as poetry rather than as factual documentation. John Barbour, a fourteenth century poet, wrote the long narrative poem The Brus, telling the story of Robert the Bruce and Sir James Douglas. The glory of Scottish heroes such as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace flowers when told through story and the spoken word.
James Macpherson’s Ossian poems were published in the eighteenth century. The writer claimed his work was translated direct from an ancient Gaelic manuscript he found in the Highlands, written by Ossian son of Fingal in the third century. Questions were soon raised about his work – was his story about finding historic writings truth or fiction? Did the poetry have any literary merit? Was the Ossian cycle factually consistent? The controversy ensured healthy sales of Macpherson’s work in Scotland and beyond. The writer attained a lasting place in Scottish history and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Famous Scottish writers have often had a passion for their cultural heritage, in particular the poems and songs of past generations. Robert Burns collected Scottish folk songs, which influenced his work, from around the country. Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border - a collection of historic and romantic ballads collected in southern Scotland - was published in three volumes in the early nineteenth century.
In modern times there has been a hunger to ensure that ancient stories and traditions are not lost. This has led to extensive sound recordings, particularly in remote parts of Scotland, in attempts to preserve that which has never been written down. These recordings are a rich treasure, for the written word will never fully capture the music, colour, depth and breadth of a Scottish voice immersed in storytelling or song.
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