A letter to a dead Scot deeply concerned about tradition


Alasdair Maclean says: “For a culture to be worthy of the name, for it to succour natives rather than entertain tourists or entertain those who, in cultural matters, are but tourists in their own land, it must conform to a certain pattern. One might sketch that pattern as follows:
A culture is the most natural thing in the world. Is appears at the same time as its region and is both cause and effect; it cannot be adopted later or manufactured. One might describe the relationship between culture and region as that of foetus and womb, save for the difficulty of deciding which is which. Indeed so coincident are the two, so contingent each upon the other, that if one die the death of the other cannot be long delayed.
Most probably, if a people have begun to talk about preserving their culture – perhaps if they have begun to talk about their culture at all – it is already moribund. While it lives it must be sustained from below rather than from above, kept going by a folk rather than by entrepreneurs or committees. It has nothing to do with scholarship, with benevolence even. You cannot wish it well; to describe it is to help destroy it. It may be reflected in literary magazines and art galleries; it does not originate there. It is certainly not to be found in the popular media of today for these merely represent the pander as cynic, the kind of commercial operation that pleads for excuse the debased taste it has formed and now feeds.
Above all, it must be continuous with the past, have undergone the laying on of hands, breathe air rather than oxygen, be a matter of spirit rather than will, of instinct rather than reason. For a culture revived that was dead, ore one whose still-fluttering pulse derives its weak authority from tubes and dials, is no more than a zombie-like husk, a chicken jerking deceitfully in the barnyard dust after its neck has been wrung.
A culture is best confined to that area where it is indigenous, because the further it departs from its centre of energy the more dissipated its strength, the more degenerated its forms. When that happens, those whose birthright it is had best abandon it, for then there’s more enterprise in going naked.”

(*) NIGHT FALLS ON ARDNAMURCHAN. The Twilight of a Crofting Family. Birlinn 2001. In Alasdair’s Journal 1979-1980, p 192/193

When reading this passionate outburst of a native crofter’s son I immediately feel an intruder, almost guilty. As a Swiss person who has lived about 10 years in Scotland I have obviously really nothing to appeal to his clemency. I his eyes I am a nothing, not even really a tourist any more (smile) and definitely in no right at all to contribute to the culture of the Islands. And in some way he is right! I understand his thoughts.


Dear Alasdair, if you would be still alive I would call on you and challenge you.

I have passionately fallen in love with Scotland and especially the Islands. Is understanding and love for a landscape not a “human right”? Can respectful appreciation not also contribute to the keeping the heritage alive? (I have even dared to write a tune in homage of a island landscape – without birthright, but maybe with “right of affinity”?)

In your text I find the PAST, some in your eyes not very promising PRESENT, but where is the FUTURE? Only the jerking almost dead cockerel? What about the local people, the crofter, the musician, storyteller, artist, in reality everyone, involved in creating NOW the culture?

May I remind you that every piece of today’s cultural heritage, born out of “the laying on of hands” as you describe, was once completely new, holding a promise for the future like a trembling newborn baby, not knowing how it would be accepted, how it would cope with days to come. Could you imagine that today, on this very day I’m writing to you, all around the country so loved by you, such today’s promises are being born, waiting to be seen, to be heard, to be despised maybe, to offend maybe, to shake people awake, to bless, to bring delight…..all of them not completely new but infused, soaked with the heritage of days ago, the old and the new creating together todays culture? Maybe, in future time, a writer like you will passionately defend their right to be, calling it THE culture and fearing it would be lost!

In my eyes culture is PROCESS, a lively, creative net, always in motion and connecting people in their lives, concerns, passions, struggles – in/of the PAST and PRESENT!
As with everything on our planet the only permanent law we can be absolutely sure about is CHANGE. If this change in culture will be a blessing or not, this lays in our responsibility, in out outlook, in our eyes and hearts.

With kind regards,
Loriana Pauli, July 2014


About lorianapauli

Born in Italian speaking Ticino/Switzerland. Lived all my life in different parts of that very country till I found my way "home", where I truly belong > the 'Long Island'.
This entry was posted in Art, Gaelic, Island Voices - Guthan nan Eilean, Language, Music, Outer Hebrides, Poetry, tradition-culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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