Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Archive: Highland Heritage - Barbara Fairweather

Highland Heritage
Barbara Fairweather

This is not so much a book in its own right as a collection of booklets that were produced by the Glencoe and North Lorn Folk Museum in the 1970s, many of which are available to buy on their own. If you can find a copy of Highland Heritage going cheap then it's probably a good idea to invest in this, rather than buy them individually, but it seems Highland Heritage is hard to come by and I lucked out.

Subjects covered include the social calendar and customs, plantlore, farming, livestock, the Ballachulish slate quarry, the folklore of Glencoe, and a brief history of the area, along with selected excerpts from a wide variety of sources on Highland life and travels. Some chapters are more interesting than others, and more relevant to a CR context than others - these are:

The folklore of Glencoe and North Lorn
The Highland calendar and social life
Highland livestock and its uses
Highland wildlife
Highland plant lore

Which are both the chapter titles and the titles of the booklets if you want to look them up separately.

Of these, the chapters on folklore and the calendar don't offer anything you won't find anywhere else, but they do give a good idea of the lore that's specific to the area (which is often presented in a more general way in other books) so it's good if you want to concentrate on that because of ancestral heritage or something. The chapters on wildlife and plant lore offer a good overview of the subjects, and not being particularly au fait with herbalism, there was a lot that I hadn't seen before and was genuinely interesting to me. I can't say they offer anything very different from other books on plant lore, really, but it was different to me, at any rate.

The chapters towards the end of the book are almost entirely made up of excerpts which are mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but some are even older. On the plus side, there are some obscure and useful sources used - the sort of anecdotal evidence that help to lend some support to some of those folklore books written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that aren't so well referenced. I found a few references to bannocks that I thought were interesting, for one thing. For the student of Scottish history - particularly interested in everyday, domestic life - these chapters make a great resource. But to be fair, I couldn't say they make for the most thrilling of reads...

On the whole though, since each chapter was originally written as a booklet, they're all very general and lacking in any real depth, and as a book it feels a bit piecemeal and not very coherent. This makes it the sort of book you can pick through, rather than go through in one sitting - it's more suited to mine little tidbits from, when you want to get into the details details details, not so much when you want to look at the bigger picture. It's unfortunate, in that respect, that there's no indexing to help find those little gems more easily. Have some post-its or a pen and paper handy.

Taken on their own, as booklets, the more relevant chapters offer a good introduction to the subjects they cover (but not in a very analytical way, to be fair - it's all about the facts, not how to interpret those facts). In that sense they might appeal to a beginner lookng for a quick and easy read, but to be fair you're better off working through McNeill's The Silver Bough or Black's The Gaelic Otherworld in the long run. As a collection in Highland Heritage, though, it's probably going to appeal more to someone who wants to get beyond the usual suspects that tend to be high on the reading list. I wouldn't say it's a must have, but it's a good compliment.

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