Thursday, 3 January 2008

Archive: Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life - Donald A MacKenzie

Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Life
Donald A MacKenzie

I picked this book up from the library on a whim, and I'm really glad I did. I liked it so much I ended up buying it because I think I'll probably end up referring to it quite a bit.

As much as I liked it there are problems with the book, and it's mainly due to the fact that it's now incredibly dated - it was originally published in 1935, so while it (sometimes self-consciously) lacks the 'noble savage' view of Scottish/Gaelic society that often cropped up in Victorian works, it's quite keen on comparing anything and everything with India or Egypt (Egyptology presumably being quite fashionable at the time), as well as fitting deities into a Classical view. The Cailleach, for example, is 'A Scottish Artemis' (which just seems plain odd to me, but I think it's meant in terms of them both being 'mistresses of the beasts').

Ignoring and reading around those bits is easy enough, and what you're left with is a book that complements F Marian McNeill's The Silver Bough and Campbell's Gaelic Otherworld quite nicely. While the section on festivals doesn't go into much detail and doesn't contain anything that you couldn't find elsewhere, the chapters on sacred wells and trees, and sacred rocks and stones give some good references and some examples of folklore connected with them that I haven't seen elsewhere. The chapters on fairies tend to draw a lot from sources that most people will probably already have read (Campbell and Gregor, for instance), but the analysis of 'Fairies as Deities' gives a nice overview of the more divine elements found in the fairy faith, even if it's slightly rambling and unfocused.

There's also a chapter on The Scottish Pork Taboo, which I'd seen referred to elsewhere (the Scots didn't generally like to keep pigs or eat the meat etc) without much explanation. MacKenzie tries to connect it to a hangover from pagan belief, comparing ancient Egyptian attitudes to swine in support of this theory and pointing out that evidence shows early Christian's ate pork without any qualm and so it's unlikely to be influenced by the Old Testament. He fails to examine later movements within Christianity that might have introduced the idea at a later time in history, though, so I've yet to be convinced...

The chapters that focus on the Cailleach provide a good overview of the tales that she appears in, and a lot of information that I haven't seen about her before, especially relating to local lore and legends that connect her with specific places around Scotland, that maybe aren't so well known (to me, at least). These chapters alone were enough for me to find the book worth buying (and it wasn't expensive, either), and have given me some further reading that I want to look up next time I'm at the library.

All in all, the book is very readable and engaging, but because it's so dated I don't think it's necessarily a good place for anyone who's not so familiar with the subject to start reading (The Gaelic Otherworld is probably better because Ronald Black does some good notes that point out bits that are wrong or outdated etc, even if the book is a lot to take in).