Part I: The Personality of the Region

Part I: The Personality of the Region

Table of Contents

A Settlement Patterns and Traditional Life

B Cultural Myths, Identity Formation, and Social Change

C The Representation of Worldview and Oral Tradition


The North-East Borderland: Landscape and People

Neil Curtis

Janus-like, the North East has one face firmly fixed on the fertile hinterland, while the other gazes outwards to the lands and seas beyond. Lying between the Cairngorm mountains and the coast, the landscape of the North East today varies from conditions that resemble Arctic tundra to the rolling farmlands of Buchan and the plain of Moray. What holds this varied landscape together is the actions of people from the first settlers to the present day who have altered all but the highest slopes of the mountains. 

On the edge: an inhabited borderland

About 10,000 years ago, the ice sheet which had covered Scotland for the preceding 15,000 years had started to melt, eventually revealing a new landscape. The deeply ice-scoured glens and corries of Upper Deeside, the ice-deposited hummocky landscape of much of Aberdeenshire and the steep sided gullies of the Mearns coastline, eroded by water from the wasting ice, bear many signs of the impact of the ice sheet. As the climate improved, the new land was occupied by plants and animals which spread from warmer areas to the south. By 8,000 years ago much of the lower ground was covered by a dense forest inhabited by a range of animals including deer, boar and people. Since then, the changing beliefs and actions of people have shaped the environment; farming the land and making homes, places of worship, trackways, roads, defences. In the process a landscape was created that is as much human as natural. 

With major natural frontiers lying to the east in the sea and to the west in the mountains, the area's main land links have always been north along the Moray Firth and south to Angus and the Mearns. The Mounth forms a natural boundary to the south and is crossed by a number of passes which have been used by people for millennia. The most easterly of these has been the most important: today it is the route taken by the railway and dual carriageway, while it was the route taken by both the Roman army in the early AD80s and the English army under Edward I. The ditches and banks of one of the Roman camps, built to accommodate the army for a few nights before it crossed the Mounth, can still be seen at Raedykes near Stonehaven. Farther to the west, the Cairn o' Mount dominates the summit beside the Fettercairn to Banchory road as it has done for almost 4,000 years. Marking both a boundary and a routeway, the cairn was later joined by an early Christian cross slab with similar patterns to those in the 9th century Book of Deer. This route also links Huntly, Alford, Kildrummy and Lumphanan to the south: an important strategic route ultimately taken by the 18th century Military Road. 

The rolling hills around Huntly and Keith and the low-lying land of the Laich of Moray are a much more open frontier. Moray, traditionally lying to the west of the Spey, together with Ross, made up the Pictish territory of Fidach, stretching far to the west. The heartland of this territory lay around the inner Moray Firth, marked by the fine Pictish stones of Rosemarkie, Hilton of Cadboll and Shandwick in Easter Ross and the Pictish fortress of Burghead in Moray and the nearby ecclesiastical site at Kinneddar. Links between this area and the rest of the North East can be traced back at least 4,000 years when the people who built the Clava cairns of the inner Moray Firth and the builders of the recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire both aligned their monuments on the movements of the moon. In more recent centuries, however, this northern focus has gradually lost out to the south. More than any other single event, the death of Macbeth at Lumphanan in 1057 can be seen as marking the end of Moray's dominance, though it was not until 1187 that William the Lion destroyed the independence of Moray. 

The seemingly impenetrable Cairngorms conceal strong links with western Scotland. As placenames like Inverbervie and Aquhorthies show, in the early Middle Ages Gaelic was spoken over much of the North East, even surviving well into the 20th century in Upper Deeside. The Battle of Harlaw near Inverurie in 1411 between Donald, Lord of the Isles and the Earl of Mar supported by the burgesses of Aberdeen, however, shows that relationships between the North East and the West Highlands were complex and not always cordial. Later, like the Campbells of Argyll, the role of the Gordons as agents of the Lowland Crown in controlling the Highlands again reveals the North East's role as frontier territory. 

The land and rivers

While traces left by the early inhabitants are rarely recognised in the modern landscape, some of the few that survive, such as the 5,000 year old long cairn at Capo by the North Esk and at Balnagowan near Tarland, are monuments erected by people concerned with the productivity of the land and the importance of the previous generations who had tended it. Surrounding the Blue Cairn of Balnagowan are dozens of heaps of stones created by farmers 2,000 years later who cleared the land to improve its fertility, while other patches of hillside which have escaped modern agriculture are marked by the traces of rigs and furrows of medieval and later agriculture. The immense effort over millennia which transformed the damp stony land of Aberdeenshire into the fertile land of today is also seen in the dykes that tie together the modern landscape. The most impressive of these, lying beside the modern housing estates of Kingswells, is over ten metres wide and two metres high with a paved path running along the top for almost 500 metres. The efforts by landowners to 'improve' the landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries are also seen in the planned settlements of Laurencekirk, Ballater, Cullen, and Archiestown and the abandoned settlements and fields of Upper Deeside. It is the lives of the people whose labours created this landscape that are commemorated in the folklore and customs of the area. 

From the earliest microliths found on Deeside near Banchory to the use of the valley of the Don by the Aberdeenshire Canal, the Aberdeen-Inverness railway line and the A96 dual carriageway, the rivers Dee, Don, Ythan and Spey have always linked the coast with the hinterland. Indeed, the names of some of the rivers probably have their origins in prehistory, while W.F.H. Nicolaisen has also pointed out that a river was not just something 'in which people might fish, on which they might travel by boat, which might provide water for fishing and other household purposes, and so on, but at one and the same time a divine being which demanded some form of worship and adoration'. Thus the origins of the names of both the Dee and the Don imply divine qualities. He has also noted that a significant number of place names beginning with 'Aber' (meaning 'confluence' or 'river mouth') became parish names, presumably indicating a continuity of sanctity from pre-Christian times. Most notable of these is Aberdeen, the present-day fulcrum between land and sea, where St Machar's Cathedral lies at the mouth of the divine Don. 

The sea and beyond

Today, the riches of the sea in the form of North Sea oil underpin much of the wealth of the North East, bringing new people and ideas to the area, much as did the Herring Boom and then the introduction of the steam trawler of the 19th century. For most of the previous 10,000 years, however, the contribution of the sea's wealth to the area was probably fairly small compared with the importance of the sea as a routeway linking the North East to the rest of the world. 

From 'Willy the Merchant', who built Craigievar Castle in the 17th century from the proceeds of his Baltic trade, to the jet and amber beads found in the burial at Greenbrae near Cruden from 4,000 years earlier, individual people have taken advantage of the way in which the North East juts into the North Sea. Much more distant contacts are primarily a feature of more recent times, but even as far back as 5,000 years ago a handful of highly polished axeheads originating in the Alps reached the area, showing the long-term significance of the east coast route from the Rhine. A millennium later the first metalworkers who established in the North East one of the main areas of early metalworking in Britain followed the same route, while it was also used by Bishop William Elphinstone when travelling to and from the continent and medieval traders who brought pottery, wine, spices, books and weapons from eastern England and the Low Countries. Finds of pottery from western France and even fragments of silk and elephant ivory on archaeological excavations in Aberdeen hint at even more far-flung contacts. Ranging from the unique stone circles of more than 4,000 years ago to the contemporary strength of the Doric, the North East has a long- lasting sense of its own identity, but one which has taken full advantage of its position as a borderland to face outwards in many directions with confidence. 

Further reading:

  • Curtis, Elizabeth. 'Stone Circles: Perceptions from Inside and Outside the Ring', Northern Scotland, vol. 18 (1999), ed. James Porter, 33-42. 
  • Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland (London, 1996
  • Nicolaisen, W.F.H. The Picts and Their Placenames (Rosemarkie, 1996). 
  • 'The Earliest English Place Names in North East Scotland,' in Northern Scotland, vol. 18 (1999), ed. James Porter, 67-82. 
  • Omand, Donald ed. The Moray Book (Edinburgh, 1976).
  • Omand, Donald ed. The Grampian Book (Golspie, 1987). 
  • Shepherd, I.A.G. Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Aberdeen and North-East Scotland (Edinburgh, 1996). 
  • Smith, John. 'The North East - Wrought in Stone', Northern Scotland, vol. 18 (1999), ed. James Porter, 27-3.


Popular Traditions in the Modern Period

James Porter

By 'modern period' is meant, roughly, from the early 18th century to the present. It is in the 18th century that new ideas, new inventions, and new attitudes to tradition begin to take their modern form. This applies equally to the shaping of the landscape through technology, in order to extend and 'improve' its ability to yield crops. Only since about 1770, for instance, and again from about 1840 (with the coming of underground drainage) has the landscape of the North East - Kincardineshire, East Aberdeenshire, Banff and Buchan - taken on its present appearance, with farms and cottar houses and crofts. Two centuries ago, innovations included sown grasses and turnips as a field crop. The contours of the landscape changed gradually as more ground fell under the plough, with heather being broken in and land reclaimed for pasture or tillage. Enclosure of land meant the laying out of fields to suit crop rotation, and lairds set down the conditions of lease for tenant farmers on all these matters. In a typical farming community of the early 19th century there were lairds, farmers, married cottar men, unmarried farm workers, trades people, and the community mainstay of minister (or priest) and dominie. Despite the gradual coming of prosperity, famine years could occur as, for example, in 1782 and 1799. 

At this time, older customs were still observed. Even as late as 1869 George Gall of Atherb, a farmer, was determined to keep his Christmas Old Style (Auld Eel). Writing in his diary on January 4 he observed that 'tomorrow will be our holiday, and the sowin [flummery] morning, as many people delights in running about from Town (farm) to Town and drinking sowins and getting fun, and making a noise.' While Christmas Old Style has now died out many houses keep their Christmas decorations until Auld Eel, the date of Christmas under the Gregorian calendar that was superseded by the Julian in 1582. In the church of Auchterless until the early 1960s, elders took up the collection in wooden, square- headed ladles with long handles. On Communion Sunday, metal tokens were used bearing the inscriptions, 'This do in remembrance of me' and 'But let a man examine himself.' The Rev Walter Gregor describes customs still in use in the North East during the 19th century, especially at the critical times of birth, marriage and death. Most people attended church a century ago, but the coming of the Welfare State has relieved the Kirk Session of one task at least: that of poor relief. Church attendance a century later, always precarious in the North East (not least because of the weather), has dwindled since the 1960s. 

By the turn of the 20th century the social structure in the North East had crystallised in keeping with Victorian ideas of class stratification and the demands of Empire. Farm servants were usually engaged at the feeing markets held in May and November, when a servant was 'fee'd' for service. Feeing markets ultimately died out in the 1930s. In this social hierarchy a farm servant could marry a kitchen maid, for example, but not as a rule a farmer's daughter. While on the land cottars were provided with an available house when they married, the unmarried farm servants lived in a room or loft, the chaamer [chamber] near the stable. Single men would move every six months and married men annually. This pattern of hiring had both positive and negative effects: positive in that it provided a change of scene and spread the news and lore of the North East, negative in that it interrupted the schooling of cottar children. Until the introduction of regular school meals in 1940, children had meals of hot soup in winter, a practice that began in Auchterless in 1895. In summer, children who lived far from home might carry with them a bottle of milk and a 'piece.' Women were responsible for the housework, the kitchie-deem [kitchen-maid] in particular responsible for meals in the kitchen. The women were expected to have the men's meals ready at the right times, to keep their clothes in good order, look after the hens, carry water for the household and, if married, to bring up a family as well. But there were also women who worked outdoors, the ootweemen, who would help with harvest, hoeing and other agricultural chores. 

The farm servants of this period (1880s-1930s) were arranged in a strict hierarchy when they entered the kitchen for meals and when they went to work in the fields. The foreman, who was also first-horseman, would lead and was followed by the second and third billies. The baillie was reponsible for the feeding, watering, cleaning and bedding of cattle. The apprentice farm-servant, the orra- loon, came last. He was initiated into the company of farm servants through the ceremony of The Horseman's Word, known in Orkney as well as in the North East until World War II. Initiations were usually at Martinmas, 11 November. The initiate had to appear at the barn, between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. taking with him a candle, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of whisky. Subjected to questioning, at the climax of the event he got a shake of the Devil's hand, usually a stick covered with hairy skin. He was then given the Word - 'Both in One '- meaning harmony between man and beast (as well as, symbolically, power over women). Until the initiation, the orra loon might have problems with the horses in his care, caused by older ploughmen tainting the horse collar with pig dung or embedding a tack in it. 

This is the male-dominated world of the bothy ballads, songs that recall a picturesque if vanished period in the North East. These songs, which cast an amused and often satirical eye on the conditions of the time, have been assiduously collected and studied. Great performers like the gangrel Jimmy MacBeath of Portsoy, the Traveller singer Davie Stewart, or still today Jock Duncan, have kept them alive - 'The Muckin o Georgie's Byre,' 'The Hairst o Rettie,' 'Drumdelgie,' even the bawdy 'Ball o Kirriemuir' are well-known examples - at local fairs and 'meal and ales' (the farmhands' own entertainment). To the extent that they belong to oral tradition, the amount of variation in the texts of these songs is not great. Farm servants were by no means illiterate peasants, and they came to respect the authority of print and book learning. This world, though gone for ever, still appeals to many who remember the rural communities of the North East as they were, even up until about 1960. 

Quite different, however, in their distinctive and important oral tradition were the itinerant Travellers, who are often excised from sentimental portraits of the North East and who are absent from the great song-collection of Gavin Greig and James B. Duncan, made just before World War I. The origin of the Travellers is obscure, but their singers and storytellers are among the most celebrated of late-20th century North East culture, and their contribution to the repertoire of song and tale, revealed after World War II, is nothing less than sensational. The presence of Travellers in city, town and village was known, marked, and often the butt of cruel jibe. They had their own narrative traditions, among them tales of 'simple Jack' who could outwit enemies, or others reminiscent of Burke and Hare: of the 'noddies' (medical students) and the 'burkers' who were ready to spirit away Traveller bodies for dissection. Anecdotes of abduction - a real fear for them - were rife among the Travellers of the North East. They could not pass King's or Marischal Colleges in Aberdeen because 'the students would fairly tak a haud o ye wi' a cleik [an iron hook] by the leg. They took ye right inside. They wanted fresh bodies.'

The traditional character of the North East, then, has never been entirely homogeneous, socially or culturally. It has been shaped more recently by in- migration affecting land management and land prices, by new technologies, and by regulations on farming and fishing introduced by the European Community. The coming of technology and North Sea Oil has transformed whatever was left of 19th century rural customs even though more ancient rituals are still observed, such as the Burning of the Clavie at Burghead on January 11 or the Hogmanay fireballs at Stonehaven on New Year's Eve. Local rivalries have persevered, too, such as that between neighbouring towns (e.g., Banff and Macduff). The recent economic changes, however, have significantly altered the way North Easters themselves perceive the past. Still, one can hear the local dialect ('the Doric') daily in the streets of Aberdeen, the heartlands of Buchan, or the coastal villages, and Doric to a large extent continues to signal the identity of the native of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, and Banff or Buchan. For even though almost 90% of the placenames of Aberdeenshire are Gaelic in derivation, this fact barely impinges on an identity that has taken shape over the past two-and-a-half centuries in relation to traditional occupations such as farming and fishing, and to serving the British Empire. It is not so long ago that Gaelic itself, in fact, died out around Braemar, in West Aberdeenshire (1970s). 

Aberdeen ('the Brave Toun') as a modern city was planned and built in several overlapping phases: c.1800-30 (street layout, Telford's Bridge of Don, the Music Hall), c.1830-60 (harbour improvement, railway expansion), and c.1860- 1914 (the final formation of 'the Granite City'). The city enjoyed an economic boom after the Napoleonic Wars, and population rose in the burgh by 470% during the 19th century. The city was gradually drawn towards the wider world by technology: the railway, steamship, telegraph (1854) and telephone (1881) shrank distance and spread news and ideas. Urban attitudes in the North East, then, like those in the rural hinterland, gradually changed in response to these developments. Whereas during the period of the Empire, and even up until 1960 the region was solidly conservative in its political affiliation, it is now veering towards left-wing, nationalist and independent centrist voting patterns. Despite the prosperity brought to the city of Aberdeen by North Sea Oil since the 1960s, popular entertainment and customs now revolve around such things as support for the local football team (the 'Dons'). The Tivioli Theatre, once the site for star performers like Charlie Chaplin, has been sold for redevelopment. But traditions and countermovements can co-exist and lurk underground in this materialistic environment. The street games devised and enjoyed by Aberdeen children still live in the playground, unsuspected by any except the ethnologist. The naming or re- naming of streets and lanes (wynds), took place in an Aberdeen that was part of the Imperial project, and this too may change, albeit slowly, as a newly- refurbished Scottish national identity comes to bear. The idea of tradition, and of identity, is already taking on a fresh configuration in the North East. 

Further reading:

  • Alexander, William. Rural Life in Aberdeenshire, ed. Ian Carter (Edinburgh, 1992). 
  • Allan, John R. North East Lowlands of Scotland, 2d ed. (London, 1974). 
  • Cameron, David Kerr. The Ballad and the Plough (London, 1978). 
  • Carter, Ian. Farmlife in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914: The Poor Man's Country (Edinburgh, 1979). 
  • Fenton, Alexander. 'Aspects of the North-East Personality', in The Shape of the Past vol. I (Edinburgh, 1985), 56-67. 
  • Gregor, Rev. Walter. Notes on the Folk-lore of North East Scotland (London, 1884). 
  • Henderson, Hamish. 'Folk-Song Heritage of the North East', in Alias MacAlias (Edinburgh, 1992), 132-4. 
  • Ord, John. Ord's Bothy Songs and Ballads (Edinburgh, 1930; reprint, 1990). 
  • Porter, James and Herschel Gower. Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice (Knoxville, 1995). 
  • Robertson, Stanley. Exodus to Alford: Master Story-Teller of the Traveller Folk (Nairn, 1988). 
  • Smith, Alexander. Fairmin' the Wey It Wis: 1925-1926 (Banff, 1992). 
  • Smith, John S. and David Stevenson eds. Aberdeen in the Nineteenth Century: The Making of the Modern City (Aberdeen, 1988). 
  • Smith, John S. and David Stevenson eds. Fermfolk & Fisherfolk: Rural Life in Northern Scotland in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Aberdeen, 1989.


'Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands': North-East Cultural Identity 

James Porter

'The North East' is not easy to define even in simple geographical terms, and hence any notion of its cultural identity is debatable. Many who call themselves Northeasters are really from East Aberdeenshire, or perhaps Banff and Buchan to the north or Kincardineshire to the south. In the current political map of Scotland, the North East stretches all the way to Dundee, though few Dundonians would confess to a 'North East' identity. The traditional borderland to the south is usually around Montrose, that to the north the Laigh of Moray. The writer John R. Allan, on the other hand, considered the North East Lowlands to run all the way through Moray and Inverness to Caithness in the far north of the mainland. Yet another strand to this fluid conception of 'North East' is the Gaelic dimension that has shaped the place names of the region: almost 90% of them are Gaelic-derived - a fact often unrecognised by long-time in-dwellers. Gaelic itself died out on Upper Deeside only in the 1980s. The Book of Deer, one of Scotland's priceless ecclesiastical treasures from the late medieval period, has annotations in Gaelic, demonstrating that Gaelic was spoken widely in East Aberdeenshire until at least 1400. Later immigration of Scots and English speakers gradually eroded the basis of the language, although Gaelic-speaking students from the Highlands still traditionally find their way to the University of Aberdeen, which has the largest Celtic Department of any university in Britain. Gaelic-speaking Highlanders worked in the fishing industry all through the 19th century, and had a Gaelic Chapel for worship in Aberdeen well into the 20th century. 

Identity, obviously, is not a simple thing. And cultural identity is considerably more complex than, say, gender, political or class identity because it embraces a range of individual experiences and conflicts. It evolves in response to the contexts in which people find themselves. But just as individuals feel themselves to have a basic cultural affinity on the level of local or regional identity, so too they extend this to the region in which they live: as the individual looks to communicate a sense of belonging, the central question Who am I? naturally becomes Who are we? A century ago, and even 50 years ago, distinctive regions in Scotland such as the North East had a cultural identity that was often bound up with traditional occupations: with farming and fishing, for example, and with a fairly stable society that had helped forge the British Empire over a century-and-a-half - and prospered because of it. When North Sea Oil arrived in the 1970s, however, everything changed, though not in a purely material sense. Social and cultural transformation had already been on the way ever since World War II, when cracks began to appear in the fabric of pre-War British political life and the rise of socialism between 1950 and 1980 gradually transformed attitudes to work and leisure. But the dramatic events brought about by the Conservative Government of the period 1979-98 coincided with economic and political changes that had a profound effect on Britain, Scotland, and the North East. 

The major change in the North East was that of immigration, mainly in connection with North Sea Oil and related industries. It has been estimated that some 30% of the jobs in the City of Aberdeen, for instance, are oil-related. This material change brought about a crisis of identity in the daily life of native Northeasters: addressing someone in Doric (the North-East Scots vernacular) was a sure way to tell whether someone was local, was 'us' rather than an incomer. The cultural identity of the North East is largely bound up with the patterns of speech and behaviour that were traditional until about 1970, when immigration from England and other parts of Scotland - as well as from Europe - began to affect the region. Speech habits remained as a kind of cultural marker, and today can be heard plentifully in the streets of Aberdeen as well as in the rural hinterland. The power of the great landed families of the North East - Gordons, Forbeses, Grants, Farquharsons - had in the meantime declined with the break- up of many estates since World War 2. The rise of the European Union, and the legislative powers by which it regulated farming and fishing, meant that changes quickly transformed traditional methods and interposed others which often failed to understand the environmental wisdom - evolved over centuries of practice - of the local Buchan farmer or Peterhead fisherman. 

These political and economic measures affected not only the work habits but also the traditional and cultural identity of the North East native. The economic benefits from North Sea Oil astutely negotiated by the Shetlanders (mainly towards improving infrastructure) were unfortunately not paralleled in the North East, where even the University of Aberdeen, believing initially that the North Sea oil industry had little potential, left the field to Robert Gordon's School of Engineering (Press & Journal, Jan. 20, 1998). The economic benefit, then, has been in the public sector in terms of a ripple effect spreading outwards from the oil companies themselves. The Texas-based companies ruled the roost for the first 10 years of oil exploration, and only the native Wood Group appears to have rivalled some of the multi-national big players. The American companies began to pull out in the 1990s, when French and Dutch companies took over much of the North Sea Oil management. But oil has also left a very different legacy: the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988, when rig explosions left 167 dead, resulted in a critical official enquiry conducted by Lord Cullen regarding conditions on the platform, which was at that time owned by Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles. Occidental's successor, Elf Enterprise Caledonia, had to pay £140m to families bereaved in the disaster. 

Oil exploration has meant the attraction of jobs for many outside the area. Aberdeen in particular has seen an influx of Scandinavians and, more remarkably, peoples from the former British colonies: South and East Asians, Africans, and African-Americans from the Caribbean - not on the large scale of English cities in the Midlands, but constituting a presence nevertheless. While there is not yet a mosque to rival the prominent and recently-built one in Edinburgh, the Spital mosque in Aberdeen is a gathering-place for Islamic worship and culture. There is now a scattering of 'ethnic' restaurants over the city; these more recent incomers bring their post-colonial food and culture to add to those of the Italians, Jews and other, earlier refugees from the political and economic turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Emigration, on the other hand, has had a less dramatic but just as powerful an effect. A higher percentage of Scots choose to emigrate than any other group in the United Kingdom. While forced evictions - such as occurred with the large- scale Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries - are mostly a thing of the past, 17,200 Scots left the country in 1987; in 1996, that figure had risen to 19,700. The reasons are not hard to find - opportunity, primarily, and the urge to exploit innate talent that is frustrated at home. Scottish individualism promotes an entrepreneurial spirit, and many feel confident they can flourish outside their native land. Many have families overseas and want to join them. Others have posited the unlovely climate and weather as a factor in encouraging emigration. The more recent imposition of strict quotas for immigration in some foreign destinations, however, has partially slowed the torrent of emigrants. The prospect of a parliament in Edinburgh, with the possibility of the Scottish people themselves controlling education, unemployment, health and social welfare through their elected representatives, seems to be slowing the flood further and indeed encouraging prosperous emigrants to return. 

A sense of place, and of belonging to a particular landscape, fishing ground or city district through family and work, fosters an identity that is obliged to respond to external forces, especially economic, demographic, or political change. Some see the erosion of traditional occupations, and thus of traditional values, as being forced on a region from outside; but this would be a simplistic view. Technological change was bound to alter people's perception of their work. Likewise, the traditional view of fishing boat disasters, and the bodies of loved ones left to the deep, is now changing to a demand for their retrieval through new technology: the Peterhead trawler, the Sapphire, went down in storm conditions 12 miles off its home port on October 1, 1997, with the loss of four of its five-man crew. The families of the dead men raised £550,000 towards the recovery of the bodies after the government refused to help. The decline of formal religion has affected the current identity crisis of the North East, even in the fishing hamlets where evangelical zeal, fuelled by 19th century missions that crept up the east coast of Britain, was until lately apparent. Sectarian differences or conflict over points of principle have sometimes torn communities apart. Fraserburgh and Peterhead, the major ports of the North East, once bastions of religious strength, have now to contend with the influx of a serious drug problem and the drift of youth away from traditional occupations. 

Around these factors, then, the identity of Scots, and of Northeasters, has become a constant topic of reflection. Throughout the world, demographic change has led to the mingling of peoples from diverse backgrounds. The constant factor in identity is often a sense of place, of landscape, or cityscape. Lewis Grassic Gibbon (the pen-name of Leslie Mitchell) wrote perceptively, in his novel Sunset Song, of the effect the Standing Stones of the North East had on the people who lived there. The heroine Chris has a quite opposite view of them, however, from her father: 'he stood looking at the Stones a minute and said they were coarse, foul things, the folk that had raised them were burning in hell, skin- clad savages with never a skin to guard them now....Cobwebbed and waiting they stood, she went and leant her cheek against the meikle one, the monster that stood and semed to peer over the water and blue distances that went up to the Grampians. She leant against it, the bruised cheek she leaned and it was strange and comforting - stranger still when you thought that this old stone circle, more and more as the years went on at Kinraddie, was the only place where she could come and stand back a little from the clamour of the days.' North East identity is embedded in its history, landscape, seascape, battles, language, legends and songs. But that identity is also far from static; rather, it is in constant process of formation. 

Further reading:

  • Allan, John R. The North-East Lowlands of Scotland 2nd. ed. (London, 1974). 
  • Anson, Peter F. Fishing Boats and Fisher Folk on the East Coast of Scotland (London, 1930). 
  • 'Religion and Superstition', in Grampian Hairst: An Anthology of Northeast Prose, ed. W. Donaldson and D. Young (Aberdeen, 1981), 38-41.
  • Anthony, Richard. Herds and Hinds: Farm Labour in Lowland Scotland, 1900- 1939 (East Linton, 1997). 
  • Curtis, Elizabeth. 'Stone Circles: Perceptions from Inside and Outside the Ring', Northern Scotland, vol. 18 (1999), ed. James Porter, 33-42. 
  • Lowenthal, David. 'Landscapes as Heritage: National Scenes and Global Changes', in Heritage, Conservation, Interpretation, and Enterprise, ed. J.M. Fladmark (Aberdeen, 1993), 3-15. 
  • Nicolaisen, W.F.H. Scottish Place-Names: Their Study and Significance (London, 1976). 
  • Porter, James. 'The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation', Folklore, vol. 109 (1998), 1-14. 
  • Porter, James, ed. Northern Scotland, vol. 19: 1999 (Special Ethnology issue). 
  • Ritchie, James. 'Folklore of the Aberdeenshire Stone Circles and Standing- Stones', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1925-26), 304-1.


North East Folk-culture and the Print Tradition 

Colin Milton

In 1925, Scotland's greatest 20th-century writer asserted flatly that the Scots of the North East was 'incapable of poetry of any considerable degree at all'. If poetry was the immediate concern of C. M. Grieve ('Hugh MacDiarmid') - in particular the enormously popular poetry of Alford-born Charles Murray - his comments on what he calls 'Aberdeenshire Scots' make it clear that he believed that the vernacular of the North East was unserviceable as a medium for ambitious literary work of any kind. For Grieve, Murray's limitations as a poet sprang not only from his personal lack of the highest literary gifts, but also from the hybrid, bastardised character of his dialect, from its unattractiveness to the ear, and from the fact that it lacked the long literary tradition which would have developed its potentialities and made ambitious contemporary work possible in it. 

As a poet using North-East Scots, Murray has not 'had the advantage of a single forerunner of the slightest consequence', a claim Grieve supported by referring to the paucity of North-East material in the representative anthologies - and even in the 'entire corpus of Scottish work which by the widest stretching of the term can be regarded as having the slightest literary quality'. Yet only two or three years before, in Grieve's own Northern Numbers anthologies, intended to illustrate what was forward-looking in the Scots poetry of the time, the bulk of the vernacular work was by poets who drew on the Scots of the North East: Mary Symon, Charles Murray, Violet Jacob, Marion Angus, Helen Cruickshank. Whatever the past record of the North East in relation to the Scottish literary tradition, it was clear that by the first half of the present century, the area had become the main centre of a new vernacular revival, particularly, but not exclusively, in verse. 

When Grieve referred to 'the entire corpus' of Scots work of the highest quality, he was thinking of the literary tradition as conventionally defined - a corpus of written and printed material, lying mainly within the area of 'high' culture. But since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, much of what was distinctive in Scottish culture has been part of 'folk' rather than 'high' culture, and has been transmitted orally rather than by means of the printed word. To identify the cultural tradition with the tastes of an educated elite leads to a kind of myopia: the region Grieve dismissed as barren of high art, and even as lacking the conditions for its creation, has been the richest in Scotland for the preservation, transmission - and creation - of vernacular ballad and song, a body of material which is one of the glories of the Scottish tradition, but which has its roots mainly in popular, orally-transmitted culture. The Scots ballads are recognised as the finest expressions of the ballad tradition in the British Isles; within Scotland, ballads composed, or at least collected, in the North East, represent the finest body of work in the Scottish ballad canon. The region provided a third of the Scots ballads in Francis James Child's landmark collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98): as David Buchan has said, 'the Northeast provides a balladry unmatched in quality and quantity by any other regional culture in Britain'. 

From the 18th century, many of the older ballads dealing with historical, supernatural or romantic subjects were accepted into the literary canon and as a result, came to be seen as narratives for reading or recitation rather than singing; nevertheless works like 'The Battle of Harlaw', 'Edom o' Gordon', 'The Fire of Frendraught', 'The Baron of Brackley', all reflecting the turbulent history of the North East, have become standard anthology pieces. Other categories of song are equally well-represented in the region; when, in the early years of the present century, Whitehill dominie [schoolmaster] Gavin Greig began his investigation of the song-culture of the North East expecting to find it in decline, he quickly realised that it was extraordinarily rich and vital. So much so that the collection he made with his collaborator the Rev James Duncan in the first two decades of the century (now in Aberdeen University Library), amounts to some 3,500 songs and 3,300 tunes. Returning to the North East around half-a-century later in the period after the second World War, Hamish Henderson and his fellow-collectors found the song tradition of the region still flourishing, and much of what is most important in the collections of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh was collected in the North East. Prejudices about what constitutes 'cultural tradition' and 'aesthetic value', however, delayed the publication of the Greig-Duncan material in its entirety, with the first of a projected eight volumes appearing only in 1981. 

North-East contributions to the mainstream Scottish literary tradition have often been closely linked to native music and song traditions: 18th-century figures like George Halket and John Skinner were known largely as the authors of well- known songs - 'Whirry Whigs Awa' and 'Logie o Buchan' in Halket's case, 'The Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn' and in Skinner's 'Tullochgorum' (the latter 'the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw' according to Robert Burns). The thirty-four vigorous stanzas of Skinner's 'The Monymusk Christmas Ba'in' (1739), written in a recognisably North-East Scots, draw on popular tradition in a different way: they are a part-ironic, part-admiring depiction of a traditional no-holds-barred Christmas football game. Skinner's older North-East contemporary, Alexander Ross, was also recognised by Burns as one of the brotherhood of true native song-makers. Ross, schoolmaster at Lochlee at the head of Glenesk from 1732 to his death in 1784, wrote original songs in traditional modes, like 'Rock and Wee Pickle Tow', and also skilfully reworked traditional material, producing fine versions of 'To the Beggin we will go' and 'Woo'd and Married an A'. Despite its use of pseudo-classical conventions, his most ambitious work, Hellenore or The Fortunate Shepherdess - a 4,000-line pastoral in rhyming couplets modelled partly on Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd - is far from merely conventional. In its use of local Scots, its realistic depiction of life in a remote lowland community on the edge of the Highlands (including details of the folk beliefs and customs of both highlanders and lowlanders), its updating of traditional ballad situations and materials, Hellenore impressively combines elements from both folk and literary traditions. 

But the contribution of the region to Scottish literature - and to wider European developments - is not confined to works about lowland life and traditions. One of the most celebrated and controversial literary figures of the mid-18th century, James Macpherson, was a graduate of Marischal College. Hellenore deals with the relations between highlander and lowlander in the period before the subjugation of the highlands which followed Culloden; 'Ossian' MacPherson was growing up in Badenoch when the suppression of highland culture was in its most ruthless phase, just after the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6. Recognising the fragility of orally-based Gaelic traditions, he began to record oral ballads and tales on his appointment as schoolmaster at Ruthven. His Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760) suggested that there had been a heroic age of Celtic Scotland with an epic poetry to match that of Greece and Rome, and created the appetite which made the publication of the two Ossianic epics, Fingal and Temora (1761, 1763) the most sensational publishing event of the mid- century. International in their impact, the Ossianic epics were an important stimulus to the development of European Romanticism. 

In the following century, the threat to local manners, customs and forms of speech took the very different form of the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act which established a universal, compulsory system of education. This apparently benign measure brought fears of cultural standardisation and anglicisation - Charles Murray's much anthologised 'The Whistle' owed its popularity to the fact that it reflected such fears through the concluding destruction by the dominie of the herd loon's [shepherd lad's] home-made whistle - symbolising the final silencing of the native musical tradition. More positively, North-East poets of the first half of the present century like David Rorie, Violet Jacob, Marion Angus, and J. M. Caie, as well as more recent ones like Flora Garry and Sheena Blackhall, frequently depict and celebrate those who have escaped the influence of school and maintain traditional ways: the gypsies, tramps and Travelling People in their poems represent freedom and ways of learning and kinds of knowledge excluded from the formal curriculum. North-East Scots is the inevitable medium of such poetry; by using it, the poet aligns him or herself with the vernacular culture, orally transmitted and locally rooted. 

Writers who choose to use a literary language based on a spoken regional variety of Scots are declaring their allegiance to 'popular' and oral rather than 'official' and written culture. Such a choice is less of a problem for the poet than it is for the prose writer, because over the length of a poem, it is less likely to arouse resistance in the reader. Familiar to the ear (and often the tongue) of anyone living locally, dialect is unfamiliar to the eye, and the writer is faced with the problem of how to represent it - particularly if he or she wants both to write a long work and reach an audience beyond the local area. Writing originally for the North-East readers of the Aberdeen Free Press in 1867, William Alexander could begin Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk with a lengthy passage of dense Aberdeenshire Scots, and use it also for some of the important reflective passages in the novel; writing in the 1930s for book publication and for a dispersed literary audience, Lewis Grassic Gibbon had to devise a medium for his Scots Quair which would reflect the speech of the North East while not overtaxing the patience of the reader. His solution was to use a minimum number of characteristic Doric words and phrases, often anglicising their spelling, but to use the distinctive grammar and syntax of North-East Scots to give an impression of the 'speak of the Mearns'. 

In Scotland, as in Ireland, the folk tradition has been disproportionately the carrier of what is most distinctive and vital in the culture. Since at least the 18th century, the print tradition has drawn many of its forms and concerns and much of its linguistic energy from 'below' - from the oral, the unofficial, the local, the popular. Consequently, more than most national traditions, the Scottish literary tradition has a claim to be the voice - or rather the voices - of the people. 

Further reading:

  • Alison, James. Poetry of Northeast Scotland (London, 1976). 
  • Buchan, David. The Ballad and the Folk (London, 1972). 
  • A Scottish Ballad Book (London, 1973). 
  • Crawford, Thomas, David Hewitt and Alexander Law eds., Longer Scottish Poems, vol. 2 (1650-1830) (Edinburgh, 1987). 
  • Donaldson, William and Douglas Young. Grampian Hairst (Aberdeen, 1981). 
  • Gaskill, Howard, ed. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works (Edinburgh, 1996). 
  • Henderson, Hamish. Alias MacAlias (Edinburgh, 1992). 
  • Milton, Colin. '"Some Scraps of Donside Verse": Charles Murray and the Greig- Duncan Folksong Collection', Northern Scotland, vol. 18 (1999), ed. James Porter, 83-102. 
  • Shaw, Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, Emily B. Lyle et al. eds. The Greig-Duncan Folk- Song Collection 7 vols. (Edinburgh, 1981- ). 
  • Walker, Willam. The Bards of Bon-Accord 1375-1860 (Aberdeen, 1887). 
  • Wheeler, Leslie. Ten Northeast Poets (Aberdeen, 1985.)


Story and Place: Narratives and Narrators 

W. F. H. Nicolaisen

More than in any other way, a region's past is created through narration. The history of the Scottish North East is therefore not only embedded in its stories but receives its very substance through them, distilled from the common heritage but individually blended. In a sense, the past does not exist until it has been narrated, and this is just as true of the past conceived as place as considered as time. The North East does not, of course, stand alone in this respect but chimes in well with the narrative traditions of comparable areas in Scotland and beyond the Scottish border, especially in those parts of the world in which the storytelling repertoire is received, transmitted and performed by oral means. 

This is not to say that any interference by the written word in the transmission of stories of necessity renders these valueless. We live, after all, in what is largely a literate society and can no longer look for or insist on non- literacy as a prerequisite for acceptable, genuine storytelling events and their products. Nor does the discovery of close links between the corpus of stories to be found in the North East and their cognate counterparts elsewhere imply any lack of specifically North-Eastern features in that corpus. On the contrary, the occurrence of discernible North-East versions of certain types of narrative also known elsewhere confirms the basic principle of variation which underlies all phenomena, including the narrative ones, in the folk-cultural register. 

Let us take as an example the widely known legend of the 'Prodigious Jump', with its extensive distribution in the western world. Its main ingredient that makes it worth telling is the remarkable feat, performed by someone pursued closely by an enemy, of leaping the width of a river or chasm which would normally be thought of as impossible to achieve. This story is told about specific, identified places in, among others, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, France, and in various parts of North America. In Scotland it is probably best known as The Soldier's Leap at Killiecrankie (now a National Trust property). The North East has at least three variants to offer: Randolph's Leap over a chasm in the River Findhorn, (John) Young's Leap over a rocky channel of the River Dee above the bridge at Potarch, and the Black Colonel's leap over the River Ey near what used to be known in Gaelic as Drochaid an Leum ('the bridge of the leap'). In all three instances the legend is localised in a real, knowable, named space, thus gaining in potential veracity and offering a peculiar sense of place. It is, of course, this element of believability that makes such stories especially attractive to both tellers and listeners. 

The close connection of many local tales with specific places is not limited to the kind of legend of which 'The Prodigious Jump' is a good example. In his collection of (retold) Deeside Tales, John Grant Michie says of his main storyteller, the eaver George Brown: 'There was not within the district the ruins or site of an old church or chapel regarding which he had not gleaned some legend. The names of hills, glades, glens, corries, streams, and even pools and rapids in the river, had each its own legend which accounted for its origin or related to some circumstance connected with it'. Quite often such stories reinterpret a name which has become meaningless in what appear to be meaningful terms, particularly through narratable events or incidents. Through this process, placenames which are frequently the best evidence we have for the elucidation of the past, especially of linguistic settlement history (pre-Celtic, Pictish, Gaelic, English/Scots in the North East), even more convincingly turn maps or place into maps of time. 

Not all traditional tales told in the North East gain their local or regional colour from their attachment to specific, named places, thus depriving them of their migratory nature or factualising their fiction. Stanley Robertson's telling of the tale - folklorists would call it by the German term mŠrchen - of the 'Persecuted Unpromising Heroine', entitled Nippit Fit, Clippit Fit (cassette tape ACLMC 3), not only thrives on the storyteller's inventiveness and creativity but, in spite of belonging to a category of story whose trademark is its unlocatability in time and space, can also be regarded as a tale of the North East because of its linguistic idiom and its setting. In Robertson's somewhat idiosyncratic version, his heroine Marigold, who elsewhere would be known as Cap o' Rushes, Tattercoats, Mossycoat, Catskin or, in Scotland, Rashie Coat, is a close cousin to Cinderella. Similarly, his version of the international tale of 'The Fisher and His Wife' is given a particularly North-Eastern touch, or at least a Scottish flavour by turning the wish-granting fish (which in the variant of the Brothers Grimm is a flounder) into a salmon who reveals himself to be the 'Old Man of the Sea', offering the discontented, nagging fisherman's wife a series of accommodations in the Scottish style ('The Old Woman and the Vinegar Bottle', same tape). And even his Jack Tale ('Silly Jack and the Factor', same tape) exploits the typically Scottish social tension between tenant and landowner (or his representative), while also echoing the worldview of the Travellers from whom Stanley Robertson is descended. 

It was, and to a certain extent still is, their particular lifestyle and background as seasonal workers that has made the Travellers especially gifted performers, preservers and transmitters of traditional stories, both in prose and song. The great Jeannie Robertson, for instance, who is especially remembered and admired as a performer of the 'big ballads', was also an accomplished storyteller in the spoken medium. However, one only needs to look at, for instance, the published stories of Peter Buchan and their fishing milieu of coastal places such as Peterhead, or David Toulmin's tales of the Buchan farming community to realise that, though dominant, the telling of tales, frequently with an autobiographical tinge, was and is not the prerogative of the Travelling Folk alone but represents a vibrant and sustaining streak in the culture of the North East, mainly but no exclusively in the folk-cultural register. That much of the effectiveness of these storytelling performances is nourished by their linguistic vehicle, the distinctive North-East brand of Scots known as Doric, goes without saying. As a result, we have a felicitous blending of the various intersecting components that have gone into the narrative landscape of the North East. 

Further reading (and listening):

  • Bruford, Alan. The Green Man of Knowledge and other Scots Tales (Aberdeen, 1982). 
  • _______, and Donald A. MacDonald. Scottish Traditional Tales (Edinburgh, 1994). 
  • Buchan, Peter. Collected Poems and Short Stories (Edinburgh, 1992). 
  • Douglas, Sheila. The King of the Black Art and other Folktales (Aberdeen, 1987). 
  • Michie, John Grant. Deeside Tales (Aberdeen, 1872). 
  • Nicolaisen, W.F.H. 'The Prodigious Jump: A Contribution to the Study of the Relationship between Folklore and Place-Names', in VolksŸberlieferung: Festschrift fŸr Kurt Ranke (Gšttingen, 1968), 431-42. 
  • Robertson, Stanley. Exodus to Alford (Nairn, 1988). 
  • _______. Nippit, Clippit Fit: Traditional Songs, Stories and Ballads. Cassette tape ACLMC 3 [City Centre Libraries] (Aberdeen, 1990). 
  • Toulmin, David. Collected Short Stories (Edinburgh, 1992). 
  • Williamson, Duncan and Linda. A Thorn in the King's Foot: Stories of the Scottish Travelling People (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1987.


Music and Song in the North East 

Mary Anne Alburger

The main musical instrument of the North East is, as in the rest of the world, the voice. It is entirely portable, always available, and multi- purpose. In Scotland, the varied uses of song - and instrumental music - have long served to define social class and cultural aspirations, and are seen as such by those who participate in them. Traditionally, music and song survived without being printed or easily available on CDs and cassettes. For centuries in the North East 'old' music and songs have been kept in circulation where individuals share a continuing oral tradition; that is, where songs are learnt by ear (also called 'oral transmission') rather than from manuscripts or printed texts or, until their invention just over a century ago, from machines which could mechanically reproduce sounds. In the same way that an individual is able to speak without learning to read, anyone can choose to listen to music and song, memorise it, and reproduce it in his or her own way. 

The song and oral tradition

Singers in the North East have continued to learn and share by ear a particularly strong concentration of ballads, songs which tell stories combining universal themes of love, hate, life and death, as well as oral history (and entertainment) in terms of song. Versions of many such songs can be found, such as 'Lord Randal' or 'The Cruel Mother'. The latter can be traced from Scandinavia through the North East and across the Atlantic to North America and Canada. Basic melodies, characters and plots exist in numberless variations, although many songs, such as 'The Battle of Harlaw' (which took place just north of Aberdeen City in 1411), still connect directly with historical events. Other ballads became acculturated, personalised or localised to reflect the place names, family names and dialect of the geographical area where the song was being sung. 

A basic separation of the music and song from the people, and from the process of oral transmission, began during the 18th century as educated antiquarians extracted and collected the words - and sometimes the music - of ballad poetry, removing it from its context of use for textual study and publication. They may have been indirectly inspired by the success of William Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius, a collection of 50 Scots songs published in 1725, but more so by the later publication of James Macpherson's Ossianic poems (1760-63) which were to inspire both Thomas Jefferson in North America and Napoleon Bonaparte in France. 

In the late 19th century the Aberdeenshire schoolteacher Gavin Greig, together with his associate the Rev. James B. Duncan, believing that the orally-transmitted ballads and songs of the area were in danger of being lost embarked on an ambitious plan to write down the words and music from the singers of the North East. The publication of their pioneering work is now nearing completion in eight volumes as The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection. More recently, Hamish Henderson, Kenneth Goldstein, James Porter and Herschel Gower have found versions of these same songs still in common use by North East singers such as Jeannie Robertson, who had a vast knowledge of traditional lore as well as songs. 

The song type known as the 'bothy ballad' developed in the later 19th century and provided an outlet for singers in the North East's predominantly rural and traditionally farm-based (fermtoun) society. These songs, often humorous or satirical, created a vigorous identity within a hierarchical social order while still enjoying a subversive ability to ridicule and undermine the employers who otherwise directed the workers' lives and had power over them. Although the society in which the bothy ballads were created no longer exists, the songs are still sung as public entertainment, both by people who lived in the bothies and worked in the fermtouns, and by others who may never even have seen a cow. Those who participate in the songs as singers and audience are making an imaginative leap in sharing the experience of the original songmakers even though they may, through radical economic changes in farming and gradual erosion of local dialect, be distanced from the origin of the sentiments or meaning of the words. 

Instrumental music 

Instrumental music has followed a similar pattern to song in its continuing transmission by oral-aural means and in the diverse uses to which it had been put as society's needs have altered. Although thousands of dance tunes, many of them composed by renowned North East fiddlers such as William Marshall (1748-1833) - who 'didn't compose music for bunglers' - and James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) have been published, learning by ear both the music and the style of playing it from other fiddlers is still common. The tunes could actually be played on almost any instrument - the jaw's harp (formerly called 'trump' in Scotland) or harmonica ('moothie'), flute, accordion - or could even be sung, as in the 'diddling' of a contemporary expert like Gordon Easton. This transmission is made possible by listening, watching, memorising and rehearsing until the musician could reproduce his or her own version of the song or tune. 

Scott Skinner, as the son of a fiddler and part-time dancing teacher from Banchory, west of Aberdeen, added classical training to his background. Through effort and self-promotion, Skinner transformed himself from a dancing-master who travelled all over the North East and beyond, teaching in village halls, into 'The Scottish Violinist', a composer of more than 600 tunes, many of them still played today. Also styled 'The Strathspey King', he was the first Scottish fiddler to be recorded by mechanical means, and a star act at the opening of the vast London Palladium theatre alongside the kilted entertainer, Sir Harry Lauder. 

Skinner gave Scottish fiddle music its first lengthy public exposure as music which could be listened to for its own sake, not just as the musical engine for the village dance. From Skinner's point of view this was probably a good marketing ploy: more money and less work than travelling as a dancing teacher, with continuing opportunities to popularise his own compositions, just as contemporary pop groups do today. This development sparked imitators and created new possibilities for fiddlers - not only in the North East but across Scotland - which are still evolving. 

Scott Skinner was probably aware of competition from the increasingly popular accordion, now a mainstay of Scottish dance bands, which had been taught in Aberdeen since before 1850. A contemporary tutor written by an Aberdeen teacher and performer displayed a wide choice of practice pieces for the aspiring player: Scottish songs and dance tunes, theatre melodies, Irish airs, patriotic music and hymn settings were all included. Over the 20th century the accordion (button or keyed) took over from the fiddle as the favoured instrument for dance bands since its greater volume allowed the music to be heard over the stamping feet of the dancers; this is before electric amplification became possible. Local accordionists moved into solo playing, as Skinner had done, as a vehicle for solo virtuosity. The development of the gramophone and the radio not only made solo playing of Scottish music more popular but permitted the diffusion of skilled playing in particular - and repertoire in general - over a wider area of the country. 

The present and future of music in the North East

Over the centuries, the musical culture of the North East has changed and yet remained oddly the same. Songs can still be learned from other singers by ear, but they can also be sung or learned from the printed page or reproduced, with individual touches, from recordings. This process of supplementing oral transmission by alternative means began in the 18th century with general literacy and the growing authority of print. But the great changes in the second half of the 20th century have been social and economic. The Folk Music Revival in Scotland, due in part to North American influence from such stars as Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, began to attract singers and musicians who had no familial or domestic experience of traditional music. In Aberdeen, Arthur Argo, a grandson of Gavin Greig, started a successful folk festival in the 1960s, a concept which would have been unimaginable before World War II. From the same decade, an active Traditional Music and Song Association still promotes festival weekends of workshops, concerts and competitions. 

The most telling example of how the uses and functions of traditional music have changed comes from Aberdeen, where the Scottish Culture and Traditions Association, set up in 1997, provides adult learners with weekly classes where they can learn by ear traditional North East songs (including the Doric-based texts that go with them) and fiddle tunes. It is through such efforts - using oral transmission as the basis for conveying the texture and grain of the songs - that the aesthetic quality of the texts and tunes retain their popularity and worth among successive generations, who recognise in them a vital expression of North East history and values. 

Further reading (and listening):

  • Alistair Hardie's Compliments to 'The King': A 150th Anniversary Tribute to James Scott Skinner (Edinburgh, 1994)[The Hardie Press HPCD 002]. 
  • Alburger, Mary Anne. Scottish Fiddlers and Their Music (London, 1983; repr. Edinburgh, 1996). 
  • Bothy Ballads: Music from the North-East (Cockenzie, 1993)[Greentrax CDTRAX 9001]. 
  • Buchan, David. The Ballad and the Folk (London, 1972; repr. East Linton, 1997). 
  • Coffin, Tristram P. The British Traditional Ballad in North America (1950; rev. ed. with a supplement by Roger deV. Renwick, London & Austin, 1977). 
  • Folk Songs of North-East Scotland: Songs from the Greig-Duncan Collection (Cockenzie, 1995)[Greentrax CDTRAX 5003]. 
  • Munro, Ailie. The Democratic Muse: Folk Music Revival in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1996; updated version of The Folk Music Revival in Scotland, London, 1984). 
  • Porter, James and Herschel Gower. Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice (Knoxville, 1995). 
  • Skinner, James Scott. My Life and Adventures (Pathhead, 1994).


Popular Entertainments

This section is under construction.


Custom and Belief

James Porter

'Custom and belief' is a term conventionally used by folklorists and ethnologists to denote everything from formal religious observances to secular attitudes and daily habits formed by tradition. Some of these attitudes and habits take a narrative form in legends and anecdotes dealing with such things as the weather, for instance, natural features of the landscape, or second sight. These attitudes and practices are part of the character of any cultural region, and the North East is no different. Though famous for its stone circles and later signs of Pictish settlement, the area was Christianised in the early medieval period by Gaelic- speaking clerics from Iona, and one notable legacy of their influence is the Book of Deer, a document compiled in the 12th century at the monastery of Deer (itself founded in the 6th century) and now housed in Cambridge University Library. The main part of the Book's text is in Latin, but has notes in Gaelic that include a place-name legend of the foundation of the monastery by Columba and his disciple Drostan (a Pictish name) that connects the name 'Deer' with the word dŽr (a tear), whereas the root of the word is probably in der- meaning 'oak'. Other legends of the early Christian period in the North East revolve around St Machar, whose life is obscure, or St Laurence, whose name survives in Laurencekirk towards the south in The Mearns: one of these tells how the saint walked dryshod over the Firth of Tay, and summoned fire from heaven, first, to destroy an uncooperative ferryman who had refused him passage, and second, to demolish an inhospitable town. These stories, ultimately traceable to biblical sources, reflect an age of faith and of an energetic church keen to relay legendary tales (exempla) of saints as a way of imposing discipline on its parishioners. 

The Reformation period of the 16th century brought many alternatives in formal Christianity to the people of the North East, with episcopalian church government vying with presbyterianism. Catholics, too, found refuge in the North East: a saying of undoubtedly Protestant origin has the Devil flying over Tomintoul and saying: 'Bonny Tomintoul! ye're aa my bairns!' - the Devil being associated in Protestant lore with the Catholic faith. Yet older beliefs asserted themselves in the wake of the Reformation, as is evident in the witch-trials of the late 16th and early 17th century. Witchcraft had been made a civil crime in 1563, and James VI published his book on witchcraft, Demonologie, in 1597, not long after Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584). Old Janet Wishart was accused of casting a cantrip (spell) on Alexander Thompson; she was tried and burnt at the stake as a witch on 23 February, 1596. The last execution of a suspected witch in Scotland took place in 1727. But those with arcane knowledge still peopled rural communities. According to popular tradition, the parish of Kemnay gets its name from the Kembs or sand chains (a chain of sandhills) woven by a Donside witch as a challenge from the Devil that he would claim her if she could not weave a rope of sand by nightfall. Witches were also reputed to be able to turn themselves into hares. In Strachan, Kincardineshire, at the turn of the 20th century, a servant girl refused to skin a hare, saying 'Na, na, it micht be somebody's granny!'

Herbal medicine survived, however, as a practice associated with secret knowledge of natural cures, mainly because there were few doctors outside urban areas: George Buchan (d. 1738) was a leech, or bloodletter, who also treated people with ale brewed from herbs in his garden at Inverugie. The old ballads frequently refer to love-charms and aphrodisiacs, and mention specific herbs in relation to chastity, pregnancy, labour and abortion. Walter Gregor states that two sweets stuck together with sweat (a recognised aphrodisiac) were believed by the ordinary folk of his day in Aberdeenshire to have a compelling effect on a women who was courted. Conception could be effected in a sterile woman by coitus on the ground out of doors, and children born beneath the trees are mostly male: 'It couldna but be a boy, as it was gotten under a green-tree' (or 'among the green girse' [grass]). Servant girls in Aberdeenshire, late in the 19th century, would 'pu' the yarrow' to determine who their sweetheart might be: 'The first young man that I do see, 'Tis my sweetheart he shall be.'

Belief in a hidden world of powers that could influence one's life was common in rural areas. Certain people, both in the country and in fishing villages, were sought out for advice before undertaking any project or when things were going badly. In the mid-19th century an old farmer in the glen of Cushnie, West Aberdeenshire, lost several calves through sickness and consulted a 'canny wifie' (wise woman), who used her spinning-wheel band to pass the remaining calf through it and thus protect it from harm. In the same glen, one old man never passed the Fairy Hillock without holding his cap on because he said the nearness of the hillock made his hair stand on end. Ghosts were also manifestations of this otherworld, and communing with the dead was not at all unusual: at Tarland, a boy was scared stiff while coming through the kirkyard at night by 'something white' moving about below a flat gravestone supported on four pillars. Was this, as was said, a woman whose husband had been buried there, and whose regret over her bad behaviour compelled these nocturnal visits? Ghostly women haunt buildings, often with a tragic history that is real or imagined: castles such as Muchalls, south of Aberdeen, has one of the many 'Green Ladies' to be found in the North East. In the parish of Keig, it was believed that children baptised after dark would see 'bokies' (ghosts). Another belief held that if a murderer could see through beneath the body of his victim, he would escape punishment: culprits were in fact detected when they were observed looking anxiously under the coffin. 

Wells were often revered and the object of pilgrimage. The Wishing Well at Culloden Moor and the Well of St Mary at Orton both drew pilgrimages into the 20th century. The Saint's Well at Navity, barely used as a rag well in Hugh Miller's day, was decked with rags in 1934. Stones, on the other hand, were often used as a means of cursing - such as the Clach Malloch referred to by Miller - or were able to cure certain conditions, such as infertility - as Walter Gregor notes of the Clach-na- bhan on the east side of Glenavon. Such stones were also protected by unseen powers: the removal of stones by farmers were sometimes accompanied by omens such as cattle bellowing, dogs howling, and on one occasion a voice saying, 'Put back the stone!' Farmers followed traditional customs in ensuring a bountiful harvest: those who lived near the coast were careful to gather the year's first seaweed crop on New Year's morning and place a small heap at the door of each farm building, thereafter sharing the rest among the fields. More dramatic customs were part of the bothy life: the ceremony of The Horseman's Word is the best-known of these. 

So too would fishermen in the North East coastal villages observe taboos, even when they were converts to the zealous Christian proselytisers of the 19th and 20th centuries: it was unlucky to shoot nets on the port side, for example, to taste food before any fish were caught, to leave a creel uppermost, not to draw blood from the first fish caught. No fisherman's wife would comb her hair after sunset when her husband was at sea, and if she dreamed of a white sea, he would have good luck. No Morayshire fisherman would ever be induced to carry a parcel for a friend, go to sea at the beginning of the season, before blood had been shed. Sometimes a free fight would be started to get the desired result. All these customs are, however, subject to change, as are the attitudes to disaster and death at sea. Where bodies were formerly left to the deep, relatives now ask modern technology to reclaim their loved ones' remains for burial, as in the notorious case of the Sapphire, a Peterhead trawler which went down in storm conditions 12 miles from its home port on 1 October, 1997. After the British Government refused help, the families of the dead raised £550,000 towards raising the boat from the seabed. 

Beliefs have a habit of turning into narratives, and legends relating to place can also be found: legends of buried treasure, for instance. In one legend, at least, the pot of gold can only be found by one born of caesarean section: The Grey Stane of Corticram at Old Deer would crush any other person seeking gold at its foot, and the rhyme marks this qualification: 'The man who never has been born/But from his mother's side been shorn/Sall fynd the plate and golden horn/Anaith the stane o' Corticram.' Another narrative concerns the Corbie Pot, a deep pool in the Crynach Burn, Maryculter, and again the Culter burn in the parish of Peterculter, Aberdeenshire. The story usually tells of a person seeking the gold who is interrupted in the middle of digging, the reason being the presence of a supernatural being who guards the treasure. Such beings lurked in dangerous spots, often on high mountains such as the Cairngorms or by turbulent rivers. Kelpies, or water-fairies, were associated with the rivers Dee (notably at Banchory-Devenick) and Don. 

In one account, Farquharson the basket-weaver lost his footing in the Dee beyond Braemar. His wife took his plaid, knelt and prayed by the riverside that the water-spirit give back its dead. Next morning her husband's corpse was found wrapped in the plaid; people believed that a certain ritual would persuade the water-spirit to give up its prey. Frequent drownings in the Dee led to the saying: 'Blood-thirsty Dee/She needs three; But bonny Don/She needs none.' Hugh Miller tells of a water-spirit haunting the Ross-shire river Conan and appearing as 'a tall woman dressed in green, but distinguished chiefly by her withered meagre countenance, ever distorted by a malignant scowl.' At dangerous fords she would start up before a terrified traveller, sometimes beckoning him on. Even today, children tell stories of the Green Lady who haunted houses in Miller's childhood; she is alive and well in the tower of the school building. 

Children's lore carries custom and belief forward into their current preoccupations, and in their habits and customs children are inventive as much as they are conservative. Such customs and habits usually revolve around the yearly cycle or life-cycle, or religious and secular festivals such as Hallowe'en. On Hallowe'en, especially, children use divination: 'At midnight,' related a 14-year-old in Aberdeen, 'all the girls line up in front of a mirror. One by one each girl brushes her hair three times. While she is doing this the man who is to be her husband is supposed to look over her shoulder. If this happens the girl will be married within a year. After they have done this,' she continued, 'each girl peels an apple, the peel must be in one piece, then she throws the peel over her left shoulder with her right hand. This is supposed to form the initial of her husband-to-be.' Children's lore in the North East abounds in topical rhymes, riddles, pranks as well as, for instance, ways of telling a child that they are unpopular. One Aberdeen street saying was: 'Awa ye ham/Yer mither's a bam [silly ass], Yer auld man's a darkie.' Whether such jibes are as common in the North East as they once were is a moot point in view of the demographic changes of the last 25 years. Although it would be hard to describe the North East as 'multicultural' in the sense that parts of England are, immigration and intermarriage may yet begin slowly to affect older habits, attitudes and practices. 

Further reading:

  • Alston, David. 'The Fallen Meteor: Hugh Miller and Local Tradition', in Hugh Miller and the Controversies of Victorian Science, ed. Michael Shortland (Oxford, 1996), 206-29. 
  • Anson, Peter F. 'Religion and Superstition', in Grampian Hairst: An Anthology of Northeast Prose, ed. W. Donaldson and D. Young (Aberdeen, 1981), 38-41. 
  • Curtis, Elixabeth. 'Sone Circles: Perceptions from Inside and Outside the Ring', Northern Scotland 18 (1999), 33-42. 
  • Darwin, Tess. The Scots Herbal: The Plant Lore of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1996). 
  • Gray, Affleck. Legends of the Cairngorms (Edinburgh, 1987). 
  • Gregor, Walter. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland (London, 1881). 
  • Mackenzie, D.A. Scottish Folklore and Folklife (Glasgow, 1935). 
  • Mackinlay, J.M. Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs (Glasgow, 1893). 
  • Macpherson, J.M. Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland (London, 1929). 
  • Opie, Iona and Peter. The Lore & Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford, 1959). 
  • Porter, James. 'The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation', Folklore 109 (1998), 1-14. 
  • ______, ed. Northern Scotland 18 (Special Issue, 1999). 
  • ______. ed. Proceedings of the Conference, 'After Columba, After Calvin' (Aberdeen, 1999). 
  • Ritchie, James. 'Folklore of the Aberdeenshire Stone Circles and Standing-Stones', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 5th series (1925-6), 304-13. 
  • Rorie, David. Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland: The Writings of David Rorie, ed. David Buchan (Edinburgh, 1994).