Nearly Dark, Darkly Near. Telling tales: storytelling in the Scottish oral tradition and the problems inherent in attempts to study, preserve or continue it: a suggested methodology for future interactions
This doctoral thesis is composed of two separate sections: a novel and a contextualising critical discussion. The novel deals with a thirteen-year-old boy named Morgan whose parents are separating, moving him from a comfortable city life to his mother’s hometown in rural Perthshire. There he begins a friendship with a mysterious young girl and together they tap into the landscape’s rich cultural history of Scottish tales and folklore. Split between parents he cannot understand and an ancient world of which he is not a part, Morgan’s flirtations with Scottish storytelling become a search for personal history and heritage, culminating in Morgan crafting his own story. This final story acts as a teller-created bildüngsroman but also challenges the authority and validity of the stories that he is told, highlighting the fallacy of any concepts of “ownership” inherent in them. The critical portion contextualises Morgan’s tale. It discusses how we problematize our interactions with the form of storytelling by fixing it as linear history to promote it as a national signifier or cultural vessel. The paper discusses this by engaging with the novel’s main themes through three distinct sections. The first examines eighteenth century engagements with Scottish storytelling and their role in creating national identity. It focuses on MacPherson’s Ossian scandals, Scott and Burns. The second section examines how this fractious groundwork developed during the twentieth century folk revivals and the cultural engagements of Henderson and the Scottish travellers. The final section discusses methodology and both the problems and strengths of contemporary academic responses. The paper argues that we have developed a methodology that is too rigid and reverential, often essentializing “fixed” understandings of storytelling in attempts to distribute ownership or champion nationalistic priorities. The thesis argues that attempts to preserve or promote the form often work to limit it. To make any progress in developing the “tradition”, we must approach it with a critical methodology that is free of elitism and allows new patrons of whatever experience or knowledge to contribute to it. The discussion poses that this is only possible if our critical and academic interactions become as malleable as the form itself: rather than attempt to absolve or excuse the difficulties and historical contradictions inherent in the form, it must openly embrace them as a vital part of a very “Scottish” form of storytelling.