The People's Parish is a new initiative from TRACS to support communities to discover and rediscover a 'sense of place'; to dig into the cultural memory and find the resources – stories, traditions, heritage, history - with which it can be expressed creatively.
The Statistical Accounts of Scotland were a parish-by-parish snapshot of life in Scotland, recorded by ministers and other prominent people between 1790 and 1970. The aim of the People's Parish is to create a contemporary 'creative account' of Scotland from the bottom up perspective, incorporating a mosaic of creative work made by local people and community artists to create local (i.e. parish-scale) cultural and historical resources.
In the blog below, David Francis reflects on what connects people with place and suggests the beginnings of a framework for communities to tell their own story to the world. For more information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
A day to launch the initiative is set for March 25th at the Scottish Storytelling Centre – details here.
The Greek philosopher Archytus said ‘Perhaps place is the first of all things, since all existing things are either in place or not without place.’
As human beings we are always emplaced. In other words we’re never not in a place. We don’t – can’t - exist in an abstract space with no depth of field or without a horizon of some kind. Those depths and horizons are what make sense of our perception, make sense of our experience as embodied. Places have the effect of gathering in those depths and horizons, giving them a sense of wholeness which enables us to return to them, remember them and classify them in some way. But as well as having those physical qualities, places are both an end point and a transition point of time and history, ever shifting. Culture gathers in place, just as it gathers in the bodies which perceive place. As Edward S. Casey puts it, ‘As places gather bodies in their midst in deeply enculturated ways, so cultures enjoin bodies in concrete circumstances of emplacement.'
It is the complete congruence of place and culture which interested Patrick Geddes, the great Scottish polymath. Place for him was part of a trinity that also encompassed ‘Work’ and ‘Folk’, all three necessary components of an understanding of the ecology of human settlements. One of Geddes’s champions, Murdo MacDonald, points out that, for Geddes, ‘Place Work Folk’, were not geographical, economic or anthropological abstractions, but the interacting elements of a process that shapes places not only physically but psychologically; how Folk make meaning of Place through acts of collective imagination.
TRACS’s new initiative the People’s Parish is very much about the kind of programme suggested by storyteller, Hugh Lupton. Part of its task is, as he puts it, to work creatively with reminiscence, anecdote and story on the individual level but also with the ‘myths of place’ which, as he puts it ‘reflect the way the collective imagination and understanding of a whole population has invested a place with meaning’. From the point of view of the traditional arts this is the work which connects with the function of the bards within communities, creative people with a particular relationship to their co-habitants in a place, and crucially with a deep attachment to that place. A great example of that is the musician and singer, Ali Beag MacLeod from Achiltibuie, described by his kinsman Kevin MacLeod, the well-known dance musician, as having ‘roots coming out of his feet straight into the sand and seaweed of Achiltibuie […] you go out on the boat with Ali and he can tell you all about the coastline, the names of places, and people who lived there in every small corner.’
Part of the engagement with place then is the engagement with it as the sum total of everything that has happened in it up to the present point (as geographer Doreen Massey put it in her memorable phrase, the ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’), a present point that is constantly shifting and which contains within itself the inevitability of change. It is our knowledge of those processes of change and of our attitude to them, the layering of geology and climate, the physical changes to settlements wrought by shifting social and economic relations, which contribute to the meaning we invest in place, whether that meaning is sub-consciously felt by individuals or publically expressed through the collective making and re-making of myth, legend and song. No two places are alike, each has its own genius loci, and each informs the self-identity of the people who live there in its own way.
The People’s Parish then is about working with communities to find and explore that genius loci, that sense of place, to dig into the cultural memory and find the resources with which it can be expressed creatively. What interests us in particular is how the ‘folk voice’ within that cultural memory can be used to help communities to say something about themselves to themselves - and to the world at large – in this early part of the 21st century.
In this we are emulating in some ways the model used in the latter part of the 18th century when ministers were enjoined to contribute to the Statistical Account of Scotland, a parish by parish summary of the economic and moral state of the nation. Now this sounds dry as your mammy’s washing on a dry day for good drying, but in among the lists of average swede production by the bushel there is fascinating information about the topography, occupations, stories and histories of places the boundaries of which are still recognised today. (The civil parishes only ceased to become a unit of government is Scotland as recently as 1930, and their boundaries are still used by the census today.)
They are a wonderful starting point for the exploration of distinctiveness of places – local details, landmarks, geology and geography, resources (the natural dimension); and our connections with the ‘layering’ of a place – of what has happened in the place before the present day and how the resonances of past events persist into the present (the cultural or human dimension). The difference is that, instead of the account being a statistical one created and edited by one person in a position of privilege (‘top down’), the People’s Parish aims to be a creative one, fashioned from the bottom up.
We have identified a 7 stage process for bringing the People’s Parish initiative to life.
One example of action-research, developed by the environmental charity, Common Ground, shows how details can be brought to light. The ‘ABC’ puts everything on the same level, puts unexpected things next to each other and perhaps catches them in a different light. It can be quirky or commonplace. Different people will value different things, but that’s what makes it interesting.
If I was to think about my home community of Portobello in Edinburgh, for example, my ABC, off the top of my head, might include:
Amusements, the Beach, the Boatyard, the Cakestand, Cormorants, Eider Ducks, Figgate Burn, Georgian cottages, Gargoyles, Harry Lauder, Hugh Miller, Istanbul, Joppa Rocks, the Kilns, Lee Crescent, Miami Vice apartments, the Prom, Parks, Redshanks, Setts, Town Halls, the Tower, Terns, Turkish Baths, Weather-vanes...
Others might concur or inevitably add to that and so a picture is built up. In that kind of detail lies the local distinctiveness which informs historical, cultural and ecological richness. Geddes himself wrote: ‘Local character is no mere accidental old-world quaintness, as its mimics think and say. It is attained only in the course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned. Each place has a true personality.’
It is our ambitious aim to involve the whole of Scotland, but we are taking as our starting point the 15 parishes in Midlothian each with its own distinctive character, from the expanse of Fala and Soutra in the south, to the sprawl of Newbattle in the north. TRACS invited local activists, artists and community organisations to a day to explore how the People's Parish could work in the fifteen parishes of Midlothian on Saturday 10th September at the National Mining Museum, when a mix of speakers, a map workshop, and local song and story from Kirsty Law and Lea Taylor set up what we hope will be a fruitful start to the initiative.
 Edward S. Casey, ‘How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time’, in Steven Feld and Keith Basso (eds), Senses of Place (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996), p.46
 Murdo Macdonald, ‘Patrick Geddes: Environment and Culture’ in Walter Stephen (ed.) Think Global, Act Local: The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2004)
 Hugh Lupton, The Dreaming of Place (Combe Martin: Daylight Press, 2001)
 Joe Peach, ‘Rhu Beag’, Living Tradition (114) 2016
 Sue Clifford and Angela King (eds). Local distinctiveness: place, particularity and identity. Essays for a conference, Sept. 28, 1993 (London: Common Ground, 1993)
 Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution (London: Williams and Norgate, 1915)