A Chat with Margaret Bennett
From the Cradle to the Grave
By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA
I note you are referred to as a “folklorist”. When did you first become
interested in folklore? It is an unusual occupation, so what happened in
your life to entice you to become a folklorist, and what part has music
played in your life as a result?
A: I was brought up
on the Isle of Skye, home for generations to my mother’s family, the
Stewarts. My father’s side of the family is Lowland Scots and Irish, and
my three sisters and I were brought up in a household where singing,
playing music, dancing and storytelling were a way of life as were
traditional crafts. Our mother sang, our father played the bagpipes, and
when we moved to the Isle of Lewis in the late 50s, we settled in another
community where the ceilidh house was also the way of life. From 1964
through 1966 we lived in the Shetland Islands, till my father emigrated to
Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Growing up “steeped in tradition” I could
hardly miss -- in fact the way of life must have schooled me, especially
in my grandparents’ home in Uig. I’m reminded of Sir Walter Scott, in
writing his Memoirs he looked back with joy to his childhood when he was
“fed with the legendary lore of the Borders as with a mother’s milk…” I
tasted both Highland and Lowland in my childhood and youth and have never
lost my appetite for either.
Q: Is there one teacher, family member or friend who encouraged,
inspired and instilled in you the moral fortitude to become the person
Hamish Henderson references as one of the “few scholars on either side of
the Atlantic who succeed in combining such a wide range of skills…” and
“has to her credit an enviable record of solid ethnological scholarship”?
A: My grandfather,
John Stewart, was every child’s dream grandfather - eyes that shone with a
great sense of humour, fun, sometimes mischief - but with the
fundamentally sound moral values that upheld right, loyalty, kindness,
goodness, and cared deeply about culture and the environment. A
crofter-fisherman, he was not only widely read with an astounding general
knowledge, but was full of all kinds of traditional lore and curiosities
that fascinated me. As a child I was not an avid reader, in fact I was a
pretty poor reader, but I loved to listen intently and picture the details
in my mind. He seemed so wise and compassionate to me - and I also took to
his saying “if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” And his
own life exemplified the things he believed in and upheld. (I did,
however, become a very devoted reader - and still am, albeit slow!)
Q: Tell us briefly about your educational background as a student
and a teacher.
Primary schooling: Portree High School, Isle of Skye; Secondary schooling:
The Nicolson Institute, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis and The Anderson
Educational Institute, Lerwick, Shetland.
Diploma of College of Education (with distinction), Glasgow, three-year
course in teacher training, 1967
B.A. (Education) Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's,
Newfoundland, Canada, 1970.
M.A. (Post-graduate) Department of Folklore, M.U.N, 1975. Thesis: “Some
Aspects of the Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Codroy Valley,
Newfoundland” (350 pp).
Ph.D, The University of Edinburgh, 1994: “Hebridean Traditions of the
Townships of Quebec: A Study in Cultural Identity” (450+ pp).
Teaching: My first teaching job was 1968-69: Elementary school teacher in
St. John, Newfoundland - in the days when classes had over 40 children
with age range 7 to 11!
l977-84: Teacher (Special Education), Scottish Education Department. (I
set up a unit for children with learning difficulties and a curriculum
that included many aspects of folklore - learning through tradition… lots
of songs, games, crafts, etc.)
1984-1995: Lecturer in Scottish Ethnology, School of Scottish Studies, The
University of Edinburgh
October 1995: Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Glasgow School
of Scottish Studies (I only do occasional lectures.)
Freelance - I have been in the planning of two new degrees and prepared
course work and taught on both.
For three years with Orkney College (part of the University of the
Highlands) - planned course, taught via IT and prepared a CD-Rom on
Since 1998, part time at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama - I
teach folklore to singers and musicians and many summer schools.
Q: At one time or another, all of us appear to be a little
superstitious. Over the years, I have read extensively about Scotland and
her people and have come to the conclusion they are far more superstitious
than most people. Would you elaborate on the superstitious nature of the
Scots, particularly the Highlanders, as it relates to your book?
Highlanders have the reputation of being the most superstitious, in my own
years in Edinburgh and Glasgow - as Lowland as you get - I have often been
taken by surprise by any number of instances that could match the most
superstitious Gael. Even students who at first seem urban and “cool” have
told me the most astonishing experience and “hearsays”. Ghosts, second
sight, fears that seem unfounded… But reflecting upon today’s young people
when I ponder on their attitude, etc., and regard their self assured ways,
it occurred to me last week when I read (I have to say with dismay) that
the students of the Stirling University union were proposing to have all
Gideon Bibles removed from all student residences because they could be
offensive to people of other faiths than Christians. Apart from my fearing
that this is secular fundamentalism gone mad, it strikes me that these
students must be incredibly superstitious if they cannot tolerate a book
reputed to have wonderful spiritual power - they seem so fearful they have
to legislate removal! Is this not beyond all superstition that earned the
Highlanders their reputation?
Q: I am familiar with the four-volume set of books entitled Popular
Tales of the West Highlands by J. F. Campbell, which consists of 1,743
pages. In addition to your own book, SCOTTISH CUSTOMS, From the Cradle to
the Grave, which I recommend highly, are there any books from your
extensive bibliography you could recommend that might not be as long or
tedious as Campbell’s books?
A: My desert island
book would have to be Martin Martin's A Description of the Western Isles
of Scotland circa 1695 (1703).
Q: SCOTTISH CUSTOMS is an amazing book, a good book. How long did
it take you to compile the information from the beginning until the book
was published and what problems did you encounter?
A: I began to
collect material for this when I taught a course in Custom and Belief at
the University of Edinburgh. Finding too little material (at least between
the covers of one book), I decided I’d put one together - I drip-fed the
project for about two years, tried to identify gaps and fill them with
newly recorded information as and when I could. Since I was
teaching/lecturing full time and supervising several Ph.D. students, I had
to fit this in to my work schedule. But I didn’t write a single word of it
at the University! I have an early morning habit - if I can put in some
time before the day begins, then each day counts. My day still begins
around 5 or 6 a.m. and, lazy as it sounds, I quit writing not long after
breakfast and do all the other stuff that beckons me.
Q: What is the most unusual interview you conducted while compiling
this book? How did you decide to write about these Scottish customs?
A: The most unusual,
or unexpected, was Don Ratter, a Shetlander who lives in New Zealand -
over 90 years old he attended a Burns supper where I was guest speaker,
singer, and over dinner I went to speak to him simply because he was the
oldest man in the room and also seemed so alert. I was so surprised when
he spoke, and recognized his accent at once (that surprised him), asked
where EXACTLY he grew up. When he told me the very street in Lerwick and
asked if I knew it, I said, “Know it? That’s the street we lived on when
we moved there in 1963!” Next day I borrowed a tape recorder from a
library, found the senior citizen’s home, and paid him a visit. Only an
excerpt is in the book.
Q: A few years back, my wife Susan and I made a trip to Scotland to
attend the wedding on the Black Isle of our Atlanta-area friends Eric and
Jennifer Coggin who wanted to be married in the auld country. John Shaw of
Tordarroch, Chief of Clan Shaw who, at the time, lived just a few miles
away at Newhall, arranged the wedding. Over two dozen family members and
friends from America attended. Is this custom on the increase? If so, why
do you think a couple goes to all that trouble to be married in Scotland?
A: Is it the
romantic setting of castles, mountains, lochs? I think we’ll need to ask
Madonna - she’s done a lot to inspire Scottish weddings - definitely on
Q: The diary entry on page 59 of your book tells of Paula and Will
who lived in San Francisco and had returned home to Scotland to have their
child, Peter, christened in Edinburgh at St Michael and All Saints’
Church, the church of their wedding. Our own grandson was christened with
water I brought back from the centuries-old baptismal font near Dunlichity
Church off the A9 about 12 miles below Inverness. Why is returning home
for a christening important, and based on your knowledge of Scottish
customs from the cradle to the grave, why is water from Scotland to
christen a wee baby from an outdoors font made by nature of such
A: Christening in
Scotland…. There seems to be deep need within all of us to feel that we
belong somewhere, that we have roots, and preferably somewhere that
exemplifies aspects that are important to us - not just the physical
beauty of mountains and lochs, or even cultural features such as language,
literature, song, music, but more importantly, a place where values such
as loyalty, honesty, integrity, trust, fairness, faithfulness, justice,
and devotion are upheld. And it may be that the more we look at the trends
of the modern world and its lack of these values, the more we may look to
the place (even in our imagination) where we believe these values have
deep roots. And Scotland is such a place, regardless of changes in the
present day. We need only look at its history, especially clan history, to
be assured of this.
Q: I enjoyed your presentation recently at the annual Scottish
symposium hosted by the St. Andrews College Scottish Heritage Center in
Laurinburg, NC. It was a pleasure meeting you there, and I thank you for
the courtesies you have extended to me during our email interview. Is
there something you would like to leave with our readers before you depart
for your trip to Bulgaria?
A: Off to Bulgaria
tomorrow - my thoughts…? If anyone is reading my book, I’d hope they might
find themselves awakening to aspects of their own culture they had either
overlooked or taken for granted, that they might consider how important
these colorful facets of life are for they all make up our identity.
Folklore is our mirror of culture - so, I hope to look at Bulgaria with
fresh eyes; I might occasionally see the reflection of my own culture in
theirs. The common features, such as the landmarks in our lives or on our
calendar, help us understand one another. I don’t speak the language, but
I hope I can share the common language of music.