I mentioned in this earlier piece about Isabel Frances Grant that I wished to share my thoughts on her book ‘Highland Folk Ways’ and that time has finally arrived.
I like everything about this almost encyclopaedic volume that covers virtually all aspects of Gaelic culture and places them within a broadly sweeping background description of the history of the Highlands & Islands.
I happen to prefer books that are written with a passion for their subject but combined with a scholarly approach and deep knowledge of the material that is being covered. ‘Highland Folk Ways’ is all these things and in fact the only downside is the appearance of the word ‘folk’ in its title for that word is somewhat demeaning in the all-encompassing world of Gaelic culture. It is a failing that Isabel Grant herself was well aware of but perhaps there is no better small, single word with which to convey the content of her work?
The book constantly reminds us that the people more than compensated for their lack of material resources by an immense resourcefulness that continues to this day despite the descent into the ‘disposable culture’ of more modern times. It also demonstrates the appropriateness of the tools used, for example, in cultivating the land and the damage wrought by so-called ‘improvement’, both to the people and the land, is hinted-at too.
I do not mean to imply that there was some ‘Golden Age’ when the Highlands & Islands flowed with milk & honey and we must always remember that such supposedly ‘traditional’ aspects of life as tea, tobacco and the potato were each relatively recent imports to the culture!
Thus the book presents a dynamic picture rather than a static one and helps fill the gap between a sloppy ‘guide-book’ style of history (with its ‘traditional crofting’ type of approach*) and that of the academic thesis which, for all its scholarship, lie unloved in a library awaiting awakening.
Isabel Grant wrote her ‘popular’, accessible and thought-provoking history just over 50 years ago, and it has been followed by several equally excellent books by more recent authors that convey complex issues in an equally engaging and well-written manner, but if one is looking for a single-volume introduction to the history of Gaelic culture than hers has yet to be beaten.
*Crofting is a little over 200 years old which, in the context of the millennia of occupation of the Highlands & Islands, is but a fleeting moment ago...
Where to buy the book:
In addition to online retailers (including those dealing in secondhand books which are especially attractive if you prefer your books to be affordable hardbacks!) it can be obtained direct from the Highland Folk Museum’s shop - http://www.highlandfolk.com/shop.php