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April 19, 2022

Counting Culture 

With the deadline for census returns fast approaching, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we owe this particular civic responsibility to the work of Sir John Sinclair and his efforts to compile the Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799). Sinclair hoped that the Statistical Account, gathering data from parish ministers about local history, geography, agriculture, and the economy, would reveal the ‘quantum of happiness’ of the nation. Drawing on these same enlightenment principles but aiming for a more ‘creative account’ of Scotland rather than a purely statistical one, the People’s Parish is an opportunity for communities to reflect on their cultural backstory.


David Francis Director, Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland

ROBERT Mochrie’s piece on a modern, interactive Statistical Account of Scotland based on local authority wards struck a chord (Here’s a way for Scotland to plan how to meets its people’s needs, Jan 5). At Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland we have been developing a similar approach, but based on the idea of a “creative account” of Scotland rather than a statistical one.

We call this approach The People’s Parish, which brings together artists and people in local communities to reflect on the places where they live. Our starting point is people’s traditions and the back story of their places. From place we connect community, local history, folklore and creativity, making projects that reflect how communities see themselves and how they want to present themselves to the world. After working with an artist in the medium of their choice to make the creative work, communities’ contributions will be gathered to give a people’s artistic account of Scotland in the 21st century. Our starting points, like the old Statistical Account, are the civil parishes, the boundaries of which are still in use in every locality across Scotland.

But at the end of the day, boundaries are just lines on a map, and as the distinguished American folklorist Henry Glassie put it, “boundaries are less important than centres”, the places where people form associations, social affinities.

The parish boundary nonetheless provides a useful starting point, and a marker against which to gauge shifts in settlement, the reconfiguration of communities and how the members of those communities orient and re-orient themselves.

Our starting point is an acknowledgement that the world is in a state of profound crisis – but that, by focusing on the local, digging where we stand, we have the immediate means to start addressing that crisis.

We need, among other things, a revived and enriched civic life, flourishing communities. What characterises a flourishing community? Civic engagement, certainly, good health, social justice (equality, distribution of wealth, power, privilege), respectful, tolerant relationships with nature and each other, bound together by a sense of place: a connection with what makes a place different from another – local details, landmarks, geology and geography, resources (the natural dimension).

In order to flourish in the present and in the future, communities also need a relationship with their past, their collective memory, a connection with the “layering” of a place – of what has happened in the place, and how the resonances of past events persist into the present. In addition, the story of a place has to take account of the ebb and flow of new members of communities, and what their own stories bring. Engagement, connections, relationships, sense of place – all of these are important components of well-being.

A well-being economy goes beyond GDP as a measure of success. It is one in which economic activity – work (production), trading (distribution), consumption – is directed towards a culture which values human flourishing: where people have positive feelings about life, are engaged with their community and wider society, have positive social relationships, find meaning in their life, and have a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment.

People find meaning in many different ways. Our job at TRACS is help people and communities find meaning through connection with vernacular artistic traditions, particularly in the fields of music, dance, storytelling and craft, the so-called “intangible cultural heritage”. To that end we are currently working, through the Scottish Government’s Culture Collective initiative, in nine communities across Scotland – in housing schemes, in small towns and in rural areas – to explore these ideas. The renewal of the social and civil fabric is both goal and means, and it is urgent. We hope that our work in exploring the stories of places and their meaning for the people who live in them will be a contribution to that.