Friday, 10 August 2012


During my recent studies I periodically encountered the Head of Department. He would usually beam at me and ask engagingly ‘Are you sick of it yet?’ Funnily enough, I never actually was, but by the end I was almost physically incapable of taking on anything further. It’s been, therefore, a pleasure and a relief to have been able to survey some recent folklore publications over the last couple of months, and to be able to read more widely than just thesis-related subjects.
One delight has been the charming Galoshins Remembered: ‘A Penny Was a Lot in These Days’, ed. Emily Lyle (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2011). It’s an unassuming little book, and all the better for that.
Galoshins was a fairly typical folk play of the combat and recovery type. It was performed as a house visiting play across the south of Scotland either on Old Year’s Night or Halloween by groups of (usually) boys aged between nine and 14. Its performance lasted well into the first half of the twentieth century. Such was the enthusiasm for it that some former practitioners have also been active in promoting its revival amongst local children, like the group shown on the front cover. (When I was trying to find footage online all I came up with were some consciously ‘traditional’ and rather overblown revival performances by adults. They’re pleasant and entertaining enough – and rather wonderful in some cases – but not quite the same as a group of small boys in costumes fighting in your front room).
The book provides an overview of recent field research amongst surviving practitioners. It is exemplary in its presentation of their words and its demonstration of field interviewing techniques.
Emily Lyle’s wide-ranging scholarship is formidable. She has combined some theoretically challenging approaches to a very long cultural history in the ritual year (approaches I have not always found convincing because of their historical and prehistorical sweep) with some sensitive and nuanced work on ballads and singers. This book really shows her at her best, working closely with informants in the field to document their lives and practice.
From their recollection Lyle is able to reconstruct local texts of the play, and give musical notation for the short song that concluded the performance. More significantly, I think, she is able to capture something of the real joy and excitement involved in the performances.
This is the book’s strength. Although it provides good documentation of the artefacts of performance (the play, costumes, music etc) its real focus is its importance in the lives of performers and their communities. One informant here was even known locally, and introduced to strangers, by reference to his part in the play.
By really placing the participants at the heart of this book Lyle is able to provide a comprehensive examination of the play as a limited and specific ethnographic practice. It is probable that the book will mainly attract the attention of folk drama specialists to begin with, but its strength, to my mind, is that it is really about the practice as a part of local childlore, which is a rather wider subject. The book is unlikely to satisfy those looking for deeper artefactual analyses of the play, but I think it opens a much richer and more fruitful way of approaching communities and their practices. It makes no great claims for itself, and is likely to be the more enduring because of that.