Fishing for Heritage

Fishing for Heritage

Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast

Jane Nadel-Klein

Fishing for Heritage – Some might think a book on Scottish fishing villages to be a mite esoteric, even obscure. How many could there be, after all, and why should we care about them, other than as pretty places to visit on a holiday?

I have spent a quarter of a century studying these villages and the people who live there, thinking about them almost daily. I have come to know many as informants and some as friends, so 1 feel entitled to give an answer. Actually, three answers.

The first is simply the one that any right-minded anthropologist or humanist might give, that all people, “great and small,” deserve our attention, not least because “human populations construct their cultures in interaction with one another, and not in isolation,” as Eric Wolf said in his preface to Europe and the People Without History (1982: ix). Fishers have been part of the larger story of Scotland, Europe and the world beyond.

The second is that by studying Scottish fishing villagers we learn something about the conundrums of modernity and perhaps of post¬ modernity (should it exist); for in their histories and in their present circumstances, they have experienced how capitalism can create and then dismiss a way of life.

Living in small places initially adapted to a small- scale, decentralized industry, they now find themselves struggling to stay afloat in a world run by much larger players. Adapting to these changes over the years has given the fishers a toughness and resilience as well as a sharply critical eye and tongue.

As I have said elsewhere, they are not about to watch their eclipse happen silently (Nadel-Klein 1991a). They see themselves as survivors. They are not sure, however, what legacy they can leave to their children.

Thirdly, I also know, as an anthropologist, that ethnographic investigation can teach us much about the experience of what is now fashionably called globalism. To understand the consequences of public attitudes, policies, national agendas and transnational economic forces upon localities, we cannot afford to look only at statistics on employment and migration.

We must remember Geertz’s exhortation that ethnography is a “craft of place” (1983: 167) and look at – and listen to – people. The fisherfolk are fabulous – and generous – storytellers who can teach us much about survival, integrity and strength in the face of hardship. By listening to them and by setting their tales in present-day, as well as in historical context, we engage with memory as a tactic that builds and rebuilds identity. For it is not just the body that must perpetually renew itself; it is our sense of self, as well.

The best way to find local experience is to live with people in the places they call “home.” My strategy here is to let my informants speak about identity, time, place and community and to set their views against those of “outsiders” as much as possible.

In this way, 1 examine how Scottish fishing people define themselves, how others define them, and how these contrasting perceptions shape an ongoing, but rarely equal dialogue, similar in many ways to that encompassing Highlanders, Celts, Gypsies and others who occupy stereotyped and often stigmatized categories.

Identity-in-dialogue is a never-completed process, rather than an object, so my book is historical as well as ethnographic. Stereotypes, stigma and, indeed, marginalization, havemolded fisherss’ lives. Scholarly, popular and touristic descriptions have, each in their own way, contributed to that marginalization. Nonetheless, the people of fishing communities have managed to construct a positive sense of their own value. They do not regard the past as something to be transcended or forgotten but as an educational resource, a school of hard knocks that helps them to endure modern burdens.

For them, the past is not so much a foreign country (cf. Lowenthal 1985) as a familiar attic in which they rummage will, pulling out bits and pieces that can be recycled for present use. These bits and pieces are not randomly chosen but provide evidence of a strategy of negotiation in the face of long-term social stigma and economic struggle.

The rise, decline and transformation of Scottish fishing villages provides the book’s framework. Each chapter looks both at material circumstances as well as at different ways that fishers have responded to power.

In this first chapter, I introduce the intersecting layers of discourse, the community imaginings in which fishers are embedded (Anderson 1983).

To reach the local level, so as to achieve an anthropological understanding, we must move through the national; we are helped along the way by Archetypes, Fantasies & Ethnographic Destinations fictional and poetic, as well as ethnographic accounts.

Chapter 2 addresses cases, examining historically how the east coast fishing communities were established as objects of social stigma. Gender forms the core of Chapter 3, where I look at how fisherwomen’s complex, public roles helped to reinforce the idea that fishers were “different.”

In Chapter 4,1 hone in on Ferryden, site of my first Scottish fieldwork. It is a village whose claim to be a fishing community now hangs by a thread, so eclipsed by others’ agendas that it has even disappeared from many maps.

In Chapter 5,1 broadens the focus again to confront crisis, an idea with which fishers everywhere are only too familiar. I set the current moment of crisis in a more general North Atlantic context to show that the Scottish fishers’ experience is not unique, but also to demonstrate the enormous complexity of their current predicament.

Finally, in Chapter 6,1 tie these threads together, reprising themes of representation by looking at how tourism and the  “heritage industry” (Hewison 1987) are producing new imaginings about fisher people. While these allow local voices to be heard in new venues, the fishers seldom get to control who hears them, where the message goes, or how it is interpreted.

As Sharon MacDonald (1997: 246), in her book on cultural “reimagining” on the Isle of Skye, points out, “People are being called upon to revive, maintain and express the cultural particularity that it is assumed that they have somehow lost touch with: they are being called upon to expressively  individuate themselves as ‘cultures’.”

In the tensions that arise during this process along the east coast, we can see the latest in the series of struggles that have, in some measure, pitted fisherfolk against those who would appropriate cultural resources for their own ends.

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