Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and the dynamics of cultural memory
MacRae, Lucy Alison
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As editor of the ballad collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3), Walter Scott sought to salvage and preserve the cultural memory of the Border region, rescuing “popular superstitions, and legendary history, which, if not now collected, must soon have been totally forgotten” (MSB 1802; 1: cix). Scott’s endeavour was inspired by the movement towards cultural nationalism, which in Scotland, as in a wider European context, saw interest in traditional material reinvigorated by a widespread zeal to recover, polish and publish ‘relics’ of localised, oral culture perceived to be threatened by the rapid march of modernity. This thesis is a study on the theme of memory in the Minstrelsy. Under examination are the personal and cultural memories from which Scott synthesised his seminal ballad collection, as well as the internal memorial dynamics of the Minstrelsy itself. The social, material and mental dimensions of Posner’s semiotic model of culture (Posner 1991), may also be seen to constitute the three main components of the term ‘cultural memory’, a metaphor for the memorial symbols and practices through which social groups define and maintain their cultural identity. A recent definition of the term interprets cultural memory as “the sum of all processes […] which are involved in the interplay of past and present within sociocultural contexts” (Erll 2011: 101). The Minstrelsy is a composite text in which ballad versions gathered from a range of oral and written sources are framed by Scott’s editorial commentary. This convergence of media means that the collection itself may be understood as a memorial, or ‘site of memory’ which symbolises a particular version of the past (Nora 1989). Through the editorial commentary, Scott was able to negotiate the transmission of cultural knowledge concerning the past of the Borders as well as the wider Scottish nation. The aims of this research are twofold. The first is to achieve a deeper understanding of the cultural contexts surrounding the creation of the Minstrelsy. The second is to contribute to the swiftly developing area of cultural memory studies through a focus on the editorial interpretation of oral tradition in the case of this canonical ballad collection. To this end, memoirs, correspondence and ballad manuscripts are drawn upon to investigate the layered memory culture of traditional songs, narratives, images and places through which Scott sifted during the compilation of the collection. The thesis is structured to represent a gradual widening in scope from the personal to the collective, throughout which it is argued that Scott’s editing of the Minstrelsy may be aligned with a mediated memorial practice that actively shapes the identity of the culture which he as editor sought to preserve.