Doomsday fieldwork, or, how to rescue Gaelic culture?

Historical Geography Reading Group, 7/3/13

Session 6, Semester 2

MacDonald, F. (2012) ‘Doomsday fieldwork, or, how to rescue Gaelic culture? The salvage paradigm in geography, archaeology, and folklore, 1955 – 62, in Environment and Planning D: Society and space.

The attention of the group this month turned towards the incredibly detailed piece entitled, ‘Doomsday fieldwork, or, how to rescue Gaelic culture? The salvage paradigm in geography, archaeology, and folklore, 1955 – 62’, by Fraser MacDonald (University of Edinburgh). Chosen, in part, for its intriguing title, the group sought to probe the paper’s inner workings and to think in more depth about fieldwork in its broadest and most intimate sense.

Firstly, attention fell on the scholarship of the piece. Members of the group noted on the patient, sensitive and sustained engagement the author had with the empirical materials. For example, the section on Calum Iain Maclean was signalled as a possible paper in itself, with particular reference made to the mind-blowing nine-hour story Maclean recorded of Angus MacMillan. Clearly this project was a labour of love and this came across throughout the piece in its incredible attention to the smallest of details told in the most exquisite of ways. The group noted that there was a richness and slowness to the piece that encapsulated the spirit of the themes in a very clever way.

One element that was discussed in detail was the section on Glasgow University’s Crofting Survey. Discussions ranged from thinking about the enigma of the crofting work, as it failed to ever reach a mainstream academic audience in terms of publication, to thinking critically about the historiography of fieldwork in the discipline. Questions were raised as to why the results of the survey were left so underexposed and led to a wider evaluation of academic production in the present day. Who do academics really write and undertake fieldwork for? How does fieldwork makes one feel? What do students think they are doing when they are conducting fieldwork?

Finally, discussions turned to the inner mechanics of the work. Observations were made that it could be seen as a melancholic piece with elements of loss punctuating the narrative. The language of psychoanalysis runs throughout, weaving and twisting its way into the heart of the stories it tells, and eventually signals its departure point as MacDonald leaves us pondering in his final line, “But then repeating the past is always, as Freud said, another way  of remembering it”.


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