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On the Question of Scottish Cultural Appropriation

...in an International St Andrews?


It is no secret that St Andrews is home to plenty of cultures and diversity. Attracting visitors due to both the town’s famous reputation for golf and renowned university, the number of international students and visitors has created a distinctive atmosphere of international variety combined with traditions native to Fife. This blend of culture begs the question of whether or not the international atmosphere of St Andrews allows Scottish culture to thrive, or instead stifles it.


Naturally one would think that, with the university being a Scottish one, there would be a general and overarching appreciation of Scottish culture. Admittedly this is true, with numerous organisations such as the Caledonian and Celtic societies’ work to promote Scottish culture, language, and art. Undoubtedly there are opportunities available for natives and newcomers to Scotland to partake in the country’s culture, but the question regarding how genuine one’s appreciation of culture remains unclear — often, the lines between a respect for a culture’s traditions and customs and a superficial appreciation of local culture are blurred.


The term ‘cultural appropriation’ has grown in popularity in recent years. In an increasingly globalised world, we are confronted with clashes of different cultures and their customs. We can define a term as broad as ‘cultural appropriation’ as taking aspects of a certain culture — whether that be its art, costumes and clothing, or traditions — in a manner that is disrespectful, with no regard to the said culture’s history or intricacies, and the problems that may arise from an outsider’s adoption of its traditions.



Normally, the question of cultural appropriation is applied to minority cultures that are marginalised, being more often than not Asian or African cultures. The same mentality is not adopted to mainstream Western cultures in the same way — donning a bonnet and drinking tea is not exactly perceived to be offensive to Britain or its customs. This is primarily because minority cultures, or nations that have been subject to colonialism and subjugation, have had their cultural practices as a basis for discrimination, a predicament that does not apply to larger Western countries.


However, it would be uninformed to say that European cultures are immune to appropriation. To render any culture, any collection of artistic and societal achievements, into a caricature is to disrespect it. The question of Scottish cultural appropriation is therefore more nuanced. An appreciation of customs such as ceilidhs, kilt-wearing, and figures like Robert Burns, is beneficial when done in a respectful and informed way — cultural appropriation becomes a problem when peoples and their practices are reduced to a set of stereotypes without any substance.


Yet the international atmosphere and diversity offered by St Andrews, through greater exposure of its arts and customs, gives Scottish culture the opportunity to thrive. Traditions like ceilidhs and reels, and the appreciation of literary figures like Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, provide international students and visitors with new insights into the cultural richness of Scotland. Indeed, the variety of people from different origins in St Andrews opens up its culture to more change and fluidity. The notion of culture is not a static thing, but something constantly changing, constantly in flux. ‘Western’ culture today is drastically different from what it was a hundred or even fifty years ago.


For human culture, to change is to stay alive. In a world that is more globalised, it is important for there to be a coexistence of tradition and the innovation brought by more diversity. A real appreciation of culture would not entail the erasure of age-old traditions for newer ones, but a mingling of historical practices and conventions with newer ones, allowing the progress of a people’s arts and practices.


The traditions that constitute an overall culture are closely tied to a people’s history and legacy. To appreciate these traditions, we must respect their origins, acknowledge their virtues, and value them for being symbols of the human spirit and its innovation—it is this fluid and ever-changing tradition of creativity that we call culture. With respect, knowledge, and appreciation, we, too, can help shape it.



Image from Wikimedia Commons


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