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St Kilda, Harris Tweed and Gaelic are cited as examples of why Scotland needs a legal framework to protect its living culture.

In an op-ed piece in The Conversation, Stephen Collins, Reader in Performance at the University of the West of Scotland, argues that Scotland is a nation rich in intangible cultural heritage.

Despite this, the UK is one of the few countries not to have signed up to the Unesco 2003 Convention for the Protection and Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The convention is practically universal, with 181 nations having ratified it.

Comments Collins: “Traditionally, this is because when former colonies began to assert their right to independence from the mid-20th century, that argument was often based on the assertion of pre-colonial culture, sometimes characterised as folklore. If countries were culturally different, then they had a right to be politically different. So, for the colonising country, the question of protecting folklore was less urgent because no one was trying to change its culture or impose a new one.”

In more recent times, former colonial powers have seen the value of safeguarding living heritage, partly to protect traditional practices and partly to develop tourism and other commercial interests. 

Today, an array of intangible heritage, also known as living heritage, has made it onto the UNESCO register, from cuisine to storytelling and agricultural practices.

Collins continues: “In not protecting intangible cultural heritage, the UK belongs to a very small group of countries. Where many countries protect living heritage through their copyright laws, the UK Copyright and Patents Act does not include protection for folklore, so anyone can freely use the UK’s living heritage anywhere in the world for any purpose without permission.”

However, he points out that not being a signatory means not having to divert resources to develop an inventory of living heritage and promote education and safeguarding practices. 

But the outlook for intangible heritage is far from bleak, as was shown earlier this year during workshops held by Historic Environment Scotland in Lewis and Harris to obtain local experiences of protecting living heritage.

States Collins in his article: “This includes the work led by Bill Lawson at Sealleam in Harris, which has developed a rich archive of the stories of Harris and the Western Isles, and that of the Ness Historical Society (Commun Eachraidh Nis), which gathers and displays oral histories and objects associated with the area. 

“These projects clearly demonstrate excellent practice that rivals any of the work taking place in countries that have signed up to the Unesco convention.”

He added that Scotland could further develop ways to support community organisations and position itself as a leader in safeguarding intangible heritage.

Developing a protection framework based on the expertise of community organisations would align Scotland with global best practices and speed up signing the convention should there be the political will in Westminster to do so.

Concludes Collins: “Given the work taking place in Scotland and the long-established use of Scotland’s living heritage, there is a need to both develop a robust, national approach to safeguarding and bring with it the potential to raise revenue.

“Intangible cultural heritage cuts across political, historical, community and cultural spheres. These issues are made more acute by the marginalisation and historic exclusion of Gaelic, Doric and Scots languages and culture. The fact that Scotland is unable to sign up to this Unesco convention when it would be beneficial to do so highlights the political issues at play.”