Laureation address: Professor Margaret Bennett

Lauren Sykes
Thursday 15 June 2023

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music
Laureation by Dr Sam Haddow, School of English

Thursday 15 June 2023

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, Professor Margaret Bennett.

What does it mean to have a living tradition? A tradition that connects what life was like 400 years ago with the modern world. How do you celebrate such traditions in a way that stays meaningful and vibrant and enjoyable? These peculiar questions are woven through the life and career of Professor Bennett, one of the most distinguished scholars and teachers of folklore that Scotland has ever produced.

Margaret grew up in the islands of Skye, Lewis, and Shetland and then trained as a teacher in Glasgow, where she became involved in the 1960s folk scene and met the poet Hamish Henderson. In 1968 she immigrated to Newfoundland where she worked as a teacher and recorded the Folklore and Religion of the Eastern Townships for the Ottawa Museum of Civilization, now the Canadian Museum of History.

She returned to Scotland in the mid-seventies to study a doctorate in ethnology at the University of Edinburgh. Since then, she has worked in schools in Glasgow, Dumfries, Kingussie, at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Royal Scottish Academy, and the University of St Andrews, where she has held an Honorary Research Fellowship since 2015.

Margaret is the author of dozens of books, chapters, and articles that celebrate and explore the musical and cultural traditions of Scotland and Canada. She has won more awards than I could list in this Laureation, to say nothing of her theatrical, literary, festive, and community projects stretched through a long and illustrious career. In 2014, for instance, she was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Musical Hall of Fame.

She has interviewed people on subjects ranging from engineering to medicine, from Dundonian street songs to the music and life of her late son, Martyn, with whom she released three albums. When I asked her about the diversity of her work, she said the thing that connected them was an unshakeable interest in people, in the ways in which people practice and appeal to traditions for the wisdom of the past, and the way that our ever-moving lives will change our relationship to those pasts, those traditions.

But for all of the diligence and rigour of Margaret’s scholarship, there is a wildness, a strangeness, and a playfulness, to the traditions that she explores and celebrates. I know this because the first time she and I met I was wearing a thong, body paint and not much else and this was, in many respects, her fault.

In 1988, Margaret and Hamish Henderson worked with Angus Farquhar and the drum crew Test Dept. to reignite the tradition of Beltane, a Gaelic ritual of dancing around fires to celebrate the coming of summer. The Beltane festivals continue to this day, and it was through my participation at one that I first met Margaret, so dubiously attired.

So why is Margaret Bennett, and the work that she does, so important? Because she helps us understand ourselves as humans in a cultural, traditional, and – importantly – weird way. We are weird beings, after all, and this weirdness is carried through in the stories that we tell of ourselves, the identities and rituals that we perform while we are here, and those that survive us when we are gone. And that is why it is a great honour to give this address on this occasion and to congratulate Margaret for what she has achieved.

Se urram mòr a tha seo, a’ Mhaighread – meal ur naidheachd.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to culture, music, and folklore, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa, on Professor Margaret Bennett.

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