Friday, 22 December 2006

Culture needs funding in order to flourish

Published: 22 December, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

IT would be a very odd festive season without songs and music. Every shopping trip is accompanied by "Jingle Bells" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". We get Nativity plays in primary school, carol concerts and, for the more energetic, dances and clubbing.

All rely on popular music. Even the Parliament has a big Christmas celebration this week with lots of music and poetry, both secular and spiritual.

But it's the awakening of young minds and voices that's most fun. Along with lots of parents and friends we gathered on a blustery, soaking night in Dunbeath community hall earlier this month to hear the children of Dunbeath and Lybster primary schools sing the chorus numbers of a new production. The book Butcher's Broom by the famous local author Neil M. Gunn is being made into a musical by the Grey Coast Theatre Company. The youngsters' enthusiastic singing was rehearsed in under two weeks. New tunes were composed by accordionist Andy Thorburn to new words by George Gunn.

Between them they created the big chorus parts and are anticipating further developments of the project next year with the storyline from Neil Gunn's characters picked out in song. But will there be funds to let Caithness arts flourish?

Creativity, performance and exhibition space for artistic efforts all cost money. Just like a plumber, you can't get cultural endeavour for nothing. What has to be agreed is that paying to let culture flourish is as important – even more so, some say – as mending burst pipes. It's not an alternative, nor is spending the sums on nurses and doctors. The therapeutic effects of a great performance or exhibition can be an inspiration, a pick-me-up, or just great fun compared to a trip to the chemists. So the recent seminar on Caithness arts sought to ensure that funding from national and local sources finds its way to the Far North.

All this clearing of throats and limbering up of local talent goes on against the backdrop of our Culture Minister, Patricia Ferguson, launching a Culture Bill. For seven years this Lab/Lib government has been consulting on cultural matters. The Culture Commission of 2005 spent a year and £500,000 to make lofty pronouncements with little substance. Now it is down to the wire. They can't consult any more. They will fund the national classical companies directly along with the National Theatre and a new body, Creative Scotland, will merge the middle-aged Scottish Arts Council with the younger Scottish Screen to administer all other art forms and offer cultural entitlements to all.

It remains to be seen if Parliament has time to complete this bill before dissolution in April next year and if the incoming government has other ideas.


I WAS asked to say a few words of introduction at the recent and highly successful Scots Trad Music Awards in Fort William. My "unexplained" appearance instead of the Culture Minister, Patricia Ferguson, was requested a day or two beforehand by Hands Up For Trad maestro Simon Thoumire as Ms Ferguson couldn't be present.

I wondered why, especially as news broke a day later that the Minister had authorised a huge debt write-off for two national classical music companies. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra had £1.4 million written off and Scottish Ballet £300,000 to give them a "clean slate". Then I thought on the words of Sheena Wellington, whose singing of "A Man's a Man for a' That" was the electric moment as Parliament opened in Edinburgh in 1999. In Fort William she introduced the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame, saying how she applauded every penny of support for folk music from the government but she would still be asking "on her deathbed" for adequate investment.

So I framed an intervention for the next instalment of First Minister's Questions. Alas it wasn't taken. But the gist was a hope that Jack McConnell could assure us of increased investment in the success of contemporary traditional music organisations, such as the highly successful Fèisean nan Gàidheal which was named as Community Project of the Year at the awards in Fort William. They rely largely on hundreds of volunteers to bring on thousands of young musicians, but will they receive as generous funding through Creative Scotland as do the national companies whose debt write-off was authorised once again by this government?

The local equivalent is the Wick Traditional Music Workshop. Are there ever enough funds to back the popularity of playing contemporary music, traditional or otherwise?


CAMPAIGNERS are urging MSPs to support Scots language culture by singing "Auld Lang Syne" this Hogmanay. The director of the Scots Language Centre, Michael Hance, has called on MSPs to do more to recognise the cultural value of Scotland's traditional language and dialects. At this time of year, when the whole world is joining in the singing of this Scots language anthem, it is important that MSPs and other revellers should think about the words and where they come from.

As convener of the Cross-Party Group on the Scots Language I hope when MSPs sing "Auld Lang Syne" this New Year's Eve they will stop to think about the lack of official support for Scots. I am calling on the Executive to give Scots dialect speakers an early Christmas present by publishing its languages strategy.

For anyone who struggles to remember the words to "Auld Lang Syne", the Scots Language Resource Centre has made them available on its website at There's even a karaoke version on this site, so there's no excuse for not joining in.

I'm sure you all deserve a restful seasonal break. Enjoy Christmas and have a peaceful, healthy and successful New Year.

Friday, 8 December 2006

We need a leader – not a follower

Published: 08 December, 2006
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

FACING the dangers of modern life, there's a clear difference of perspective between small nations and the self-important world policemen.

Unveiling the worst-kept secret over nuclear rearmament, Tony Blair insists Britain needs the son of Trident.

Here in Scotland, Jack McConnell had previously called for a major debate. He insisted his mind was open. Until this week, that is, when in a belated statement the First Minister complied with orders from London and supported the replacement of Trident. This action shows that Scotland needs a leader, not a follower, and that the Scottish First Minister has simply rolled over for the UK Prime Minister.

It's a dangerous world of double standards. Iran and North Korea can't have them, but the UK and USA must have them. How can any moral argument about international co-operation and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction be conducted successfully? How can the PM pretend that we have an independent nuclear deterrent when he knows through his "special relationship" with America that Britain could never fire these weapons without US say-so?

Plainly, US Middle East policy is turning in desperation towards talk with previously sworn enemies like Syria and Iran because the stability of the region needs all parties on board. That's because the tinderbox that is Iraq will not be doused by the nuclear option, nor will global terrorism and the development of post-oil economies thanks to record purchases of UK, French, German and US armaments by dictatorial governments like the Saudis.

Scotland has the dubious privilege of hosting the UK missile base on the Clyde. The dangers of accidents apart, surely the obvious needs of post-industrial Clydeside are for our share of the £25 billion to replace the 10,000 dependent jobs in and around Faslane with productive, peaceful employment. In Holyrood we always hear Labour members say jobs must not be jeopardised.

But economies change and whole new possibilities open up. Before any decision is made in London, Scots will have the opportunity to vote out son of Trident. Not by voting Lib Dem – they just want to cut the number of missiles by half and postpone the decision by eight years – but by arguing that far too little cash is spent on Scotland's real defence needs. Scrap Trident and save our regiments, I'd say, and help peacemaking and peacekeeping under UN auspices.


LAST week a shameful, half-baked decision was taken by Labour and Lib Dem MSPs. They voted for the Bankruptcy and Diligence Bill that would allow, among other things, for the sequestration of a person's home if they were in debt to the tune of £3001 and to set up a Scottish Civil Enforcement Commission, another expensive quango.

Jamie Stone protested that the Enterprise Committee had made "carefully weighed-up deliberations" so that last-minute amendments should be disregarded. Yet the last-minute amendments were backed by Citizens' Advice Scotland, sheriff officers, and even an editorial in The Herald.

If you were a Farepak loser who then splashed out to give the kids their Christmas by taking loans bought from unscrupulous lenders then you could end up in court for debt of sums of less than £3000 but including the interest that then exceeds that sum. In fact, you could lose your house and still have lots of debts to pay in certain circumstances.

Of course, bankrupts lose their property and all other possessions but they then are free from debt. So we have a Lib Dem and Labour government keen to make it easier to cope with bankruptcy but allowing minor debtors to lose out. What is missing is the power to control consumer credit, because that is at present a reserved matter to London. The compelling argument is to control the causes of debt as well as the results here in Scotland.


COUNCIL housing remains just that after the sound and fury of the stock transfer debate. After Highland said "no" an overwhelming number in Inverclyde voted for change. There were exceptions here, as Caithness and Skye voted for change but were drowned out by the aggregate.

I have already stated that the main problem is one of trust. Everyone can see that Glasgow Housing Association has not led to secondary transfer to local housing associations. Tenants here did not lead the demand for a better deal. It is Gordon Brown meddling in Scottish services with Jack McConnell and Nicol Stephen's blessings. He promised debt write-off plus bribes to tenants of new bathrooms and more house-building if they voted "yes".

So why did Caithness tenants vote "yes"? I suggest they want change, they can see the need to break the log jam of council control from Inverness, and for a variety of reasons they did not like the opinions of tenants' leaders in Inverness, Ross-shire and Sutherland being foisted on Caithness voters. The result is stalemate.

Affordable homes are the number one priority, but it is clear this government is not prepared to build them. So if you can't be assured of a home, why bother staying if you are young and mobile? Once again the McConnell/Stephen government hasn't the will to meet such crying needs for the future of this part of the country.

WICK Accordion and Fiddle Club was the worthy winner of Club of the Year title at the Scots Trad Music Awards 2006. I shared the club's delight in an audience from all over the country in the Nevis Centre. Let's give them another round of applause; to be precise in Mackay's Hotel, on the third Tuesday of the month, from September to May.