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.