Thursday, 10 January 2008

Quite a year for Scotland's music - A personal view of Rob Gibson MSP

On 2nd December 2006, a couple of days into the second month of the Celtic year, I was asked to give the opening speech at the 4th annual Hands Up For Trad Awards (HUFTA). After three years of growing success based in Edinburgh the start of the Year of Highland Culture had made possible their transfer to the Nevis Centre, Fort William where, in a much transformed great big barn of a hall, hundreds of well wishers packed the sponsored tables and gallery.

Patricia Ferguson MSP, the then Scottish Executive Culture Minister, called off from performing the opening ceremony, hence my promotion as a Highlands and Islands member, albeit of the main opposition party. Simon Thoumire had honoured me with invitations as a longstanding organiser, performer and supporter of our contemporary traditional arts. I recall saying that the progress of Scotland to more self-confidence marched hand in hand with the strength of our music. The evening’s awards and performances bore witness with stand out spots from Julie Fowlis and her band, the Peatbog Fairies and the three young pipers Ross Ainslie, Ally Hutton and Jarleth Henderson paying stunning tribute to the late lamented Gordon Duncan our most innovative player and pipe tune writer of these times.

The crack in the late night club in the Alexandra Hotel was fierce with demands for wider recognition of this annual celebration and of the best of our folk artists. Why wasn’t HUFTA on TV? When would our hugely popular music gain the media coverage it deserves? We all pledged to keep up the pressure.

As a postscript the newspapers announced two days later that Patricia Ferguson had doled out over one million pounds to Scottish Ballet and the RSNO that very weekend. Given the total spend on traditional music that amounts to an equivalent sum it prompted me to seek actual figures from the Scottish Arts Council, enterprise networks and local councils for our indigenous music product.

We were told by HAIL, the music promotion arm of HIE at the workshop they mounted ahead of RockNess in June 2006, that the music business in the Highlands and Islands as whole probably grosses £45 million per annum.

Surely the economic potential of our traditions should attract even more public support? That theme requires an audit of government sponsored spending that would need a committee enquiry to shine some light on the truth.

The start of 2007 Scottish Year of Highland Culture was marked in Inverness at the old New Year Friday 12th January. The music from Blazing Fiddles and the Inverness Gaelic Choir was fine stadium stuff and from our vantage point on the Ness Bridge we witnessed a fantastic fireworks display, most notably of fire boats floating on the river. More trad music in the streets would have been good as the throng headed for Falcon Square to witness the aerial acrobats from France.

A week later the 14th Celtic Connections kicked off in Glasgow but it was to be a much curtailed event for me. What with a forthcoming election in May and local events in the far north Eleanor and I decided to concentrate on one weekend’s concerts and for the first time the smoke-free festival club.

This was Donald Shaw’s debut as director of Celtic Connections and the mix becomes all the more intriguing. One event that continues is Showcase Scotland to which promoters and artists from many countries come to Glasgow. I convened the presentations prior to the Saturday evening concerts. They featured the HebCelt Festival, Shetland Festival and the Blas Festival in the Year of Highland Culture. A sparky question session proved a real success for these standout events and their organisers.

We enjoyed some of the more intimate performances in the Tron and Strathclyde Suites. A full house in the Tron greeted Nolwenn Korbell who is a cutting edge Breton singer playing with widely respected guitarist Soig Sibiril better known to Glasgow audiences.

I can’t pass on to the next concert without high praise for the Lori Watson trio who supported Nolwenn. Old friends from the Highland education world the Youngs were there to hear their daughter Fiona as Lori’s punk accordionist who played, sang and giggled her way through a fine Borders music set.

The following week I sang in the Parliament Burns Supper offering Ca’ the Yowes and joining in the communal numbers and playing for A Man’s A Man For Aw’ That.

In the last month of the Parliamentary session my member’s debate in praise of Hands Up for Trad was answered by Patricia Ferguson the soon to be ousted Culture Minister. Details of the debate can be found on the Official Report for 14th March. In my speech I quoted from a recent book by Kate Martin, who is now lecturing in community education at the University of Dundee. Kate was a founder of Fèis Rois and she has edited a history of the first 25 years of the fèisean movement that was launched at the Hands Up for Trad weekend last December. She sums up thus:

"It seems that in return for a relatively small investment, in the Highlands and Islands and beyond, the Fèisean are producing a generation of assertive and skilled young people who are confident in their culture and as a result can relate to other cultures. They are creating networks, enhancing the quality of life, building social capital and community capacity, and contributing to employment in rural communities.

When young people become aware of and confident about their own culture it becomes possible for them to appreciate other cultures and contribute to a wider social participation and understanding."

Also in this regard the Youth Music Initiative, which has been most successful if diverse in its forms, as fits our multi-form Scotland, has to be assessed and given new impetus. I am glad that Alex Salmond the First Minister no less gave assurances that it will not be lost and that Culture and Education ministers can bring some analysis of the output and objectives into the light. Certainly the Scottish Executive which launched the scheme would surely agree that fine tuning is required?

The Minister made no real comment on YMI but merely echoed my praise for developments in the traditional music scene yet failed to pledge any support for approaching the BBC to televise the next HUFTA or any other positive commitment.

Two weeks later in my last weekend as an MSP I followed up appointments in Thurso and Reay with a visit to the annual Rob Donn Commemoration Concert in Melvich Hall where a long rambling but intriguing series of spots on the pipes, fiddle, Gaelic choirs and spoken tribute to the bard, who was a contemporary of Burns, wove on till early dawn.

On the Monday night the 30th March I visited the tutors’ ceilidh at Feis Rois Oigridh - Junior Feis Rois in Ullapool for my last night as MSP for Highlands and Islands. The young tutors are well ready to take over the Feis movement as many of them have come through from Primary level to careers in our very own culture. Memories of the musical feast carried me into the momentous election that was underway with who knows what outcome. Tantalisingly the SNP had stayed ahead in the polls for several months. However the music of our Gaelic heartland spurred me on as I drove back home to Evanton.

After the longest count of them all on Friday 4th May at Inverness Sports Centre I was returned as the 46th SNP MSP and Dave Thompson as the crucial 47th - we confirmed the result of the stunning last gasp victory of the SNP at 5.30pm. Euphoria and sleep, then the GNER train to Edinburgh for SNP Group photos and a first and much expanded group meeting. Business done we retired to a pub or two but I was mindful of my desire to get to part of the Feis Rois Inbhich, the Adult Feis over the May holiday weekend.

A nice symmetry was achieved from the start to successful conclusion of the most momentous Scottish election in fifty years. Rita Hunter Feis Momma in chief was introducing the tutors’ ceilidh and offered me a dedication as the newly re-elected SNP MSP. It was the pipe set led by Iain MacDonald of Glenuig and Benbecula. What an honour. It’s the quality of concert no normal festival could afford. The range was as usual - mind blowing. Back in the Ceilidh Place so many folks wanted to talk about our SNP victory, alas the huge ensemble music session became a backdrop to stories of where you were when the result came through. Angus Brendan’s brother-in-law had to pull off the road whilst driving north to Ullapool while the car full of feisers hugged and wept tears of joy. A Guinness haze set in.

It took a couple of weeks to the swearing in of Alex Salmond as First Minister and the thrill of the high wire act called minority government. Deidre had been elected as an Edinburgh Councillor and became Culture and Sport Chair in the new LibDem/SNP administration, another link in the cultural chain.

After the announcement of Ministerial posts we were delighted that Linda Fabiani had been appointed to the Culture, Europe and External Relations post. Then I was unexpectedly appointed as a backbencher to be Vice Convener of Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. A stroke of luck for promoting our music and a counterbalance to the resolutely schools orientated members from the other parties. Champagne was ordered for the first SNP ministers ever!

On 23rd June we attended another big event in Highland 2007, the Outsider Festival near Aviemore which combined outdoor activities and top bands. We opted for the Idlewild and KT Tunstall event. Niall MacDonald, my assistant, plumped for Crowded House the following night who were upstaged by Shooglenifty. Like most of the summer festivals the mud won, though KT was fun.

The following Saturday in the official opening of Parliament on 30th June music played a big part, especially at the informal Picnic at the Parliament. We cheered Blazing Fiddles and the Feis Rois Ceilidh Trail and much else as the rain from the south closed in on the festivities. A most appropriate start to the people’s Parliament in its third term. The First Minister added to the big occasion with his ‘command performance’ of Black Watch. The pipes and the songs like Twa Recruiting Sergeants peppered a riveting show that has now gone global.

Summer in Brittany usually gains respite from the rains, but not this year. Our annual break reunited us with friends such as the fest noz band Dremmwel from Ploveilh, in French, Plomelin near Quimper. At the 84th Festival de Cornouaille we booked two big concerts Écosse en Cornouaille and Joan Baez.

This year’s star was undoubtedly Julie Fowlis who was hailed as the new Karen Matheson following her five star show with local heroes the Bagad Kemper, the Clan Gregor Society Pipe Band [Grade One] and the Fred Morrison Band. What a blast hearing such prestigious bands playing North Uist tunes with Julie offering Ruigidh Mi, a Gaelic version of the Breton classic Me Zo Ganet and Fred in full flight and even joking in French to wow over 2,000 folk packed in the grand chapiteau at the Place de la Resistance.

Back home in sodden Scotland we caught the last night of the Feis Rois Ceilidh Trail in the Stables, Cromarty. It’s fascinating to see the changing personnel. As one group moves on another seamlessly moves on up. What a confirmation of the Feisean Movement’s success.

Our second trip to Brittany was to the Salon Du Livre Insulaire 22 to 26 August. It was the ninth event and featured Scottish Island writers whom we had recruited and supported with the help of HiArts writing development officer Peter Urpeth. Following readings and daytime book talk, in perfect island weather, ceilidhs filled the evenings. All were encouraged to perform so I sang "The Gig In Ness" which originates a long time before the Stornoway Way. The old song is the story of how the young folk band from the ‘heart of beyond’ on tour to the north of Lewis had resonance.

A new poem arose from those nights on Ouessant. Breton dancing was a revelation to our Scots writers and an idea was born of a Scottish Island book festival and the new poem in Shetlandic and French from Christina de Luca. [Ref] An article by Ian Stephen, "The Lights of Ouessant", appeared in the November issue of Northings, the HiArts Journal.

Parliament reconvened in early September in the very week that the Blas Festival was scheduled. We managed to hear Kathleen MacInnes and Mary Jane Lamont and their bands on the Monday in Ardross Hall. Both were feeling their way to a polished set. But the finale at Fort William of Donald Shaw’s Harvest was the confirmation of the maturity of our youngsters from Feis Rois in collaboration with the lead musicians of Celtic music. There must be ways found to play Harvest across the world.

The show conceived for Celtic Connections in 2004 has been slimmed down to forty young musicians and fifteen top Celtic music players and singers up front. If ever an international work begs a slot in the Edinburgh Festival it’s this one. Hopefully a Breton venue will be found next summer and possibly one in Galicia. The idea is to have half and half young players from Scotland and the host country plus the Celtic stars. However it would be ironic if they preceded an Edinburgh gig. I was all the more pleased to launch the pre-show drinks on behalf of the Scotland Funds who hope to attract Diaspora money to promote educational and cultural ventures back here. The Feisean movement will be an early beneficiary for such philanthropy.

I was the climatic exception that proves the rule, the John Lennon Northern Lights Festival at Durness was held in perfect weather on the last weekend in September. Blue skies, calm seas and a gallimaufry of art and music were inspired by the late Beatle. Mike Merritt built the idea from scratch in February without much help from 2007. He had read Mike Russell’s novella ‘The Next Big Thing’ which inspired his vision and attracted support from John’s relations. We took in the Sunday with all-day informal music in the Oasis at Sango Sands. Canadian chanteuse Allison Crowe was a stand out act. I missed Face the West but caught Julie Fowlis at the Village Hall that evening. What a fine set she has crafted, inspiration for days ahead far beyond the road home. I lodged a motion of congratulations for the festival in Parliament (seen on the Parliament website: .

I spoke on the current political situation in Scotland at the 6th collogue in Nantes University of the French Society of Scottish Studies on 13th October.

The National Mod in Lochaber attracted some notoriety for the amateur treatment of the Minister of Culture, Linda Fabiani. Duff translation equipment left her out of the loop on the long opening ceremony. A mischievous BBC report suggested it was inexplicable that she had no announcements to make for the language. The Mod may not be the most useful vehicle to promote the language given the amateur approach to translation. I restricted my visit to a singing competition and the press conference where the announcement of Caithness as the venue for the 2010 Mod was made. The translator initially told us listeners in English that it was to be held in Sutherland before being corrected! I was delighted that Raymond Bremner and his team have realised the dream of a first visit ever by the national Mod O’er I Ord.

The autumn brought a great burst of musical activity as my discussions with Dr McLeod promised a campaign visit to Brussels to meet cultural attachés and take the temperature for promoting our music with European partners.

Just after the SNP Conference in Aviemore the Unusual Suspects were singing the following Tuesday in the Queens Hall. What a stunning group of seventeen musicians Corrina Hewat and David Milligan have led through thick and thin for five years. That night they played the Lorient Suite commissioned for the previous summer event that so wowed the InterCeltic Festival in August as a key piece in music in the Scottish feature. A fine review of it by Debbie Koritas appeared in The Living Tradition. We congratulated Corrina and heard her earnest concerns about finding new sponsors. Only in Scotland could such an innovative production akin to a Scottish National Folk Orchestra suffer such uncertainty.

Alyn Smith MEP in his European report to SNP National Council on 1st December noted the valuable work I started on my first visit to Brussels on 19th and 20th November. With the help of his policy adviser Dr Aileen McLeod we opened doors for Scottish musicians and trad music with cultural representative in the capital of the EU and far beyond.

First stop was to pin down the British Council representative as to what material help it could shed light on policy changes from London to shift funds to promote the UK in the Middle East. Next stop was the Hungarian Cultural Institute where they gave us a warm welcome for joint projects in their fine performance space.

Scotland House offered a chance to discuss how we can bring together writers, musicians and visual art and offer more gigs for Scots artists. The singers and writers series are already popular, combined events was what we suggested so that Scots music could be set alongside visual art and modern writing. Hearing from the Estonian cultural attaché Tamara Luuk who joined us at Scotland House reminded us what much smaller countries than Scotland can do to project their culture as EU members.

The Communications representative of the Flemish Culture Minister was most enthusiastic about more Scots music being hosted there. She subsequently thanked us for the visit and pledged support to ‘organise projects between Scotland and Flanders’.

The Catalan policy adviser on European affairs gave us a goody bag full of CDs, pamphlets and promotions of Catalan culture across Europe. Clearly they are very well organised and at twice the population size of Scotland highly adept at promoting their nation. The most truly enthusiastic man we met all day was Sašo Gazdić, the Slovene counsellor on cultural and audiovisual affairs. He was of the view that we were so very lucky to have such a distinctive culture with which Slovenes could readily associate. Good prospects again for joint musical projects.

To each group we offered some CDs of Scottish trad music and promised to keep up the discussion about cooperation. Over dinner that evening members of the Caledonian Society in Brussels explained their ambitious plans for a modern style Highland Games to showcase Scottish talent.

On the second day the Polish Permanent Representation in the EU was our first port of call where we were loaded with various wide-ranging cultural publications. As such a major contributor of young workers to Scotland cultural links are vital. The Commission officials who met us from the Directorate General of Education and Culture were keen to promote the very recently agreed European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. This fits well with our idea of a debate at local national and international level.

There’s a very fruitful trail to be developed as more reps of more member states get our upbeat cultural message.

Dr McLeod summed up our project by saying, “We want others to share in our cultural experience. This is who the Scots are and what we are about, that we have a very vibrant traditional music scene in Scotland on the up because they recognise we now have a government in Scotland that is committed to supporting this sector.”

“I'm often reminded of the comment by Sašo, the Slovene, as to how lucky we are in Scotland to have such a distinctive culture, a distinctive presence and being who we are - that for all those 'dark' years has been bubbling away under the surface because there has been such a lack of support from previous administrations with the funding focused very much on the big name companies, i.e. Scottish national ballet, etc. and now there has been a real sense of a flourishing, of a blossoming of that aspect of our culture, combining the very traditional with the modern interpretations - and what a combination that is. While flourishing in Scotland, it now needs to flourish in the wider Europe of which we are a part.”

The day after my return from Brussels Richard Holloway made a rare comment on traditional music in his Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Scotland, Wednesday 21 November 2007. This was also ‘No music day’ which only BBC Scotland seemed to give any credence and Holloway urges anyone who is troubled to play some traditional music today. He said,

“Appropriately I watched Phil Cunningham's programme Scotland's music last night on BBC 2 Scotland.

“The Series is a brilliant TV documentary, informative, great to look at and profoundly moving. Much of the credit for that has to go to the deep research behind the series as well as Phil Cunningham's natural warmth and skill as a presenter.

“The heart warming thing about the series is the way that it examines the mysterious power music has over the human soul.

“In one programme he explored the way emotions that are rarely captured in words can be caught in a few bars of music. Especially when we want to express desolation and loss.

“Scotland is famous for the sadness of it's singing, the way it packs worlds of grief into the lilt and drift melody. It's impossible to explain it, but we all know it when we hear it. It can grab us any time and bring back life times of loss.

“Centuries of memory….If you have a broken heart words may not mend it, but if you want to sooth it in spite of the fast (no music day) listen to some traditional Scottish music today.”

At various points during the year we heard news carried by very attentive arts correspondents about Richard Holloway’s championship of El Sistema, the classical music scheme in Venezuela that plucks youngsters from the slums and provides them with new hope and direction through mass classical music playing. A project in the Raploch estate in Stirling is envisaged and fund raising has begun. I hope it will be complimentary to the Feisean and not downplay the role of indigenous music that Scots have in abundance. I have not heard what state traditional music is in Venezuela but I’m surprised none of the journalists covering this story have asked.

In a great climax to the year many people told me they were thrilled by the six part TV series on BBC 2 hosted by Phil Cunningham exploring Scotland’s Music. So were we. Trying to catch or record each programme became a mission. Each one revealed a range and depth of study along with the fabulous locations that deserve a major award in themselves. By the time we celebrated the Hands Up For Trad Awards on December 1st again in Fort William it was obvious Phil’s award as composer of the year was more than well earned. He should also have a special award as the artist who has given voice and vision to our music so that at last hundreds of thousands can see its brilliance.

I was even more determined to see HUFTA on TV next year and Phil’s show on DVD long before that. With the Broadcasting Commission taking evidence on such issues can be raised directly in the context of the content and direction of Scottish viewing. It emerged at the year’s end that the BBC was responding to audience demand. They confirmed that a DVD of Scotland’s music was being ‘considered’! Apparently 250,000 Scottish viewers of the Saturday evening peak time shows had tuned in.

We’ve made real progress on a number of fronts this year. It has had some great musical moments, imagined new projects and begun a highly motivated collaboration between Alyn Smith MEP, Dr Aileen McLeod and myself with supportive friends in the scene such as Rita Hunter, Arthur Cormack and Ian Green. We are beginning to see the way forward on our journey to ensure that contemporary traditional music plays its full part in lives of the nation and among our neighbours too.

In the Scottish Budget Spending Review a series of National Performance Framework targets have been published by the SNP government. The list contains a series of strategic objectives to be met in the next three years. On the cultural front it states – ‘We take pride in a strong, fair and inclusive national identity’. To measure delivery and accountability it states ‘Improve people’s perceptions, attitudes and awareness of Scotland’s reputation’. Traditional arts and cultural developments fits that bill.

After such a stand out year as 2007 I can only agree with singer Karine Polwart who claimed in the Sunday Herald on 16th December that:

‘This is a good time to be a folk musician. There’s a lot of cross-fertilisation across genres, and a different approach to music. Lots of people making their names just now have very specific local identities, the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen for example. There’s that whole sense of being somewhere and speaking in your own voice’.

RG/hs 18.1.08

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