Traditional Arts need to be woven into the fabric of Scotland’s life – but also to shine

Graven Images Lampshade for Harris Tweed Hebrides

The traditional arts became increasingly uncool during the last century in Scotland, along with learning Scottish history and using Scottish words.  Largely ignored by professional arts organisations and funders, much of the song, dance and storytelling was left to a handful of individuals and membership organisations.  We nearly lost Hebridean step dancing all together and it had to be reintroduced  in some area from Cape Breton by a Swede, Mats Melin. The problem with these years of snobbery and denial is not only that, as a nation, we don’t experience and value them enough  but also that the traditional arts sector has felt marginalised and disgruntled.   These factors compounded, we run the risk of the traditional arts becoming preserved in too stiff an aspic, listed as heritage and not a vital part of contemporary Scotland.

So a Traditional Arts Working Group was set up to ‘consider  the future support arrangements for Scotland’s traditional arts’  and now it has reported.

Its major beef is the lack of esteem in which some traditional arts are held in Scotland. Only some, because literature, some music, visual arts and crafts have avoided this, largely through creating products for which there is a market.  So we are mostly talking about traditional dance forms and some traditional ‘folk’ music.    And storytelling, which has been preserved, refreshed and re-energised  by the leadership, focus and activities of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The Working Group seeks ‘parity of esteem’ for the traditional arts with the contemporary culture which it sees valued by holders of the public purse strings.  Some of the gulf stems from old divisions of class and  the ancient highlands/lowlands divide.  Most people in the Highlands and Islands would not recognise the bleak picture painted in the report – with a vibrant culture which includes and often majors on the traditional and the huge success of the feisan.

The report makes comprehensive recommendations for interventions to improve esteem, information and conservation, teaching and learning and performance and contains some good ideas.

Take the suggestion for mentoring  – great – and thats more than for the traditional arts.  What we need throughout the cultural life of Scotland is a system whereby members of the community with expertise and, more importantly, the passion for theatre, dance, photography, step dancing or singing can inspire and mentor the young, through going to their local schools.  This happens in primary schools in small communities but we need to open up the system in the bigger anonymous towns where skills and passions lay undetected and unsolicited.  Likewise, we need to encourage volunteers out of school and extend the skills and expertise of accredited dance teachers.

This is a better recommendation than the suggestion that every child should have access to education in the traditional arts, provided in the traditional ways of the Scottish public sector – more demands on teachers and/or more money for blanket programmes like the Youth Music Initiative, costing some £10m a year.  The country can’t afford it and such initiatives are never sustained.

As is so often the case with working groups where collegiate working rules, with a need to involve everyone and without an independent strategist, the report is all inclusive and also gets tangled up in structures.  It is keen to recommend that the traditional arts of all cultures which make up a modern Scotland should be included.  Its recommendations are for the Government, Historic Scotland, Creative Scotland, local authorities, Learning and Teaching Scotland and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

There is a suggestion of both a new national performance company and an independent trust which gives out grants, while Creative Scotland, the Government and others will deliver on strategy, research and coordination, while preserving and strengthening the existing agencies in dance and music.   The structures suggested are convoluted and there is a much simpler solution, lighter touch, single agency approach which is easier to see from the outside when you don’t have to worry about ruffling feathers, breaking eggs or in any other ways challenging the status quo.  What’s needed is a small single agency which shines a spotlight on Traditional Arts against a tapestry of integrated support, which advocates, partners and delivers high profile traditional arts events.

The Working Group follows the well trodden path of other groups and commissions including the Cultural Commission, which had some very good ideas but got tangled up in structures and universality.  The Scottish Executive took a hatchet to it and embarked upon a streamlined Cultural Strategy leading to either a castration or a simplified version of the 121 recommendations of that report, depending on who you listen to, and Creative Scotland.

So over to the Government to respond to the report and to cherry pick or distill.

We have got to get beyond the snobbery we inherited from decades of denial of Scottish culture, language and history.  We need to preserve the traditions of the past.  But then we need to move on.  The traditional value and craft of Harris Tweed is being re-energised  through contemporary culture. Storytelling is growing as a medium of today.  For our traditional arts to be relevant today, they need to be more than preserved.  Recognising their value and safeguarding them is the first step towards   celebrating them  and developing them in a focussed way relevant to today’s, and tomorrow’s culture.

  1. I have a feeling that there are rather a lot of people (e.g. at Sabhal Mor Ostaig or at Edinburgh’s Adult Learning Project where Mairi Campbell was teaching it a very long time ago) who might query the notion that Hebridean Step Dancing was ‘reintroduced from Cape Breton to Scotland’ by Mats Melin 🙂

  2. thank you Robin – thats the info I couldnt find on the internet last night when I was doing this blog! It was ‘reintroduced’ in several areas by several people and before Sabhal Mor Ostaig existed

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