Charis Edward Wells: Culture is alive and well up in the north-east

XpoNorth is one of the  events which have been helping encourage creative talent. Picture: Paul Campbell
XpoNorth is one of the events which have been helping encourage creative talent. Picture: Paul Campbell
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MORE and more creative businesses are adding to the rich artistic offering in Moray, writes Charis Edward Wells

Between the farmlands and oil industry of Aberdeenshire and the romantic landscapes and strong cultural identity of the Highlands lies Moray: internationally recognised for its whisky, produce and visually dominating coast. Its equable lifestyle is sought after by many an artist initially attracted to its natural beauty. Moray’s cultural history can be tangibly examined through the ornate designs of the ganseys (fishermen’s sweaters) of Burghead, Hopeman and Lossiemouth, to the Waulk mill (now known as the Knockando Woolmill) on Speyside. However, the isolation and rural nature which has come to define these crafts has been an obstacle for the modern day practitioner.

The focus of creative business has, for the most part, been on Glasgow and Edinburgh with recent migration north to Dundee which is quickly becoming the capital for Scottish art. However, with a strong reputation growing out of Moray, driven by the high quality of work produced by the creative community and cultural organisations, we are becoming impossible to ignore.

Part of Moray’s charm is the rural communities which pepper the landscape. This isolation was seen as a hindrance for a very long time, but all it took was co-operation, as well as a shared vision and commitment to a more vibrant Moray. Working together, arts organisations from all mediums have created a collective which has made a massive impact on the cultural landscape.

The work of organisations such as Findhorn Bay Arts, who established the annual Culture Day (and biannual Findhorn Bay Arts Festival) has brought together hundreds of artists, musicians, theatre companies and arts bodies to bring visibility to the creative community. We have discovered that we do not need a central location, we need a central vision.

Elgin is quickly gathering pace behind Forres (a recent Creative Place award winner) to have a fruitful creative economy. MC3: Creative Spaces is a social enterprise established in 2015 in response to the lack of workspace for artists, makers and creative businesses. Relying on IndieGoGo Crowdfunding (still campaigning if you would like to contribute) and creative fundraising, the MC3 Team has turned an empty office unit in central Elgin, above the Royal Mail Delivery Office, into a busy community of working artists, makers and creative businesses. MC3 now joins the Elgin cultural community first brought into force by Northport Studios, launched in 2015 which is home to a diverse range of creative people and projects, not to mention super-fast fibre-optic broadband, which is a rare but essential commodity in the creative arts.

If better digital connectivity can empower the cultural community of Moray and has allowed a few more locals to consider a career in the arts in their home town, imagine the power of a whole connected region inspired by the creative arts.

A session during the recent Moray Business Week to inspire students at Moray College UHI and support creative business was attended by games developers, theatre producers and installation firms, actors and musicians - all of whom are successful and Moravian in equal measure. The session demonstrated both that creative skills are needed to be successful in business and also that creative individuals can have that successful business in Moray.

Events such as XpoNorth, and initiatives by Moray College UHI, Moray School of Art and Glasgow School of Art, which has recently established a research centre in Forres, have also been helping to encourage creative people to consider turning their talents into a business.

Arts and cultural festivals,such as Speyfest, the Speyside Whisky Festival and Piping@Forres are growing in Moray, attracting large local and international audiences. Established bodies like Out of the Darkness Theatre company are being joined by relative newcomers like The Lantern of the North, an independent community organisation seeking to create a state of the art performance venue in Moray.

In its analysis of the Moray Cultural Strategy, Moray Economic Partnership found there was a huge opportunity to grow this sector. Culture provides us with valuable and meaningful experiences. Culture is a powerful economic driver and the mutual benefit of supporting culture for people’s wellbeing at the same time as economically supporting creative businesses is one that must be recognised.

Already the arts and creative industries contribute £6.3 billion to the Scottish economy every year, as well as fuelling an additional £3bn in indirect and related turnover. As the cultural strategy highlights, within Moray, the creative industries account for 7 per cent of the total economy. The strategy points to the fact the cultural sector provides more than 130,000 jobs across Scotland with 1 in 7 of these located within Moray and the Highlands, a disproportionately high percentage when compared with the rest of Scotland. Culture is central to highlighting the importance of heritage in communities and as result boosts tourism, providing activities and authentic experiences for visitors and strengthening Scotland’s appeal on the international stage.

The Moray Cultural Strategy sets out a clear call for action to help make the most of the drive and determination led by these cultural groups, with four main themes identified for action: creative activities can be fostered to benefit health and wellbeing in the area; cultural experiences should be made accessible to every community; we should make sure that visitors to Moray encounter a dynamic and authentic cultural offering.

The future growth of cultural activities needs support and coordination, and many of the opportunities identified require effective partnership working across third, private and public sectors. Along with the sharing of beneficial information, tools and resources, these efforts can ensure we make the most of the opportunities available to the rural communities. More than ever, now is the time to come together to ensure our shared vision of a vibrant, creative, and economically viable cultural economy can and will exist in Moray.

For more information about MC3, our artists, occupants and events go to www.macthree.org or www.facebook.com/mac3three

• Charis Edward Wells is a founding director of MC3: Creative Spaces which provides creative studio space for artists, makers, and creative businesses in Elgin. A graduate of Moray School of Art, she now exhibits her Scot’s Culture themed multimedia installations nationally and internationally

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