Lesley Riddoch: Cultural connection is vital

It is good to raise our voices together instead of just watching others do the vocalising. Picture: Albert Jordan

It is good to raise our voices together instead of just watching others do the vocalising. Picture: Albert Jordan

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Scots singing from the same songsheet has the chance to transform the coming general election, writes Lesley Riddoch

TRAVEL at Hogmanay certainly broadens the mind. Much of the year we stew in our own juices, busy with life inside family units, Yes or No bubbles, community cocoons and occupational cliques. We dwell on problems that already affect us and get Christmas presents that reassert the interests we already have. Only a good New Year can shoot new colours through the well-worn weave as open doors let generations mix, strangers mingle and neighbours unload.

Or at least that’s the way it’s meant to be. In modern Scotland too many households stand divided with young folk off to a fairly anonymous city centre party and older folk glued to the TV then off to bed by 12:15. Where’s the fresh air in that?

This year we headed north and found Highland hospitality and intractable social problems in equal measure. Heartening and sobering – not a bad way to start 2015.

One friend revealed she has a neurological illness which leaves her sometimes unable to move or speak. Although there is no diagnosis yet, her doctor has advised an immediate application for personal independence allowance (PIP), because she can expect two rejections and a full year of form-filling, appeals and delays before she gets any of the benefits to which a lifelong worker is entitled. She showed me a letter from Atos saying the first part of the process will take 26 weeks – at least. Shamefully, the attempt to exclude sick people from benefits is nothing new. But its panic-inducing impact is now real and vivid again for me.

I met an oil worker who wants to install a small community-owned tidal turbine at the mouth of a local river. We spent an hour trying to establish who owns the land and whether the forthcoming Land Reform Bill might give the community leverage to buy it. Who knows?

We concluded that without skilled and land-experienced para-legals in every community, few will benefit fast from any new, fairer system. Might this motivated and practical roughneck air that problem in the government’s Land Reform Bill consultation? “I’m no expert” – so probably not.

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We met another lass trying to enter primary school teaching since graduation last summer. To do that she needs teaching experience. To have experience she needs to work as a classroom assistant. To do that she needs PVG (Protecting Vulnerable Groups) clearance from Disclosure Scotland. She applied in October. She’s still waiting, so her chance of getting into teacher training this year is gone.

So she’s off to Australia where she’ll join a small clan of young Scots prompted to leave over a combination of itchy feet, a bureaucratic state, unaffordable housing, gloomy economic prospects and the cloudiest climate in Europe. Of course, young folk should travel. But better if they’re motivated by curiosity, not despair over the “stuckness” of their disempowered lives in Scotland.

Many other twenty and thirty-somethings in our Hogmanay locale live with their parents – not surprising when plots on stunning, loch-side sites start at £90k for a third of an acre. Almost all these young folk were glued to tales of a different life related by cousins and friends returning from Oz.

A very bright young Lochaber lad is ready to head to Mumbai with the Indian wife he met after working for five years in the mines of Western Australia. He spoke eloquently about the perks and emptiness of the loadsamoney mining lifestyle and the downsides of life in a country with a strongly materialist culture and little conscience about aboriginal communities dependent on drink and drugs. In the story of what he found wanting in Oz, this young Scot was speaking longingly about home or, to be more precise, the kind of Scotland that would bring him home.

Another generous Hogmanay hostess talked of her husband’s funeral, conducted eventually by family and friends because humanists wouldn’t allow religious songs in the service – not even the 23rd Psalm, viewed by many as a basic part of Highland culture. She talked about the way that psalm held everyone together – however briefly – in a feeling of togetherness and cultural connection. Some might regard that as sentimental – like singing carols at a watch-night service then leaving the pew empty for the rest of the year.

But others might spot the power of song and tradition and bemoan its passing from Scottish life. My hostess observed that traditional songs are now rarely sung even at Hogmanay – edged out by instruments and embarrassment about uneven performance in a culture of air-brushed TV perfection. She predicted that Burns Night will produce a welter of dry, hesitant or unnecessarily combative speeches – not loving, gutsy renditions of the Bard’s actual poetry and song.

Is she wrong?

Singing matters. Personal experience matters. Customs matter – because they bind us together to face the most difficult challenges – and if we don’t constantly reaffirm and reinvent our Scots and Gaelic traditions, we will lose them.

You’d think that a crazy assertion as Scots prepare for the marvellous Celtic Connections festival, in a country awash with top-notch traditional music and song. But are the rest of us singing – or just watching?

Just as “ordinary voters” changed the referendum campaign, Scots can ensure the next generation has songs aplenty. We just need to act.

Recently, I’ve taken to singing Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come all Ye before book events and campaign meetings. It’s become surprisingly popular. The first time, only a handful of other folk knew all the words. The second time, there were more. The third time, song-sheets were handed out. In Dundee, last week, the late Michael Marra’s vast repertoire was reinvented by his friends and very musical family – the whole of Clark’s Bar softly signing along. This is the conscious remaking and revitalising of Scottish culture – every bit as important as the expression of the nation’s political will.

In 2015, party political claim and counter-claim will occupy every column inch – the exploration of Scotland’s intractable problems will not. But Scotland’s newly awakened electorate has a choice. To sit meekly, with one eye on the clock and the other on the TV, or to transform the general election into something as vital and productive as the referendum.

May the musical spirit of Hogmanay stay with us – all the way till the seventh of May.

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