Stornoway’s arts centre always punches above its weight

AS the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway celebrates its 30th anniversary, David Robinson visited to discover what its plans for the future are

An Lanntair has been the artistic focal point of Stornoway for 30 years, offering a social meeting place, music and a thriving book festival. Picture: Contributed

THERE’S been no shortage of key anniversaries in Stornoway this year. Its port authority celebrated being around for 150 years, and the HebCelt festival has been rocking there for 20. On top of all that, there’s the An Lanntair arts centre, which first opened its doors at the town hall 30 years ago.

“We wanted to create a space where wonder, debate, controversy, beauty, excellence and passion were the norm,” said Sam Maynard, then a photographer, now a TV producer and one of its co-founders. Ten years ago – yes, yet another anniversary – they got their own £6 million purpose-built building designed by Dundee architects Nicoll Russell to further help them live up to Maynard’s ideals.

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For all the artistic highlights of this multi-anniversary year, though, the outlook for next year looks even brighter. That’s all down to An Lanntair putting together Stornoway’s winning bid in June for the Creative Places award. As a result, it now follows St Andrews and Falkirk – winners in the two previous years – in receiving the maximum grant of £125,000 to spend on artistic projects.

“Already we’ve started work on the biggest of the commissions,” says An Lanntair’s chief executive Elly Fletcher. “Craig Armstrong and Callum Martin will be coming together to do a composition with Gaelic psalm singing. There’ll be a performance of it here next year but we also hope to be able to tour it and make a recording.”

On top of that, Stornoway’s winning Bealach (Gateway) proposal will also involve setting up arts labs for new and emerging artists, commissioning a project for women Gaelic singers, setting up an arts trail across the town, bringing new venues into use for performances (like the ferry from Ullapool in the week before HebCelt in July), and getting the island’s youngsters to display art on the brutalist concrete bus shelters dotted throughout Lewis and Harris.

“Winning the Creative Place award wasn’t just a grant – it was an accolade,” says Fletcher, who moved up from Nottingham’s New Art Exchange in October last year just after work on the bid had started. “That was a great way for me to meet all the main players not just in the arts but also in the heritage tourism and business sectors too.”

Like, for example, getting to know and work with the people running the new Lews Castle museum which will be opening early next year on the other side of town, with six of the world-famous Lewis chessman on permanent display. An Lanntair’s technical and curatorial staff have already established close links with the museum, which has been built on the site of the castle’s glasshouses and which will attract an estimated 50,000 visitors a year. “The museum is going to be a hugely important for us,” says Fletcher, “because it gives people a reason to stay more than one or two nights in Stornoway. It means you can have an entire day of cultural experience in town.”

Already the grounds and gardens of the museum have been prepared, and the interiors of what will be the first museum in the country to use Gaelic as a first language are nearly ready too. Even more money has been spent restoring the adjoining Lews Castle – a vast Victorian pile built by Sir James Matheson with his fortune from the 19th century Chinese opium trade into 26 self-contained luxury flats for tourists. Again, that is expected to open later next year. Together, the museum, archive and castle restoration projects will cost £18.5m.

“The castle has been unoccupied and in a terrible state of repair for nearly 20 years, so restoring it will completely revitalise the town,” says Fletcher. “The work they’ve done renovating it is mind-blowing.”

An Lanntair is not without its critics. It has more Creative Scotland funding than ever before – about £400,000 – which is enough to make some other arts organisations wildly jealous, even though it is less than half what it costs to run the building and deliver everything it offers. Staffing levels – there are 48 employees, including those working in the café and at the bar – are also enviable.

Yet this is a place, remember, that runs the only cinema in a 100-mile radius, puts on theatre in two languages not one, and is the only publicly-funded exhibition space on Lewis. It also stages its own book festival, Faclan, at the end of October – next year will be the tenth anniversary – and founding director Roddy Murray’s themed programmes (always mirrored in the weekend’s cinema programme) have really kicked into gear since he was freed of administrative duties to concentrate on them. Three years ago, bringing Richard Dawkins to the lions’ den of Free Presbyterianism produced a flurry of letters in the Stornoway Gazette that didn’t stop until Christmas. In the kind of coup you might expect to find in one of the mammoth festivals like Hay, not one put together on a relative shoestring (£15,000). This year’s Faclan had three of the finest medical writers in the land – neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, psychologist Stephen Grosz and Gavin Francis, Edinburgh GP and author of Adventures in Human Being, last month’s Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year – sharing the same stage.

Even An Lanntair’s few critics admit that its education and outreach programmes are superb. Other arts organisation might also work with members of the public living with dementia, but I’m sure none of them do so quite as assiduously. Groups from care homes visiting An Lanntair in a safe, secure, way, to hear musicians play or see the exhibitions, or perhaps to be visited in their care homes by artists or people involved in community projects put on as part of an exhibition. And often when they are, An Lanntair will make sure that someone is talking to them in the Gaelic language of their childhood. For this work and research, An Lanntair was awarded £180,000 for a three-year-project from the Life Changes Trust earlier this year.

So far, I haven’t even mentioned Ann Lanntair’s role as a beacon of international culture as well as a mirror to its own. Yet even though that’s consistently evident in recent programming, I’ll end by going back right to the start and a story that Sam Maynard told from its first year, back in 1985.

It was quite a coup to land African blues star Ali Farka Touré, who turned up with Robbie the Pict in Ullapool, unaware that his next gig involved a sea crossing. Touré didn’t mind planes but avoided boats as in his culture, the sea was haunted by demons: he couldn’t possibly catch the ferry. Robbie the Pict told him that in our culture men worked on the sea and our gods protect them, and a compromise was reached: Touré would travel, but only if Robbie the Pict prayed with him for the four-hour crossing on the back deck of the car ferry. “That night,” said Maynard, “150 people crammed into the old gallery space to listen to a man who had literally defeated his demons. It was the most extraordinary performance I have ever witnessed.”

Years later, Maynard made a video in Paris with Touré. Even though he filled stadiums all over the world, he told him, he still reckoned that An Lanntair was one of his best ever gigs. And as An Lanntair starts a second decade in its new home, there will be plenty more to celebrate too.

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