Joyce McMillan: We’re all poorer for Rowan Tree loss

It’s 28 years since Judy Steel – writer, activist, campaigner, and great champion of Borders culture – called a meeting, near her home in the Ettrick Valley, to launch the Rowan Tree Theatre Company.

The Lasses O, directed by John Bett, above, was an award-winning production for Rown Tree Theatre

The idea was to create small-scale but fully-fledged professional theatre in a part of Scotland that had traditionally lacked it, despite a strong amateur drama tradition in some areas; Judy Steel called it “chamber theatre”, small in scale, but aspiring to the highest quality.

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Beyond that, the company also aimed to make theatre that would have a deep connection with the culture and landscape of the Borders itself – with the farming way of life, the mighty Borders tradition of ballads and folk songs, and the many great writers who belonged to the land between Edinburgh and the Tweed, including James Hogg, John Buchan and Sir Walter Scott. And for almost three decades, despite constant financial struggles, the company has fulfilled that remit, creating dozens of memorable shows like The Minstrel And The Shirra – Allan Massie’s reflection on the life of Walter Scott – or Rowan Tree co-founder John Nichol’s beautiful interpretation of Buchan’s Fish Tales. The gorgeous live music from Rowan Tree’s 2009 Burns show The Lasses O won a Critics’ Award For Theatre In Scotland; and the company is also rightly proud of the role it has played in helping to develop the Borders network of performing venues, in encouraging new initiatives such as the Borders Youth Theatre, and in encouraging young people from the Borders to develop professional theatre skills, and to believe that they can create top-flight theatre which reflects the life and culture of their region.

Now, though, Rowan Tree Theatre has decided to call it a day; and although the underlying reasons are many, dating back to Judy Steel’s retirement a few years ago, the final straw came when Creative Scotland refused to grant project funding to Rowan Tree’s latest new play commission, the winner of a Borders-wide competition. Rowan Tree has always enjoyed strong in-kind support from Borders Council, and generous sponsorship both from Stobo Castle and from the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust, which runs the stable-yard theatre at Bowhill near Selkirk, a space partly created to host Rowan Tree’s work. According to the company’s Chair Helen Currie, though, the company had simply been stuck with this short-term and provisional funding structure for too long; and when the latest project failed to gain Creative Scotland support after massive and time-consuming efforts to meet all the stated criteria, they decided it was time to leave the field to others.

Yet although the Borders cultural scene has certainly been transformed over the last 30 years – with new emerging venues like the gorgeous Heart of Hawick, and the new Firebrand Company now making professional touring theatre in the Borders, based on revivals of recent Scottish classics – it’s still difficult to see any other company, in this landscape, that shares Rowan Tree’s passion for linking the wider world of Scottish theatre to the great themes of Borders life, and the region’s tradition of poetry, storytelling and song. In the great scheme of public spending – or for that matter of private wealth, in Scotland – the sum of £100,000 a year or less that would have kept Rowan Tree alive is a tiny drop in the ocean; it speaks ill of our society, and its priorities, that we cannot find such a small sum to support a company that, for the last generation, has trained up young artists, opened up new performance spaces, and inspired people across the Borders by giving a contemporary voice to their great cultural heritage. And if this particular Rowan Tree is about to fade from the scene, it’s to be hoped that that impulse to give a voice to the Borders, and to link that voice with the wider stream of Scottish theatre, will not fade with it; but will find new spaces, new structures, and new ways of making itself heard.