Tom Peterkin: Scottish arts needs quiet flair of ex-Merchiston teacher

The way that the arts can enrich lives means that every effort must be made to sort out arts quango Creative Scotland, writes Tom Peterkin.

Tom Peterkin's father developed a love of Back and Brahms at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh
Tom Peterkin's father developed a love of Back and Brahms at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh

This week work started on a state-of-the art music centre at St Andrews University, an admirable project in every way and one which has benefitted considerably from the largesse of Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay.

The super-wealthy Scottish entrepreneur gave £4 million towards the project, which is to be named the “Laidlaw Music Centre”.

Given the scale of his philanthropic gesture, one imagines that Lord Laidlaw must have a keen appreciation of the way that music can enrich lives. Quite what role music has played in Lord Laidlaw’s own life is more difficult to discern in a quick browse of the newspaper cuttings profiling him.

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    They focus more on his role as one of the Tories’ most generous donors, his passion for yachting, his success in business and an unfortunate incident around 10 years ago involving some prostitutes that saw him seek help in a sex addiction clinic.

    What can be said with a little more certainty about Lord Laidlaw and music is that when he was a schoolboy he must have encountered someone who would fit the description of an inspirational musician.

    As a boy, Lord Laidlaw – then plain Irvine Laidlaw – was a pupil at Merchiston Castle School, the famous fee-paying establishment in Colinton, Edinburgh.

    For as long as anyone can remember Merchiston’s success on the rugby pitch has earned it a reputation as a formidable nursery for the Scotland team. With alumni like Ross Logan, Roger Baird, John Jeffrey, Duncan Hodge and Phil Godman, it would easy to assume that the school valued muscular activities beyond cultural ones.

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    These days, of course, schools such as Merchiston pride themselves in the broad range of education they provide across all the arts. But one might imagine in the austere post-war years when Lord Laidlaw was there that it was a cultural desert. Not so.

    On the staff was a dearly loved piano and organ teacher called Donald Sprinck. An unassuming man with a severe stammer, one might be forgiven for thinking he would not be a natural fit at a robust all-boys school. As a shy man wrestling with a speech impediment, the easy assumption would be that he would be ragged mercilessly by Philistine pupils. But Donald Sprinck was special. So much so that he was recognised by Merchiston boys at the time as a sensitive soul and, above all, a man with a sublime musical gift.

    The son of a fashionable portrait painter in the court of the Czar of Russia, he was a pupil of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who knew Brahms and was influenced greatly by the composer.

    Donald Sprinck won gold medals for piano and organ at the Royal College of Music in London. He was blessed with perfect pitch and, by all accounts, his playing was virtuosic. But rather than pursue a career on the concert platform, he devoted his life to the school. My father, a contemporary of Irvine Laidlaw at Merchiston, had a study next door to Donald Sprinck’s rooms.

    My father’s own efforts to learn the piano had not been entirely successful, but for hours he would listen to Donald Sprinck practise.

    Despite being a member of the First Fifteen, my father managed to acquire a life-long love of Bach and Brahms. Somewhere he still has a 78 record of Donald Sprinck’s playing that he was given by the man himself.

    Other boys of a less athletic nature – who found the rugby pitch an unpleasant ordeal – discovered an oasis of culture in Donald Sprinck’s music lessons, his kindness and a gift unselfishly shared.

    These musings about a ferociously successful philanthropist and a gentle schoolmaster are rather a long-winded way of trying to say that the value of music, the arts and culture should never be overlooked. As Donald Sprinck demonstrated – and Lord Laidlaw appears to recognise – such things have the potential to enrich lives beyond measure. They provide an escape from the noise of Brexit and constitutional sabre-rattling. But unfortunately, they can also become the victim of petty politics, especially – it would seem – when it comes to Scotland’s arts quango.

    Given Scotland’s rich cultural potential, it is troubling to observe Creative Scotland lurching from one crisis to the next. Earlier this month, Creative Scotland’s CEO Janet Archer announced her departure from the arts body. Her resignation was not unexpected. She had been on prolongued sick leave and a series of controversies had blighted the body recently.

    Funding decisions taken earlier this year, including removing grants from theatre, disability and music groups had caused anger. An emergency board meeting was held and a series of about-turns were made on key decisions, a state-of-affairs that did not suggest good leadership. A damning Holyrood report said Creative Scotland had fallen “well below the standard that is expected from a non-departmental public body”. She left barely eight years after the resignation of her predecessor Andrew Dixon amid protests from artists about the direction that the quango was taking.

    Whoever is next in line to inherit what has fast become a poisoned chalice faces a very challenging task to restore Creative Scotland’s credibility and effectiveness. Perhaps what is required now is a rebuilding of trust and stability.

    What’s more, it needs to be done with the sort of metronimic precision, humility and understated flair that Donald Sprinck might have recognised.