The Year of Creative Scotland – a branding exercise overshadowed by controversy

Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre Glasgow. Directed by Cora Bissett from a book by David Grieg. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow Girls at the Citizens Theatre Glasgow. Directed by Cora Bissett from a book by David Grieg. Picture: Robert Perry
Share this article
Have your say

WHEN the government dreamed up the “Year of Creative Scotland” – an attempt to draw attention to Scottish culture in the midst of the 2012 London Olympics – who’d have thought it would end up meaning something so different from what was intended?

The most obvious twist is that this was the year in which Creative Scotland, the country’s national arts funding agency, plunged into crisis after months of criticism by some of the country’s leading artistic talents, from Janice Galloway, Don Paterson and David Greig to Brian Cox and Alan Cumming.

Former director of National Theatre of Scotland Vicky Featherstone. Picture: Robert Perry

Former director of National Theatre of Scotland Vicky Featherstone. Picture: Robert Perry

But this has also been a year in which the whole idea of what it means to be Scottish and creative has been fiercely debated. This is a highly charged subject, as illustrated by the furious row this week over an essay by Alasdair Gray, in which the grand old man of Scottish literature decided, for the sake of argument, to divide English people in the Scottish arts world into two categories, “colonist” and “settler”. Which one you are, according to Gray’s argument, depends on how long you stay and on your commitment to making a contribution to Scottish culture. The point of such a distinction? Scottish culture, in Gray’s view, is marginalised when overseen by “colonists” with an essentially English worldview.

Read Gray’s essay in full and you’ll find, I believe, absolutely none of the anti-Englishness he has been accused of this week - despite his questionable use of words with such potent and negative historical associations. But his decision to label Vicky Featherstone, the popular departing director of the National Theatre of Scotland, as a “colonist” was deeply unfortunate, given that the essay was published on the same day Featherstone said she had suffered from what she called anti-English bullying during her eight years in Scotland. Result: a perfect media storm, as the two stories became conflated and Gray’s essay appeared to embody the anti-Englishness Featherstone had experienced.

It’s sad that something called “the Year of Creative Scotland” should draw to a close on this sour note. It’s also surprising the row didn’t happen sooner. Three months ago, the open letter from 100 artists that spelled the beginning of the end of Andrew Dixon’s time as chief executive of Creative Scotland named “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture” as one of the organisation’s core problems. Dixon, of course, is English. Alasdair Gray was one of the signatories, but at the time the focus wasn’t on him.

A month before that, Don Paterson expressed similar sentiments in his own essay from the same book, Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (published three months before the actual book, which only reached shops this week). Referring to Dixon, he condemned what he called “the adolescent, craven and nervous recruitment of non Scots residents to the most culturally sensitive positions in the national arts”, but, distracted by Paterson’s vivid description of Creative Scotland as a “dysfunctional antheap”, no one thought to ask if this cravenness must logically also apply to, for example, Vicky Featherstone.

Writer and artist Alasdair Gray. Picture: Robert Perry

Writer and artist Alasdair Gray. Picture: Robert Perry

Going back further, in October 2011 the National Theatre of Scotland organised a public debate called Staging The Nation: the Scottish Play. Billed as an exploration of what made a piece of theatre Scottish, it was really an opportunity for the NTS to go head to head with one of its harshest critics. Like Alasdair Gray, nationalist campaigner Paul Henderson Scott has long argued that Scottish culture is marginalised in its own country. “The people who are running our National Theatre aren’t all that interested in the Scots language or in Scots plays; in fact I think they rather look down on it,” Scott told a journalist the year before.

Featherstone admitted this week that Scott’s criticisms had left her feeling “defensive and embattled” (although, to be clear, she didn’t name him as one of the bullies). Her response was Staging the Nation, a series of events exploring Scottish identity and revisiting Scottish classics such as The Steamie and The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil. It felt like a tacit admission that the NTS had, on Featherstone’s watch, under-represented what Scott calls the “national repertoire”.

There’s a striking quote in Featherstone’s parting interview with The Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan, published this week: “I often ask myself why so many boards in Scotland seem to assume that a person from England knows better, even though I’m from England myself,” says Featherstone. This actually echoes a line in Gray’s essay: “These colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.” By “these colonists” he is referring, in particular, to Vicky Featherstone and Andrew Dixon.

What Featherstone, Paterson and Gray all touch on is what tends to be called the Scottish cultural cringe. How sad and ironic that this has become a talking point during the Year of Creative Scotland, intended to be a high profile celebration of Scottish culture.

The problem with discussing the cultural cringe is that, while there is widespread agreement that the condition exists in some form or other, convincing cures are harder to find. It’s unfortunate that the examples Gray chooses don’t exactly help his critique of colonists. Featherstone is widely credited with putting Scottish theatre on the map internationally – with Black Watch, most obviously (a show that was her idea). She also redefined what a national theatre could be. The NTS’s opening show, Home, was an inclusive, nationwide event involving local communities, instead of a West End-style metropolitan premiere with a guestlist of establishment figures (those who claim Scotland’s arts world is run by an Oxbridge elite would do well to remember this). The NTS’s more recent Five Minute Theatre project was created in the same inclusive spirit. She has also, as Tam Dean Burn pointed out this week, helped put Scottish working-class voices on stage more than ever before – from the NTS’s revival of Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep to this year’s hit, Glasgow Girls. Would someone who’d lived longer in Scotland really have done a better job? And if so, how?

As for Andrew Dixon, ask most critics of Creative Scotland – including Don Paterson – and they’ll tell you its problems are deep-rooted, structural and ideological. Some blame its chairman Sir Sandy Crombie, former chief executive of Standard Life, for ushering in the corporate culture that has alienated so many artists. Crombie grew up in Fife. Others blame the Scottish government, for its adoption of what Paterson calls “New Labour neo-managerialism”. Dixon’s lack of familiarity with the Scottish scene may have been a factor, but a much bigger problem was his arrogance and failure to listen (Featherstone, by contrast, constantly listened, learned and adapted, which was why she was so popular). Recruiting a Scot with a similar personality might well have led to the same result.

And yet, despite all this, the question lingers: are Scots under-represented in this country’s cultural power structure? Simple number-crunching – as Pete Martin did in a recent Scotsman article, “Doing Ourselves Down” – suggests the answer is yes. As Martin pointed out, most of this country’s leading arts institutions – from Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera to the Traverse and the Citizens’ Theatre – are run by people who didn’t grow up here.

This just raises further questions though. Is it a conspiracy? Clearly not, since individual organisations all make their own decisions. So, assuming we think it’s a problem, how on earth do we address it? Should the Edinburgh International Film Festival not have employed Chris Fujiwara, new to Scotland yet credited with restoring its reputation this year? Should Scottish Ballet not have employed Ashley Page, who moved here from London and transformed the company so spectacularly? How could such jobs be preserved for Scots without risking a legal challenge? And, in the kind of multicultural Scotland celebrated by shows like Glasgow Girls, should it matter anyway? It’s not as if only English “colonists” hold these important jobs. Fujiwara is a Japanese American. Jonathan Mills, who runs the Edinburgh International Festival, is Australian.

I don’t claim to have answers. What’s clear, though, is that this is a difficult, divisive debate, and how it’s conducted could have all kinds of uncertain consequences for Scotland’s reputation abroad. This week, the unfair suggestion that one of our leading novelists is inciting anti-Englishness has spread far and wide. Meanwhile, even Gray’s more even-handed critics have found themselves branded, absurdly and insultingly, as signed up members of a unionist conspiracy. One, astonishingly, was compared by a prominent independence campaigner to Lord Haw Haw (the nickname for British aristocrats who did radio broadcasts for the Nazis). “Emotions were starting to run too high,” his critic later acknowledged, but if two newspaper stories can provoke so much bad-tempered conflict, how ugly and personal will our cultural debate become as the independence referendum approaches? It’s a sobering thought on which to end a Year of Creative Scotland.