When Scottish scientist John Logie Baird first offered us the idea of television, many thought the invention would never take off. Apparently, the media were initially not all that impressed. Legend has it that a news editor for the Daily Express told an assistant: “For God’s sake, go down to reception and get rid of a lunatic who’s down there. He says he’s got a machine for seeing by wireless!”
The Oxford English dictionary defines a maverick as “an unorthodox or independent-minded person” and Baird is one of the many Scots who qualify for that distinction. And we would be a poorer nation without them. A central focus of our 80th anniversary initiatives has been to celebrate the people in society who challenge us to think in a different way, who take risks and don’t give up at the first sign of rejection.
In April, we announced a £50,000 Inspiring Scotland programme of funding to support young and emerging creative talent in Scotland. As part of this, we recently partnered with the Tom McGrath Trust in search of the next “creative maverick” in Scotland. Accompanied by a £2,000 bursary, the award is inspired by the life and legacy of poet, playwright and creative maverick Tom McGrath, who passed away in 2009.
As well as our partnership with the Tom McGrath Trust, the Saltire Society has endeavoured over its 80 years to support pioneering figures of Scottish society through other awards and initiatives.
We may get a sense of this from an excerpt from George Bruce’s History of the Saltire Society, quoting the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: “With the end of the war, however, and the end of my Merchant Service employment”, things became difficult. Housing was a problem, but help came from an unexpected quarter. At a meeting of the Saltire Society the Earl of Selkirk praised my work for Scotland and the quality of my lyrics, and a little later at his instance his brother, the Duke of Hamilton, offered me a commodious house adjacent to his Lanarkshire mansion of Dungavel, near Strathaven.”
The embrace of the Society could hardly be wider. An Earl praises the quality of lyrics in Scots and work done for Scotland by a Communist/Nationalist poet, MacDiarmid, and a Duke befriends him.
Our roll call of the outspoken, courageous and unorthodox is remarkable; awards of various kinds to Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Amal Azzudin and Alasdair Gray amongst many.
The 2016 Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun Award for outstanding contribution to Arts and Humanities went to Paisley-born creative John Byrne. John has made a significant contribution to art and culture, both as a playwright and a visual artist. Upon receiving the award, he proclaimed, “I’ll carry on with a vengeance!” Byrne is a charismatic individual who still offers strong views, most recently on art schools and drawing.
For the same awards in 2012, we recognised another Scottish maverick, Dolina MacLennan, for her outstanding contribution to Scotland’s life and culture. Dolina helped bring about the current resurgence of interest in the Gaelic language, both amongst learners and those who value and support the language as a vital part of Scotland’s culture.
Earlier this month, the latest in our series of “Inspiring Scotland” lectures saw Dundee-based entrepreneur Chris van de Kuyl lay down a challenge worthy of any maverick. He said “If we are truly going to be a player in a world in which the pace of change is ever increasing we need to start changing the direction of our thinking, as a nation, to match that pace of change or we will lose the game forever.”
Challenging our orthodoxies, our established ways of doing things can be uncomfortable for both the sender and recipient of the message. But it’s an essential part of a successful, vibrant nation.
The Saltire Society prides itself on being an organisation that is able to support and nurture those with maverick ideas that, like John Logie Baird’s, may seem incongruous at first but have the potential to disrupt and revolutionise our way of thinking about the world. Through a combination of energy, endeavour and sheer talent, mavericks help to drive our country forward to bigger and better things. At the Saltire Society, we will continue to champion the original, the egregious and the exceptional.
Jim Tough is Executive Director of the Saltire Society, www.saltiresociety.org.uk