Knowing Scots culture key for arts jobs

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The issue of Scottish culture and the arts has come to the fore again in recent days. Firstly, Liz Locchead has said she thinks it a pity there are so few Scots working in the National Theatre of Scotland. Now Sir Jonathan Mills, the previous director of the Edinburgh International Festival, claims he was bullied over the Scottish referendum.

Joyce McMillan, in a very good article (Perspective, 21 August), argues that nationality should not matter in Scottish theatre, although she admits there are serious problems with the governance of some arts organisations in Scotland which “seem to know little and care less about the cultural scene of which their organisations form a part”.

I agree with Joyce on both points and although I have been a consistent critic of the Scottish “cultural cringe” in recent years I have never argued that you need to be Scots to understand Scotland.

However, I do believe it is important to understand Scottish culture to take on important jobs in Scottish arts organisations as, for example, the late great John McGrath showed. He was born in Liverpool but lived in Scotland and understood Scottish culture.

But too often top jobs in Scottish arts have been given to people with little knowledge of Scottish culture and they learnt on the job, if at all.

This includes jobs at Creative Scotland, the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Traverse Theatre, none of which have ever had a Scots director.

But there are many other examples in the wider arts world of a continuing “cultural cringe” whereby appointment boards often drawn from the “great and the good” seem to think anyone from outside Scotland is superior to a Scot.

This takes me to Sir Jonathan Mills, the previous Edinburgh International Festival director. He claims, in Brian Ferguson’s article (21 August) “that he felt bullied over the referendum”.

I laughed when I read this. I was one of Mills’ more persistent critics and, having debated with him and questioned him at press conferences, I think the idea that he was bullied is fanciful.

Of course he was deliberately provocative when he declared the Festival was going to ignore the major political event in Scottish public life for many years – the independence referendum. But then he liked to be provocative.

My major complaint about Mills’ tenure at the Festival (apart from his awful opera programmes) was that he didn’t seem to be interested in Scottish culture, period.

When I challenged him on this, his riposte was always: “This is an international festival.” This is true but point number 3 of the Festival mission statement is “to show the best of Scottish culture to the world”.

This is something he signally failed to do in his eight years as director.

Interestingly, we have a new Festival director this year, Fergus Linehan, who, although not Scots-born, like all the previous Festival directors, has worked in Scotland and my theatrical friends tell me knows Scottish theatre well and has already commissioned a major adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark by one of Scotland’s finest playwrights, David Greig.

David, again, is not Scots but has lived and worked here for many years and clearly understand Scots culture.

I met Fergus Linehan the other day and congratulated him on the Festival so far. I think he will be a good director.

However, the issues of arts governance which Joyce mentions in her article are important and merit a wide discussion in the arts and civic Scotland.

I hope we can do this without resorting to the crude stereotypes of the past when I was accused of being “racist” for raising them or that all we want is “kailyard culture”!

Hugh Kerr

Wharton Square


Joyce McMillan might be right in putting creativity ahead of complaint in matters of national arts bodies etc, but her article discounts the many reasons why in Scotland there should be a “touchiness” in instances where there appears to be a pronounced absence of Scots in arts bodies.

The history of Scotland has been one of striving against cultural extinction, applying as it has done to language, arts, and in detail from bagpiping to elocution classes in order to be eligible for particular jobs etc.

The origins of any such resentments, if indeed these constitute resentments rather than justified sensitivities, stem from actual enforcements of cultural excoriation that have been real experiences for Scots in their own country over many years.

Liz Lochhead is the appointed Makar not because she excoriates, or wallows in resentments, or prefers blaming foreign influences to engaging in native flourishment. I am mostly sure these are not the reasons for her appointment. But in any event, there is every accepted evidence across the world that creativity seldom excludes resentments against cultural invasiveness, defensiveness against outside influences perceived to be fifth-column attempts to oust local practices, and so on.

Remove all such concerns from recognised artistic achievements and a gey skeletal thingy would remain.

Of course it is right and proper and positive to look outward in the same way that many endorse being internationalist in outlook, but neither necessitates removal of awareness as to one’s own individual traditions and care of such.

Awareness as to representational proportionateness in regard to national cultural bodies is but one aspect of such care.

In being aware, or expressing wariness, as to a national theatre being just that – a national theatre – does not signify concern with numeric equations. Why should it? Why should it be interpreted as such? Leave the arithmetic out of it.

Ian Johnstone

Forman Drive