I started writing this as the last elements of HI~Arts were being shut down around me, computers being wiped, permanent out of office notices put on email addresses. But I’m not going to write about that. I want to flag up just one aspect of our 23-year history—the online arts magazine Northings.com.
It has been a perennial, and entirely justified, complaint that cultural activity in the north of Scotland doesn’t get the coverage it deserves in the national media. As newspaper budgets have shrunk, and local stringers have been cast off, that problem has, if anything, become more acute. Knowing that, I was also conscious of the transience of all such cultural activity, the lack of any permanent, public record of what happened, when, and what people thought of it. This had been forcibly brought home to me when I tried to find online any history of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, where I worked in the early 80s. One of the most significant cultural initiatives in Scotland in the last half century had virtually no online presence. Happily, that’s now being sorted, with a major research project under way to document all Third Eye’s archives, and those of its successor the CCA.
So Northings had two main aims: to tell the rest of the world what was happening now, and to build up a long term record for future readers of what happened then. In ten years Northings posted over 1700 reviews of events from Shetland to Argyll and Benbecula to Moray, and over 700 features on artists and arts companies working in the Highlands and Islands.
For a website with a contemporary focus, Northings.com was a defiantly old fashioned model. It was not ‘crowd-sourced’. It had the inestimable Kenny Mathieson as its editor for its entire ten year history, bringing a wealth of experience from the world of print arts journalism. All features and reviews were directly commissioned, and all the writers were paid a going rate for their work. Northings carried no advertising, so that there could be no suspicion of special pleading, although for a brief period we did flirt unsuccessfully with automated links to Amazon.
So, Trip Advisor for the arts this wasn’t. And I believe that that was what gave it its strength and credibility. Don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for the power and the collective intelligence of crowd-sourced judgements. I use Trip Advisor regularly, and am often swayed by ratings on Amazon (other online retailers are available). But, for our purposes, crowd-sourcing had two drawbacks. First, for many of the events involved, there simply wouldn’t be a big enough critical mass of individual opinions and, secondly, we wanted to build a recognisable credibility for our individual writers, so that their positive reviews could become calling cards and marketing tools for the fortunate recipients. Of course, that meant that the negative reviews carried a similar weight, a factor that dismayed some of our subjects!
Hence the need for an experienced editor, who could guide writers new to the discipline, and apply the necessary (and often modest) subbing required. Hence also the avoidance of advertising—this was all about integrity and credibility.
Above all, what Northings gave its writers and readers was space-space to describe, analyse and reflect on a performance or an exhibition in depth and in detail; space, where appropriate, to provide context. Writers like Georgina Coburn in Inverness, Ian Stephen in Lewis, and Morag MacInnes on Orkney had the space to devote, if they wanted, 1,000 words or more to a review that, in the national press, would have barely merited 200. Again, that’s counter-intuitive. After all, the Web is supposed to be all about sound bites and a lack of sustained attention. But perhaps that’s just another untested assumption.
Technically, Northings is not a costly site, because being based on the estimable WordPress platform, it’s cheap to host and easy to use—our writers could use the ‘back end’ to post their reviews and features directly, leaving Kenny only to sub and approve them. The cost of course lay in the fees, to editor and writers. Nonetheless, the total budget was still less than that of a specialist publication such as the new writing journal Northwords Now. In its ‘tabloid’ format, free to pick up, Northwords Now produces 7,000 copies per edition, three times a year. Online Northings, by comparison, received around 6,000 unique visits for each of its monthly editions. So, as a means of disseminating knowledge, it was cost-effective.
Northings still exists. As part of the process of winding up HI~Arts we paid for an additional year’s hosting, to March 2014. Its huge archive of reviews and features, a unique picture of a decade’s cultural activity, will remain fully accessible and searchable throughout that period. So, if anyone out there has a vision for reviving Northings, in a way that will be faithful to its original concept, the gauntlet is thrown down—feel free to pick it up!
© Robert Livingston
2017: a long overdue update to flag up the excellent news that the Northings Archive is hosted by High Life Highland and fully accessible at http://northings.com . Huge thanks to High Life Highland for making this possible!
Whoever thought Geology could be cool? Last Sunday I was part of a large and enthusiastic audience gathered at Inverness’s Ironworks venue to hear Iain Stewart talk about ‘travels in lands that don’t exist’ as a highlight of this year’s Inverness Monster Science Festival.
Now, the city’s premier music venue might have seemed an unlikely location for a lecture on the history of the planet but then, as anyone knows who’s seen his many BBC series, Professor Iain Stewart is no ordinary geologist. You could describe him as Indiana Jones without the hat but with an East Kilbride accent, but that underplays his ability to be a really clear and stimulating communicator.
I think I’ve seen just about every programme he’s made for the BBC in the last ten years (I have a very good friend who’s a geologist and the enthusiasm has rubbed off), so I was keen to see what he’d be like in person. At first I was a little disappointed, as he interspersed his talk with a number of clips from his current TV series, Rise of the Continents, which I’ve been watching anyway, but it soon became clear that this was just the set up for what turned into a 45 minute-long Q and A that was as wide-ranging, thought-provoking and entertaining as you could possibly wish. Altogether, a consummate performance.
Nor was this a conventional lecture setting. The audience was seated at round tables, café style, and the play-in music was decidedly related to the venue’s normal programme and clientele. Mind you, they missed the opportunity to play Queen’s We will rock you, or perhaps Diamonds are Forever. But then, on the other hand, I don’t imagine many geology lectures have a bar available.
But what was most intriguing was the make-up of the audience, which went from senior citizens to a certain four-year old geologist who was keen to share his, very articulate, enthusiasm for the subject, and his detailed knowledge of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago…
Afterwards, I began thinking about the different appeals, today, of the arts and the sciences. If a similarly high profile TV presenter on the arts—say Andrew Graham Dixon, or Brian Sewell—had been programmed, I expect the audience would have been of much the same size, and perhaps even as keen, but I doubt if there would have been anyone present under 40. And this broad appeal of the sciences is not just down to the universal interest in dinosaurs. I suspect that if the guest had been Jim Al Khalili on physics, or Marcus du Sautoy on maths, the audience would have been almost as diverse in age range, and that’s without even mentioning Brian Cox.
So it looks as if the sciences have got their act together in introducing people of all ages to what are often abstruse subjects (tectonic plates, magma plumes, continental subduction) in an accessible way, that just isn’t true to the same extent for the arts. Which is ironic, as the ancestor and template for all such hour-long documentary programmes, whether in science, history, or the arts, is Kenneth Clark’s majestic 1969 series Civilisation. That was the first such documentary series to foreground the presenter so overtly, to have them actually speaking to camera in the locations they were discussing, rather than on voice-over, and to have the presenter start a sentence in one location and finish it in another, hundreds of miles away. And it, of course, was the brainchild of David Attenborough, during his time as Head of BBC 2, so it’s no surprise that he would then go on to adapt the model for his own Life on Earth, which changed forever how we view the natural world.
I think there are a number of factors at play. First, these science presenters all actually do science—perhaps not always at the very highest level, but certainly as their day job. They’re not commenting from outside, which is almost always the case with arts presenters, who are usually journalists or writers when not on the box. So an Iain Stewart, or a Steve Jones, or an Alice Roberts (for, thank goodness, they’re not all male) brings a personal passion and an insider’s view to their subject—something that is very evident, for example, in the conversations Jim Al Khalili leads in his excellent radio series The Life Scientific.
And then, so many arts documentaries seem stuck in a rut. Andrew Graham Dixon’s various series surveying the art history of different countries have barely moved on in format since Civilisation 45 years ago—indeed it could be argued that Lord Clark was a more diffident and self-effacing presence than some of his successors. By contrast, in his new series, and especially in his 2010 series Making Scotland’s Landscape, Iain Stewart uses every possible modern technological device to get across his points clearly—split screens in the case of the Scottish series, Sherlock style graphics in Rise of the Continents.
There are, however, some encouraging straws in the wind for the arts. BBC4’s modest little series What do Artists do all Day allowed the artists to speak for themselves, with only the briefest off-camera prompts, and the results, at least in the case of the two I’ve seen, on Norman Ackroyd and Cornelia Parker, were little short of revelatory.
But that’s on TV. What should we do closer to home? I’ve been giving a few talks on the arts recently to groups in the Inverness area. What I often find is that even those who are so actively interested in the arts as to join a dedicated group or society, still have a disconnect with ‘modern art’ that goes all the way back to a century ago, to the work of Duchamp and the other early Dadaists.
The problem seems to be that, for such people, art itself has ceased to be what they expect it to be—it is rarely representational, often defies accepted canons of beauty, and seems to shun any display of craftsmanship or virtuosity. Yet there is surely a parallel here with the sciences, where in almost every discipline we have been increasingly asked, over the same century and more, to accept the apparently counter-intuitive and the downright mind-boggling: from natural selection to gene sampling, from splitting the atom to string theory and multiverses, from the realisation of the scale of our own galaxy to discovering that it is but one among millions of galaxies in the observable universe.
Perhaps many of us, in this increasingly unstable perception of reality, therefore, turn to art for something that will provide reassurance, comfort, continuity. And instead we’re faced with Cubism, Abstraction, Conceptual and Performance Art, in short a world of ideas and languages that seems esoteric, hostile and excluding.
It’s not so long ago that most of contemporary science would have seemed equally challenging and unappealing. But scientists themselves took the first steps to open up their world. Since the pioneering work of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jacob Bronowksi, among others, a host of scientists in all disciplines have made strenuous and successful efforts to make their work more accessible. There are some honourable examples in the arts, too—notably David Hockney and Grayson Perry–but they are still too few. I’m writing, here, about science in a cultural blog because, unlike Matthew Arnold, I believe that science is an integral element of our culture. But I equally think that artistic practice is integral to our understanding of ourselves, and we are the poorer if we ignore what contemporary artists are doing, for lack of appropriate ambassadors.
© Robert Livingston
Words are slippery things, especially in my world. When do you use art, or arts? What exactly is an artist? What does culture cover? What constitutes our heritage? What is a community, and who belongs to it? Where are the limits of creativity?
And it becomes worse when you start linking those words. What exactly are the creative industries? There are various definitions currently in circulation. What are community arts or voluntary arts, and are they the same thing? And what exactly is cultural heritage?
Add the words Scotland or Scottish into the mix and you’re really in trouble. I wonder how different Creative Scotland’s reception would have been if it had adopted a name that didn’t yoke those contentious terms together. The amount of ink spent on defining Scottish culture could probably fill Loch Ness, and as we near the referendum debate, it may be blood that gets spilled on the subject rather than just ink.
Consider some of the contortions we get into in trying to make these words and phrases work for us. The Act which set up Creative Scotland referred to it being the ‘lead cultural body’ for Scotland. Yet most definitions of culture would include heritage, and Creative Scotland has no remit whatsoever for heritage, not even a coordinating role such as, after much heated debate, it was given in the creative industries.
Officers of Creative Scotland gave a presentation on their funding schemes during Go North recently. They split their schemes into the three categories of arts, film and digital, and creative industries, and then split the last term into those areas of the creative industries which Creative Scotland actually funded, and those for which it only had an overview, such as architecture and design. There could not be a clearer demonstration of the extent to which Creative Scotland is not yet more than the sum of the disparate parts from which it was made. Those categories make no sense to an artist who uses film in their gallery-based practice, and works as, say, a film editor to pay the mortgage.
This confusion between ‘the arts’ and ‘the creative industries’ has direct and largely negative impacts in the actions of other public bodies. The economic development departments of Local Authorities can prioritise the creative industries at the same time as their education or community departments are cutting their arts budgets, in apparent ignorance of the fact that many, if not most, successful initiatives in the creative industries will have their origins in some form of arts funding, whether it be an arts school course, an arts centre, or a bursary scheme.
‘Sticks and Stones may break my bones but website comments pages will never harm me’. No matter how much we may tell ourselves that the deluded souls who append their angry online comments to stories on arts funding, don’t know whereof they fulminate, it still hurts. Why don’t the general public ‘get’ the value of the arts, after all the evidence that research has produced? Mostly, because they don’t speak the language.
You will have to take me on trust when I tell you that I had written this much of the blog before I thought to apply these arguments to Fiona Hyslop’s Talbot Rice lecture of June 5th. In this much commented-on speech of some 7000 words, the Cabinet Secretary used the term ‘culture and heritage’, or such close variations as ‘our culture and our heritage’, some 50 times. She used the term ‘arts’ just five times.
So, what kind of definition of culture is Ms Hyslop using, that does not include heritage? Certainly not one that, for instance, the European Commission would recognise. To compound the confusion, Ms Hyslop also used the phrases ‘culture and creativity’ and ‘cultural and creative industries’, suggesting that the creative industries are not culture, and that culture is not about creativity. I’m sure that wasn’t what she meant.
This is not mere nit-picking semantics. It suggests that we have developed a deep-seated embarrassment about using the term ‘arts’. I include myself in that ‘we’, having in recent years shifted my strapline for HI~Arts from an arts development agency to a cultural development agency, although that was intended to reflect our increasing engagement with the museums sector.
More than twenty years ago, when I was at the Scottish Arts Council, I, and Combined Arts Director John Murphy, had dinner with Shetland’s then Director of Education, and we had a revealing discussion about the culture/arts dichotomy. The Director of Education stated that, in Shetland, they were more comfortable with the inclusive notion of ‘culture’; John and I, on the other hand, wanted to stick with ‘arts’ because, at least, we could be clear about what we were talking about, and where our remit began and ended. As many people have commented, there is much that is positive and hopeful in Ms Hyslop’s speech, but that troubling imbalance between the terms ‘arts’ on the one hand, and ‘culture and heritage’ on the other, suggests that language may still be an obstacle to real consensus and progress.
And what, then, of the term ‘artist’? In the lexicon of arts bureaucrats such as myself, ‘artist’ means everyone who creates artistic stuff—musicians, writers, actors, theatre directors, dancers, and so on. People who paint and sculpt are visual artists. It’s a clumsy arrangement. But even within the visual arts the term ‘artist’ is a contested one. A couple of discussions that I’ve been involved in recently have suggested to me, indeed, that ‘artist’ has become a limiting term. On the one hand, art-lovers of a more conservative taste can’t understand why people like Damien Hirst or Martin Creed can be termed ‘artists’ at all. Pickling a shark or switching the lights on and off is not painting a picture. On the other hand, I heard one ‘artist’ decry the term as applied to himself, because it means that people expect him to make things when his work is much more about actions, connections, critical debate and challenging norms.
I think we need a new word. Not a different word, a new word. The term ‘scientist’ did not exist before it was deliberately coined in 1833. Before that, people had ‘done’ science all the way back to the Greeks and the Babylonians, but they were usually called something like ‘natural philosophers’ (or, sometimes, ‘alchemists’). But by the early 19th century the increasingly technical practice of people like Humphrey Davey and Michael Faraday demanded a term that would distinguish their experimental approach from those who just thought about how the world worked.
I’m not going to be rash enough to suggest a suitable neologism. But I suspect that inventing a truly new term would help to get us out of the confusion we’re now in, where arts, culture and creativity are bandied about, even in the one speech, with a reckless abandon that makes it very difficult for anyone to get any real traction on what’s actually being proposed. If we really want to change the minds of those philistines who spill their bile in online comments, we need to take the slipperiness out of our language. Otherwise, with apologies to Matthew Arnold, our approach to culture will remain anarchic.
What music is in your bones? If you’re my age, it might be Dylan, or Pink Floyd, or Tamla Motown. If you’re a bit younger, maybe the Clash or Morrissey. But, as a nerdish teenager, I turned my back on rock and pop, and so the music that’s not just in my bones, but in my very DNA, or so it feels, is that of Gustav Mahler.
It’s not that I’d call Mahler my ‘favourite’ composer—I go back more often to the bottomless wells of Bach and Beethoven. But he may be the most ‘necessary’ composer, so embedded is his music in my psyché. So every now and then, I just have to hear some of his music. Needless to say I have dozens of recordings of the symphonies, but, living in the Highlands, there aren’t that many opportunities to hear them live. In fact, in twenty years, I can remember only three, all at Eden Court: two from the RSNO–a lyrical, poetic Fourth under Stephane Denève, and a rip-roaring Fifth from the great Marin Alsop—and one, a couple of years ago, from the Netherlands Youth Orchestra. Sadly, thanks to truly abysmal publicity, the players on that occasion outnumbered the audience, but when the fabulous young musicians raised the roof in the finale, we happy few did our best to match them with a standing ovation.
Strictly speaking, there was a fourth performance, though in an unusual form: back in the 90s the SCO brought Schoenberg’s reduction of the song-symphony ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ to Eden Court, and remarkably effective it proved to be. So when I saw a concert promoted as ‘Mahler in Miniature’ I was both intrigued, and grateful for any chance to hear one of the symphonies played in concert.
The three concerts under this title, in Dornoch, Strathpeffer and Nairn, were the initiative of a young Inverness-born conductor, Tomas Leakey, who has put together a group of local musicians—a mix of professional and amateur—as the Inverness Mahler Players. That’s quite a combination—a fledgling conductor, with a newly formed ensemble, attempting to convince us of the viability of performing Mahler’s hour-long Fourth Symphony with just 14 instrumentalists (two of them percussionists!). I headed for Strathpeffer Pavilion with an uneasy mix of anticipation and nervousness.
Tomas is nothing if not bold, and had put together a taxingly ambitious programme, kicking off with Martinu’s delightful Nonet, a cheery piece, that in its rhythmic trickery probably presents almost as many challenges as the Mahler. A few uncertain moments apart, this was a charming experience, and was followed by a genuinely lovely account of Debussy’s ‘Faun’ in the reduced version by Schoenberg pupil Erwin Stein. So far so good. But these were only the foothills…
What unfolded after the interval was quite magical. By the beginning of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony I’d pretty well forgotten that this was a reduced version, and when we reached the climax, when the gates of Heaven are thrown open, I’d tears in my eyes. Best of all, Tomas had engaged a wonderful young soprano, Emily Mitchell, for the all important solo part in the last movement. If I say that she reminded me of a young Lucia Popp, I can give no higher praise.
Mahler is all about transitions. These huge movements, often lasting 15 minutes and more, are a mosaic of tempo, rhythmic, and harmonic changes, often within a very few bars of each other. Underplay these, and the music can sound bland and strait-jacketed. Make too much of them and…well, only Leonard Bernstein could get away with that. I’m no conductor, but I don’t imagine these challenges are much diminished by performing with a reduced chamber ensemble, and then you have to add the new difficulty of balancing such an odd mix, with single strings, one horn, one each of woodwind, a piano and a harmonium, and not forgetting those two crucial percussionists. Tomas Leakey, for all his youth and inexperience, is clearly a highly capable musician, and a talent to watch. He managed those transitions, and balance problems, to the manner born, and shaped the whole arc of the symphony with a quiet and unassertive assurance. He also drew from his players, many familiar from other local ensembles, playing of huge concentration and commitment. It’s invidious to single out an individual musician, but that one horn player, given the prominence of her instrument in both the full and reduced scores, was truly heroic.
The arrangement used is a recent one, and is part of a series of such Mahler reductions by the German conductor Klaus Simon . Other performances, around the world, of this version have been highly praised and I can understand why: it’s been carried out with enormous imagination and insight and reveals (as one writer put it) an X-ray of the symphony, making it easier to hear how it has been put together. I was amazed at how great an emotional impact it made, and started to think of comparisons in other art forms: Mahler with fourteen players would be like, say, ‘Hamlet’ with three actors—Oh, hang on, I’ve seen that, back in the late 70s on the Edinburgh Fringe, with Pocket Theatre of Cumbria. Fun, but a fragment only of the original. Mahler in Miniature is much more like the real thing.
So did this experience help me to understand why Mahler’s music has penetrated me so deeply? It certainly proved that it’s not just about the sheer aural and visual spectacle of the huge forces that the symphonies are originally scored for. Perhaps the key lies in those all-important transitions. Within the immense architectural framework of each symphony, Mahler shifts mood and expression with the speed of thought. And those moods and expressions, as many commentators have pointed out, run the full gamut from schmaltz to transcendence.
Mahler was not only a contemporary of Freud in Vienna (something played on brilliantly in Frank Tallis’s series of novels), but he actually consulted Freud on one occasion, near the end of his life. Mahler was therefore one of the first artists to portray the fragmented self, capable simultaneously of the highest ideals and the most mundane physical reactions. Listening to Mahler’s music, for me, is like listening to a depiction of what it means to be me—or any other human being, in all our confused imperfections. He holds, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, (‘Hamlet’ again), whether in full strength or ‘lite’ versions.
I give you two great houses. Both were designed and built in the 1880s and 90s. Both are the expression of one man’s extraordinary vision. Both embody a rich and complex symbolic plan, displayed through a combination of the richest materials and the highest quality of craftsmanship. Both combine an acute historicist awareness of past architectural styles with the most modern technologies. Both houses are overwhelming works of art of a remarkable consistency and unity, and both enchant the visitor as if they had stepped into a fairytale fantasy.
But that’s where the resemblances end. One house, the Palau Guell is located in the centre of the tourist magnet that is Barcelona, and is world famous as the first mature work of one of the most acclaimed architects of all time, Antoni Gaudi. The other, Mount Stuart is at the heart of a large country estate on the island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. I doubt if even most of Mount Stuart’s visitors could tell you the name of its architect, the atrociously under-celebrated Robert Rowand Anderson .
I first visited the Palau Guell as long ago as 1998, and I have vivid memories of the literally dazzling journey involved in moving from the subterranean entrance to the astonishing forest of tiled chimneys on the roof. Shamefully, I only made it to Mount Stuart for the first time last week, though my excuse is that all my previous visits to Bute had been out of season!
I knew, of course, all about Mount Stuart, and the passionate personal vision of the 3rd Marquis of Bute which found expression not only here but also in the restoration of Falkland Palace, and in Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales. And I also happened to know something of the work of Rowand Anderson, because many years ago I helped to mount an exhibition on the Victorian architecture of St Andrews, where one of his earlier works is the confusingly named St Andrew’s Church .
But none of that prior knowledge prepared me for the immersive sensual and intellectual experience that is Mount Stuart. I suppose, naively, I had expected something that would be entertaining in a rather kitsch way, like a less excessive version of Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein. Well, if you were a passionate advocate of Modernism’s rejection of ornament, that might be your reaction, as it would be hard to imagine an interior with more decoration. But, as the late Kenny Everett would say, it is all done ‘in the best possible taste’ . The nearest comparison I’ve seen in Scotland is Patrick Allan Fraser’s eccentric masterpiece, Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, but that wonderful building had not yet escaped from a mid-Victorian aesthetic, and so, to contemporary eyes, it does lean to the kitsch end of the spectrum.
Just as Gaudi’s Palau Guell is an early expression of what would become the international style of Art Nouveau, so Mount Stuart, for all the dazzling richness of its materials, is infused with the new aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its nearest comparator would be Norman Shaw’s Cragside in Northumberland, built about the same time and, like Mount Stuart, blending a melange of historical styles with innovative technology. That means that both Cragside and Mount Stuart, despite the immense grandeur of their public spaces, still feel like comfortable homes. All the guest bedrooms at Mount Stuart, for example, have en suite bathrooms.
I described both Palau Guell and Mount Stuart as being the results of one man’s vision, but it would be truer to say that they were the outcomes of a fruitful relationship between architect and patron, save that in Mount Stuart the direction of the relationship was reversed, with Rowand Anderson striving to realise the intensely spiritual concepts of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute, who was so passionate a convert to Catholicism that he chose to be painted and photographed dressed as a monk .
Nonetheless, you couldn’t mistake Mount Stuart for the work of any other architect. Which leads me to wonder why we don’t celebrate Rowand Anderson more enthusiastically. First of all, he was responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh—Central Station Hotel and Govan’s Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the McEwan Hall, and the Mansefield Traquair Centre. He was also responsible for a huge amount of sensitive historical restoration, at Jedburgh and Paisley Abbeys, Dunblane Cathedral, and Balmoral Castle (the last earning him a knighthood).
Perhaps the problem is that we have little or no opportunity to see his work as a totality. Once you consider all the above buildings, a strong, even idiosyncratic personal style emerges that, for me, makes him possibly Scotland’s most interesting and individual architect between Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And there, of course, in mentioning the ‘Mackintosh’ word I’ve found the explanation for his neglect. It’s as if we only have room in our concept of national identity for ‘one of each’. So Burns is our national bard, and overshadows not only his own exceptional contemporary, Robert Fergusson, but also a host of predecessors and successors. Sir Walter Scott eclipses James Hogg, whose psychologically insightful writings are much more relevant to our modern interests. Even today the understandable fame of John Bellany in painting, Ian Rankin in crimewriting, or James MacMillan in music, leaves too many of their equally gifted contemporaries in the shade.
Perhaps this is inevitable in ‘small’ countries. I imagine Norwegians are equally tired of having their culture identified only through Ibsen and Grieg, as the Finns are probably sick of Sibelius and the Kalevala. But it’s an aspect of the ‘cultural cringe’ that I don’t think gets discussed enough. And it has real impacts. Mount Stuart is, to use a crude term, a world class visitor attraction, and it should be as well known as Gaudi’s masterpieces, and if Rowand Anderson is hardly, in the totality of his work, Gaudi’s equal, he still deserves to be far better known than he is. That sort of fame translates directly into visitor numbers and visitor spend. Yet time after time, from our national tourism agency, to the popular vote for the images on new bank notes (Burns and Nessie), we choose the easy option, and fail to present the true richness and variety of Scottish culture, which of course makes it too easy for sceptics and hostile commentators to deny that such richness exists.
So, do yourself a favour, if you’ve not yet been to Mount Stuart, go soon, go this summer, you won’t regret it. And I haven’t even mentioned the superb gardens, the stunning new Visitor Centre, or the ambitious programme of annual artists’ residencies. Let alone all the other delights of Bute. And all just a short trip from Glasgow.