A sense of promise

Scotland is a land of many cultures; a cause for celebration. A mongrel nation is a healthy nation, with inward migration an enhancing counterpoint to the outward variety which has long been a feature of Scottish ambitions for some of her daughters and sons.

Healthy too is the electoral definition of a Scot as someone who lives here, whether that residence dates from birth or recent relocation. We might sympathise with those emigre Scots who mourn the lost opportunity to vote in September 2014 at a seminal moment in their personal and national history, but the residency qualification has an insistent logic when you contemplate the logistical confusions – and possible fraud – contingent on postal voting on a global basis.

Seen from that perspective, the question of Scots identity becomes one of having a personal stake in the land where you live; of knowing that how you vote in the Referendum will vitally affect your future, that of your family, and that of your country, adopted or native.

Think of the children of Raploch in Stirling, given the opportunity to learn and play the kind of musical instruments they didn’t even know existed. Think of them playing a year later with the Simon Bolivar orchestra in a ‘summer’ concert where the rain wasn’t the only thing running down the cheeks of the audience. These are not special children. They are ordinary children given special opportunities which a clever nation will strive to make the norm.

But of course identity is a rather more complex business than where we choose to lay our heads. It is informed by many things, from the way we carry ourselves in terms of values and aspirations, how we fashion relationships with other neighbours and nations, our attitude and response to those disadvantaged by circumstance, the manner in which we choose to educate our children, and how we conduct business and commerce. In short, how we build and shape the society we inhabit.

And then there is ‘culture’ – not that endowed by our ethnic origins, but emerging from our creativity.

The early years of the 21st century have been rich in personal and collective creativity in this small country of ours. Our groundbreaking National Theatre, pioneering in its non-building-based determination to bring theatrical excellence to every corner of the land, to energise the companies and communities with whom they work, and then to showcase the very best of their endeavours internationally. The concept was radical; the rewards have been enormous.

Some of the most talented and prolific playwrights of the last decade honed their considerable skills on commissions with the NTS and companies like Dundee Rep and

a recently re-vitalised Citz.

Our visual artists, proving in Glasgow and elsewhere that a critical mass of talent choosing to locate in one area can create something special and so much more than the sum of its parts. The list of Scots-based artists featuring in the Turner prize lists and lauded at the Venice Biennale offers very tangible evidence of the seams of prodigious talent currently being mined at the highest levels.

The plethora of Book Festivals flourishing all over Scotland, their personalities as varied as their size and locations, have played host to a stream of Scottish authors and poets at the top of their game, whilst the vibrancy of traditional musicians countrywide meet their soulmates in that annual global fusion of cultures that is Celtic Connections.

This is not to suggest that Scotland’s creatives don’t face problems of resources and capacities. Too much creative energy is invariably spent keeping the fiscal shows on the road; energies which could be more usefully expended on realising artistic aspirations. Or to pretend that everything we produce enjoys similar standards of excellence; failure is an inevitable – even an essential – part of growing and learning.

Yet I would argue that rarely in my lifetime has there been such a sense of promise, of possibility, of a conviction that Scotland can utilise its innate creativity in the cause of the communitarian values which many of us believe still underpin our sense of ourselves.

Many would suggest such values are a self serving fiction born of misplaced nostalgia and national delusion. Yet a brief examination of post devolutionary Scotland contrasted with the same period in England shows a remarkable divergence of opinion as to what should constitute a modern, successful nation.

At the time of writing the health and education services in England have been thrown into a state of continuous revolution occasioned by what seems sometimes like weekly interventions and initiatives by the lead ministers. A consummate irony given that they serve in a government led by a party devoted, it said, to shrinking the power and influence of the state.

Education, self evidently, is key to nation building. And, despite the controversy it has generated among some of those charged with its delivery, I firmly believe the Curriculum for Excellence – championed by successive Scottish governments – has grasped and is striving to embed the notion that placing creativity at the heart of all teaching and learning is a sure path to personal and national fulfilment.

Its aspiration to ensure our children emerge into a world of uncertain employment opportunities with self confidence and curiosity, with a capacity for teamwork and problem solving, with an understanding of how their contribution can help grow their communities,

chimes perfectly with the qualities business and industry repeatedly say they need.

A fast changing market place demands a flexible learner.

Creativity liberates teacher and learner alike. One of the most heartening features of modern Scotland is how our professional creatives, working for some of our most imaginative companies and organisations, have increasingly made common cause with schools who tap into their skills to help fire the imagination of their students and infuse the learning process with the excitement which more readily instils deep knowledge.

These curricular adventures were once the exclusive province of teachers specialising in the expressive arts; the ambition of the Curriculum for Excellence is that they become a feature of learning and imparting knowledge across and within every subject. That, for me, is a hugely exciting agenda; a vision a million miles from the retro rote learning prospectus of Michael Gove who seems trapped in an educational time warp.

A little time ago I watched teachers and students share a day at the Science Centre in Glasgow, given the opportunity through Scotland’s creative learning networks to explore and share innovative ways of working already in place in schools across the country. The passion and enthusiasm exhibited by staff who had already got religion about utilising the arts to engage and respond to the natural creativity within every small child was inspirational.

Almost as inspirational was the extraordinary range of talents displayed by the youngest attendees. It was a batch of primary school children who brilliantly captured the day by recording it on IPads, variously using film, graphics, cartoons and music to feedback the day’s experiences. The way children absorb information is not the way we did. Unless we find the contemporary means to align our educational offering to their 21st century mindset the game will be lost. And with it, that huge reservoir of natural, imaginative thought.

One of my favourite educational gurus, Ken Robinson, maintains that all children possess extraordinary imaginations which only cease to soar when we try to squash their capabilities into pre-determined boxes regardless of the fit. If you doubt his theory think of the children of Raploch in Stirling, given the opportunity to learn and play the kind of musical instruments they didn’t even know existed.

Think of them playing a year later with the Simon Bolivar orchestra in a ‘summer’ concert where the rain wasn’t the only thing running down the cheeks of the audience. Think of some of them now, ensconced in the junior ranks of the National Youth Orchestra. Not a miracle. Just enlightened self interest investing in a future charged with possibility rather than scarred by poverty of aspiration.

These are not special children. They are ordinary children given special opportunities which a clever nation will strive to make the norm. Ordinary children comprehensively less likely to use drugs or indulge in criminal activities if their diverse, inherent talents are allowed to make them productive citizens valued by themselves and their peers.

Creativity comes in many guises, from that blossoming of personal musicality to the design of anything from video games and fashion to the mechanical imperatives of wave power. The joint creation of the hugely successful product design course by Glasgow School of Art and the engineering faculty at Glasgow University wasn’t a marriage of financial convenience, but a recognition of the natural synergy implicit in progressing allied skills.

Culture, then, is a many faceted concept. It embraces our ethnic origins, and linguistic heritage and it releases and empowers our creative instincts. It is a crucial building block of a nation which wishes to re-emerge as a fully functioning state whose antennae are alive to the opportunities offered by our inter-dependent world.

I was greatly struck by a line in the fascinating series Road to Referendum presented by Iain McWhirter. It was a reflection on how the Devolution settlement was finally made flesh despite the angst of doubters and the sceptics. Yet optimism and belief was built in another era where the creative community took a full throated part in the debate. As one of McWhirter’s contributors notes “the culture was ahead of the politics”.

We are, I believe, at a similar moment in time. A moment where some of our elected representatives have fallen out of step again with the march of history. Whilst on the road, singing, writing, acting, dancing, performing, are some inspirational and creative foot soldiers.

They reject the paralysis of false fears and look instead at what tomorrow’s Scotland might yet become. They are not banging a party political drum. Their backing track is the sound of optimism. Yet again, it seems, the culture is ahead of the politics.