Category Archives: General Arts

The Enchanted Forest


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ENCHANTED FOREST at the Explorers Garden, Pitlochry, for The Scotsman 19.10.11

3 stars ***

IT’S NOT FOR nothing that Perthshire describes itself as Big Tree Country, home of Scotland’s remaining ancient forest; and if you want to see a whole hillside of those magnificent trees from a new and often thrilling perspective, then you could do worse than join the other 24,000 people who are confidently expected, this month, to visit the spectacular Enchanted Forest event at the Explorers Garden beside Pitlochry Festival Theatre, now in its ninth successful year.

Enchanted Forest is a sound-and-light event, staged in the dark autumn evenings. This year’s show – titled Transitions, and created by lighting designer Simon Wilkinson and composer/sound designer R.J. McConnell – leads us gently around the whole length of the hillside, inviting us to look again at the shapes, the grandeur, the exquisite detail of the trees around us, lit by sweeping laser arcs, or by quiet swathes of unexpected colour, from blood-red to deep turquoise; the centrepiece of the event is a majestic and often moving ten-minute son-et-lumiere display staged in the deep gorge around the burn that runs through the garden.

The event also includes smaller installations, though, including a colourful “sound harp” that allows children to trigger sounds among the trees by brushing their hands over a photo-cell. To my mind, the show is slightly confused in its mood and approach; it markets itself as family fun, attracts huge numbers of young children, and seems to encourages its adult audience members to view the whole event through a lens, as a kind of family photo opportunity.

Yet at its best, it actually meets a relatively inward and adult need to contemplate, and re-connect with, the magnificent complexity and grandeur of the natural world around us. “D’you want your picture taken on that big pine cone, Samantha?” said a Glasgow Dad to a little three-year-old, as I passed. “No,” said Samantha firmly. “What’re you like?” said Dad. And it’s a question that this show leaves unanswered; about what children are really like, and where their tastes truly coincide with those of the grown-ups, many of whom might gain more from this experience if – like a critic – they had the privilege of visiting it alone.


Riverside Museum: First Day Review



THE HEAVENS opened, the Glasgow weather did its midsummer worst; but nothing, it seemed, could dampen the mood of excitement down at the old Govan Ferry, on the day when the people of Glasgow acquired a new “dear green place” to take to their hearts. Set on a bleak headland on the north side of the river, Zaha Hadid’s inconic Riverside Museum building is undeniably a thing of beauty, curving and rolling like a wave between the railway and the river. Outside, its zinc-clad roof and pleated walls are all grey and blue; inside, the walls, ceilings and walkways of Hadid’s great, column-free space – shaped like a large, uneven “u” – are painted in a sharp, fresh green, slightly startling, always vivid.

The building seems to work well, in terms of access, facilities, food, drink and ambience. The downstairs cafe has a riverside terrace, the upstairs self-service bar has a fine view across the water. The transport links are impeccable, by train, boat, underground, ferry and new, dedicated bus from George Square; and the staff are as enthusiastic and excited as the visitors, as they help everyone from jolly gangs of schoolchildren to elderly couples to climb in and out of old trams, buses and subway trains, to admire the huge South African locomotive built at Queen’s Park Works in 1945, and to find their way around the myriad astonishing and fascinating objects that this city museum – transport-based, but also featuring many other historic artefacts – has to offer.

Whether the exhibition itself offers the same quality of experience as the building will, I suspect, be the subject of prolonged debate. What’s clear almost at first glance is that the complex space is crammed to bursting with vehicles, objects, and small screens offering personal stories, to the extent that it’s often difficult to stand back and take a measured view of some of the most impressive exhibits; and that that sense of crowding, combined with a resolute refusal to arrange the material in a clear chronological or thematic order, makes it difficult for the ordinary visitor to grasp the real weight and value of the collection. Add to that lack of clarity an inconsistent and jumbled presentation of information about what we’re looking at – there a tiny notice, here a large signboard, there a temperamental and confusing touch-screen display – and it’s no wonder that people were to heard asking, in good-natured puzzlement, why “they’re not telling us which boat it is”, or why, in front of the Arnold Clark Wall of Cars, the touch-screen information-points stand so close to the wall that you can’t look simultaneously at the information, and at the cars.

By far the most eloquent and successful part of the museum is the late-19-century street, full of traditional shops, an old subway station and tramcars; here, the space and the layout tell the whole story, loud and clear. For the rest of the museum, though, the curators need to take a deep breath, make some difficult choices about the artefacts they will put on display, give them room to breathe, have the courage to tell a lucid and compelling story through them (even if that story is only there to be challenged), and dramatically raise their game in terms of clear, consistent information, accessible at a glance. When I arrived at the museum, I asked one of the friendly staff members whether there was an audio tour, or if not where I should start on my journey round the museum, so as not to miss any highlights. “Oh,” she said, “you just start anywhere and go anywhere, it’s not really connected.” And despite the glory of the material on view here, and the obvious affection for it shown by the packed first-day crowds, the truth is that without that sense of connection and context, even the most magnificent objects lose some of their power, and speak to us less clearly than they should.


Jonathan Mills on Edinburgh International Festival 2011 – Q & A


JOYCE McMILLAN talks to JONATHAN MILLS, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, for the Scotsman Festival Preview, March 2011

WHEN JONATHAN MILLS was first appointed director of the Edinburgh International Festival, back in 2006, he had only a few months to put together the programme for his first Festival, in 2007; it was, he says, “a bit of a scramble”.

Over that winter, though – as the young Australian composer and director flew back and forth, once a month, between Australia and Edinburgh, preparing for his move to Scotland – he found that these journeys gave him precious thinking-time to consider the 21st century implications of the ambition announced back in 1947 by the then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the idea that this would be “a festival to embrace the world”. He began to imagine a series of Festivals, beginning in 2008, that would take audiences on an unfolding journey through a world in the grip of change. So in 2008, the Festival looked at the changing face of Europe, and its shifting borders. In 2009, the year of Homecoming, it looked at Scotland itself, and the idea of Enlightenment, and at its relationship to the world. Then in 2010, the festival began to look out across the world’s oceans, reflecting the great movements of people towards new worlds that have shaped our history.

And now, in 2011, the journey reaches Asia, in a programme packed with work created by artists and companies from China and Japan, Taiwan and Korea, Vietnam and India. The programme includes both Asian work that has been powerfully influenced by the west – there are many versions of Shakespearean stories in the programme – and a rich reflection on the vast body of European work which has been inspired by Asian images and ideas, from Robert Schumann’s Das Paradies Und Die Peri, chosen for this year’s opening concert, to Philip Glass’s film-and-music work The Qatsi Trilogy, which will be played over three nights at the Playhouse, with Glass himself on keyboards. In conversation with Scotsman columnist and theatre critic Joyce McMillan, Jonathan Mills discusses the thinking behind this year’s Festival, which he has named “To The Far West”. They talked just before the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan.

Q. Jonathan, in the programming of this Festival, and the title you’ve given it, you seem to be suggesting a radical change of perspective in the world; as if Europe had ceased to be at the centre of things, and been replaced by the booming economies of China and other Asian countries, where Europe is seen as the “far west”. Is that what you intended?

A. Well, there is a sense that we’ve been moving the centre of gravity further away from Europe each year. I think it was time for the Festival to do that. And in focussing this Festival on Asian arts and culture, and calling it “To The Far West”, I want to express a sense of a world that is changing, with our place in it up for grabs; and to work with performers who will challenge, inspire, tease out that changing sense of where and who we are.

In fact, though, I don’t think it’s a world that will soon see the total displacement of western culture or hegemony by some alternative power. For me, those simplistic cliches don’t tell a half or even a quarter of the story. I think we are more likely to be entering a world where there won’t be any obvious hegemony. And one of the key roles for an international Festival is to demonstrate the absolute complexity and reciprocity of the exchange that goes on, and has been going on for centuries. I am really hoping to build a bridge, and to suggest that beyond the experience of cultural difference, there is something more fundamental – a shared humanity, if you like.

Q. So can you give some examples of how that idea has worked out in the programme?

A. Well, the Mariinsky Opera’s wonderful production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten is a brilliant example – an opera by Richard Strauss that explores a profoundly non-European sense of the spirit world, and its relationship with the living. Another great example is Scottish Ballet’s new staging of Kenneth MacMillan’s interpretation of Mahler’s Song Of The Earth, which was itself inspired by Chinese poems of the T’ang period. And on the other hand, The Peony Pavilion, from the National Ballet of China, and the Shanghai Peking Opera’s Revenge Of Prince Zi Dan, both involve very large mainstream Chinese companies, with western-type corps de ballet and orchestras, but still using Chinese instruments, and expressing a very Chinese style.

Then there’s the new play The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, based on the award-winning Japanese novel, which is absolutely a story about urbanisation in Asia, perhaps the greatest historic movement of people the planet has ever seen. Of course, people propose work for a Festival like this all the time, but for me, there has to be a creative relationship. If the artists involved don’t want to come on a journey with me, then basically they’re not going to get into the programme.

Q. Given the obvious pressures on arts funding in Britain at the moment, some people are bound to suspect that in going towards the booming countries of East Asia, the Festival is just following the money. Is there an element of that involved?

A. No, not at all. I think I need to say quite clearly that this cycle of work was invented in 2006, long before the financial crash. It’s very easy not to fall for that trick of selling your programming for financial support, because it’s so obvious when governments or other bodies are trying to manipulate what you see, and what you choose.

Q. And as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, are you still in a position to resist those pressures?

A. Yes, absolutely. Edinburgh remains an immensely prestigious event. People just want to be seen here; and the reputation we have is worth more than wealth, in terms of our ability to programme as we want. Which is not to say, of course, that we couldn’t fulfil more of our potential, if we had more resources.

Q. So have you found, in programming this year’s Festival, that Asian attitudes to the west are now changing very rapidly?

A. Yes, but not in ways that are easy to summarise. I think there is a very complex response to the west across Asia now, sometimes very critical, of course, particularly after the financial crash. There’s a tendency to reduce the west to stereotypes – to see Europe as the art gallery, the United States as the university, Australia as some kind of quarry for raw materials. And I think there are still great differences between western and Asian cultural traditions. The sense of boundaries between art-forms is entirely different – there is no traditional distinction between theatre and opera, for instance. And they are definitely not so hung up on ideas of originality, authenticity or provenance as we are. In Asian cultures, there’s a belief that there’s nothing wrong with imitation; so that artists will literally spend decades imitating the masters, until they reach the point where they have the skill to go on in their own right. The attitude to the individual is quite different, and that shapes the attitude to art.

Q. In programming this Festival, you’ve decided to revisit some works that might, in recent years, have been seen as questionable examples of 19th century western “orientalism” – the kind of work which has been accused of patronising Asian culture, or treating it as merely exotic.

A. Yes, I have been looking again at some of that work. But I don’t think Edward Said, the great late 20th century thinker about orientalism, would have objected to what I’m doing – on the contrary, I think he would have disliked the dishonesty of pretending that that phase in western culture never happened.
In any case, a great artist is always working in the inspiration of the moment, which takes the work far beyond stereotypes. Das Paradies Und Die Peri, for example, dates from the height of European orientalism, in the 19th century. But it isn’t kitsch; it’s still Schumann. You can judge these phenomena negatively, or you can judge them as art. The pieces I’ve chosen for this Festival are there because I believe that in the detail of their making – the world of sound or movement or poetry the artist has entered – they are taking things in a different direction, and transcending the cultural attitudes of their time.

Q. Given the intensity of the interaction between Asian and western cultures reflected in this programme, do you think we are in danger, now, of moving into a world where there are no strong cultural differences any more, and every urban culture on earth is essentially the same as all the others?

A. Well, I am an optimist about that. In reality, I think the world is much less predictable than we imagine, and that the move towards apparent similarity will have its limits. I mean, a few weeks ago we thought we knew everything that needed to be known about the aspirations of citizens in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; yet now we realise that we knew almost nothing.

So I think a great deal of humility is needed in dealing with the period through which we’re living. Among other things, the urban world you’re describing is one that has removed itself from the underlying realities of climate, and resource, and history, in a way environmentalists understand; and I actually feel that the future might be much more chaotic and logarithmic, and much less linear, than we think. That’s the thought behind Philip Glass’s Qatsi Trilogy, for example, and that’s why that work is in this Festival.

Q. Do you mean that you feel those cultural similarities are more superficial than profound?

A. I just have the feeling that urban civilisation has become very disconnected from the sensory reality of life, and that it wouldn’t take many tsunamis to sweep a great deal of it away. We should never forget that.

Q. And do you think that being Australian makes you particularly sensitive to that dimension of 21st century civilisation?

A. Yes, I think so. You can’t live in Australia, with that great outback just beyond the cities, and not have a sense that our systems are very, very vulnerable. Australia is one of the last places on earth where you can go to a point where you just will not hear any man-made sound at all, for days on end; as a composer, I’m sure that’s an experience that profoundly shaped me. But being Australian also makes me place a special value on the ideal of Edinburgh as “a Festival to embrace the world”. It means that someone like me can come from the other side of the planet, and yet find a sense of connection and belonging in this city; and that’s a wonderful inheritance from the Festival’s founders, which I passionately want to maintain and develop, in ways that reflect our time.


Burns In Scottish Theatre 2009


JOYCE MCMILLAN on BURNS THEATRE 2009 for Scotsman Review 16.1.09

TOWARDS NINE O’CLOCK next Saturday evening, on the very eve of Robert Burns’s 250th birthday, strange sights will be seen around the old bridge over the river Doune at Alloway, near the cottage where the poet was born. There will be a capacity crowd of tens of thousands of people, selected by ballot as winners of the free tickets for the event, which launches Scotland’s year of Homecoming 2009, as well as the Burns celebration. In the inn beside the bridge, there will be last-minute preparations for a major official Burns Supper, hosted by the First Minister.

And towards the very keystone of the bridge – where Burns’s famous hero Tam O’Shanter once leapt to freedom from pursuing witches on his grey mare Meg – will move a fabulous, beautifully lit sculpted image of the horse and rider, designed by some of Britain’s leading artists to capture the key image of all that Burns represents, in Scottish and world culture. This is the huge UZ Events street show Iconic Burns, funded by Events Scotland and South Ayrshire Council, and jointly created by the cutting-edge outdoor theatre team of designer and sculptor Graeme Gilmour, lighting designer Phil Supple, and Scottish-based master of street theatre, Ian Smith; and although it won’t be the only theatre event associated with this year’s Burns anniversary, it will be the “iconic” one, the image most closely associated with the year.

It’s been part of Burns’s fate, of course, to be associated with the tartan-tinged “couthification” of Scottish culture over the last two centuries. The 250th anniversary itself has become linked to the tourist marketing effort associated with Homecoming 2009; and the Scots tongue in which Burns often wrote – and to which he did such remarkable service, by collecting and preserving the beautiful traditional songs of his Ayrshire chldhood – has become associated in many minds only with low-life comedy and abuse. Hence last year’s entertaining row between assorted Scottish academics and Jeremy Paxman, who dismissed Burns as the “king of doggerel”.

Fans of Scottish kitsch will be in for a shock, though, if they expect a reassuring approach from this year’s theatre shows on Burns themes; because in recent Scottish theatre, it’s the wilder side of Burns – his surreal imagination, his instinctive democratic radicalism, and his sweet celebration of love and desire in a culture famous for sexual repression and hypocrisy – that has caught the imagination of artists, and produced some outstanding work. As long ago as 1965, when the actor John Cairney launched his lifelong career as a stage interpreter of Burns, in Tom Wright’s solo play There Was A Man at the Traverse, there was a radical 1960’s twist to Wright’s view of Burns as a freedom-fighter for personal truth and liberation. Back in 1990, at the Tramway, Gerry Mulgrew – whose new version of Tam O’Shanter opens at Perth Theatre this month – famously worked with writer Liz Lochhead on Jock Tamson’s Bairns, a passionate parody of an establishment Burns’ Supper.

In 2003, Unique Events’s Burns And A’ That festival, which has been running in Ayrshire every year for a decade, sponsored a memorably sinister, commedia dell’arte-style Burns show by Andy Arnold of the Arches, which ended in a fiercely elegiac sung version of To A Mouse, as a lament for the destruction of nature. And even Iconic Burns, as the officially-sponsored centrepiece of next weekend’s celebration, has been inspired to some extent by Angus Farquhar of NVA’s radical site-specific show Fall From Light, a dystopian reverse version of Tam O’Shanter’s journey from superstition to reason, staged at Alloway in 2002 as part of the Burns And A’ That Festival.

So what are Scotland’s theatre artists trying to achieve, in this year of Burns celebration? For Neil Butler of UZ Events, it’s all about emphasising the increasing creative power of outdoor theatre, and the huge contribution of Scottish artists to that development. For Gerry Mulgrew, at Perth Theatre, it’s a chance to revisit the real stuff of Burns’s poetry, and to celebrate the modernity of a poet that some of his younger cast-members see almost as an 18th century rapper. “I’ve been re-reading poems like The Vision and The Twa Dugs,” says Mulgrew, “terrific pieces that people often don’t really read any more, and I’ll be using them to provide a context for Tam O’Shanter. So to people who say Burns is overrated, I’d say, how much of his poetry have you really read? I think he’s a great satirist, really politically astute, with a terrific command of language. And what he achieved, in terms of writing poetry in the ordinary language of the people, was tremendously influential on other writers of his time, people like Wordsworth and Shelley.”

And for Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh – who sponsors Andy Cannon of Wee Stories latest Burns show, Oor Rabbie, as part of his current season of Burns events for all ages – it’s about asking “not what the Burns anniversary can do for you and your budget, but what you can do for the memory of Burns. Like most people doing Burns shows this year, we’ve not had any funding from the Events Scotland Homecoming budget. But the truth is that we want to celebrate Burns anyway.

“On one hand, his work has a tremendous socially cohesive effect, as if people in Scotland say, yes, this is a set of values around which we can really gather; yet on the other, there’s this tremendous internationalism, and the huge international interest in his work, which is really healthy. And if there is a bit of Burns kitsch around this year – well, I’ve learned that that just makes people all the more appreciative of a fresh and exciting take on Burns, when they have a chance to experience it; and to rediscover the real, radical spirit of the man, through his work.”

Iconic Burns at Alloway, Ayrshire, 24 January. Tam O’Shanter at Perth Theatre, 29 January-14 February. Scottish Storytelling Centre Burns Celebration at the Netherbow, Edinburgh, until 31 January.


Will by Christopher Rush – Book Review


JOYCE McMILLAN on WILL for Scottish Review of Books, October 2007

Will by Christopher Rush, Beautiful Books, 2007. Price n/a, pp. 458.

IT IS THE COLD SPRING of 1616; and in an upper room at New Place, his handsome house on Stratford’s main street, William Shakespeare lies dying. He is not old, by modern standards; his 52nd birthday is still a few weeks away. But he has packed more living into that long half-century than most might manage in several lifetimes. From humble origins in Stratford, he has risen to rub shoulders with the greatest in the land. He has made a great fortune, and for twenty years walked the high tightrope of political survival familiar to any public man in the conspiracy-ridden London of Elizabeth and James. He has lived through wave after wave of plague and disease. He has worn out his body, as much with hard work as with whoring.

He has also – by daylight and candlelight, through ecstasy, triumph, loss and despair – written forty of the greatest plays the world has ever seen; and now, he is almost ready to breathe his last. At his feet, on a little truckle-bed, sits his old acquaintance Francis Collins, the Stratford lawyer, whom he has appointed to help him draw up his last will and testament. So Will speaks his will – the pun is at least fourfold – while Francis writes and comments; and so begins this latest book from the poet, novelist, biographer and screenwriter Christopher Rush, an imaginary life of Shakespeare touched with such a raging poetry and fluency that it seems set to eclipse all other semi-fictional accounts of the great man’s story.

In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startilng first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.

At first – as Will talks of his chiildhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.

But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shakespearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays. As a study of Shakespeare’s life, and as a piece of literary criticism, Will is both conventional in its views – there are no wild suggestions here about the great man’s identity, or about what he did during the “lost years” of his twenties – and almost frighteningly vivid in execution; the descriptions of London in the 1590’s are unforgettable, and it’s hardly surprising that the actor Ben Kingsley has reportedly just snapped up the film rights. As a confrontation with death, it is as deep, wise, brilliant, courageous and beautiful as any book must be, that fully internalises Shakespeare’s own writing on the subject. And although its feeling for the nightly life-death cycle of theatre itself is slightly limited, the book works even as drama; the voice Rush finds for his Will Shakespeare is utterly convincing, as if it had been channelled straight from the ether.

In the end, though, there is something slightly disturbing about the impulse that would drive one man to dive into the mind, life, work and language of another in such an all-absorbing way. Those who love Shakespeare as much as Rush does will probably find this book irresistible, in its literacy, its passion, its sheer narrative drive. Those who are not already Shakespeare fans, by contrast, may well find it a closed book, its erudition too showy, its wordiness oppressive, its effort to recreate the voice of history’s greatest playwright as embarrassing and presumptious as it is overwrought. If that strict limitation on its possible appeal makes this a novel of the second rank, then so be it. It remains, though, a formidable piece of writing. And it touches in its own way – albeit through extremes of hero-worship and pastiche – on the deepest questions of how we human beings are to bear the knowledge of our own mortality; and how the tragi-comic sharing of that knowledge, through art and literature, lends our brief lives what may be their only true and enduring sense of meaning.


Big Idea – Just Double It


JOYCE MCMILLAN on BIG IDEA: JUST DOUBLE IT for Scotsman Review, 20.7.07

SCOTLAND’S NEW First Minister, so we’re told, is a man in a hurry; without a majority at Holyrood, he needs to make an indelible mark on Scottish affairs before his plans begin to frustrated by the relentless logic of parliamentary arithmetic.  So I have a suggestion for Alex Salmond, this week.  He should think of a number, and then just double it.  In particular, he should think about the £234 million a year the Scottish government currently spends on every aspect of Scotland’s  artistic and cultural life  – from libraries, museums and festivals to the national arts companies and orchestras, plus grants to the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – and then just raise it, to a cool half billion.  There are at least a dozen good reasons why he should do this, and do it now; here are some of them.

First, he should do it because he can.  Scotland’s devolution settlement  is a complex one, and there are many key areas of policy that are still profoundly affected by the decisions of the Westminster government.  But the arts and culture are not in that category.  They are clearly and solely the responsibility of the Scottish Executive and Parliament; and what’s more, the sums of money involved are not huge.  At the moment, the cultural spend represents about 1% of the Executive’s total budget, a mere drop in the ocean compared, say, with the vast sums spent on health.  To raise that figure to 2% would be a relatively simple operation, well within the new administration’s capacity and remit.

What’s more important, though, is than the SNP administration should have no difficulty in demonstrating that such a hike in cultural spending represents a terrific investment in Scotland’s future.  Just think, for a start, of the range of vital, life-enhancing local activities and centres on which cultural spending has an impact, in communities across Scotland.  Then think, at every level, of the huge “bang for the buck” delivered by cultural spending, far greater than in any other area.  The cultural industries are famously, and inevitably, labour-intensive; they employ large numbers of people relative to their size.  At the moment, throughout the UK, many of them run on a low-wage – and sometimes no-wage – culture that is a national disgrace; it therefore wouldn’t take much, in the way of additional spending, to put Scotland in the forefront of developing excellent education and career paths for creative people.

More than that, though, the impact of cultural spending on national life, and on Scotland’s international image is out of all proportion to its size.  So far, the most imaginative single cultural initiative of the devolved Scottish government since 1999 – the founding of the National Theatre of Scotland, on a completely innovative 21st century model – has cost the Executive something like £12 million; I defy anyone to identify any tranche of spending, on a similar scale, that has had more impact, or that has produced such a powerful piece of evidence of Scotland’s potential contribution to global debate as the NTS’s Black Watch, about to depart on its first international tour to Los Angeles and New York.

Most important of all, though, is the contribution that a rich, full national cultural life can make to the cause that should be closest to the SNP’s heart; and that is Scotland’s development into a self-confident and outward-looking nation, fit to make creative and balanced decisions about its future.   Across every art-form, from film and literature to theatre, the visual arts and every kind of music, Scotland has world-class artistic practitioners, internationally recognised as major contributors to global culture.  The only problem with this booming cultural scene of ours – beyond a permanent worry over where the next penny-pinching project grant is coming from – is that millions of Scots are not fully aware of it, or of its life-transforming impact.  It often hasn’t the resources to reach out, to promote itself, to celebrate its achievements; and crucially, it usually lacks the cash and clout to gain access to the big Hollywood-and-London-based popular media of the day, which increasingly shape most people’s cultural experience.

At a stroke, this week, Alex Salmond could begin to transform that situation, and create a whole new momentum in Scotland’s cultural life.  The previous Lib-Lab Scottish adinistrations tied themselves in conceptual and political knots over cultural spending, making Faustian bargains with concepts like “entitlement”  and “delivering social goals” in an effort to release funding for what they feared was an unpopular form of spending.  For this new government, though, there should be no need for that kind of apology.  So come on, Alex.  Seize the moment.  Think of that number, this week; and then – just double it.





IT’S THE BEAUTIFUL CALLUM INNES painting propped against the wall that first catches the eye.  Then there’s the massive work by Alison Watt still in its packing-cases in the ground floor gallery, a Christine Borland sculpture of suspended glass medallions laid out carefully on the floor  in preparation for hanging, and – in the same, room full of watery light – a beautiul, perfectly-finished Robin Gillanders photograph, in black and white, of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s sculpture Gods Of The Earth, God Of The Sea, lying in its chosen place on a headland in Rousay, one of the most magical and remote of the Orkney islands.  Neil Firth, the director of Orkney’s much-loved Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, says that that image has a special significance for him; partly because Ian Hamilton Finlay  was able to come to Orkney, just a few months before his death, to watch the great slab of stone being installed.  But he looks around with pride at all the pieces gradually coming together to form the first exhibition to be staged at the Pier after a two-and-a-half-year closure, during which this exquisite little gallery has undergone an almost magical transformatiion.

Stromness, of course,  is already famous for many things.  It’s famous for its long, winding, paved main street that coils along the shore like a length of rope.  It’s famous as the birthplace – and lifelong home – of the late, great Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, who first used that coiling image to describe the street that shaped his childhood.  And it has been famous, for centuries, as the main port linking Orkney to Scotland.  Since 1979, though, Stromness has also been increasingly well known as the home of one of the most beautiful and surprising art collections in Britain; and that fame is about to gain a whole new dimension when the Pier Arts Centre reopens its doors on 7 July.

The gallery was founded as a home for the remarkable collection built up during the 1930’s and 40’s by Margaret Gardiner, a powerful writer, artist and patron of the arts who had been a close friend and passionate supporter of the St. Ives group of British modern  artists, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicolson, Naum Gabo, and many others; and her decision to give this very English collection to Orkney, and to the town of Stromness, struck some as puzzling at first.  Gardiner  always insisted, though, that there were connections – of light, colour, landscape – that made the work right for the place, and vice versa; and over the years, her instinct has been proved right, as the collection found a home in two buildings on the Stromness pier-head, and began both to attract visitors, and to play a role in inspiring a whole new generation of Orkney artists.

Towards the end of the Nineties, though, it became clear that the old buildings could no longer meet modern standards of space and access; and faced with the choice of ripping out the heart of the building to reshape it, or expanding into new space, Neil Firth and his team applied for – and won- more than £4.5 of funding from the Scottish Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Funds, from the European Union and from Orkney Islands Council, to buy and rebuild the property next door.  The result  – designed by award-winning architect Neil Gillespie – is a new Pier Arts Centre that leaves the original gallery building intact, but develops its shapes and rhythms into a beautiful linked companion building, a glowing post-modern shed of dark metal and glass that’s both stunningly beautiful – as light spills through it during the day, and glows from it at night – and completely in harmony with the jostling, jumbled line of the old Stromness waterfront.

The opening exhibition is titled North Light – Cynosure, in a reference to the pole star that dominates the Orkney winter sky; and apart from visiting works by Watt, Innes, Borland, and Olafur Eliasson,  it will also include work by young Orkney artists for whom the Pier became part of their childhood; and, of course, the original and much-loved Margaret Gardiner collection.  And Neil Firth says that while the new gallery spaces – and a wonderful new reading-room – will allow for more and larger visiting exhibitions, his central hope for the gallery remains as it has always been; that it will continue to surprise, delight and inspire, as it has done throughout its first 30 years, and as its late patron and friend George Mackay Brown once said he hoped it would still be doing, when ten decades had come and gone.