Artist and Designer, Margaret Macdonald (1864 – 1933), from Greg Moodie’s ‘Cool Scots’, Luath Press 2018
As another Edinburgh Festival season draws to an end (despite the best efforts of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Marketing Team and the Ross Development Trust), it is worth pausing to take stock of the place of Scottish culture within this gaudy jamboree. For those prepared to push through the serried ranks of stand-up comedians, resist the syrupy blandishments of Gyles Brandreth & Son and look beyond the tacky funfair attractions being offered by pop-up bar barons and public school hucksters, there were some real native gems to be found.
Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan is of a different stripe to his predecessor. The Light on the Shore programme has featured and celebrated the best of contemporary Scottish musical talent and helped to re-establish Leith Theatre as a live music venue. The Le Vent du Nord and Julie Fowlis concert made a welcome link between Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and Edinburgh’s Festival. In the first half, Fowlis was supported by a strong line-up of musicians, including Duncan Chisholm and Patsy Reid. Her poise, vocal accomplishment, facility in several languages and easy rapport with the audience were really impressive. In the second half, the Quebecois band, Le Vent du Nord, delivered a much more masculine performance. Indeed, the testosterone levels on-stage were in danger of detracting from their considerable abilities as singers and musicians. At times, it felt uncomfortably like being trapped in a lift with a team of lumberjacks.
Later in the week, Karine Polwart had an international audience in the palm of her hand with her Scottish Songbook concert. Since her award-winning stage show and album, Wind Resistance, Polwart has been at the top of her game. Ably supported by Inge Thomson, her brother Steven and Louis Abbot, she delivered a well-chosen set of Scottish pop favourites from the last fifty years. Most were from the 1980s and ‘90s, the work of bands and artists such as Deacon Blue, Big Country, the Proclaimers, Gerry Rafferty, Jimmy Somerville and Annie Lennox. The concert complemented the Rip it up exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Scotland. At the concert and in an article she wrote for The Guardian, Polwart emphasised the significance of place and drew attention to the post-industrial sensibility of many of the songs originating in the Central Belt of her youth. Readers who are unlikely to have balked at the concept of ‘Brit-Pop’ commented sniffily that pop music is international and knows no borders.
Meanwhile in Charlotte Square, Neal Ascherson opened the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a spell-binding account of wartime Greenock, the setting of his novel The Death of the Fronsac. He stressed the cosmopolitanism of the time, with the streets suddenly filled with servicemen in the uniforms of many countries, and notably the Poles. The subsequent discussion focused on the impact of the Poles on Scottish society. A member of the audience behind me referred to meeting a man in Poland who had happy memories of the time he had spent in Galashiels. My grandfather was a grocer in Galashiels. He was an air raid Observer during the Second World War and regularly played cards with some of the Polish soldiers stationed in the town. They called my aunt Muriel, who was a teenager at the time, “the gypsy” – and they were right! Her grandmother (my great-grandmother) was one of the Yetholm gypsies.
Another tour-de-force at the Book Festival was art historian Roger Billcliffe’s perfectly judged and beautifully illustrated presentation on ‘The Four’ – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair – artists at the centre of the Glasgow Style of the late 19th Century. Although Billcliffe’s book is titled Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four, he was keen to stress that Mackintosh should not be seen as the leader of the group. MacNair was the first to exhibit and Frances Macdonald often took the initiative, with the others falling in behind.
The provocation by Professors Colin Kidd and Gerard Carruthers drawing on their book Literature and Union was an altogether more idiosyncratic affair. The danger of the event taking on the character of a meeting of the Better Together Reading Group was acknowledged by Kidd himself. The two professors are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the dominant narrative in Scottish literary studies is a nationalist one. Hugh MacDiarmid (dismissed as essentially a vanity publisher), Neil M. Gunn, Murray Pittock and that dangerous firebrand David Daiches are variously to blame, apparently. Carruthers and Kidd see themselves as bold revisionists out to recapture Scottish literature for the Union. Kidd has coined the term ‘Banal Unionism’ to describe the “inarticulate acceptance of Union” and on that basis he is keen to claim James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as the great novel of the Union. For Carruthers, the clinching argument demonstrating Scotland’s essential Britishness is that he used to enjoy watching British war films with his dad. So did I! But isn’t it remarkable how heavily British identity relies on referencing the Second World War these days?
Up at the Quaker Meeting House Gavin MacDougall had put together another excellent programme of discussions based on Luath Press’s current catalogue under the ScotlandsFest 2018 banner. At the event entitled Capturing the Image, the painter Sandy Moffatt and satirical cartoonist Greg Moodie ranged over the revival of Scottish portraiture, the drinking habits of art college staff, graphic techniques, Muriel Spark as a sitter, the banned J.K. Rowling comic strip, the Milne’s Bar poets and the Dundee arts scene. In this year’s Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture round at the Lighthouse bookshop on West Nicholson Street, Gerda Stevenson drew on Quines, her recent collection of poems celebrating the achievements of Scottish women. Music composed for the event was provided by Ewen Maclean and Phil Alexander in partnership with acclaimed traditional singer Fiona Hunter, who also appeared with the Grit Orchestra at the Playhouse Theatre. Back at the Book Festival, James Robertson, Sheena Wellington, Calum Colvin and Gordon Maclean celebrated the life of singer, songwriter and musician, Michael Marra.
The evidence from this Festival season is that Scotland’s cultural scene is as healthy as it has ever been, invigorated by the debate over our constitutional future, confident in the celebration of its diversity and fully engaged with social and political developments at home and abroad. The prospect of Scotland slipping back into Banal Unionism seems remote.
A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 27 August 2018.