Monday, 15 April 2013

A chainsaw attack on Highland culture

Arts and culture in the Highlands and Islands seems to be under attack from the powers that be. Last month we had the news that Northings magazine will be no more, and this month all the staff of our arts agency Hi-Arts have been given their notices.

I have written for Northings for the past three years, mostly writing features of artists and reviews of art exhibitions, plays and other events. It has been nothing less than a joy. The editor Kenny Mathieson has been a pleasure to write for. Some of the time he'd make suggestions to me, and other times I'd propose ideas to him, and he has always made my job as straightforward as possible with a speed of response that puts every other editor I've ever experienced to shame. I've interviewed a huge range of craft makers and artists from the northwest, making connections and helping to raise their profile.

As time has gone by I have realised that Northings is not only a magazine, it is the hub of an artistic community. Because it was set up as a social network, it has always encouraged comment and discussion, and I have hugely enjoyed receiving feedback from readers, whether agreement about my take on an exhibition or another point of view about an artist.

This raising of profile and interaction with audiences is not just a fluffy thing. As everyone in the arts knows, reputation, profile and audience reach is core business. I know that my pieces in Northings have generated other commissions in other places and sales of artists' work. They have also generated more work for me. Northings was therefore not just some kind of mirror on the cultural world of the north, it was part of its economic engine. Why therefore, has it been refused the sustenance it needed to continue growing?

Hi-Arts, the agency which created and ran Northings, has been funded by Highland and Islands Enterprise and Creative Scotland, but this funding will cease in June 2013. We get the impression that some aspects of Hi-Arts' activity may find new homes, but when it has been sawn up and the dismembered limbs of the organisation have been distributed, where will we go for the help and support the arts in the north really need? It isn't enough that writers may have a literature officer to talk to, or crafts people may have someone to talk to about crafts promotion. My experience shows that we need the whole thing.

My involvement with Hi-Arts goes back much longer than with Northings and I don't really know where to begin describing the support that they have given me. They helped me set up community arts organisation Top Left Corner. They helped us to run a wonderful centenary celebration for Norman MacCaig. They helped to set up the Assynt Festival. They seed-funded the A-B-Tree project, which involved a creative writing event for each letter of the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, all around Scotland, to celebrate the International Year of forests in 2011, and a host of other events and spin-offs including my relationship with publisher Saraband, with whom I'm producing an anthology of tree poems, and with whom I've found a home for my novel Bear Witness.

As I have fledged as a writer, struggling to make a livelihood in this notoriously difficult field, I really don't think I could have survived, and certainly not flourished as I have, without the help of Hi-Arts. It wasn't just the literature officer, Peter Urpeth, though he's a great guy. Enormous help came from Robert Livingston, the director, who despite having the task of running the organisation, has always seemed to have time to nurture new ideas, to visit in person or video-skype to talk through plans at their earliest stages, and to offer real vision and moral support in developing them through to fruition. Their business manager, Karen Ray, spent ages with me showing me how to keep clear and competent books. Their audience development expert, Sian Jamieson, made me laugh and get inspired about how to use social networks to make and keep contacts with potential audiences for my own and others' work. They have run promotional events here, so that we didn't have to make the four hour return journey to Inverness to benefit from opportunities.This is just a little bit of what they've done.

Hi-Arts is an organisation that understands what is actually required for rural artists to turn themselves into managers of an arts enterprise. And the Highlands and Islands really badly needs arts enterprises, both to keep us alive culturally but also to contribute to our fragile rural economies. Has anyone at HIE studied the scale and distribution of the contribution of arts to our economy? I really doubt it.

In this corner of the world, I bet there are more people making part of their livelihoods out of arts and crafts than off the land. Crafting is the new crofting. Art about, of and from the environment is a huge part of our economy - from Highland Stoneware, one of our biggest employers, to the galleries of internationally renowned artists like James Hawkins and Fergus Stewart, to the dozens of self-employed people who sell their crafts at fairs like Made in Assynt, or in village halls, like the co-operative in Achiltibuie, and the Market Street Collective at An Talla Solais in Ullapool. Tourists love our art, and increasingly seek it out. Some of our makers, like jeweller Barbara MacLeod and yarn-dyer Helen Lockhart's Ripplescrafts, have online shops that bring them income from around the world. All of these people are bringing money into the Highlands and contributing to the economy.

Did HIE measure any of this? Has Creative Scotland really understood the significance of these tiny businesses that collectively make up our creative industry, particularly to remote communities where there are so few other options to make a living? If so, why oh why, are they cutting down the one big tree, Hi-Arts, that has seeded so many of these enterprises?


  1. That's really dire. I can only echo what you've so clearly expressed here Mandy. :(

  2. Well said Mandy. One of the great things about Hi-Arts is how they have offered not only encouragement but also help on a practical level.
    Lorraine Thomson