My Saltire Life Paul Henderson Scott We are celebrating today the foundation of the Saltire Society in 1936. I was fortunate enough to discover it only about three years later. At that time I was about 19 and a student at Edinburgh University expecting a call-up to the Army. I discovered that a new organization, the Saltire Society, was holding public lectures, discussions and readings about Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present. We were then, of course, in one of the great periods of Scottish poetry in Scots and Gaelic with Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch, Alexander Scott and many others. I was already an enthusiast for Scottish literature. I had just left the Royal High School in which, unlike most schools in Scotland at the time, we had been given an excellent introduction to it.
Shortly after this first encouraging encounter with the Saltire I was called up, trained as an army officer and involved in the advance across Germany to Berlin. There as a staff officer I was engaged in the quadripartite organization, British, American, Soviet and French, in the administration of the city and in particular, with the negotiation of a constitution. Because of this I had meetings with diplomats from the Foreign Office. They urged me to take the examination for their service. So I became a diplomat and for many years was working abroad.
But this did not mean that I lost touch with Scotland or with the Saltire Society. I came on leave to Edinburgh as often as I could and especially during the Festival. I was at the first and most of the others. From the beginning and for many years the Saltire Society had excellent programmes on the Fringe twice every day and mostly of Scottish poetry and music. I was an enthusiastic supporter.
I was also lucky enough to see all three of the Festival productions of David Lindsay’s Thrie Estaitis in 1948, 1973 and 1985. As Joyce McMillan said in The Scotsman: “They had an electrifying effect on the audiences and alerted them to the huge forgotten possibilities of the national language and culture”. When Brian McMaster became Director of the Festival in 1992 he said, because of this outstanding success, and to provide an element of continuity like Everyman in Salzburg, he would stage the play every two years or so. In fact there has been no production since Tom Fleming’s in 1985. I used to ask McMaster about this at his press conferences. At last, when the formation of a National Theatre had been announced, he said we would not have to wait much longer because it was bound to be one of their first productions. We are still waiting, but more about this later.
In September 1975 and again in September 1977 the Saltire Society held conferences in St Andrews. Their purpose was to consider policies affecting the cultural and intellectual life of Scotland which we should advocate when a devolved Scottish Parliament was established. I wrote a paper for the 1977 conference in which I suggested that, instead of acting alone, we should try to bring together ideas from organisations of all kinds that were active in the cultural life of Scotland. This proposal was approved and a committee appointed to begin the process with Professor John MacQueen as convener and Bert Davis as secretary. They did an excellent job in approaching and enlisting the support of organizations of all kinds, official, professional and voluntary. Bert was an old friend. I had met him at first in Warsaw in the 1950s when he was a member of the staff of the British council and I of the Embassy. We had many enthusiasms in common, especially Scottish literature, the Borders and the music of Mozart. We often talked for hours and Bert would remark, “Man, this is great. It is just like being in Edinburgh.” When he retired he became the Honorary Secretary of the Saltire Society in May 1974. We worked together on many projects until his death in 1992.
After several joint conferences with the many organisations who had responded to our approach, it was agreed that we should set up a joint body to make recommendations about cultural policy, The Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland (AdCAS). I quote from my Autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life (pp 256, 257) for the next step:
A conference to set up the new organisation was held in Saltire House in Atholl Crescent in Edinburgh on 13th June 1981 with Sir Kenneth Alexander in the chair. Seventy two organisations were represented. They included the National Galleries, the National Library, Scottish Opera, the Scottish Arts Council, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, theatre companies, local authorities and many voluntary organizations. A Constitution was agreed and an Executive Council, of which I was the Convener, was appointed. Among the members were two poets, Alexander Scott and George Bruce, David Daiches, Nigel Grant (Professor of Education at Glasgow University), Ewan Hooper (Director of the Scottish Theatre Company), Colin Thomson (Director of the National Galleries), Anne Smith (founder of the Literary Review), and, of course, George MacQueen and Bert Davis.
For nearly twenty years AdCAS drew up proposals and agitated for a diversity of aims, all of which were intended to enrich the culture and intellectual life of Scotland. Some of the objectives have been achieved, such as the autonomy of the Scottish Arts Council and of the funding of Scottish Universities, although not by our efforts alone. Others were more particular to AdCAS. One of the first was a recommendation that there was an urgent need for paper-back reprints of important Scottish books, because the majority of them were out of print. We had a series of meetings with the Scottish Arts Council and a scheme was drawn up to give financial support to publishers for this purpose. Several of them responded, notably Canongate. They met the need admirably in a well edited and designed series, Canongate Classics, which includes many major works from Barbour’s Bruce to the present.
Our most sustained campaign has been for a National Theatre. This has been an aspiration in Scotland since early in the twentieth century; but what I trust is the decisive phase was initiated by an AdCAS conference on the 30th of May 1997. Virtually every theatre in Scotland was represented. The Directors of the National Theatres of Finland and Iceland encouraged us by their experience. Writers, theatres directors and actors spoke. Many of them, including David Daiches and Tom Fleming with eloquence and passion. The demand for a National Theatre was urgent and unanimous. Jerry Mulgrew, the Director of the theatre company Communicado, said that he had been opposed to the idea of the National Theatre, but had been converted by the discussion. The Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, Sir Alan Peacock, who was present, wrote to me afterwards. “No one”, he said, “could fail to be impressed by the strength of the demand for a National Theatre”.
Most of our recommendations have been implemented by successive Governments. The National Theatre was resisted for many years by the Scottish Arts Council but was established by the Scottish Government in 2004. So far it has resisted the revival of important Scottish plays from the past, one of the objectives for which it was created; but the Director, Vicky Featherstone, has recently assured me that they are now taking serious interest in these older plays. Another AdCAS proposal has so far been ignored. This was for the creation of a Scottish Broadcasting Service funded by the licence fees collected in Scotland.
AdCAS no longer exists. When the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999 most of the member organizations were of the opinion that they should now pursue their objectives by their own direct approach to the Scottish Government. There is something to be said for this point of view and the Saltire Society has been doing this. There may still be objectives where it is desirable to recruit support from other organizations.
Let me now go back to other events which followed my retirement in November 1980 from the Foreign Service and my permanent return to Scotland. I was soon enlisted in the Council of the Saltire Society. In March 1981 I proposed to them that we should establish a Saltire Book Award. They said “go ahead if you can raise the funds to pay for it.” The Royal Bank agreed to do this for the next few years. An Awards Panel was set up, of which I was the Convener, with Ian Campbell, Douglas Gifford, Isobel Murray, Derrick Thomson, Angus Calder, Alan Taylor, and Joyce McMillan. This was a demanding job because we had to read, judge and discuss many books, but it was stimulating. One of our members once remarked that he though it was the best conversation in Edinburgh. Our first award was to Alasdair Gray for Lanark, which was a good start. I resigned from the panel with great regret in 1994 because I had too many other demands on my time.
Among them were the Saltire Festival and Publications Commitees. From the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 to 1992 Saltire made an admirable contribution to the Festival, at first to the Fringe and then for a time to the Festival itself. For most of the time when I was back in Edinburgh and on the Committee the Saltire events were inspired and arranged by Ian Gilmour and his wife, Meta Forrest. As I said in my Autobiography (p.105): “They made the speaking of Scottish poetry of all periods a sophisticated art form that was an inspiration and delight. I cherished them as friends for more than forty years”. I wrote scripts for a few of our events and took part in some, but the real strength was in our actors and musicians. They included Tom Fleming , Edith Macarthur, John Shedden and Kirsty Wark as actors or readers. Among singers we had Bill McCue, Jean Redpath, Patricia MacMahon, Anne Lorne Gillies, Rod Paterson and Andy Hunter. As fiddlers we had Ron Gonella and Alastair Hardie and on the clarsach Isobel Mieras.
Alastair Dunnet, at that time the Editor of The Scotsman, nominated me as a member of the Edinburgh Festival Society in 1980 and I was elected as a member of their Council in 1984. Because of this I met Frank Dunlop who became Director in 1984. We soon discovered that we were kindred spirits. He supported our campaign for a National Theatre and included Bob Silver’s play The Bruce (which had been published by the Saltire Society) in the Festival programme. I introduced Dunlop to our programmes on the Fringe. He was at once enthusiastic about them and he included them in his Festival programme as long as he was Director. This was of enormous benefit to us. The Festival organisation handled ticket sales. We had far more attention from the press and every performance was sold out.
Brian McMaster, who became Festival Director in 1992, was in many ways the precise opposite from his predecessor. He refused to include any item in his programme which he had not chosen personally and he abolished the Saltire contribution. Unfortunately, our Festival Committee was so discouraged by this that we have no longer made any contribution to either the Festival or Fringe. This was a great loss. For 45 years the Saltire programmes had introduced thousands of people to the pleasures of Scottish poetry and music. So far nothing else has adequately taken our place.
In January 1993 the painter, Nigel McIsaac, wrote to me about a threat to the great and very popular Scottish institution, the National Portrait Gallery. Timothy Clifford, who had recently been appointed as the Director of the National Galleries, was proposing to close it. I set up a Saltire Committee to direct a campaign. This culminated in a meeting which we arranged in the Art College on a cold and wet evening in January1994 with over a thousand people overflowing into the corridors and central hall. Clifford presented his proposal. Basil Sinner, Duncan MacMillan, George Rosie, Alastair Gray and Lord Perth all spoke against. I was in the chair. Public indignation, both at this meeting and in a great flood of letters to the press, was so obvious that it was not surprising that the Secretary of State soon announced that Clifford’s proposal had been rejected. This was success in the shortest time of all Saltire campaigns. I used to encounter Clifford quite often in the New Club, of which we were both members. We remained on good terms, and he even congratulated me on what he called the “brilliance” of my campaign. Perhaps he realized that we had saved him from a drastic mistake.
From about the end of the last century there was a wide-spread campaign to persuade UNESCO to nominate Edinburgh as the first World City of Literature and they did so in November 2004. I argued that this required the creation of a Scottish National Museum of Scottish Literature. Edinburgh already has its own Writers’ Museum. It is popular and attractive, but it only has space for displays about three writers, Burns, Scott and Stevenson. Imagine the reaction of visitors attracted to Edinburgh as a City of Literature: “Is that all they have?” We need a much more extensive Museum, for visitors and our own people, to illustrate our great literary tradition from the earliest times to the present and in its four languages, Latin, Gaelic, Scots and English.
Most of the organizations and people to whom I wrote about this agreed, but the most important response was from Martyn Wade, the Director of the National Library. In a letter to me in August 2005 he said: “this proposal has strong synergies with our own developing ideas.” This is essential because most of the items for display in the Museum, such as manuscripts, correspondence and early editions, would have to be provided by the NLS. In fact the new Museum would probably be a department of the Library, but it would need an additional building. In fact Alex Salmond wrote to me in May 2008 to say that the National Library was the appropriate showcase and that he had asked officials to look into it with the National Library.
In June 2009 Cunison Rankin, then Chairman of the Saltire Council, and I had a meeting with Michael Russell, then the Minister for the Arts in the Scottish Government. He approved of the proposal for the Museum, but said that it would have to wait for appropriate financial conditions. Martyn Wade wrote to me afterwards to say that since the Minister had approved the idea in principle it was bound to happen eventually.
Over the years most of the projects proposed by the Saltire Society have been achieved. There has been no progress so far on what Professor Geoffrey Barrow called “the greatest cultural disaster which Scotland suffered in the 20th century”. That is the failure of Scotland to establish its own broadcasting service financed by licence fees collected in Scotland. There is another problem of some delicacy. That is the damage which has been done by the appointment to senior cultural posts of people with no previous knowledge or appreciation of Scottish work in the field concerned. I mean such episodes as Clifford’s initial attitude to the Portrait Gallery and the long resistance of the theatre department of the Scottish Arts Council to the proposal for a National Theatre. Even after 75 years there is still much for the Saltire Society to accomplish.