Did Columba have a lawmower? Reflections on Scottish culture

Visitors to Iona will note how well the grass is cut. Yet this practise is historically incorrect (the abbey would have been surrounded by machair), destructive of biodiversity, polluting in terms of fuel and extremely expensive. Why is it done? Because we always do it this way. This is a leitmotif of what I want to say. Firstly however a fact. Edinburgh at the beginning of the 20th century was publishing capital of the world.  London was a branch office and Britain was defined from Scotland. There are some 20 or 30 buildings on the South side built by Barthomews or Nelsons. Even in the 50s there were some 60 odd publishers in Edinburgh. Now there are two publishers left owned, run and with their heart in Scotland – EUP and ourselves (this is no disrespect to those who are part of corporates or those who base themselves between here and London, or indeed the number of tiny publishers who mask the lack of depth in the industry). This is an uncomfortable narrative for Scotland as it is the death of a knowledge based industry. No excuses about collapse of Empire or heavy industry going overseas serve here. This is an industry that thrives off ideas. If there are no ideas it cannot thrive. Secondly a paradox. Is the Scottish parliament a creation of ethnic identity? Of language? No it exists because of culture. If Scotland did not feel itself culturally different from England that Parliament would not exist. Yet the Culture department of the Scottish government is the smallest least important and least funded of all departments. It is essentially a clearing house for grant cheques. In the literature sector the minister concerned hands out monies – directly or indirectly (through Creative Scotland) to some 25 literature bodies – all with advocacy as at least part of their remit – none of whom the Minister has met and none of whom have asked to see the Minister. In other words millions of pounds are being handed across with no idea why or what for and with no independent validation or strategy as to what is achieved. Very little money actually reaches the true engines of creativity – publishers, writers, bookshops and their audience. The culture department is the only department of SG that runs an off license – a whisky shop in Edinburgh. Nothing seems to be thought wrong with this as sites have to ‘make money’. The FM of Scotlands first act in selling her memoirs was to appoint a London literary agent and sell her story to a London based corporate. Her predecessor sold his memoirs to Rupert Murdoch and his Justice Minister to Lord Ashcroft. Is this a country with any belief in itself and what it can be?

Five stories and how they fit into modern definitions such as Creative Scotland would use. Adomnan of Iona, Robert Adam, John Bartholomew, Robert Stirling (of the Stirling Engine) and Sir Arnold Bax. All either are and represent high points in cultural achievement or spring from culture bar Bax who is English and whose music is using Scotland to channel something else. Yet Bax is the only one who would fit CS guidelines! What these guidelines are is about putting up ‘walls’, defining ghettos in which ‘culture’ can sit as some sort of monetised attraction – neutered and harmless. Einsteins theory of Relativity he acknowledged would not have happened without Hume and his own concept of relativity with regard to perception. The same David Hume who Edinburgh University are trying to erase from memory. Hume’s core question was an unrelenting ‘Why?’. Why is this happening now? The great historian Johannes Huizinga in a 1943 essay ‘History changing form’ wrote about the death of story and the rise of statistics, the belief that ‘truth’ could be validated by statistics – the opposite of Hume’s scepticism and relativism. We are now dominated by the cult of number. It no longer serves us, it is our master. It ‘answers’ everything in the form of statistics and reduces all to a simple crude mechanistic calculation. The standard response of SG ‘there is no money’ should be replaced with ‘there are no ideas’. There will be no money unless there are the ideas to generate it. Adomnans soaring vision of Iona as a new Jerusalem with the whole island as a sacred place is reduced to a ticket office with a row of chocolate biscuits. In Ireland the Irish government has spent 10 million euros to buy land around Dowth to complete their ownership of the great sacred complex of the Boyne valley, in France there are three replicas of Lascaux’s great cave system and a stunning building opened by the French President.

Stirlings extraordinary engine has been realised two hundred years later and is central to NASAs plan to explore the planets. He invented it intuiting but not understanding its basic principles and his vision has now been realised. If the First Minister were in front of me I would ask ‘Do we look at the heavens today or are the stars too bright’. But let me put the possibilities in a form those who live by numbers might understand. The constituency of Skye and Lochaber was represented by the ex Finance Minister of Scotland and the ex Leader of the SNP. Yet it was a Scottish publisher who came within an ace of producing the largest single investment for generations in it from two words ‘Calum’s Road’. The film may happen yet. Even couched in words of investment and return this is what culture , what ambition and hope can bring.

There are two types and only two who live in Scotland today. Those who say ‘We have always done it this way’ and those who say ‘Why?’. Which one are you?