Robert Livingston | HI~Arts | www.hi-arts.co.uk
Robert Livingston is Director of HI~Arts, the Inverness-based cultural development agency. Robert has worked in the arts for over 35 years. He was born and educated in Glasgow and worked there and in Edinburgh, Dundee and St. Andrews before moving to the Highlands in 1994. HI~Arts is contracted by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to deliver services across six Local Authority areas, from Shetland to Argyll and Bute and from Moray to the Western Isles. All views expressed are personal.
In the old days, when the former Scottish Tourist Board was made up of a series of semi-independent Area Tourist Boards, they had the catchy slogan Ask us about Scotland and we go to pieces. Perhaps not quite up there with go to work on an egg but it made its point; if you were interested in a particular part of Scotland, you could be assured that there would be a detailed, locally devised and locally rooted brochure to feed your interests.
I don’t think that model would wash nowadays. Now we’re all expected to be part of ‘Team Scotland’ and work together to build a better country, whether within the Union or not. We’re expected to get behind national initiatives like the current programme of ‘Years’ building up to the second ‘Year of Homecoming’ in 2014, and national campaigns like the one that’s being built on Disney’s animation ‘Brave’.
All well and good, Scotland has got lots to be proud of and needs to be able to shout loud enough to be heard in the busy markets around the world. The problem comes, I’d argue when this same ‘one nation’ approach is carried over into delivery on the ground. At that level it too often becomes centralisation and, as such, inevitably, urbanisation.
I’ve spent more than 18 years working with HI~Arts in the Highlands and Islands, and for much of that time I’ve found myself having to reiterate time and again the arguments why the region needs to be treated differently. The irony is, that viewed from up here that argument seems self-evident. The Highlands and Islands are one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe, encompassing half the land mass of Scotland but only 8% of the population. In area, the Highland Council is the largest unitary local authority in the EU (bigger than Wales, smaller than Belgium). There are over 90 inhabited islands, served by a complex web of transport links. For many, our office in Inverness is already the ‘far north’, forgetting that mainland Scotland continues for another 100 miles up to Thurso and Wick. Visiting some of the smaller islands in the region can take up to three days.
The important lesson I learned early on is that you don’t develop out of rurality, you develop ways of coping with it. The Road Equivalent Tariff, which has resulted in discounted rates on a number of scheduled ferries, is one example, though it would be better if it was applied consistently to all long distance ferry routes. Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for an agency based in Glasgow or Edinburgh to understand the needs of our region, or indeed for an officer of such an agency to be an advocate for that region. I tried to play just such a role when I worked for the Scottish Arts Council in the early 90s, and used to be visiting clients in the Highlands and Islands two or three times a month. But unless you know the area it’s very hard to shake off urban preconceptions, and to understand the cultures in every sense of these many, diverse communities.
Scotland is often described as a ‘small country’. It’s not. In area it’s four times the size of Wales, and it encompasses enormous natural, cultural and social diversity. Whatever the future for Scotland, in or out of the Union, we need structures and policies which actively engage with that diversity and which celebrate Scotland’s heterogeneous, mashed-up, multi-faceted , ever-changing cultures in all their glory.
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