Why did the art lover cross the border? 

To get, it seems, to the other side, at least artistically speaking. Gail Brown explores Scotland's thrilling summer of art and explains what it means to a nation that gave us the concept of "straight down rain".

Festival fever: Edinburgh is a city on fire with culture

Art, culture and sport in Scotland seems to be made of entirely different stuff than that of London and potentially the rest of England, perhaps the UK and, dare to dream, the world. The summer of 2010 has seen visitor numbers rocket in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh sold more than one million tickets to the festival this year, offering a cultural and artistic menu that makes the art consumer practically dribble at the thought of what is on offer. Audiences saw everything from outdoor arts, indoor theatre and comedy to dance, improvisation, cultural conversations and more. The sublime, surreal and totally unexpected are all available and not always ticketed. Part of the success of the Fringe is the amount of free events that it provides, ensuring that everybody has access to exceptional art. Edinburgh’s offer is vast and includes every hotel, B&B, café and drinking hole getting in on the act to make each year bigger and better. Of course it has taken time, commitment and a host of energetic people to achieve this but, the point is, they have. It must cross the mind of every member of LOCOG and the Cultural Olympiad planning team that they are ultimately trying to provide a similar experience in 2012, along with a similarly united approach to culture. It remains to be seen whether the city of London can match Edinburgh; or LOCOG compete with Creative Scotland.

For the music lover, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo celebrated its diamond jubilee in August, bringing together massed pipes and drums, military bands and performers from all over the world. Across the decades, audiences and performers have increased. It now takes three months and over £1million to set up the Tattoo, whereas 60 years ago it was significantly less. Originally the seating was no more than a series of scaffolding and planks of wood and if for any reason the scaffolding was put up in a way that cost the space even eight inches, the total number of seats available would be reduced by 500. According to the original organisers, to address this problem they painted smaller spaces to sit on. Such a solution was more possible then as apparently people had wee-er bums in those days!

With the Edinburgh Castle as host to some of the most enigmatic music every written, the Tattoo is a chance to watch the British – and the world’s – military do something different, something poetic and charismatic. Generations of pipers and band players have marched across the drawbridge and into one of the most coveted performance spaces in the world. It is a starkly different environment from the war zones in which the individuals involved can spend other parts of their lives. The Tattoo has enabled soldiers to return to the UK and focus on an altogether different type of discipline. Over the years military bands from across the globe have performed, although this hasn’t always been met with a positive reception. An ensemble form China played some years ago and this led to mass protesting in the streets of Edinburgh.

The Tattoo is made of permanent ink, not something that washes off, even after what Scots call “straight down rain”. Is it possible that the Tattoo creates an environment that makes the military human, at least in the realms of cultural performance? When the lone piper ends the Tattoo by standing at the top of the castle and playing against the backdrop of a dark night sky until even the last staging light is extinguished, the audience is reminded of the lonely life that the military can have and how, even in the chill dark, the sound of the bagpipes, no matter where you are, will always remind you of home.

Glasgow was not to be outdone by its sister city this summer and hosted a variety of artistic main courses itself. Pibroch music hit the Glasgow Green as the World Pipe Band Championships came to town. It seems that every country in the world has a pipe band, as well as a tartan and a desire to strut their tartan-clad stuff. Hundreds of bands played, each kitted out in Scotland’s finest contribution to sartorial elegance, the kilt. You have never seen so many knees on display in your life! The atmosphere was electric and 55,000 people turned up to enjoy the sun and the competition. There is nothing quite like walking through the Green with hundreds of pipers practising; all focused and intent on winning and yet with all the time in the world to help one another. This year’s event also included a highland games, attended by many of the world’s strongest men who tossed cabers, chucked kettle bells and stabbed hay bales in the spirit of competition. These men weren’t competing with one another but with the objects of the task at hand. A gentle reminder yet again that if we all work together much more can be achieved.

Topping off the Scottish summer, of course, is shinty, best described as hockey and rugby combined with little or no protection. Think St Trinian’s (the original version) and you basically have your game of shinty. It is nothing short of a miracle that more players are not hospitalised with the feeling of unity and competition absolutely about survival during the game, not about beauty. Surprisingly though, the drive for survival produces a game that is quick, clean and exceptionally athletic.

Scotland seems able to produce the bold and the brave, the charming and, when thinking of pipers’ bare knees or a game of shinty, the quite frankly horrifying. All of which goes to produce a delicious and varied cultural offer. It is a country made up of people that work together to create a diverse range of opportunities for the folk that live there and for those that visit. In among the midges, the, at times, strange football wars, the straight down rain, the poor diet and woeful public health, there is, at the centre, a strong heart. This heart beats for its nation and the rhythm is palpable throughout the year, although best heard in the dulcet skirl of the bagpipes reminding us all that there is no place quite like home.

Gail Brown is chair of advocacy and research for the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers

The Leisure Review, September 2010

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“Scotland seems able to produce the bold and the brave, the charming and, when thinking of pipers’ bare knees or a game of shinty, the quite frankly horrifying. All of which goes to produce a delicious and varied cultural offer.”

The audience is ready to channel its inner Scottishness


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