– Robert David MacDonald, Chinchilla act 2.
I have resisted entering into the debate on Alasdair Gray’s essay partly because others have already said what I would have said and partly because the tone of the debate was getting a bit too unpleasant for my liking, but mainly because I wanted to read Gray’s piece before jumping to conclusions. From reports, it seemed to me that perhaps there is a case to be made for encouraging a Scottish interest in cultural leadership posts. I am with Vicky Featherstone when she suggested that sometimes boards ‘assume that a person from England knows better.’ Although I think there are further more complex reasons for the lack of Scottish appointments to Scottish posts.
Having said that, it did worry me that the essay contributed to a narrowing of the debate- rather than opening it up.
Gray’s theory, that there is a system of classification which describes non-Scots who run our cultural institutions, falls apart when examining what has happened in the last few weeks. Vicky Featherstone has made a huge contribution to Scottish theatre whatever her background. She has commented eloquently on her own relationship with Scotland and does not need me to add anything.
However, alongside more recent targets, Gray focussed his criticism on what went on in the arts in Scotland in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I venture to suggest that in this central part of the essay, Gray is an unreliable witness. No problem in his works of fiction but, for goodness sake, folk might believe him when he tells them that it was two Englishmen who ran 1990! (It was a Canadian and a Scotsman, by the way). The essay suggests that Scottish culture was marginalised and, unlike Ireland has failed to protect and promote its own. By inference it also implies that we are the weaker for it. I dispute both the evidence offered and the conclusions drawn.
I start with the assertions on theatre. Anyone wishing Scottish theatre could be like Irish theatre clearly has not being paying attention recently. It is Scottish theatre writing which is ‘punching above its weight’ and for the evidence I point to the recent review of theatre and the work of the Scottish Society of Playwrights in providing the evidence of the international reach of Scottish writing ( see pp72-74). Further, I argue this strength is as much because of the work in the 1970s and 1980s — not in spite of it.
I am sure we can all describe our great cultural memories. A few of my theatre highlights of the last century include 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil (written by John McGrath– self described as ‘born in England, evacuated to Wales and married to Scotland’). I saw The Cheviot at the Citizens’ Theatre, following its Highland tour, programmed there by Giles Havergal, (born in Edinburgh to Scottish parents); Chinchilla, by Robert David MacDonald, born in Elgin, interpreter for the UN before coming with Giles and Philip Prowse to run the Citizens’ in Glasgow for over 30 years; The Slab Boys, written by John Byrne (Scottish artist) directed by David Hayman (Scottish actor who began his career at the Citzens’ and played Nijinsky in Chinchilla) produced by Chris Parr (non- Scot) at the Traverse Theatre. Then there was Mary Queen of Scots Got her Had Chopped Off by Liz Lochhead, directed by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado (this time by two great Scottish artists) and the revival of Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart first performed by Glasgow Unity Theatre in 1947 and memorably directed by Giles Havergal in a new production the early 80s as part of 7:84’s Clydebuilt season which also celebrated work by George Munro and Joe Corrie.
Maybe in this period I did suffer from not seeing a great production of Jamie the Saxt but I doubt it (I have seen a production, but not a great one). I agree that the Citzens’ did not develop new Scottish writing- except work by Robert David McDonald — but I do not accept that Scottish theatre is less because of this. I would go as far to argue that the Citizens’ had a profound and lasting affect on a generations of young people who came in school parties to see the great classics of European drama presented as no other theatre in the UK dared. In those school parties are the established Scottish writers, actors and theatre directors of today.
What then gave Scottish theatre an added outward looking confidence was the exposure to international work not only at the Edinburgh Festival but also as a result of Glasgow 1990, City Of Culture. It is easy to pick up a book and read prose or poetry from other lands, less easy to be exposed to international influences in theatre. For me a great moment in the run up to 1990 was a production of Stars in the Morning Sky by Lev Dodin performed by the Maly Theatre of Leningrad (sic) at Mayfest 1988, whose director was Di Robson, a New Zealander. The effect of Wooster Group, Robert Lepage and Peter Brook et al on Scottish theatre artists during 1990, was partly an influence on their work but also the confidence to know they could do it too and that others, furth of Scotland, might be interested in what they had to say. And it also gave them the venue to do it in- Tramway. Of course Gray is right that a great deal of 1990 was about showcasing international work and making it accessible to Scottish audiences, but not all of it.
Maybe he missed the first theatrical event for 1990, Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Liz Lochhead and Communicado – an epic production on the nature of the Scots inspired by Burns and MacDiarmid, commissioned by Glasgow 1990 or The Ship by Bill Bryden at Harland and Woolf shed about, well, the building of a ship. It seems he also missed David Mach at Tramway and Steven Campbell’s first solo exhibition at the Third Eye Centre, and John Bellany at Compass Gallery and the major exhibition on Scottish art and design, Scotland Creates at the McLellan Galleries in the same year.
So what about support for visual arts? It is here that I really take issue with Gray and his callous and casual dismissal of the role of Chris Carrell, Director of the Third Eye Centre in the 1980s. Let’s just clarify the role of the man and the Centre. Under Chris’s direction, we saw the celebration of the new Glasgow artists: Built in Scotland (1983), New Image Glasgow (1985) which featured the ‘new Glasgow boys’ and Scatter (1989). This relationship with emerging artists, many of whom came from up the hill at Glasgow School of Art, has been central in creating Glasgow’s international reputation for art which is now the subject of a major research project. However it was not only the new kids on the block which the Third Eye Centre supported. Other artists exhibited included, for example, Bruce McLean, Bet Low, and Oscar Marzaroli and his brilliant photographic record of post war Glasgow. It was Chris Carrell who brought to prominence the work of the late and greatly loved George Wyllie. The Third Eye Centre re-positioned the ‘old’ as well as presenting the new. Projectability grew out of an exhibition of work by artists with disabilities, long before any serious disability arts movement in the UK, and the Third Eye Centre– and Glasgow– became the home to The National Review of Live Art when its Director, Nikki Millican moved to direct performance at the Centre.
Let’s not forget the publishing wing of the Third Eye so close to Chris’s heart – and its imprint which saw the publication of artists’ catalogues to accompany the exhibitions and the work with Hamish Whyte from Glasgow Libraries.
Maybe it is false memory syndrome on my part but I seem to remember the great novelist Alasdair Gray being part of the group of writers and poets who found a convivial place in Sauchiehall Street to listen to readings and discuss work over a dram or two. But it is not my imagination that the Third Eye Centre in 1983 published the first anthology of Glasgow poems, edited by Hamish Whyte, under the title of Noise and Smoky Breath. And it is certainly not my imagination as I sit looking at my copy, that Alasdair Gray’s own painting of Cowcaddens graces the front cover while the late Edwin Morgan is quoted on the back in fulsome praise of the anthology.
As with theatre, the Third Eye also took an international perspective – led by Chris. The New Beginnings season of Soviet art at the end of the 1980, featuring the Rodchenko Family Workshop was an eye opener and gave us a new understanding of what was happening not only in art, but also in theatre music and artistic debate behind the iron curtain. New Beginnings followed an earlier season on Hungarian art and both saw the collaboration across artistic and academic in the city—collaborations which played an important background role in securing the City of Culture title.
All who care about the development of Scottish culture share Gray’s obvious concern about its marginalisation — whether in cultural life or education. However, sadly his thesis in this latest essay is built on some shaky evidence and an interpretation which does not stand up. There is a debate to be had on this issue– especially now. Gray is welcome to his views and his memories, but let’s not confuse the work of the artist with the work of the historian and commentator and be a little more rigorous with our sources.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Cordelia Oliver, (1923- 2009) painter, critic, arts commentator and tireless champion for the arts in Scotland, whose hand I feel very heavily on my shoulder as I write this.
Correction: this blog was amended 30/12/202 to clarify the relationship between the Third Eye Centre and the National Review of Live Art.
 Bob Palmer who was the Director of 1990 is a Canadian who worked at Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh and the Scottish Arts Council before taking up his post in Glasgow 1990. He stayed on after 1990 and worked for the then Glasgow District Council. He left under reorganisation and went on to run City of Culture Brussels 2000 and then the Council of Europe. His deputy Neil Wallace, a Scot, also stayed on after 1990 to work for the Council and to establish Tramway. He now lives and works in the Netherlands.