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Revealing the Vision Of Caithness Index Education Culture And Sport - Index

Education Culture & Sport
Highland Council - Caithness

Revealing the Vision of Caithness
An Arts Development Study of Caithness

5.4       Case Studies 

5.4.1    Assipattle

a)                 This event took place on 19 September 2003 and followed three similar projects under the auspices of Northlands Festival in 1997, 1998 and 2000. It took the Norse story of the unregarded hero who emerges to win, through courage and guile, a kingdom, a heroic sword and a princess as wife. It involved community street performance bringing together over 430 performers from twenty different community groups, eleven schools and over the age range 5-75 in spectacular use of music, drama, song, dance and fire. Played out over two hours at seven locations, the performance promenaded through the streets of Wick and attracted an audience of at least 5,000. The event made use of spectacular puppets, singers including Gaelic singers, dancers, including line, Highland and ballet dancers, musicians, jugglers, plate-spinners, drummers, acrobats, actors, clowns, stilt walkers circus groups, pyrotechnicists, fire artists, motor-cyclists and majorettes using burning batons, while a Pipe Band alternated with a samba band.

b)                 The event was organised by Caithness Community Projects in association with Martin Danziger director of the previous three similar shows. His theatre company, Theatre Modo, is an award winning Scottish company. It specialises in large-scale out-door spectacles using fire, circus, theatre, dance and music to create a highly visual style of production and has performed across Europe in theatres, schools, festivals and outdoors. Caithness Community Projects itself comprised a team of professionals with strong Caithness connections and had been set up to bring together school, youth and community groups across Caithness to create this large-scale event. Participation was free with professionals holding preparatory skills workshops in musical collaborations, theatre skills, choreography and costume design.

c)                 A wide range of groups from the Caithness arts community participated. These included MADD, five Schools of Dance (Karen Cameron, Elise Lyall, Lorraine Bremner, NRG and Violet Leitch), Addie Harper and friends, Big Band, Marellian Majorettes, the Sub Aqua Club, Wick RBLS Pipe bands, Thurso Players, DGWAN, Caithness Schools Wind Band, and Wick and Thurso High School drama classes. Clearly the project engaged the community in a wide-ranging and profound manner. It had powerful developmental aspects, derived its energy from the community rather than being parachuted in and was collaborative rather than competitive, supporting other community artistic initiatives.

d)                 Critics observed that the event generated a sense of excitement among audience and performers alike and that there was not only real skill on display, but also a tangible feeling of celebration. It had been anticipated that the audience that would attend would be of the order of 2000, but in the event at least 5000 attended. This led to significant problems with sightlines and sound. Nonetheless, this public promenade event was widely regarded as having been highly successful, its shortcomings arising from the unpredictable level of extraordinary popularity it reached. It is a sobering fact that this event attracted at least twenty per cent (and perhaps nearly thirty per cent) of the entire population of Caithness. Despite the practical reservations resulting from the size of the crowd, the review in the John O’Groat Journal perhaps summarises a general reaction:

The crowd certainly enjoyed a night’s entertainment, and the kids learnt a lot more than just their routines for the show -- lessons that will hopefully stay with them for life, about personal confidence and working as a team.

Arguably though, the biggest benefit will be to the community as a whole. For a place the size of Caithness to pull together so many strands and mount a project on this scale… well, I think we can all feel that little bit more confident, more proud of our community. 

5.4.1        New Drama initiatives with young people

a)         Reference has already been made in paragraph 3.1.4 to the vitality of the work of MADD in Wick and DGWAN and related projects in Thurso in engaging young people in Caithness and parts of North Sutherland in drama initiatives. In the autumn of 2003, two major initiatives were launched in Caithness, which complement such activities and offer each in their way models of arts enterprise developing important creative initiatives for young people. The first is based in the higher education curriculum at North Highland College. The second was focused on Wick primary schools and involved a celebration of the heritage of Wick. Both arise in one way or another from the creative input of Grey Coast Theatre Company, underlining its wider role in the Caithness community and beyond.

b)         As a result of an approach by Grey Coast Theatre Company, initially to Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, North Highland College launched an investigation in the summer of 2002 into the possibility of developing a locally based drama course. This might lead to degree level provision within the framework of UHI Millennium Institute. A feasibility study was produced testing the potential for course development and the nature of market current provision. The report concluded that there was demand for a course in the area provided it developed clearly through Higher National Certificate level to degree level. Further, Queen Margaret University College expressed support for such a development.

c)         It was proposed that such a course should take account of the nature of professional theatre provision in the area and be focused on Touring Theatre. It was recognised that there is no provision for a degree in Touring Theatre in the entire U.K. higher education sector. Not only would a degree on such a topic match closely the nature of theatre provision in Caithness and the Highlands in general, but it would also fill a gap in the higher education market throughout the U.K.  North Highland College decided to proceed with the establishment of this new course and launched its pilot first entry in September 2003. The course at present is running to HNC level, but plans are in train to launch an HND in September this year and achieve validation to Honours degree level. This would have the potential for the first graduates as early as 2007, the Year of Highland Culture, although, in the event, depending on quality assurance processes, the first graduates may take a little longer to emerge.

d)         More than one informant observed that the development of such a course with a unique provision and local relevance could help revolutionise the perception of Caithness within higher education and the cultural scene in general. A number of steps remain to be taken to achieve full success, but already, within a remarkably short period, the planning and development of the new course has been successfully brought to HNC level. The potential for such an initiative to serve young people in the area, to attract students from further afield and even abroad, and to change the very theatrical culture of Caithness is clear. This initiative shows the potential for arts initiatives already under way in Caithness to challenge established stereotypes of the area and bring educational, social and economic advantage to the community.

e)         At the beginning of October 2003, 250 children from the four Wick primary schools presented Song of Wick under the leadership of George Gunn of Grey Coast Theatre Company.  After weeks of preparation in their schools the children presented a performance celebrating the history and culture of the community of Wick from the earliest time until the present day and looking forward to the future. The young people engaged in preparing costumes and rehearsing the socially inclusive performance. Thereby, they developed a sense both of the value of the history of their own community and the benefits of self-esteem and skills development recognised as being achieved by projects of this kind. The initiative can be seen as having achieved a number of the benefits widely associated with enterprising arts activities focused on involving young people with their own identities and recognising both the value of their place within their own community and that community's place in a national and international context. The achievement, however, did not stop at that point. The successful theatricality of the presentation included a stunning coup de théatre at the end, when the entire company was revealed, surrounding the audience in a celebratory song of Wick. The performance achieved high standards by any measure. The enthusiastic review of the production in The Herald offers clear evidence of the substantial achievement of this performance by national standards.

f)          The remarkable achievement of the Drama course development at North Highland College -- with its potential for developing a course of international significance with all the economic, social and educational benefits that would imply -- and of the Song of Wick project in both satisfying arts developmental and professional theatre needs must be recognised. Both offer evidence of the creativity and theatricality of the communities of Caithness. More, they offer evidence of the crucial importance of the input offered to the community by the presence within it of the dynamic and creative force represented by Grey Coast Theatre Company. The nature and future of this company is addressed in paragraph 6.2.8, but its importance in stimulating and implementing cultural growth in the community can only be admired. A key element of the Song of Wick project is that it breaks with a version of Caithness's heritage as a backward-looking process and considers heritage as a vibrant element in the present and future. A nostalgic approach might be seen as evidence of a lack of confidence in the present in Caithness. Heritage celebration as a forward-looking process, however, in which not only is the past celebrated, but the future embraced, must be crucial to the healthy development of the culture and economy of the region.

 5.4.3   Wick Traditional Music Workshops

a)         The Fèisean movement has established itself widely throughout the Highlands. This, according to its Website, is 'a series of Gaelic arts tuition festivals with an element of performance, mainly for young people' and is

            an opportunity for people to come together to be taught skills in Gaelic arts - singing, dancing, drama and traditional musical instruments. This is done in a fun but nonetheless meaningful and professional way, with most Fèisean taking place over a week. There is, however, a tremendous amount of follow-on activity now being generated to ensure that the work is truly year round.

            Perhaps because of a perception of Caithness as not having a Gaelic-speaking tradition, a perception not well founded historically, there had been no such events in Caithness until 1 November 2003.

b)         In October 2002, Gordon Gunn recognised that without such an event there was little opportunity for musicians in the North to learn from experienced music teachers, other than formal music lessons. He decided to initiate an event and following some discussions with Tom Bryan, Arts Development Officer (Caithness), initial market testing was carried out. After local and Internet advertising, it quickly became clear that there was strong interest. Gordon Gunn, therefore, found funding support from Highland Council, Leader Plus and CASE in order to have such a workshop-based event for the first time in Caithness.

c)         The workshop was scheduled for 1 November 2003 with seventy places available. Bookings began to be taken at the beginning of September and within a month sixty bookings had been made, the remaining places being taken up well before the event. While on the day, for a variety of reasons, six were not able to attend, those who did came mainly from rural Caithness, Sutherland, Thurso and Wick, while some travelled from Shetland, Orkney, Argyll and Ross-shire. Attenders were invited to complete an evaluation survey for the event and 48 were returned, a 75% response rate. The age-range of attenders shows the event was highly inclusive with an emphasis on younger participants:

Age of attenders 


Based on survey

Estimate based on application forms

under 10















over 60



The quality of tutors was very high. They included Gordon Gunn himself, Marc Clement, Iain Fraser, Bruce McGregor, Addie Harper, Louise McKenzie, Charlie McKerron and Ruby Rendall with assistance from Katrina Gordon and Isobel Harper. The event concluded with a concert in a local venue.

 d)        Feedback by tutors and participants was highly positive with a number of constructive suggestions made for future events, including requests for an event of longer duration, initially at least two days. 25% of respondents expressed an interest in Gaelic input in future events. A further factor that emerged from the survey was that the event generated additional income to the Wick economy of at least £1900 from this single one-day event alone.

e)         Observation by the Study team and analysis of the survey results clearly show that there is the possibility of a long-term future for similar events to take place in Wick. The event itself found its own form which paralleled that of a Fèis and, given the clear interest in developing Gaelic input in future events, possible links with the larger Fèisean movement might well be developed. What is significant about this Workshop, however, is that it

·                     clearly achieved a high rate of response,

·                     was inclusive in its nature,

·                     attracted attenders from a wide area, though focused naturally on Caithness,

·                     demonstrated that local initiative, led by local artists of international stature, existed to sustain and
       develop highly participative events.

Such events reflect the enthusiastic support for local traditions in music and show the potential to celebrate the Gaelic as well as the non-Gaelic elements in the culture of Caithness. The Workshop committee plans future events.

 5.4.4   A Light in the North

a)         This was a weekend celebration (6-8 November 2003) of the work and life of Neil Gunn, held in his birthplace, Dunbeath, and centred on his birthday, 8 November. A series of events were held in the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, the Dunbeath Hotel, and Dunbeath Parish Church. Events included the launch of a new edition his The Silver Bough, public talks, poetry-reading, guided walks, film, a social evening and the performance of an oratorio in Dunbeath Parish Church. The latter was Dunbeath Water, commissioned by the Highland Festival from Robert Davidson (librettist) and William Gilmour (composer), who attended to introduce the work and to conduct the specially formed chorus and orchestra drawn from Highland musical organisations.

b)         The event, with only one paid member of staff at the Dunbeath Heritage Centre and some support from Highland Council, depended heavily on voluntary input by the organisers. This created an atmosphere of relaxed, personal and friendly celebration. Numbers were small, approaching fifty at the largest for the Oratorio in the Church. This made the event intimate since everyone was naturally included and became a participant. Given these numbers, however, the question could be asked 'Who is this for?'  This first event did not attract many from Caithness unless they had a reason to be there. Issues raised include those of marketing (not just publicity) and timing (was holding the Oratorio in Church on Remembrance Sunday a problem?). On the other hand, the film and the ceilidh were easily sold out. This raises the question as to whether a larger venue would have been more suitable, if available, and, if a larger venue had been used, would that have changed the character of the experience. There was a real sense that this pilot project engaged with these issues and that, overall, more people can in future be attracted and accommodated in many of the sessions.

c)         The Arts Development Officer (Caithness) has described this year's celebration as 'inaugural' for what is 'planned to be an annual event, leading to a literary festival (with music and drama) with overtones of heritage, local cuisine, storytelling'. By 2007, it could certainly be at a successful stage to be a 'top tier' in the planned Year of Highland Culture. To achieve this will be difficult, but the event clearly has potential and increased economic impacts would then flow. November, with its emphasis on Gunn's birthday, offers a logical target date, but, with its early hours of darkness, may be less attractive to visitors, while the vagaries of the weather are considerable if any outside events are planned. Yet, November offers a period when there is spare tourist capacity and the success of the Autumn Gold promotion, though slightly earlier in the year, suggests co-ordinated marketing can make an impact. In terms of the UK festival calendar, which is crowded, slots in April (with conflicts over the movable Easter weekend to be avoided) and early May (the long first Bank Holiday weekend having potential) might seem attractive, but would break the link with Gunn's birthday. A further question that arises, given the small scale of performance facilities at Dunbeath, is how widespread across Caithness the events in the celebration could be distributed. The organisers have already set plans to follow the inaugural event with one in 2004 involving events in Lybster. Clearly organic development is anticipated and that must be the appropriate way forward. Future potential, besides extending the range of literary input beyond Gunn, includes inclusion of related work in music, drama, dance, poetry and the visual arts. Meanwhile, Grey Coast Coast Theatre Company may be able to develop links with schools and the new North Highland College drama course to create site specific drama events and incidents. Outside events could be created which combine site specific performances, talks on interpretation, guided walks and picnics, while the ceilidh and late evening 'celebration' may become a staple feature.

d)         There is a limit on the size and scale of what voluntary organisers and limited paid help can achieve without running grave risks. Consideration will have to be given to the point of development at which voluntary organisation will have to be complemented by one or more employees to raise funds, assemble logistics, contract artists, organise events and ensure effective marketing. This project can develop on its present basis, and should do so, assessing at each stage the needs for the future. In time, however, a sizeable investment to extend the resource, deliver it and finance the quality of the programme itself is likely to be required. Such investment would have to be geared to the level of benefit the community is expected to derive from the event. Such benefit, however, as has been noted, is not only cultural, but also social and economic. 

5.4.5    Case Study Conclusions

a)         It is clear from the above case studies that there are already key initiatives of a variety of scales and in a range of art forms showing the potential for a shared artistic vision in Caithness. All four of the case studies achieved excellent results and served the needs of the community and its culture. Drawing on Caithness's own nature as a Scottish region, they fulfilled spiritual and socio-economic needs. All four celebrate difference and variety and offer the opportunity to be engaged and included to all, volunteer or professional. Arts provision is only possible with the support of community action and inter-agency co-operation. Co-operative and progressive arts provision is a signal of the health of Caithness society.

b)         None of the case studies (with the exceptions of Assipattle and Song of Wick as performances, but not as influences on future action) is concluded. All have potential for future development. It is just such potential for a dynamic relationship between arts activity, community, social and economic benefit and continuing arts development that marks the most vital and exciting possibilities for arts provision in Caithness.