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Education Culture & Sport
Highland Council - Caithness
Vision of Caithness
6 Developing the vision
6.1.1 It is clear that Caithness has a strong identity within that of the Highlands. This is based on its quite specific mix of Norse and Celtic heritage and, for a rural area, a relatively highly urbanised identity based on modern industry and traditional farming and, to a reducing extent, fishing. It is an area that is not widely recognised as a tourist destination, being famously described by Will Self as the place you drive through to get to Orkney. Yet, Caithness is now developing a mature and considered understanding of the nature of its archaeological and cultural heritage, often through self-help activity. Undoubtedly in such sites as the Camster Cairns or the Yarrows Archaeological Trail, to name but two, Caithness has destinations in the heritage sector that are worthy of wider recognition and promotion. Indeed, Caithness is said to have more archaeological sites than Orkney. It has not, however, co-ordinated and promoted its sites in the way Orkney has. The fierce independence of mind of the Caithnessians, reflected perhaps in their treatment of their first Bishop, means, that often they will prefer to work on their own project rather than work across boundaries. This individuality is perhaps reflected in the rivalry to be seen on occasion between the two major population centres. Yet, it is the view of the compilers of this Study, and one shared with them frequently by those giving evidence towards its compilation, that when Caithnessians work together they can achieve remarkable things.
6.1.2 Examples of high achievement are to be found in many art forms. The self-reliant development of the Lyth Arts Centre from modest beginnings in 1977 has become recognised by the Scottish Arts Council both by Lottery and fixed-term funding. It represents a nationally important example of a small-scale rural arts centre, promoting high quality professional performing arts production and visual arts exhibitions, both in its base and at other venues. It has also promoted outdoor events since the early nineties. Its role in the area is hard to overstate. It is able to achieve a high level of promotion, complementing the performances promoted in the 70-seat capacity Mill Theatre and the large capacity Wick Assembly Rooms. It has shown admirable initiative is maintaining a programme of productions during the period of its part-Lottery-funded development. Its capacity at approximately seventy-five, however, means that its base must remain studio scale provision with regard to the performing arts, although a considerable proportion of the Lyth programme will continue to be staged at other Caithness locations.
6.1.3 Grey Coast Theatre Company has, like any theatre company producing new work, from time to time presented work that has failed in its ambition. At its best, however, it has achieved new work of high quality. Grey Coast does more, however: it shows a creative dynamic in the community that has given rise to such projects as The Burnings or Song of Wick, which are simply models of their kind in an international context. Song of Wick in particular, as has been noted, achieved the remarkable double accolade of a four-star review as a piece of theatre in the national press and yet also met the demands of community involvement, engaging over 250 primary schoolchildren and their parents. There are current issues of great importance and urgency to be addressed with regard to the future of Grey Coast, however, and these are addressed in paragraph 6.2.8.
6.1.4 North Lands Creative Glass, developed out of local initiative, is recognised by SAC funding as a nationally significant development. Its international profile is shown by the attendance at its master-classes and conferences. Its work in the area of creative glass is cutting edge. It engages in exciting collaborations between glassmakers and such other makers as sculptors and ceramicists. The quality of work produced by North Lands Creative Glass marks it as a model for high quality arts provision in relatively remote areas. It makes a virtue of the resources available to it, both natural or scenic and in terms of the buildings to be found in a small community in which modern life has led to changes in social and economic activity. Its 'students' are professionals and senior art school students. They include attenders from Mexico, the U.S.A., Canada, France and Finland. The implications of its links with Waterlines Visitor Centre will be addressed later in paragraph 6.2.6.
6.1.5 The art form that has seen most expansion of public performance and participative involvement nationally in recent years is one that a decade ago was most considered a solitary activity: literature. Despite the fear that it could not cope with the impact of the digital age, performances of poetry, readings and talks by authors of all kinds attract large interested audiences. Creative writing and poetry classes engage significant numbers, and reading groups have become a major community activity. Creative story telling retains its fascination in all forms and media. The public wants to see this nurtured, with opportunities for performances, meetings of reading groups, creative classes, and new and imaginative ways of developing writing. Twentieth century literature in Caithness has produced a number of major writers including Neil Gunn himself. Scotia Review, based in Wick, was in the seventies one of the four leading literature journals beside Lines Review, Akros and Scottish International. As is the typical pattern of such journals, Scotia Review has found other journals have become more highly favoured and considered. The stamina within the enterprise, however, is such that it has continued publication through four decades and promoted poetry and music events, including for seven years the Wick Festival of poetry, folk and jazz. It has recently engaged in a process of succession planning. This has seen it set up a board to continue the work of Scotia Review, including its public readings. This activity has been boosted by the appointment of Tom Bryan as Arts Development Officer in Caithness. Meantime, in November 2003, the new literature festival inspired by the work of Neil Gunn, A Light in the North, referred to in the case studies, was launched in Dunbeath. Inevitably, given its nature, it attracted relatively small numbers, but it was ambitious, well run and shows considerable potential for the future, something addressed later in paragraph 6.2.7.
6.1.6 In the world of music, Thurso Live Music Association is in many ways a model of a local music promoter with high standards of efficiency and effectiveness, presenting artists of quality including national ensembles such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Caithness is a centre of traditional music of international significance with artists resident in the area of the highest quality, including Addie Harper and Gordon Gunn. The interest in music extends far beyond these twin poles, however, including ceilidh and Scots dance music, rock, and jazz. The Blue Monday Club in Thurso is a model example of promotion of local young talent. It offers experience of a professional presentation context to young musicians in a way that can only benefit them, whatever their future career. In doing so, it seeks to introduce them not only to the arts of music, but to the nature of the music industry. More, it reaches deep into the community to support the arts as contributors to the self-esteem and self-reliance of young people. Caithness Orchestra, Caithness Music Festival and the Caithness choirs provide outlets for voluntary music making of good quality. Meantime, a particular feature of musical interest in Caithness lies in the area of Country and Western music, already discussed. Modern study has made clear the important links through the Scottish diaspora between the traditional music of Scotland (and Ireland) and modern American Country music, a tradition to which contemporary Caithnessians are now adding.
6.1.7 With regard to visual arts exhibitions, the Swanson and St Fergus Galleries, under the curatorship of the Highland Council Exhibitions Officer, have a record of very good provision. Exhibitions such as that recently of the paintings of J. D. Fergusson and earlier of works by Andy Goldsworthy and Ian Hamilton Finlay have brought outstanding work into the area. In addition, both galleries offer an important local facility for local exhibitions. These may be of high innovative quality such as the recent (June/July 2003) visual and conceptual art exhibition, Excavate/Overlay, based on artwork in glass produced in association with North Lands Creative Glass and derived from local archaeological work. This was a model of insight and interdisciplinarity. They may also involve local professional and semi-professional artists. Both galleries would benefit from an upgrading of lighting, while the St Fergus has access problems in the light of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Swanson is somewhat tucked away and without a strong presence on the street. Nonetheless, they offer Caithness access to art of international standard in a context in which local innovative work, also of a high standard, may be presented in a programme context with the work of local artists. This programme is a model of community engagement and provision of access to important exhibitions.
6.1.8 The work of the galleries in complemented by the provision in Caithness, as in other Highland Council areas, of craftsmakers' residencies in schools such as recent ones at Dunbeath, Reay and Wick. Further, through the Highland Arts Project, local artists have been promoted by being helped to exhibit at art fairs. This process markets artists and allows successful ones to stay in the region by sustaining their economic success furth of it.
6.1.9 Two important new posts have recently been established in support of arts provision in Caithness.
a) That of Arts Development Officer was established as a full-time, permanent post in 2002, funded jointly by Highland Council, CASE and the Scottish Arts Council. In the view of informants, the very presence of an officer in Caithness with the specific duties of arts development has made a palpable difference to arts provision. The post's current occupant has initiated and supported a wide range of arts activity. This officer is also able to make specialist expertise available to local arts funding decision-making processes under the discretionary grants scheme. Recently, for example, Highland Council has given financial support to Wick Players and to music organisations, both old-established as in the case of Thurso Pipe Band and newly developing as in the case of Pentland Brass Band. The development of new thinking in literature provision and in the provision of outlined in the case studies earlier in this report have also benefited from input by the holder of this post. Further, much external arts funding has come to Caithness in the wake of the appointment of an arts officer who can either apply for those funds or advise others to do so. This has permitted Caithness, since the post has been in place, and as a direct result of it, to obtain funds from, among others, the New Opportunities Fund, Awards for All, Leader Plus, Social Inclusion Partnership and the Scottish Arts Council.
b) That of Cultural Co-ordinator in Schools was established at the beginning of 2003 on a two-year pilot basis. The post is at present vacant. The post-holder for the first year worked hard to develop a number of initiatives. She was able, for example, to offer support at primary level to, among other activities, visual art, drama and dance, creative writing and music workshops led by local professional artists. All took place during the school day working with whole classes (being, therefore, completely inclusive) and were offered to all Caithness primary schools. Most took up the offer of at least one type of workshop and some took full advantage of all four to tie in with their curriculum work. These workshops offered the opportunity of a genuine working relationship between head teachers and local artists that has, in some cases, continued. The post-holder also supported primary children’s involvement in Song of Wick, the biennial Caithness Heritage Fair, Hi-Arts Musicians Union Workshops, Assipattle, and Wick Music Workshop Day. She also offered local support for the SAC Crafts residencies in Caithness schools. At secondary level, the post-holder helped plan and organise a number of new initiatives. These often supplied arts experience for young people not otherwise obtainable in the area. A saxophone workshop, for example, recognised the fact that there is no specialist saxophone tuition available locally. An opera workshop in collaboration with Thurso Live Music Association, with four Welsh Opera singers and their accompanist, involved about fifty High school children from Wick and Thurso, all of whom participated in drama and singing activities and listened to a mini-opera version of Carmen. The internationally famous guitarist Steve Kaufmann led a guitar workshop for 18 young guitarists from Wick and Thurso High Schools, in collaboration with Wildcat Traditional Music Association. Other music workshops were held, as were visual art workshops led by Monique Sliedrecht. The post involves only fourteen hours per week: clearly, the level of productivity of the post has been very high within this time allocation. Inevitable frustrations at levels of resourcing and administrative procedures with regard to a newly developed role led to the first post-holder resigning after her first year. The position is currently in process of being filled. It is to be hoped that the new post-holder will be able to maintain the high productivity and effectiveness of the first post-holder and be helped in developing effective administrative back up.
6.1.10 In summary, there is a lively, vibrant, creative manifestation of the arts in Caithness, reaching from and into the community and deserving support and sustenance. In general, people find that support and sustenance on their own without approaching statutory bodies. In all of this activity, however, there are a number of issues that must be addressed. One is that almost as a result of the vibrancy and variety of what is happening, there are problems of conflict of activity and communication between groups and between groups and the general public. It is clear from the many initiatives under way that a critical mass for the successful future development of arts provision in Caithness exists. It is also clear that, at present, it requires further co-ordination and better marketing.
6.2 Steps to fulfilling the vision
6.2.1 Co-ordinated multi-agency co-operation
a) An example of what can be achieved by appropriate co-ordination exists in the proposed Thurso Town Hall project. There, an imaginative inter-linking of effort by Highland Council, CASE, Scottish Natural Heritage, Thurso Heritage Society, Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board and UKAEA offers an opportunity to furbish and redevelop the Town Hall and old Carnegie Library in Thurso. This it plans to do in such a way as to bring back vitality to a relatively run-down part of the town centre, meet the needs of several interest groups and achieve a multi-agency solution to a series of problems which at first might not seem to be related. These include the needs of the visitor centre, currently at Dounreay, the need for proper conservation and presentation of the collection of Thurso Heritage Museum, better promotion of tourism information in Thurso, and a more efficient Service Point for the Council. Further, if the refurbished Town Hall can act as a focal point to attract tourists to spend an extra night in Caithness, it can do so in concert with the developing market for the Castle of Mey and the visit of tour ships to Scrabster. Thus, it will contribute in a complementary way to the critical mass of tourist destinations discussed elsewhere in this Study as required to develop the tourist potential of Caithness and its economy. To achieve this potential fully, it is advisable that this development be considered as part of a broader strategic plan with complementary arts projects both for the benefit of the community at large and of heritage, arts and tourism in particular.
b) It is clear that this solution to a variety of problems will carry with it penalties for aspects of present provision met by the Town Hall.
i) The Society of Caithness Artists, for example, uses the exhibition facilities of the Town Hall for their annual two-week exhibition. This is a significant contribution to the life of the community. It is likely that current plans will restrict the amount of exhibition space available for this important event. The redevelopment of the Town Hall will require a rethinking of how this provision can be supported. Either an alternative, and sufficiently large, exhibition venue must be identified or the Society will have to re-examine its policy of presenting work in a major two-week exhibition and consider alternative year-round patterns of exhibition.
ii) A variety of community groups use the Band Room in the Town Hall for their activities and it will be necessary to identify spare capacity in other spaces in the town to meet their needs.
Clearly, any solution brings with it its own new problems, but it is also clear that the imaginative plans for the development of Thurso Town Hall offer a way forward for two distinguished, but run-down, buildings. These plans permit them to be used for the benefit of the community at large and heritage, arts and tourism in particular.
c) The days of large-scale predominantly single source external funding for new capital ventures are, certainly for the foreseeable future, past. It is the view of the team that only multi-agency co-operative projects of the kind exemplified by the Thurso Town Hall scheme offer a way forward in current financially constrained times. It will be necessary for the undoubted fund-raising skills of the community to work with agencies in taking forward vital projects for the future of the arts and the community in Caithness. As part of this process, it is recognised that there is a need to break down barriers between education, arts and sport and seek solutions of wider community benefit. There is no doubt the creative energy exists; what is required is that it is co-ordinated wherever possible. At present, it is co-ordinated intermittently.
a) The report team have observed and offered informal advice on the potential development of such a co-operation during the period of this Study. Wick has been perceived as town with some difficulties and a run-down town centre. Yet, Wick was for many years a prosperous town and has a fine heritage of buildings. These might, properly developed through arts activity in the broadest sense, help regenerate the burgh and surrounding region in a manner similar to that achieved by the Gateway Theatre development in Leith Walk in Edinburgh or the DCA in Dundee. In this way, they can contribute towards a positive economic and social agenda in Wick. These may seem ambitious models to emulate, but it is only by such ambition that positive development can be achieved. With effective marketing to tourists of what Wick has to offer, the 'hidden secrets' of the town's potential can prove to be significant income generators.
b) The opportunity for arts-led economic and social development and regeneration in Wick centres on the potential of Pulteneytown. There are as many as seven major projects independently under way or in development that centre, or might be centred, on Pulteneytown. Each is entirely complementary of the other and at the start of the Study was following its separate path. Each might consider working closely with the others to achieve a co-ordinated development in the area. Already, meetings have taken place which encourage the view that such co-operation is possible and would be welcome. The seven projects are identified below.
i) Wick Heritage Centre
This outstanding collection of heritage material and memorabilia of the history of Wick is based in a row of converted houses in the Lower Pulteneytown area. Three individuals, who were, according to its website, 'concerned about the redevelopment of the town and the way that the demolition of old buildings was affecting its character', founded it in 1971. In 1980, it moved to its present accommodation in buildings offered by the former Caithness District Council for the creation of a Heritage Centre. It is still run on a voluntary basis. Opening from Easter to October from 10-5, it is 'designed to gradually lead you through all aspects of life in the town'. It contains many thousands of items in rooms and cases with more in storage. The Centre holds the Johnson collection of photographs of 50,000 catalogued items plus negatives, more than half of which was donated by the Johnson family, photographers in Wick from the nineteenth century on. The Centre contains a collection that, in sum, is certainly priceless, not necessarily because of the quality of any one exhibit, but because of the cumulative power of the collection's elements. It contains historical, geological and geographical material and is at once a civic, domestic and industrial museum. It is a hidden gem on the national scene and potentially a heritage tourism destination of the highest attractiveness. This is a classic example of how a major attraction of significance in Caithness is virtually unknown to visitors unless they find it after arrival. It is essential that a means be found to develop the national and international recognition of this wonderful collection.
ii) The Lower Pulteneytown Project
Thomas Telford designed Lower Pulteneytown itself as part of the development of Wick as a harbour from 1803 on. The area has been described as ‘the jewel of the north’. A Townscape Heritage Initiative, which will run from January 2003 until December 2007, is presently promoting the regeneration of its historic industrial estate. This is supported by £1.1 million from the Lottery heritage Fund, £300,000 from Highland Council and has matching applications in process with other funding bodies. According to the Project’s Website:
In 2010 Lower Pulteneytown will be a colourful, vibrant and mixed-use location in Wick with the very valuable heritage vested by Thomas Telford fully restored. A series of small refurbished and new build projects will be occupied by a range of uses including housing, new businesses, specialist shops, heritage, arts and cultural and community activities. This mix of uses will generate new economic activity, additional visitors and create new employment.
Already new artwork has been incorporated in the area, including visual poetry plaques on walls and text on flagstones. The post-industrial revitalisation of the area may, therefore, be seen as part of a coherent plan for arts-led economic regeneration involving a mix of housing, offices and business developments and the coming together of artists and developers in mutually beneficial relationships. The latter projects should include a hotel, an arcade, mall and retail and start-up units based mainly on arts and crafts products. Given the difficulties of the St Fergus Gallery under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, it is possible that a new gallery, planned within the Project, might offer it a viable new home. The whole project is conceived as integrating artwork in its development and, in particular, a memorial garden for the Wick children killed in a Second World War bombing raid. This forward-looking project could also be complemented in the development of Wick as a tourist destination by the possibility of providing in the Wick Harbour area a Viking Boat Centre, so linking its past heritage with the renovation and re-imagining of the potential of Lower Pulteneytown. This project has the potential to be an internationally important example of arts-led urban regeneration and a tourist destination of high quality. Again, effective marketing to both residents and tourists will be crucial to its success. Otherwise, the project will fail to draw the attention it deserves.
iii) Pulteneytown Peoples Project
The Pulteneytown People's Project is a community-based action project, centred on a house provided by Highland Council in the modern part of Pulteneytown. In March 2003, its work was boosted by a financial package from Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise (CASE) towards the cost of employing two staff. CASE has awarded the organisation a grant totalling £66,163, which includes over £33,000 from the European-funded Community Economic Development programme. The latter is a partnership initiative that seeks to target funds for sustainable development activities undertaken by communities most in need of support. This programme has the overall aim of 'assisting fragile communities to enhance and develop community capacity through the generation of sustainable and economic opportunities'. It seeks to encourage 'communities to take an active management role in their own future; increasing enterprise and entrepreneurship in local communities, and increasing the value of environmental, cultural and built heritage resources'. The importance of Pulteneytown People's Project lies in that fact that Pulteneytown is a priority area with high unemployment levels and acknowledged as having the highest level of social and economic difficulty in Caithness and second worst statistics in the Highlands for unemployment, debt and poverty. The activities Pulteneytown People's Project has undertaken have included such simple, but important, direct community actions as clearing up the area, removing broken glass, concrete and old beds or arranging bus trips for the community. Community activity has focused on a variety of groups, particularly young people in the age range 16-25, drawing them into concerted and self-reliant activity. Pulteneytown People's Project is relatively younger than Thurso’s Ormlie SIP, with which its work offers parallels. It is, nonetheless, clear that one of the next potential steps for the Project is to engage in arts and community work of the kind so successfully developed in Ormlie. Already it carries out this with older women in such areas as glass painting. Plans are now being explored for the Project to develop a new community centre. This may be sited opposite the Barrogill Hall discussed in the next paragraph.
iv) North Highland College and the Barrogill Hall development
As is discussed in the case studies, North Highland College has developed and delivered a new HNC Drama course and is in train to develop an HND and ultimately, subject to validation, a BA (Hons) in Touring Theatre, the first of its kind in the U.K. A token of the College's dynamism is its purchase of the Barrogill Hall in Pulteneytown with plans to find funding to convert it into both a theatre base for this course and a community arts resource. The Hall itself is part of the heritage of Pulteneytown. The older generation remembers attending it as home of a local Sunday School, while more recently it has been the location of a popular auction business. Discussions with Pulteneytown People's Project elicited the comment that while Lyth Arts Centre and the Mill Theatre seemed a little separate from the people of Pulteneytown, Barrogill Hall was in the heart of the community. The space available offers a main hall, which is likely, subject to formal assessment, to offer a flexible performance space with an audience capacity of between 150 and 200. Depending on design decisions to be made in due time, there is capacity to provide a decent sized dance studio, and good front of house facilities. If a mezzanine is added, there will be room for additional offices and meeting rooms. The Principal and Board of North Highland College have expressed a strong desire, in carrying forward this development, to ensure that there are firm links with the community. They are keen to ensure that the development can be seen to work synergistically with the community not only of Pulteneytown, but also of Wick and Caithness in general. The facility provided will be suitable for a wide range of performance activity including the promotion of professional touring theatre companies from inside and outside the region, music, literature and dance. Such provision would meet the expressed need in Wick for a 'good small theatre' of between 150 and 200 capacity.
v) Wick Assembly Rooms
a) The Assembly Rooms are housed in what was once a school building on the edge of the ridge between Pulteneytown and Lower Pulteneytown. Their main feature is a large hall with a school-hall type of stage at one end. This Main Hall has an audience capacity of 636 and standing capacity for dances of 600, with refreshments in other rooms, or 460 in the main hall itself. In addition, the Rooms contain two games rooms and a badminton room. Further, it contains the Mowat Room, suitable for meetings, and a general-purpose room. There are also three dressing rooms and other usual offices, including a kitchen, toilets and cloakrooms. There is also available for hire a grand piano and some stage lighting. The Rooms are used for a wide variety of community activities and provide the only large-scale performance and exhibition space in Caithness. This is the only hall (apart from churches and chapels) with a volume large enough acoustically for large-scale live orchestral and choral music and musicals, and with a large enough seating capacity to make one night visits of major touring companies and artists viable.
b) Strong voices were heard during the consultation arguing for an upgrading of the theatrical provision in the Assembly Rooms. Improvements are needed to make it more comfortable for audiences and to make it easier for visiting companies and artists to use the building. In particular, representatives of Wick Players argued for the installation of raked seating facilities, the upgrading of lighting and other technical equipment and a proper provision of dressing rooms at a workable distance from the stage. (The present dressing rooms adjoin the stage so as to limit working wing space and make the practicalities of stage performance difficult, particularly with regard to the danger of noise interference between dressing room and stage.) The Players find that they can fill the space for their Christmas pantomime, which runs for five performances, and have audiences of the order of 300 for their other performance in the year, which runs for three nights. In addition, the Assembly Rooms alternates with Thurso High School for annual SCDA Drama Festival presentations.
c) The Assembly Rooms offer a very particular opportunity for development. At some expense, it would be possible to build raked seating (probably using 'bleachers' at an estimated cost of £300-350 per seat for motorised bleachers of sufficient rigidity and comfort), extend the dressing rooms and stage and upgrade the present equipment. This would only be worthwhile if the present owners of the property, Highland Council, would consider a more dynamic management of the Hall after such a development. The Council would, of course, have to consider the financial viability of this in the light of fuller analysis of if and how it might offer a more efficient and economic exploitation of the space. It is likely, with such a level of redevelopment, that a properly planned programme with appropriate marketing would be needed to serve Wick and the rest of Caithness adequately. This would require management as opposed to the present caretaking, but could enable many more touring companies and artists who circulate in Scotland to be seen in Caithness.
d) Any theatrical development and upgrading of the Assembly Rooms would also have to take account of the need not to damage the interests of the varied other users of the Hall. A fixed raked seating arrangement, for example, would certainly raise problems for its use for gallery exhibition, dances, heritage fairs and such other activities for which its present admirable flat floor is a necessity. It ought, however, to be possible to retain substantial flat area by the purchase of raked seating on moveable bleachers. These could be pushed against the back wall. It is possible that, depending on the height of the risers of the bleachers, a headroom issue might arise, reducing the number of rows available in the space and so to a reduction in capacity. A specific technical study would be required to investigate this. A final consideration is that, matters of development cost apart, the Hall's basic condition would have to be surveyed before any decision to develop its facilities could be made. The Hall appears to be an adjunct to an older building, constructed at a time when lasting qualities were not necessarily built in.
e) Clearly, if all the worries identified can be addressed, then a development of the Main Hall would be a worthy addition to the range of facilities for the arts in Caithness. In any case, even if a decision were made to settle for present levels of provision at the Assembly Rooms, these should be reviewed in the context of the developments identified elsewhere in the Pulteneytown area. Attention should be given to the present condition of the buildings. This would benefit from appropriate maintenance and at least some modest upgrading as part of a programme of planned maintenance of an existing capital asset. At the very least, a means of providing the highly desirable outcome of adequate dressing rooms, separate from the stage, and more up-to-date lighting and sound equipment should be explored.
vi) Wick Players Club Rooms
For many years, Wick Players had to carry out their activities in a range of accommodation dispersed around the town. In March 2004, however, they took possession of a property in Moray Street, in Pulteneytown. This accommodation, on two floors, is large enough to provide them with two rehearsal rooms, a social area, kitchen and toilet facilities, a wardrobe store and workshop and a scenery store and workshop. There is sufficient space, indeed, for the Players to be able to sub-let part of the premises. The scale of this building is such that, in effect, every aspect of the Players’ rehearsal and production operations can be housed under one roof. This is a remarkable and visionary achievement and one that based on typical self-reliance. The presence of the Wick Players Club Rooms in the area of Pulteneytown adds a further dimension of opportunity for the revitalisation of the area. This will result from the actual use of the premises in a constructive way, with the benefits this brings of daylong creative activity in the community. It also offers the opportunity for co-operative developments with other projects under way in the area, so allowing the Players, should they so wish, the chance to contribute to their community’s well being on an even broader front than they already so clearly do.
vii) A new vocational education centre
During the research into the Study, it became clear that discussions were under way involving North Highland College, Wick High School and Highland Council concerning the possible development of a new multi-purpose vocational educational centre in Wick. It is too early yet to say how these discussions will proceed. They will, nevertheless, no doubt take account of the proximity of the High School to the proposed development of Barrogill Hall, the possible nearby community centre sponsored by Pulteneytown People's Project and the availability of space to build in Pulteneytown. It is clear that a co-ordinated development project might be the most efficient, effective and economic way of engaging all the elements discussed within the Pulteneytown section of this Study to provide an impetus for synergistic arts and education led regeneration in the Pulteneytown area and Wick in general.
c) Given these seven projects, an overarching vision is possible. This is derived from the very nature of the older part of Pulteneytown itself. It must be recognised, for example, that the district's Argyll Square is an outstanding townscape, which, well promoted, could be in itself a tourist destination. The historical development of the area south of the Wick River, as we have noted, follows the ideas and plans of Thomas Telford. There is enormous potential in this area, as it is refurbished and revitalised, for art-led urban regeneration to grow. It may seem far-fetched now to draw analogies with the development of St Ives as an artists' colony and tourist destination under the influence of Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach. In Scotland, however, the historic development of Kirkcudbright under the influence of Jessie King and E. A. Hornel and more recently Pittenweem and even Wigtown offer positive examples of what may be achieved with proper local drive and initiative. What is needed for this to come about, if no high profile figures already exist, is to seed the process for example by providing a dedicated studio and residency opportunities.
d) Given, however, proper arts and education-led urban regeneration, the provision of attractive facilities based on existing building stock and, perhaps, residencies funded by appropriate national or international bodies, much could be achieved. There is no doubt that the quality of the buildings and the compactness of the townscape might make Wick a model post-industrial Highland tourist destination. Its proximity to John O'Groats and the Orkneys gives it a prime advantage for added value extra nights residency by tourists already coming to the area.
6.2.3 The 'venue question'
a) One of the major issues which has recurred in discussion with regard to arts provision in Caithness over recent years has been the proposal to develop a new arts venue, probably in Thurso. This has been the subject of two feasibility reports since 1997 and has generated strong feeling on all sides, some for, some against. The problems in addressing this topic coherently must arise from a variety of causes. These include the nature of the demography of Caithness, the history of arts provision in its urban communities, split as they are between two towns of roughly equal size, but very different histories, and the differences and exclusiveness already discussed in some Caithnessian views of what the 'arts' constitute.
b) At the same time, the obvious largest venue in Caithness, the Assembly Rooms in Wick, has not been properly maintained to reflect up-to-date standards for professional presentation or to deliver adequate front-of-house and comfortable seating facilities for audiences. This is the subject of vociferous comment by groups in Wick. One could certainly spend a very considerable sum on some modest improvements to the Assembly Rooms simply to stop the rot and make it somewhat easier to use and enjoy.
c) It is simply not feasible within currently available funding and economic circumstances for there to be more than one 'bigger venue' in Caithness and inevitably a choice must be made between Wick or Thurso, which neither community naturally feels willing to make. If a choice is ever made, serious consideration will have to be made to enhanced public transport links between the two, running into the late evening. Yet it is essential to remember that, by any norms, provision in towns 21 miles apart is barely over-lapping and one is unlikely to be seen to be meeting the needs of the other.
d) There is a reasonable and realistic argument that a population of the order of 25,000 people ought to be able to access occasionally in their community the mainstream art-forms of the character supported by the Scottish Arts Council: large scale theatre, dance, opera, ballet, orchestral and chamber concerts, the larger touring exhibitions, and so on. Since many of these are performing arts events that mostly involve some live music, this demands a building with a largish volume, and therefore a somewhat larger seating capacity, in order to deliver the quality of experience required.
e) The right ideal capacity for a larger scale venue in Caithness is around 600 seats according to two design principles. The first is that of minimum volume and relates to ideal volume sizes for good acoustic results with large orchestras and choirs. The other is of maximum capacity and relates to realistic capacity figures to meet the needs of accommodating the largest likely audience when events can only be afforded for a one-night stand. By its character, however, such a venue is unlikely to be intensively and frequently programmed when serving a scattered divided community of 25,000 people. In many other countries in Europe this would not be a problem: such capital provision is seen there as needed to enable the presentation of the arts just as, for example, football pitches can lie dormant for half the year. While, however, such a venue could appropriately be an adjunct to a large school or college, the availability of major capital funds towards such a development is limited in the current financial climate.
f) While the 'bigger venue' would encourage more visiting artists and companies to tour to Caithness (if the logistics and costs of touring can be overcome), it would not meet the expressed needs of local groups, amateur and professional, who argue for spaces of more like 300 seats, flexible in form, and probably one each in Wick and Thurso. Wick is likely to have some of its needs met in the Pulteneytown developments of North Highland College. A significant gap remains in Thurso. The quality of provision at the re-opened and re-developed Lyth Arts Centre will focus more attention on the needs of Thurso.
g) The 'bigger venue' issue, however, seems to demand an answer to a key question. While there is a campaign for one to be provided, where is the organisation to run it, to present, promote and market the arts? The building is not an end in itself but simply a tool for delivering the arts, and just one way of developing delivery of the arts. The case would be much stronger if there was a body with a track record, which showed long term interest in building participation and attendances for the arts from the whole community.
h) Much debate and energy has also been spent on proposals and aspirations for the development of a mid-scale venue of about 300 capacity. Given such data, included in this Study, as those on population attitudes, distances, travel time and focus group information on perceived needs, it may be something of a surprise that no successful bid for such a venue in Thurso went forward to fruition. As noted already, the Wick Assembly Rooms offer other opportunities for delivery of the arts, but are not likely to meet the needs of mid-scale venue provision in Caithness. The provision of an adequate modern arts venue of modest, but sufficient, size would not, therefore, seem an over-ambitious proposal, especially given the powerful case to be based on the available data.
i) Whatever the reasons for this missed opportunity, it is not part of the remit of this Study to identify or resolve them, nor would such an identification necessarily be particularly positive or fruitful. It must now be clear, given current changes in the availability of Arts Lottery funding, that the potential opportunity that existed in the nineties for a major new build in Thurso funded primarily by Arts Lottery funds is now gone, at least for the foreseeable future. Given this, and given the fact that a case for better provision for professional and community performance in Thurso remains, the venue issue will not go away, but needs to be carefully reformulated. Clearly the proposals already under consideration for Wick as a result of community activity and educational initiatives, discussed in the previous paragraph, provide significant synergies with the Assembly Rooms for venue provision for the east of Caithness. Remaining demand for venue development, assuming a successful resolution of the Pulteneytown initiatives, can be seen to lie with the needs of west Caithness and provision in Thurso.
6.2.4 Thurso provision
a) Where Wick is long established, the former county town of Caithness with deep-rooted family and community ties, Thurso has expanded greatly since the development of Dounreay in the fifties. This development brought in many talented individuals to settle and raise their families in the community. The resultant growth of Thurso has meant that it now is larger than the former county town, and has a population of a much more mixed and cosmopolitan background. The dynamism of arts activity in Thurso is undoubtedly enhanced by the variety of interests and backgrounds brought to their conception and implementation by this diverse community. This diversity also appears, however, to presage a lack of cohesion of effort in arts development in Thurso.
b) The team perceived in Thurso a tendency to define the arts in terms of art forms, and for active interest to follow those categories exclusively rather than inclusively. As a result, activities seemed to be pursued in ways that seemed to be owned by specific interest groups rather than the community as a whole. It is a fact, for example, that, in the Ormlie Social Inclusion Project, there is to be found a remarkable and inspiring example of the use of the arts to develop socially inclusive activity among the young. It is also true that there is an enterprising and largely self-financing initiative to develop an exciting Country and Western Music Festival for Easter this year. Yet, during the evidence-taking there was a sense in which each group of arts providers seemed to be focused on its own area of interest, sometimes appearing quite unaware of the other valuable and dynamic initiatives under way. Perhaps even more potentially damaging was the fact that on occasion, when such activities were noted, 'the arts' was defined in such a way as to exclude either of these activities. It was possible, for example, in public meeting to hear advocates of classical music talk quite disparagingly of the nature and value of traditional music.
c) Much has been achieved in Thurso by the direct action and generous contribution of figures who have taken the lead, when they arrived there in earlier years. Often, as they responded to the community of Thurso as it then was, they have shaped its current rich arts identity. Such a contribution is simply admirable and it is hard to conceive of the lively arts scene in Thurso without those great contributions. Nonetheless, a feature of arts provision in Thurso is that it now appears bitty, failing in cross-community communication or ownership. This may be the long-term effect of strong and creative personalities pioneering their own pathways. It cannot represent a positive and creative basis for integrated and successful development of the arts in the community. There is an absolute need, if there is to be coherent progress for arts provision in Thurso, and in Caithness in general, for more inclusive visions of the arts. Thurso, like Caithness as a whole, is blessed in strong personalities and, therefore, potential for conflict. If it is to have a positive future in developing the arts, it needs to find and develop more synergies, better co-ordination and more effective marketing.
d) Some opportunities for synergistic and co-ordinated development, however, have been missed. The provision for film in the fine physical facilities of the All Star Factory is a case in point. Built with Arts Lottery support, whose Lottery conditions remain attached to the project despite its unfortunate initial financial problems, it offers little more than conference facilities, having been unable to deliver on hopes it might adopt a Film Theatre approach or support film club activity. In other words, the solution it represents is conceived in terms of a limited perception of the scope of a single art form.
e) On the other hand, the potential for such co-ordinated and, in the best sense, opportunistic development is being explored in some cases. For the future, more synergistic development is required. In the heritage sector, the Thurso Town Hall project has already been referred to. Evidence was also heard of proposals for the involvement of Caithness Hand Bell Ringers and Caithness Arts in proposals to develop a community centre being sponsored and championed by voluntary organisations including the MS Society in Thurso. This proposal, still in its early days, is for a centre that will have central meeting facilities and storerooms off. Such a centre would provide the specific needs of crafts-based groups and performance focused groups requiring small-scale rehearsal facilities and storage for specialist equipment. The fact that this proposal is being considered by a consortium including voluntary and arts groups is a striking example of the potential of thinking that crosses traditional boundaries. It is also a reminder that the arts are inextricably bound up with the fabric of the life and health of the community. The sharing proposed in this project is exactly the kind of creative problem solving that can help not only address existing accommodation problems, but open up channels of communication and development. Such a procedure allows the arts to work with other aspects of Caithness society for the mutual benefit of both and that of the community at large, and to do so in a highly cost-effective and economic manner.
f) Implicit in the Study has been the perceived need to attract mainstream national events to Caithness that do not come because of inadequate facilities and to provide better facilities for those that do. There is now, in effect, an opportunity cost in terms of lost provision of not having a suitable Thurso venue. In terms of the appropriate audience size for a Thurso arts venue most cited to the team, approximately 300, Thurso High School Hall is of a roughly appropriate size. As has been already noted, however, while the Hall had £50,000 spent on it some ten years ago for lighting, sound and drapes, it is recognised that the facilities are now in need of refurbishment and enhancement to modern standards. Meanwhile, the seating is inadequate, offering poor sight lines and an absence of reasonable comfort to the public.
g) Senior officers of Highland Council recognise that there is a dearth of quality performance venues in certain areas of the Council’s region, including Caithness. The Council has developed an exciting and positive strategy of developing venues in school context, often in partnerships, at such locations as Ullapool and Glen Urquhart High Schools. At Thurso, the Rector would welcome a new venue, if that were the option chosen, since it would free options for the Hall, and the school would be interested in joining a multi-agency project for new venue. At the same time, he is positive about the use of the Hall as part of the engagement of his school with the arts and the community. Given the interest and record of Highland Council in this area of provision, the Council may well form the view that it would be worth investigating the possibility of developing the present provision at Thurso High School to take on board contemporary needs. This would be in line with practice elsewhere in the region.
h) Any such decision will wish to take account of the place of the school within the community and any expansion of facilities that may be possible. For example, the need for a large-scale exhibition space, once the Town Hall has been converted, has been mentioned, although it is unlikely that this could be developed on the site. A stronger possibility, however, might be community use of the Hall with some dedicated spaces around for support and rehearsal usage. A further issue that has been raised with regard to a putative new arts centre in Thurso is that it might best be established with some form of artistic director. Otherwise, it is argued, it will lose direction or be audience-led rather than experimentally artist-led. The present promotional activity of such organisations as Thurso Live Music Association shows the benefits of such clear and admirable artistic insight and direction. A new development of an arts venue in Thurso, whether through a new build or, more probably, a refurbishment might offer opportunity for a clearer overall artistic co-ordination of activity within the space. This would offer a positive response to the comment made by several informants that better, more co-ordinated programming of professional visits was required. Finally, it has been argued that any provision must be more than simply 'more of the same' and should carry the potential for jobs spin-off. An integrated development under the auspices of the Department of Education, Culture and Sport and focused on the specific needs and context of Thurso and Caithness in general might well offer just such potential.
6.2.5 Social inclusion and health
a) The last two paragraphs confirm the importance of the potential of the arts in expressing, promoting and consolidating social inclusion. The target set in the Scottish Arts Council's Corporate Plan of increasing participation in the arts by under-represented groups by 5% by 2006 is not a pious hope. Rather it recognises the powerful evidence that through the arts, the health and social well being of the community are maintained and sustained. All too often these terms are derided as jargon, but the arts have been bound up with social well being and health since the earliest time. The role of music and drama in the healing regime of the Asklepion at Pergamon in ancient Asia Minor reminds us that the interaction of the arts and issues of health and well being is no recent fashionable flash in the pan. Rather, it is a return to older and profound understandings of the role of the arts.
b) Provision for the arts in Caithness must at all points take account of the value of the arts for physical and mental well being and health. In this is should take account of the need for inclusion and, under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, must address all issues of accessibility. Inclusion relates to a key element of modern arts provision, the belief that all cultural activities should be available to all, whatever their gender, ethnicity, disability, class or other category of identification. This is closely linked to the issue of public health. This in the past has often been seen in a medicalised context and focused on disease management. Contemporary thinking recognises health within the context of public freedoms and human rights, including well being, mental, physical and social. The arts have a key role to play in developing well being through arts presentations, whether or not linked explicitly to health promotion. Issues of mental health, for example, are often handled with the support of social work, but it must be clear that development in this area needs arts input as well. If intervention takes place only at critical phases, then public well being cannot be well sustained for the benefit of individuals and the community at large. Meantime, the issue of accessibility has some urgency in Caithness. The St Fergus Gallery in Wick, for example, is on the first floor of a listed building. This has an architecturally fascinating stairwell, but one whose fascination offers possibly insurmountable challenges to engineers trying to fit in access for those with mobility issues, even if the relevant authorities were to allow such modification in a listed building.
c) Significant attention has already been paid in this report to the work of the SIP at Ormlie. The potential of Pulteneytown People's Project for developing its activities through the use of the arts has also been addressed. The concept and practice of inclusion, however, goes far beyond such a project-based approach. A key issue in social inclusion is mainstreaming, that is to say, not bringing activities to institutions or areas of social exclusion, but allowing the clients to gain the confidence and knowledge to participate in the wider community on the same terms as anybody else. There is no doubt, however, that activities in situ can lead to increased awareness and interest on the part of the client to pursue these arts 'out' in the community, with help and support if necessary.
d) There are already a number of examples of projects that have involved in situ participation in arts activity in Caithness, often drawing on national resources. Live Music Now! Scotland, for example, is dedicated to bringing music performance and workshops to a wide range of people who are often not normally included in arts activities. Its specially trained musicians take music to prisons, institutions and other residential care facilities. The organisation also specialises in taking music to people with a wide range of learning disabilities. In November 2003, James Ross, who has had training from Live Music Now! and is local to Wick, completed a programme of events throughout Caithness: adult training centres, schools, special needs units and elderly peoples' homes were involved. Nearly 200 people of all ages were treated to these performances and workshops. The total cost of this project, including travel, musician's fees and accommodation was only £1194, shared by Live Music Now!, the venues themselves and Highland Council. The latter contributed £400 to this project to include people who are often generally excluded from the arts. Such work is therefore highly economic and efficient in delivering results. In this case, Council subsidy, which effectively attracted highly geared matching funding, amounted to approximately £2.00 per person for an experience that feedback identified as positive. This is only one model of how three agencies (Live Music Now!, the host institutions and Highland Council) can collaborate to address issues of exclusion. This example might thus be seen as a working model of best practice for future collaboration, with shared costs and responsibilities. It is certainly clear that such highly targeted projects offer a way forward in developing higher levels of social inclusion. The development of initiatives with such agencies as Thor House should be actively pursued. There is also, however, a need to continue to investigate other possibilities, while continuing collaboration with such bodies as Live Music Now! in similar projects. These should include considering how to mainstream individuals into the arts in the wider community.
e) This report has already referred briefly to the innovative relationship between Caithness General Hospital and Hillhead Primary School. The strength and value of this project is the ways in which individuals and institutions are engaged in win-win relationships. This relationship provides lively artwork for the corridors and wards of the hospital to enhance the patient's recovery experience (and staff morale in their sometimes stressful work). It offers opportunities for young people to engage creatively with issues of health and to serve the community. Because of the nature of the relationship, the young students also learn very specific life skills in terms of engaging in a commissioning process and learning how to negotiate responsibly and address the needs of others through the development of their own creativity. There is spare capacity in the view of the General Manager of the hospital to develop a wider range of artwork on the walls of the hospital, so contributing to the well being of patients, without compromising the pioneering relationship with Hillhead Primary School. It would be possible to extend this work by considering the possibility of having the ceiling in the anaesthetic rooms painted as those have been at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. She strongly endorses the place of the arts in a therapeutic process, and has for example booked music in hospitals.
f) The arts are also employed in developing social inclusion through a series of classes offered by North Highland College. Within the framework of courses entitled Learning for Life (offered on both a non-vocational and vocational basis) and Learning for Work, students with additional needs, including a range of learning disabilities and requiring help in developing social and educational skills engage in Art, Drama and Music. Experts in the field teach classes, so that students have an educational experience of high quality. The benefits of this are manifold. They include:
· providing students who have very few or no verbal communications skills with an outlet for developing other communication techniques,
· encouraging social integration, role play of everyday socially and culturally expected behaviour, and the grounding of social rules,
· building up self confidence, class morale and individual self esteem,
· encouraging solitary figures to work in groups, having and sharing a common goal and so building social skills,
· exploring different ways of tackling life's obstacles and coming to terms with real life situations and experiences,
· developing perseverance by fulfilling long-term projects,
· learning culturally and socially appropriate display of emotions,
· allowing role-play of vocational situations and characters, prior to real work placements.
g) It is clear that there is already a number of interesting and even inspiring initiatives to be found in Caithness in the area of the arts and social inclusion and arts and health. Such highly beneficial and cost-effective synergistic initiatives should be developed. There is a wide range of areas in which the role of the arts, whether music, painting, dance, writing or storytelling can be explored in addressing the needs of those in nursing homes, under long-term medical care or with disabilities of all kinds.
6.2.6 Lybster and development beyond ‘heritage trails’
a) Southeast Caithness has been designated within the Scottish Executive's Initiative at the Edges with effect from 1 October 2004. Aimed at community led rural development for fragile areas, this leads to 'Communities themselves setting the development agenda, led by a local community development group'. Drawing on partner agencies and a community development plan, this process is intended to initiate development projects and, with seed-corn funding, the finding of additional resources. Applications from Initiative at the Edges areas are given a special focus and priority in the activities of public bodies and the Scottish Executive and have higher priority with grant awarding bodies. This offers a very clear opportunity for developments in this area in the near future. The area is also ready to support a co-ordinated arts-led development plan.
b) The area contains a number of arts and heritage initiatives including, at Lybster, North Lands Creative Glass and the multi-faceted Waterlines Centre. North Lands Creative Glass, as already noted, offers a centre for working glass at the highest international standard. It would benefit from provision of nearby facilities to sell high quality glass artefacts. Set in the main street of Lybster, it offers a centre around which other related initiatives have the potential to develop. In parallel with it, the Waterlines Visitors Centre at Lybster Harbour is a visitor centre in well restored buildings. These house a heritage exhibition with good interpretation material, a natural history display, hands-on activities, live remote close circuit television of birds on the nearby cliffs and refreshments. There is, then, already a nexus of activity at Lybster that might offer the potential to develop it as a destination for visitors interested in the arts and crafts as well as the heritage of Caithness. The further potential of this proposal is discussed in paragraph f. below.
c) To the north and south of Lybster, the East Coast of Caithness provides a number of varied examples of heritage interpretation centres. These include the Dunbeath Heritage Museum, focused on the work of Neil Gunn both as a place to visit and as a research centre, and the Laidhay Croft Museum. Meantime, between Lybster and Wick, there are a number of ancient monuments that are arguably undersold, including the Camster Cairns and the Yarrows Archaeological Trail. Wick itself houses, of course, the Wick Heritage Centre, an extensive collection of material of considerable interest. To the north of Wick is the Northlands Viking Centre at Auckengill. While the more northerly of these centres lies outside the Initiatives at the Edges area, there is potential here for linked development of enhanced museum and heritage provision along the east coast for more or less the whole length of the area.
d) What is lacking in all of this potential is any sense of its being seen in a coherent way as an asset to the area. Some of the heritage sites are in themselves quite remarkable enough to be promoted more extensively than they are. There is, however, sufficient provision of various kinds of heritage interpretation centre and museum for there to be established a ‘Discover Caithness’ promotion, drawing attention to the wide range of heritage, arts and crafts found in the region. Although promotions are being developed through the Caithness and Sutherland Visitor Attraction Group at present, it is hard to see any way in which this rich potential in Caithness is presented in a co-ordinated manner. It is good that museums should be independent, but those in Caithness are interconnected in a variety of ways. It is clear that the arts and heritage in this part of Caithness have great potential to develop as a specific co-ordinated visitor attraction. What is more, as noted with regard to The Song of Wick in paragraph 5.4.1.d, there is danger that celebration of Caithness Heritage may be seen as a backward-looking process, evidence of a lack of confidence in the present in Caithness. Celebration of heritage as a forward-looking process, however, in which not only is the past celebrated but the future embraced, must be crucial to a healthy development of the culture and economy of the region. In this, in whatever way links with Sutherland are sustained, the potential of a ‘Discover Caithness’ promotion should not be allowed to lose focus.
e) The development of ‘Discover Caithness’, attracting visitors to more than one or two of the current heritage centres of Caithness, would not only represent forward-looking in heritage terms, it would offer economic and social benefits to the community, not least in terms of potential additional tourist income. At present, however, visitors seem to stop to see only one or two centres, while there appears little thought that they might extend their stay beyond the passage of time on a journey through the area. If there were a developed package, on the other hand, promoting the possibility of a more extended stay in the area while experiencing its wide range of arts and heritage locations, then there would be clear cultural tourism potential. Rather than the perception being of several relatively small museums in danger of falling into rivalry, it would be possible to promote the Caithness museum provision as a larger virtual museum. All of this is, of course, difficult to achieve given that museums and galleries in the area largely depend on voluntary or part-time staff and so hours of opening vary. Further, when staff resources are scarce and precious, staff time to co-ordinate is only likely to be released if a clear and reasonably immediate benefit can be seen to be available. Certainly, such co-ordination would offer a clear benefit to Caithness. It would also complement the benefit anticipated in the proposed development of Thurso Town Hall. For reasons addressed in section 6.2.9, this Study suggests that the co-ordinated promotion, including ‘Discover Caithness’ and all the other complementary attractions be called the ‘Vision of Caithness’.
f) Given its location, Lybster itself might be developed, as noted in paragraph b. above, as a centre within the ‘Discover Caithness’ framework. One of the related issues raised by artists and craftspeople in the research for this Study was their desire for a place in which the work of Caithness artists might be promoted in a coherent way. Given its location south of the main towns of Caithness, and on the routes towards them, Lybster might be an appropriate location for such a development. Further, to develop an attractive centre for promoting the arts in Lybster and enhance full use of the resources of the Waterlines Visitor Centre would have two advantages. One is that of drawing tourists from the direct A9 route which simply passes them through Caithness. The other is that its promotion in these terms would develop the perception of Caithness and its towns and villages as being in themselves attractive tourist destinations. Such a development does not in itself require substantial investment. Rather it demands making best value use of existing developments and initiatives and joining up individual efforts to maximise common benefit. It was suggest during this Study by more than one person that Lybster might indeed, given its current status and the development of North Lands Creative Glass, have potential to be developed as a crafts-centred community. Such development depends on factors beyond the control of simple planning processes, of course. It is, nevertheless, certainly true that North Lands Creative Glass itself and the activities developing around it in the Lybster area do suggest that such a development would be possible and should be encouraged.
6.2.7 Year round Festivals
a) There have been a number of festivals that have been successful for a significant period in Caithness. These include the Wick Festival of Poetry, Folk and Jazz in the late seventies and early eighties (reaching attendances of 2000 over a weekend) and the Thurso Folk Festival in the eighties. Most recently, the Northlands Festival, which ran from 1992 until 2001, has been an important phenomenon. Launched by Caithness Jobs Commission, it attracted substantial sponsorships and presented work of very high quality. It attracted international support from countries that share the Scandinavian heritage of Caithness and presented its activities in a range of different venues throughout the area. The focus of the programming of Northlands was on classical music in a variety of forms, but its programme was not narrowly drawn. Unfortunately, latterly, its audience figures were limited, in its last year, 2001, for example, the attendance for all events in the Festival amounted to only 1200. Given that this figure must in the nature of things include a number who attended more than one event, it is possible, indeed likely, that the final active audience for the Festival fell below one thousand. At the same time, the Festival ran into financial difficulties that have resulted in its suspension. It is not part of the remit of this report to identify the reasons for the suspension of the Northlands Festival, which was clearly a critical success, but in the long run failed to sustain itself. It was said to the team, however, that there was a sense locally that the festival was parachuted in, full of valuable ambition, but not grounded in the local community. This may be an unfair perception, but it has to be reported that it is held.
b) Northlands is seen as representing a model based on successful examples elsewhere of high quality performance brought into a region to act as a stimulus for the arts of the region and as a cultural tourist destination. There is no doubt that both of these aims are admirable. It is also clear from the evidence provided earlier in this report and, anecdotally, from the immense interest in and support for, say, the Assipattle project, that there is a high interest in, and demand for, arts provision in Caithness. It is, therefore, a paradox that the Northlands Festival should have had to be suspended. Certainly, it seems advisable for a festival’s success for it to achieve a broad-based local commitment to its continuing success, a sense of local ownership of the project and its events.
c) Two important examples of community initiative were under way during the period of the Arts Study. Both were festivals running for the first time. One was the A Light in the North festival of November 2003 at Dunbeath, built round the work of Neil Gunn. The other is the Country and Western festival planned for Thurso for the Easter weekend of 2004. The scale of these festivals is significantly different. The first involved audiences of less than a hundred for its events. The second is likely, on the basis of sales already concluded at the time of writing, to produce audiences for each event of over five hundred and total attendance over the weekend of around three thousand. The former was able to make use of local venues including Dunbeath Church; the latter will have to hire a large-scale marquee designed as a modern temporary auditorium. Both festivals, however, may offer a template for the future. Each is based on strong local arts tradition. Twentieth century literature in Caithness has produced a number of major writers including Neil Gunn himself. Meantime, modern study has made clear the important links through the Scottish diaspora between the traditional music of Scotland (and Ireland) and modern American Country music, a tradition to which contemporary Scots are now adding. Further, the organisers of the Country and Western Festival have shown a clear understanding of the mutually beneficial links of arts and tourism provision by linking with local hotels and bed and breakfast suppliers in planning their event.
d) Currently a proposal to develop a Highland-wide festival based on the example of Celtic Colours in Nova Scotia is under consideration. Caithness is one of the areas which has expressed an interest in engaging with this new proposal, planned to be launched in 2004 and to reach full expression in the year of Highland Culture, 2007. It is anticipated that Caithness's involvement will start in 2005. This festival would celebrate traditional culture and draw 'on the best of local practitioners and artists from the diaspora'. This proposal is not for a centralised festival, but seeks to facilitate co-ordinated local initiatives.
e) The development of festivals based on local arts initiatives and both serving the community and attracting incoming tourists is likely to be a key element in the arts development of Caithness. The key question is whether a local organisation is needed to manage and promote these festivals into an all year round programme of activities and events. The results of this year's Country and Western Festival should be considered and lessons learned from it and A Light in the North should be considered with a view to developing follow-up festivals. There are particular issues with regard to developing a literature festival based entirely on Dunbeath, not least that of local accommodation. It is, nevertheless, the case that there is a strong local core interest around which a literature festival in Caithness might be developed. The organisers of A Light in the North are already actively considering the development of their festival to include Lybster, which has its own connections with Neil Gunn and the herring industry, and the resources represented by the Waterlines Visitor Centre. They foresee the festival centring on Gunn, but extending to be a more general literature festival. In that connection, consideration is being given to the development of links across the Pentland Firth and celebration of the work of such Orkney writers as George Mackay Brown. The title of the festival is admirable. It might even, with some bravura, become The Light in the North or simply Light in the North.
f) Given the nature of Caithness's provision and the activity of its arts programmers, consideration should be given to extending beyond these festivals to provide promotions both for local people and for visitors to the region. Reference has already been made to the possibility of working with Orkney to maximise the potential for visitors to the Islands who pass through Caithness, in order to increase the critical mass of tourist attraction in the area of the Pentland Firth. A Light in the North is already looking to cross-Firth co-operation. Given this, the possibility of developing a Caithness 'Fringe' just before or after the Orkney Festival should be actively considered. It is clear from the evidence that visitors will travel some distance to participate in a festival in Caithness that catches their interest and enthusiasm. Given the nature and relatively small scale of venue provision in Caithness and the need to develop more effective and year-round tourist provision, it is surely the case that a number of smaller festivals spread through the year would meet needs rather than seeking to develop one big festival.
g) The arts suffer in communicating with potential attenders with a host of 'weasel words' that say one thing and communicate another. Research shows that whenever most people read or hear 'exciting' they understand 'boring'. Even such words as 'arts' itself, 'festival' and 'contemporary' be off-putting. Further, potential attenders may not necessarily understand art forms or the terminology and jargon used to talk about them. In this A Light in the North's use of the word, ‘celebration’, is acute. It may be that something described as a 'celebration' is immediately a much more positive name 'festival'. In any case, already developments in the area suggest that a framework to sustain such a spread of festivals or celebrations as is described in this section of the Study is coming into place. If the framework of arts agency support that both Lyth Arts Centre and Caithness Arts in their different ways have the potential to develop comes about, Caithness might consider identifying itself by some such term as the 'Festival County' or 'A Place to Celebrate'. This is an issue returned to in section 6.2.9.
6.2.8 The role of Grey Coast Theatre Company
a) There is an admirable energy about the work of Grey Coast and its Director, George Gunn. It is clear that that energy creates some difficulties for some of those who work with the company. Where these difficulties exist, this Study makes no criticism of either party. The fact, nevertheless, is that Grey Coast has a range of real achievements and positive aspirations of which many companies would rightly be envious, while it does not at present have any real security of forward funding support beyond end of financial year 2004-05. This is an odd situation.
b) Founded in 1992, the company has over the years developed a number of vibrant activities. Its work on Song of Wick in the early autumn of 2003 has already been referred to. This achieved admirable engagement in a highly inclusive way with the community of Wick. Yet, the company was established to offer touring theatre, an area in which some recent work has not attracted wholehearted support from funding bodies. Indeed, it is their view that Grey Coast should concentrate on activity in its geographical area. This view arises from two factors. One is their reservations about its national touring potential, which have made it unlikely to be successful in competing for project funds to tour nationally, given the high standards set generally. The second is their recognition of the company’s real potential as a significant leader in the arts of its region, There is a clear conflict of perception here. The company, for its part, sees itself caught in a situation in which its aspiration to provide theatre on a wider stage may be being damaged by its commitment to innovative work within its community. On the other hand, national funders and even those with a regional Highland remit see the company as best involved in work which is focused on Caithness and surrounding regions as part of a national network of such provision. It has to be said that others in evidence have also suggested that Grey Coast might withdraw from national or even regional touring and focus on its work with the Caithness and nearby communities. Yet, the company itself sees the range of its work as essential to its development, in particular in supporting the creative synergies that will allow it to serve its communities, regional and local, better.
c) The difference between the company's national touring aspirations and the funding bodies' perception of its role cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. The picture is complicated by the company’s aspiration to act as a new play development organisation and desire to consolidate and expand its innovative work with the communities it serves. It also sees itself as forming part of the national theatre community of Scotland with a particular aspiration to work with the new National Theatre of Scotland. Finally, Grey Coast has engaged in educational interventions, which are clearly directed at the community in which its office is based, and its leading personnel live. In this, it has characteristics of a company-in-residence in a community. The company’s very ambition and vibrancy, met by the constraints faced by funding bodies, is a recipe for difficulty. The fact that both recognise the importance of its regional role may, however, offer a constructive way forward. How that would be supported is an issue that may become clearer in the light of the Scottish Executive's current review of arts funding. It may, for example, be that, in the light of that, the Scottish Arts Council has a changed remit, while regional funding for regional initiatives may be devolved to regional or local funders. This is a matter that currently remains unresolved.
d) What is emerging around Grey Coast at present, however, is a highly dangerous situation. It has contributed profoundly to the arts in Caithness and more widely in Scotland. No one who gave evidence to the Study admitted to wishing to see Grey Coast and the energy of its artistic team lost to the communities of Caithness and Scotland in general. Yet, that is the present danger if nothing is done to agree plans for future action. Without an agreed future policy for Grey Coast, despite the absence of any conscious wish to lose the company, it will disappear from Caithness. None of the expressions of support for the company’s role is currently accompanied by clarity, agreed on all sides, as to how the next five years of the company's work should develop and be supported. There is some suggestion that it should not expect national funding, but look to local funding, although no clear long-term source for such funding has been identified. Meanwhile, for others, the company's role as a nationally recognised organisation working from a base in the far north of Scotland is culturally essential both regionally and nationally.
e) It is fair to say that the wide range of work produced by the company has been developed from a variable, but generally narrow, resource base. The Artistic Director of Grey Coast is a distinguished poet, a recognised playwright, a community artist and activist and a prime mover in local cultural developments, including the new drama course at North Highland College. It is a tribute to his stamina that he has sustained this range of activity so far. Such a range, however, must be unsustainable in the long term unless attention is given to allowing some respite for him from the demands his wide-ranging work makes on his time and reserves. There is only so much a core, dedicated, but small, group of artists can be asked to provide. When it overextends itself through enthusiasm and commitment, then there must be ways established to recognise and moderate this over-extension to match likely resources. At present, the process of limiting ambition seems to involve specific funding decisions rather than long-term frameworks for action. This process will lead, unless it is remedied, to the death of Grey Coast by a thousand pinpricks.
f) What is required -- and with some urgency -- is a clear agreement between the artistic personnel of Grey Coast, its Board and its funding partners as to what the nature of its provision and its agreed commensurate sources of funding ought to be. Multi-agency funding often demands that funders seek different outcomes from their funding. There is no reason why these outcomes for Grey Coast should not be complementary within an overall vision for the company. Ways forward for the company may involve developing links with performance spaces existing and envisaged for the area, including the newly refurbished Lyth Arts Centre, and developing residencies and training courses in the region. It may further find stimulation in developing projects that engage work with artists beyond its present pool of talent in order to develop long term potential. The danger at present is that that agreement has not been resolved between funders, the Board and the company's directorate, with the result that the company sees itself as being torn between its own different wider aspirations.
6.2.9 The ‘Vision of Caithness’
a) It must be clear from the market research contained in this Study’s section 5, The Vision, particularly the case studies, and the current section, Developing the Vision, that there is an immense liveliness in, and potential for, arts provision in Caithness. What is more, this lively potential is ripe to be fully interlinked with issues of social and economic well being and tourism and heritage development. At present, however, it is also clear from the evidence that there is an absence of holistic and co-ordinated thinking about developing the creative potential of Caithness and the opportunities for its people and its economy this potential offers.
b) If it is true, as has been suggested, that Caithness has more archaeological sites than Orkney and given their populations of similar size in a similarly island position at the north of the Scottish mainland, aspects of arts development in Orkney offer Caithness examples to consider. The St Magnus Festival, in the last ten days of June each year, and the Science Festival, in the first week of September, for example, result in highly attractive provision for the communities of Orkney, sell-out events and full accommodation for the period of the festivals and beyond. Already the potential for Caithness developing itself as the 'Festival County' or 'A Place to Celebrate' has been mentioned in paragraph 6.2.7. Given the evidence of saturation and, so, unmet demand in Orkney, a carefully developed strategy to complement Orkney festival provision would be appropriate. That such planned green-field development is feasible and potentially successful is demonstrated by the development of the Orkney Science Festival, timed to take advantage of a ‘shoulder’ time for tourism.
c) Clearly there would be no benefit for either Orkney or Caithness in setting up conflicting operations. A carefully planned and negotiated co-operation across the Pentland Firth on Festival provision, however, would offer a number of advantages. Given that Orkney’s provision is at capacity at present, Caithness has
· an opportunity to develop complementary provision to absorb extra capacity,
· the freedom to develop arts tourism events which can tempt visitors to Orkney to extend their stay by spending extra nights in Caithness on the way either to or from Orkney,
· develop in time joint marketing exercises based round the concept of the ‘Festivals of the North’.
Given the full capacity at which Orkney operates in this sector and the mutual benefits available from co-operative development, it is more than likely that Orkney would welcome development of this kind in Caithness as a further benefit to itself. This would be particularly so in periods when Caithness would have a festival in operation and Orkney would not.
d) It is clear from the Orkney experience that, even with the benefits of the oil industry, Orcadians have recognised the importance of tourism and culture because they need them, not least for economic reasons. Caithness has had a variety of sources of economic development, not least the development of Dounreay, and these may have resulted in Caithnessians not recognising the potential culture and tourism also have for their region. Given that Dounreay’s current process of decommissioning (although the period for decommissioning offers an extended guarantee of economic benefit continuing at some level for some decades) and the crisis of Caithness Glass, it is now a matter of urgency that the real cultural and tourism assets of Caithness are exploited properly. This is particularly so in a context where Scotland is now being talked of as being, by 2015, the Northern Hemisphere's New Zealand, with tourism of all kinds, including cultural and natural tourism, a leading economic factor. If Caithness does not plan to be part of that economy now, then it is likely to lose a major and important opportunity and one that offers levels of economic activity that might retain young people in the area and reverse the decline in its population already referred to.
e) A particular element of the success of Orkney in attracting visits has been the development of the concept of ‘Orkney the Brand’. By this is meant a co-ordinated approach to attracting visitors that recognises that, once a visitor has travelled as far as Orkney and given the evidence that tourists now seek more than one aspect to their holiday, variety of interlinked and jointly promoted activity is essential. It is anticipated that visitors, once they arrive, will be interested and take on many, if not all, potential activities. In summary, the tourist is likely to wish to enjoy high quality accommodation and good food, to walk or cycle and to visit sites and sights, as well as attending events. The links between arts and heritage have already been referred to in this Study, as has the possibility of a ‘Discover Caithness’ series of promotions or visitor trails. The inter-relatedness of all aspects of Caithness culture should be recognised and promoted jointly. In short, there is a need for agencies and providers to join together, probably under the leadership of the Caithness Partnership, take pride in the great achievements and potential of Caithness, particularly in its arts, and develop a co-ordinated strategy to promote the Vision of Caithness. Out of such self-confidence multiple benefits will flow.
6.2.10 The Year of Highland Culture: 2007
a) If Caithness exploits the potential outlined in this Study, it will be in a well-grounded position to be a major contributor to 2007. This should take on board the continuing provision in Caithness rather than seeking to prepare one-off transient events that will not necessarily offer lasting benefit to the community. The proposals outlined earlier in this study regarding venue development are all capable of implementation in time for the Year of Highland Culture and so of complementing the provision about to become available at Lyth Arts Centre this year.
b) The work of such organisations as North Lands Creative Glass and Grey Coast Theatre Company are likely to form a natural part of the celebrations of that year, and planning for their full participation should now be under way. There is a clear opportunity to repeat the success of Assipattle, at least in 2007 itself, though that need not preclude such events in the intervening years. The development of festival provision proposed would fit appropriately into the time-scale of preparation for 2007 and offer clear legacy benefits. The development of Discover Caithness within an overarching Vision of Caithness would complement the provision of the Year of Highland Culture.
Opportunity should be sought to develop celebration in 2007 of less foregrounded work such as that exemplified by the arts aspects of the Ormlie SIP or the relationships between Caithness General Hospital and Hillhead School. Above all, the timing of the various proposals for a newly refurbished Thurso Town Hall, for developments in Pulteneytown and Lybster and for the development of A Light in the North would allow one of the features of 2007 to be a celebration of achievement. As part of that, the development of the old county town of Wick as a model of arts-led regeneration could offer a focus of international importance.