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Education Culture & Sport
Highland Council - Caithness
Vision of Caithness
3.1 The Arts in Caithness
3.1.1 It can often be difficult to research ‘the arts’ because people have widely differing definitions of what constitutes ‘the arts’ and what kind of activities may be encompassed. Unlike some other leisure activities, such as sport or swimming, the ‘arts’ as an area of activity have acquired associations and connotations which can mean that some people perceive them as the prerogative of one group or social class in society. They may also be seen as having significant hurdles to attendance and participation in the form of prior knowledge and understanding. Yet all the evidence points to the fact that the arts are popular and engaged in and enjoyed by a majority of the population. Perhaps it is fairly obvious to people when they see a group outside kicking a ball on a pitch that an activity is happening. Yet, the group inside working on a play, singing, making art, discussing literature, even watching a film, are not visible to those outside.
3.1.2 The use of the word ‘arts’ itself can be counter-productive, putting off some because of its ‘highbrow’ or ‘elitist’ connotations. In our consultations in Caithness, we sometimes found a perceived division between ‘arts’ and ‘entertainment’ and community activities. In practice, this division is more apparent than real. The widest definition possible of the arts has been adopted. Fundamentally, when we are talking about the arts we are talking about people enjoying themselves creatively, whether spectating or participating. This carries an immediate implication that the definition of ‘arts’ adopted in this Study is culturally and socially inclusive. Further, we have recognised the phenomenon sometimes described as ‘arts and…’ By this, we mean the ways in which the arts are now often experienced and promoted in explicit interaction with other aspects of social experience such as health, well being and community self-esteem. We recognised that there is much overlap and synergy between what have traditionally been called 'the arts' and heritage, including the museum sector. Finally, we have recognised that the arts are substantially important in economic and social development, with particular importance in such areas as tourism and economic development. We have avoided the word, culture, in this Study because it has such a range of definitions and so can lead to confusion of terms. In general, nonetheless, we have considered that ‘the arts’ in modern parlance is often best understood as signifying ‘the creative and cultural industries’.
3.1.3 Given this, the evidence of this Study is that Caithness is a centre of highly vibrant and creative arts activity. Members of its population have developed powerful self-reliant networks, which generate a wide range of arts and arts-related manifestations. A typical Caithness arts organisation will be made up of anything between a dozen and a hundred active members, seeking -- and usually finding -- its own resources, spaces and facilities. Such organisations extend from Caithness Handbell Ringers to Wick Pipe Band from the Caithness Quilt-makers to the highly successful, but clearly differentiated, amateur theatre companies, Thurso Players and Wick Players. Indeed, Caithness is a highly theatrically alive region. Both Thurso Players and Wick Players has a history of high achievement, Wick Players having been finalists in the UK national finals in 2003 and winners of those finals as recently as 1998 and 2001. The large number of professional musicians, visual artists, writers and craftspeople in the area and the work of high quality professional companies such as North Lands Creative Glass, Lyth Arts Centre and Grey Coast Theatre Company all enrich the wide range of arts activity in Caithness
3.1.4 Even although neither High School has specific drama studios, having to make do with general areas, performing arts provision for young people is lively. It includes, in Wick, the dynamic MADD (Music Arts Dance Drama) with a membership that fluctuates around seventy to eighty with a peak year of a hundred and, in Thurso, DGWAN (Drama Group Without A Name). The latter involves S1 to S6 students with around sixty participants, this being complemented by Social Inclusion Partnership activities including After-school clubs for primary children, in Ormlie in Thurso and in the area between Melvich and Durness. These activities involve an estimated 500 children every week, a remarkable figure out of a total school population in Caithness of around 4000. There is much developmental work undertaken in supporting young musical talent in all genres, with privately owned recording facilities of good quality, while the area has two junior pipe bands. There are lively dance classes for the young in Thurso and Wick.
3.1.5 This wide range of active arts development taking place in the community is complemented by the promotion of the professional arts. This is carried out both by amateur groups such as Thurso Live Music Association and Thurso Players and professionally as by Highland Council’s high quality exhibitions in the St Fergus Gallery, Wick, and the Swanson Gallery, Thurso. A lively range of visiting musical ensembles and touring theatre companies has presented their work in a range of venues including the Lyth Arts Centre, the Mill Theatre, Thurso High School Hall and the Wick Assembly Rooms. Skinandi’s Night Club in Thurso has even promoted stand-up comedy acts and offers some Monday try outs for local bands. It was observed that, while Lyth Arts Centre and the Mill Theatre draw on broadly the same type of audience for visiting work with some overlap of catchment area, there is good liaison between the two. Visiting companies welcome the opportunity to present their work in Caithness and find audiences knowledgeable and positive. Such provision is bound to be a key element of arts provision in a region with the geography and demography of Caithness.
3.1.6 A major issue to be addressed in this area, therefore, lies in the nature of the available venues. While the Mill Theatre is well set up technically, it has an approximate capacity of only seventy and the Lyth Arts Centre, while it will offer fine facilities with accommodation for residencies when it reopens later this year, will have a similar capacity of seventy-five. Meantime, while Thurso High School Hall can accommodate an audience of up to 300 and around £50,000 was spent ten years ago on lighting, sound and drapes, its technical specifications are limited and in need of refurbishment and development. The situation of the Assembly Rooms is discussed in detail in section 6.2.2 b (c). For now it is safe to say that the configuration of both the Assembly Rooms and the High School Hall are, in their different ways, inappropriate for the presentation of small-scale touring theatre. This is an issue, since this is the most significant professional drama touring input in the region.
3.1.7 What marks these activities is the strong self-reliance already noted and a desire to develop and extend the arts and cultural provision in Caithness even further. This means that the community does not depend unduly on funders or central bodies like the Scottish Arts Council or Highland Council to initiate exciting new activity. This is very wise because in modern times neither the Arts Councils nor local authorities can be omnicompetent, if they ever could be. Both are under policy direction to relate to specific outcomes, It is activities that will match these that are likely to attract support. Local initiatives have, however, attracted support when appropriate, bringing together local artistic enterprise and central support. During the period of this report alone, two examples of new festivals were launched. The literature festival, A Light in the North, based on the work of Neil Gunn, included as a case study in this report at paragraph 5.4.4, took place in Dunbeath in November 2003 with some public funding support. During Easter 2004, Northern Nashville Country and Western Club will launch a major Country and Western festival which, with seed money from local funders, will aim to establish itself on an independent and secure financial footing. Caithnessian self-reliance, however, can carry a negative aspect. It was the perception of a number of informants that at times Caithnessians can see ‘outsiders’ as a problem, rather than an opportunity for co-operation. Clearly a balance has to be struck between ‘gangin yer own gait’ and working across conceptual and geographical boundaries within the framework of Council and national projects.
3.1.8 Such a range of arts activity raises a major issue. That is the extent to which it is important in policy terms to recognise that the ‘arts’ extend far beyond the range of arts actually financially supported by funding bodies or even sometimes recognised by their policy documents. Any comprehensive arts policy or strategy has to take account of such independent arts activity within the context of arts provision in any given community. There is an absolute need to build on the good in both existing provision and developing ideas. As several informants observed, such strong arts provision will lead to the community having a national and political voice and being visible on the regional scene. At present, it was argued, Caithness may be punching below its true weight in some areas including the arts. Certainly in these it has much of which to be proud.