George Gunn has left the building

The Caithness poet and playwright, George Gunn, has often ploughed a lone furrow in the far north of Scotland.  Despite critical acclaim for his many plays and collections of poetry, his work isn’t as widely known outside the Highlands as it should be. This says more about central belt prejudices and ignorance than the work itself.

Gunn’s involvement in the theatre goes beyond writing. He was instrumental in setting up Grey Coast Theatre but like so many independent theatre companies in the Highlands Grey Coast folded earlier this year.  It must have been a last straw.  Quite clearly it was with a heavy heart that Gunn has penned the essay published today in Scottish Review.

Gunn’s essay could be described as an artistic suicide note, in as much as avenues for future theatre funding will be slammed shut in his face. He’ll no doubt have made a few enemies in high places.  This takes courage. Bella Caledonia salutes any writer with the bollocks to tell truth to power when it hits them personally in the pocket.

We would urge our readers to read the article and think seriously about what Gunn has to say.  In the essay Gunn rejects the prevailing notion at work in Scotland whereby arts funding bodies seem to exist primarily to brand themselves, and he has written a fierce critique which amounts to nothing less than a radical manifesto for theatre and the arts in Scotland.  It’s incendiary stuff.

We are reduced to the role of silent poets, frozen in time

by George Gunn

The state of Highland theatre continues to worsen. To date both Tosg, the national Gaelic language theatre company, and Grey Coast, my own company in Caithness, have folded. The demise of both was greeted with complacency by the funders and indifference by the media.   (The full essay can be found here at Scottish Review)

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  1. At least Bella Caledonia has the courtesy to offer this means of response. The Scottish Review does not seem to see the need for such a channel. George’s views require a much more detailed response, however, than is possible in a single comments box. I would, of course, wish to defend my organisation against some misleading and unfair criticism, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to suggest that someone of similar standing to George as writer and director be asked for their views–Chris Lee of Wildbird, for example, or Hamish MacDonald of Dogstar.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Our pages are always open for discussion. It would be interesting to read a detailed response to George’s article.

  2. Sannymqac says:

    I note Mr. Gunn “has left the building”. Until he come to grips with reality that is the best place for him to stay. I am sick to death with these so called Artists that think they have a right to public money in order that they can continue with their ‘Idle Life’!
    It is my opinion that these so-called artists should look at the likes of, the Ettric Shepard or even more so the great Robert Burns! I don’t recall Rabbie demanding public money to keep him going but I do remember reading of not only Rabbies wonderful poetry but also his role as a Scottish Rebel at a time when such activity could cost ones life.
    As for a Theatre in Caithness you could get all the folk in the region into the first show. My knowledge of Caithness comes from having lived there for eight years and it is possible that I may have met Mr. Gunn, there’s a lot of them in Caithness!
    This country of Scotland is in great need of good government and careful use of our resources and cannot afford to subsidise free loading Artists. Release from the thrall of Westminster is far more important then and only then we may have a little siller to spend on the artistic side of our country.

    1. Tocasaid says:

      Am a bit ambivalent towards ‘awhtists’ myself. However, if they do do work for the public good, especially in education then why not receive something from the state?

      I heard a wee while ago about a not so distant independent nation called Norway that was so progressive and inclusive, not to mention wealthy, that it could afford to pay artists around £14k a year.

      There’s also the point of who should benefit from the public purse. And I don’t even mean the Saxe-Coburgs in London. What about the rich multi-national companies who only relocate here after a large ‘incentive’, only to leave again once such inducements dry up. Then there’s nuclear power. I’d hate to think what kind of leccy bill I’d have without the huge subsidy it gets.

      Certainly, its good to hear a Gollach that doesn’t disparage the Gaelic tongue. Tosg did excellent work, especially in the ‘heartland’ communities and in schools.

  3. By The Way says:

    Sanny – eh, Burns was a government employee paid by the public purse. And Hogg was always on the cadge. You should read his begging letters to Walter Scott and John Murray.

  4. Alex Montrose says:

    If Caithness is the far north, is Aberdeenshire the far east?

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      No its still the north east. A Scottish map has it own logic. Especially when Shetland is thrown into the mix.

  5. Lena says:

    This is a refreshingly frank article by George Gunn. He touches on some familiar areas for those of us who have been touched by Scotland’s creative establishment, however lightly.
    Funding for the arts has and will continue to be fraught with difficulties but there certainly is complacency among the in-crowd who populate the creative establishment and who, if not exactly back scratchers, are a relatively small set functioning within a cosy cultural grouping ostensibly representing Scotland.
    Gunn’s distinction between ‘Highland theatre and theatre in the Highlands’ is well made. The Highlands – several steps too far off for the comfy theatre world of the central belt to take much interest in and in that they are not alone. There is a preponderance of interest in all things cultural in the central belt of Scotland while the rest of the country struggles for any media attention. If it’s not happening in the central belt, it’s not happening in Scotland. In its role as the public voice of the country, the BBC fails miserably and we have no adequate national press which takes any but tokenistic interest in art, theatre or literature beyond its immediate confines.
    Ignorance among those responsible for promoting the creative industries is sadly familiar. A cultural manager in one of Scotland’s main cities had never heard of the Mod, knew nothing about theatre or music but was very good at socialising with fellow-creative industry administrators and attending foreign parts for inspiration about how to operate best in Scotland.
    And this ignorance about Scotland and the different Scottish cultures is evident in every sphere of Scottish life, not least political bloggers who are happy to repeat the narrow interests of the mainstream press. This does not bode well for the future of Scotland.
    Scotland is so lucky to have such diversity of cultures in such a small nation but too often the lack of curiosity or the antagonisms between them is all too apparent. It seems anything outwith peoples’ immediate community, or what is familiar, is viewed as irrelevant. James Hunter’s old man from Sutherland’s point is spot on. It is bad enough being ignored by London, its media and government but it’s shocking that the same uninterest extends to the media, political figures/parties in the central belt and cultural bureaucracy as well.
    I can’t speak for what comes out of Inverness. It probably is the usual large centre dominates syndrome. It is undeniable that for the whole of Scotland, however, central belt rules apply. Playwrights in the northeast have been advised against submitting work with Doric because people in the central belt don’t understand it and won’t bother looking at it, and let’s face it, that’s where scripts go. The result is that Scottish drama becomes something vaguely ‘Scottish’ – whatever that means, but excluding northeast and, I imagine Highland and Island dialects and nuances .Obviously there is no such thing as ‘Scottish’ culture but cultures and to promote such or deny such is to demean this nation.
    When the National Theatre of Scotland was set up, its lack of a home was seen as revolutionary and democratic but the reality is that it does have a home – and where is that home? Glasgow. This is where decisions are taken, where contacts are reaffirmed and ideas discussed/dismissed by the people, the same people who always take these decisions. What the NTS has done for most of Scotland is, frankly, very little. The occasional visit does not help create a vibrant theatre-going tradition or any sense that the NTS belongs to the whole of the country. It was a neat trick but we’ve seen through it and it’s not good enough.
    I hope George Gunn can find someone to listen to him about developing theatre though education in Caithness. I hope those he has outed for their indifference and complacency will sit up and take notice. I don’t see any of this happening. Until we in Scotland realise that centralised bureaucracies are harmful to the needs of people and in this small country we can and should create better means of organising all aspects of our lives, including the provision of theatre and drama as a medium for learning and fulfilment, we will go on deluding ourselves that anything much is going to change for the better.

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