Friday, 29 October 2010


I’ve been thinking. A rare occurrence, I know, but it’s the imminent changes to Scottish education that’s doing it.

You will recall the sport of Norwegian rock-based-sea-gazing that I have mentioned in the past. Well, turns out they do it in Scotland too, albeit not so frequently. Working hours in Scotland and the UK as a whole are a good deal longer than in Norway, although, contrary to popular belief, not the longest in Europe. It just feels like that.

However, if the opportunity arises for a spot of Scottish rock-based-sea-gazing we can indulge in it just as well as anyone else. For every Norwegian standing on a rock, deep in thought and staring out across the North Sea, there must be at least one Scot standing on this side staring back. For example, one of our composers, Peter Maxwell Davies (Max to his mates) freely admits he has to take a walk by the Orcadian coast every morning to allow his brain to be creative before he can start work. Not a commute but a commune.

But it’s not just the arty types who need thinking time. A friend whose mission it is to find a cure for congenital heart disease admits that it is in these quiet moments, in the spaces between being busy, that the big ideas pop into one's head. So, between carrying out heart ops, running a research lab, teaching students and being a very busy Dad, he knows full well that ‘a time to think’ must be built into his day.

At present, with Government cuts looming, and while many struggle to remain employed, run a business, pay bills or simply get through the day, I suspect that ‘thinking’ is having to take a back seat. The opportunity to ‘stand and stare’ can feel like a luxury, an indulgence, if not a waste of time.

In the past, Scotland has been rather keen on thinking, a habit which came to glorious fruition in the latter half of the 18th century with the Age of Enlightenment. ‘Thinking’ was all the rage back then, and the result was a flourishing of the arts and sciences, literature and philosophy that was without parallel in the modern world. David Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature’, Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind’, James Beattie’s ‘Essays on Truth’, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ influenced the world then and still do today. In science, the discoveries of James Black, John Leslie, John Gregory, Joseph Hutton, William Cullen and John Hunter brought new thinking to chemistry, physics, geology, maths, anatomy and medicine. Scottish Universities operated an ‘open door’ policy which accepted poverty-stricken but talented students, as well as students from England and abroad. Graduates were prepared for a world that required up-to-date skills to sustain a growing economy. The tradition of Scottish doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs and colonial administrators became well-established from those times.

I’ve been thinking about all this because, as a parent, I cannot help but be concerned about the soon-to-be implemented ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Over the next few years, a seismic shift is to take place in our education system in Scotland. The Scottish Government has been devising a new qualifications system for secondary school pupils, and it is our duty as citizens to ensure that it will achieve the ‘excellence’ advertised in the title. Any radical change to the education system is bound to cause scepticism, worry and fury, so the Government is braced for a barrage of criticism. However, at the moment confusion still reigns amongst pupils, teachers, and parents as to exactly how this new system will work, how it is to be implemented, and what it might mean for our pupils. The details are not finalised as yet, but we have to hope that, despite the change, the principals of Scottish education, once famous for its breadth, depth and practical thoroughness, will not be lost.

And now, there’s a second fly in the ointment. The concept of a free university education which the Scottish Government has managed to uphold until now, unlike England, is once again under threat. As our universities struggle to maintain high standards they are scrabbling around for funding , and so there is talk today of graduates having to pay back part of their salary once they achieve a certain earning threshold.

As Scotland wrestles with trying to prepare itself for the future while at the same time dealing with the aftermath of the credit crunch, The Age of Enlightenment seems but a distant dream. Of course things weren’t ideal then either, with poverty and inequality of opportunity still hampering the potential of many. But the importance attached to rigorous thinking that led to Edinburgh becoming the ‘Athens of the North’ and Glasgow becoming the ‘Second City of the Empire’ seems almost unimaginable now. 

I think I’ll go for a wee think.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


I apologize for the slight break in attendance here. I was obliged to pay homage to the North East of Scotland tradition of ‘tattie howkin’, otherwise known as a ‘break in the school term intended to provide youthful workers for the seasonal harvesting of potatoes’. Nowadays, however, if I met a school pupil who had ever harvested a potato from the good earth of the North East, I would be hard-pressed to conceal my wonder.

So, we skived off the tatties, and sought sunnier climes by venturing south where we encountered some of the most dramatic weather I have ever witnessed. The sun shone, but the humidity threatened something quite different. At last a storm broke, just as we were returning home from a night of over-eating and general holiday merriment. Our small car converted into a boat as we sailed up a rushing river that had once been a road, and attempted to see through a windscreen that might has well have been in mid-carwash. Children screamed, the driver swore, the weather worsened. Right above our heads, thunder belted and lightening flashed at a rate of one flash every two seconds. It was like strobe-lighting in a 70’s discotheque, with fear-for-one’s-life added to the cocktail of thrills for extra impact. I didn’t like it one bit. I needed something fascinating to take my mind off the whole scenario.

Once ensconced in a sheltered location, I tried to distract my brain from the extraordinary thunderstorm over my head by reading ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’, a recent novel by a peach of a Scots author, William Boyd.

Now HE is a real treat. I have been trying to limit myself to just one of his books a year, but sometimes there is a lapse, and I have to read two. Or even three. He is, I must confess, my favourite Scots author by a disgracefully long way.

A quick glance at his whereabouts and you might wonder why he is considered a ‘Scottish author’ at all. He was born in Accra, Ghana and spent much of his early life there and in Nigeria. He now lives in London and often visits the South of France. But if you ever hear him talk, you’ll hear an unmistakable Scots ‘burr’ which reveals not only that his family were Scots, but that a good deal of his schooldays and adult life were spent north of the border. For several years he worked in Scotland and I suspect must visit the place from time to time too. He sprinkles his books with the occasional Scot in a manner that only a person ‘weel kent’ with this nation could do.

‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ is set in London, a thriller of a chase, a classic page-turner and a gripping distraction from any violent thunderstorms that may be causing terror overhead. It’s also funny, which is the thing about that man William Boyd. You have to plan where and when you read him, because he can make you laugh out loud, a most irksome irritation to any nearby non-Boydites.

I wonder what it is about Scotland that the place should continue to produce astounding writing. Boyd is my Number One but there are so many goodies from which to choose. Despite the wonders of technology, we Scots remain curiously bookish. 18th century Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, thanks to the Kirk’s insistence that every parish must have a school. Despite these financially rocky times, and despite the increasingly precarious nature of authorship, I am simply surrounded by people who are busily writing and publishing books. Books and reading have been a habit here for a long time. So while I cowered from the raging storm, I couldn’t help speculating as to whether writing, and indeed reading, is weather-related. Scots, like Norwegians, are still terrifically dedicated readers, and many an author, including JL Rowling herself, has found sanctuary, appreciation and inspiration in, and from, this nation. The skilful telling of a darn good tale is still a cherished delight.

But some people have all the luck. Can you believe, several years ago a friend of a friend had William Boyd himself as their babysitter....while a young man based at Glasgow University, Mr Boyd babysat for these fortunate children in the West End of the city. One can only imagine the outstanding quality of the bedtime stories. You’d never get a wink of sleep.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010


I presume you have been watching ‘Spooks’ on the BBC. If not WHAT ON EARTH HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO?

There’s nothing quite like getting your teeth into a decent TV thriller on a Monday night when you should be concentrating on the washing up, polishing shoes and ironing school uniform. But I have an excuse. Not only did I wish to feast my eyes on a bit of far-fetched international espionage action...I also wanted to feast my ears too. It turns out, the boy doing the music, a vital addition to the edge-of-the-seat tension that makes the series such a hum-dinger, is turning into a rather successful composer.

We are lucky enough to have some fantastic composers here in Scotland, and I shall come back to them at a later date. But for now, I am interested in this new breed, a very different sort of composer from those that used to sit at their spinets in some European creaking attic, quills poised as they waited for divine inspiration to strike. This new breed is hip and adept, casting a wider net far out across a musical ocean that encompasses old and new genres...classical, jazz, folk, rock, pop, garage, house, shed, garden or whatever they call the stuff. These guys know what's what and what to do with it. 

Imagine the scene. Just a few years ago, a young music student, Paul Leonard Morgan, was sitting about in a studio at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, fiddling with an electronic semi-quaver and generally minding his own musical business. The phone rang.

‘It’s only me, in the office,’ chirped a cheery Glaswegian. ‘There’s someone here from the telly...they want a bit of music for a football programme or something...flick your switch?’

From there a career was born. Young Paul got to work, provided the goods and made a name for himself. The next job was music for a wildlife documentary entitled ‘Galapagos’, and then there was some work with bands like Snow Patrol, Belle and Sebastian and Sharleen Spiteri. Before long, Paul had landed himself a dream job. Could he come up with an orchestral score for a BBC Scotland landmark production, ‘The History of Scotland?’ Oh, and by the way, could he also produce a ‘Concert Suite’ based on the score because the house band (BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) were going on tour soon, and it would be kind of neat?

The series turned out to be a mega-production for the BBC, and one which has not been without controversy (there are tales of insulted historians and offended academics leaving production meetings in disgust at some of the editorial decisions.) I too would take issue with some of the views expressed in the series. Anyone who cares about Scotland and has an opinion would do so. But every big-budget production which aims to tell the history of a nation is bound to have its are asking for trouble, it seems to me. However, it is certainly a ‘good watch’ and for me, part of its success is the music, the glue that binds the whole series together to ‘make it live’. It's clever and it's beautiful. And it was from this success that young Paul went on to create the music for ‘Spooks.’

The new breed of composer is not only an accomplished musician...he or she is an arranger, a producer, a DJ, a mixer, and even a sound engineer. If they are composing for film, television or computer games, they must work within a collaborative creative framework...often their perfectly-formed phrases are cut and squeezed to suit visual action. Either the composer has to learn to live with this or there will be tears before bedtime. The funny thing is, if you are promised a cheque at the end, even the artiest of arty-pants can learn to adjust.

You may well think that choosing to be a composer is an odd career choice, the path chosen by dreamers and romantics. But this kind of thing can be big business. According to the Scottish Culture Minister, Scotland is a world-leader in the creative industries, a sector which supports 63,000 jobs, and generates an annual turnover of £5.2 billion. For a nation the size of Scotland, those figures are not to be sniffed at. So as the current post-credit-crunch belt-tightening hangs over us, I hope that somehow the creative industries will be seen for what they can produce, and not merely as unnecessary frills with which to pass an idle moment.

Meanwhile, I'll get back to my fiddle, and try to remember that all this desgraceful scraping and screeching may one day bear fruit.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


The smell, the colour, the taste, the atmosphere...all of them need to be just so for the connoisseur to fully appreciate the ‘amber bead’, Robert Burns’s term for Scotland’s most famous drink, whisky. I would never describe myself as a connoisseur in this sense (and I have often been told, usually by elderly gents, that whisky is wasted on a woman), but I am happy to share a wee dram of an evening as the nights draw in and autumnal chills steal through the air.

Whisky has been on my mind as well as in my throat this week. Despite the current recession it is slightly surprising to find that we still seem able to produce a hot seller in this country, so much so that the biggest distillery in Scotland for 30 years has just opened.

There is frequent criticism that we in the UK didn’t seem to be producing anything any more...where are our manufacturers, what do we make, where are our skills and expertise going if we can’t produce products, and if manufacturing costs in developing countries are so much cheaper, what is the point of trying to make anything anyway? This is a call often heard in a wealthy country like Norway too, and yet, from time to time, the unstoppable spirit of enterprise raises its head and, despite the odds, makes something wonderful....something that people want to buy.

Take whisky. There are strict international laws governing the status of Scotland’s most iconic product. To be called ‘Scotch’, whisky has to have been distilled in Scotland, matured for a minimum of three years and one day, and to have been matured in oak casks. The new distillery has opened at a cost of £40 million, and with 18 years before its casks can be opened and the contents sold, somebody somewhere within these recession-hit borders is an optimist.

So, in the spirit of ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, I have been considering the figures. It turns out that the UK as a whole makes £99 per second in export revenues from whisky. This is big business, with over 2,500 different brands. Last year whisky made £3 billion in exports, one quarter of the UK export sales from food and drink. Apparently, what with whisky being perceived as a ‘lifestyle’ product, the growing middle-classes of China, Korea and South Africa are lapping it up. (India is a weaker market due to current high duties). What is more, whisky has an ability to cope with a variety of economic hard times it offers comfort and solace, in good times it provides an accompaniment to a celebratory toast.

And it has been so for several hundred years. Since the early 14th century, the term ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life) has been applied to distilled drinks, no doubt a linguistic relic from days of the Roman Empire, and one which exists in Norway to this day (‘aquavit’ being the favourite choice for toast-giving moments). In Scotland, the term was translated from Latin to Gaelic...’usque baugh’, or 'uisge beatha’, and from there to the English ‘whisky’. It is known that King James IV of Scotland was a keen whisky drinker. After Scotland merged with England in the Act of Union in 1707, the taxes on whisky rose dramatically, but consumers were hooked, so production continued to grow.

Even the names, particularly when added to the actual consuming of a dram, can bring a shaft of comfort to many a Scot ....Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Springbank or Talisker....the very names themselves inspire a nostalgic longing for the hills and glens, and permit an unleashed wallowing in sentiment, a favourite occupation for many a Celt.

For those who can’t stand the taste, I have an alternative offering. Seek out Compton Mackenzie’s novel ‘Whisky Galore’, a tale based on a real 1941 , the SS Politician was shipwrecked off the isle of Eriskay. The islanders attempted to carry her cargo, bottles of whisky, ashore under the noses of the Home Guard. The novel was followed by a film of the same name made in 1949 by Ealing Studios, and was to be known as one of Britain’s most successful comedies.

Enjoy and slainte mhath.