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Scottish Parliament Speech: Scotland's Festivals (June 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I would like to join my colleagues in celebrating Scotland's festival cultures. I am slightly older than the Edinburgh festival and I can still remember its effect on our grim, austere, year-zero Britain. We were just about to see the launch of the national health service, but around us were the ghosts of Dresden, Auschwitz and the members of Scotland's Italian community who had gone down with the Arandora Star when they were being deported. Many of the performers in the festival had come to this country as exiles. My first classical music experience was, amazingly, a concert by the Amadeus string quartet, who had met when they were banged up on the Isle of Man as alien internees.

The festival was a bringing together of the exiled of the world - a homecoming, of sorts. It was deeply moving, and it was wonderful that, in 1948, we Scots contributed to it one of the most astonishing literary revivals of all time - Robert Kemp and Tyrone Guthrie's staging of that great radical play, Sir David Lindsay's "The Three Estates".

About 50 years earlier, W B Yeats, who was also a professional dramatist and theatre manager, said "A nation should be like an audience in some great theatre - 'In the theatre,' ... 'the mob becomes a people'". I think that the staging of "The Three Estates" was the moment when we wised up to that.

I would like to think that we will approach our festivals in a rather more strategic way in the future. In Scotland, we have that grim period between November and late January when, as Hugh McDiarmid said "it is scarce grey licht at noon".

We might try doing in that period something that is not dissimilar to what happens in Europe during advent - a gentle succession of celebrations, farmers markets and craft markets from the end of November until January. Kids have a lot of fun at those events. That would be better than the national catatonia that we have around Christmas, when entire families are banged up in their houses because the public transport system is not functioning, watching reruns of "The Great Escape", which is the most popular film during that period.

No one will come to see a Scotland that is not itself attractive and which has run-down town centres and supermarkets - and car parks that, while they might be quite magnificent, will never be the cynosure of people's attention. We also have to be a country that welcomes people from abroad. We frequently mention festivals such as the mela in that regard, but as Rob Gibson pointed out, to get here people must first negotiate the Home Office's requirements.

I shall throw in a suggestion for another festival. The Glasgow riverside museum is about to reach completion. It will include one of the greatest exhibits of shipping in the world, from the collection of the art galleries and museums in Glasgow. When I met some Polish friends a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that we could combine that with a literary celebration of the greatest novelist in English of the sea, who was also a Pole: Joseph Conrad. Conrad visited Scotland as the captain of sailing ships in the 1880s and, as Rob Gibson pointed out, he was a great friend of Robert Cunninghame Graham as one of the leading modernist writers of the time.

I hope that we will start building the Borders railway in 2010 and open it in 2011 or 2012. As Karen Gillon said, we could celebrate Borders culture by having a Borders festival to open the railway. The festival would be in honour of Hogg, Buchan, Walter Scott, the Romans, the ballads, the common ridings and the rugby pitches. In the words of the greatest of all the Marxes - Groucho: "Let joy be unconfined, let there be drinking in the bars, necking in the parlours, and dancing in the streets!"

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