Independently Minded Artists

On the eve of the launch of the Yes Campaign, playwright, author, and newly appointed National Collective ‘cultural ambassador’ Alan Bissett interrupts a reading of his latest book to ask a question of the informal Falkirk crowd gathered in their local to see him perform.

In the morning, he’ll be joining fellow members of the creative industries at a breakfast meeting with the First Minister. He needs the Bairns of his home-town to advise him as to the correct choice of foot wear for such an occasion – converse trainers or loafers?

As a light-hearted debate ensues, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to gently drop his cards on the table regarding a more serious political matter; for what it’s worth, he thinks Scotland should be independent.  He’s not the only one.

As we approach the most important vote in Scottish history, an increasing number of artists and writers are nailing their pro-independence colours to the mast, injecting energy into the debate.

After the performance, animated punters, many of them resembling some of Bissett’s own creations based on the working class culture he was raised in, gravitate towards him. Perhaps initially drawn to him through his art, in which they see their own lives mirrored, they now want to talk about politics and the possibilities an independent Scotland might hold for them.

In a country known the world over for its cultural and artistic achievements, one might expect the main-stream debate surrounding independence to demonstrate a much stronger engagement with the country’s creative community.  Instead, the discussion thus far has been dominated by the same political and journalistic talking heads.

While the prospect of a cultural reawakening in Scotland may not appeal generally to members of the political and media establishment, many feel that such a renaissance would be greatly beneficial to the Yes Campaign. In the age of spin doctors, sound bites and polarised economic predictions, providing a deeper meaning to the notion of independence may help re-engage large numbers of ambivalent voters.

The arrival of National Collective; a non-party political group, designed to bridge the gap between Scotland’s top creative and political minds, as well as provide a platform for artists to engage with the independence debate, is timely in the circumstances.

Much has been made by academics and social commentators of the links between cultural confidence and the personal and collective well-being of a nation.   According to National Collective’s co-founder and project director Ross Colquhoun, the organisation was born from a belief that self-confidence in Scotland’s artistic and political culture is essential to making a success of the Yes Campaign.

He envisions a scenario in which independence would bring a new cultural confidence to Scotland enabling Scottish artists to flourish.

To engage as many people as possible in proceedings, National Collective has so far recruited two ‘cultural ambassadors’ from the creative industries, Alan Bissett being one, along with singer Lou Hickey.

Like Irvine Welsh before him, Bissett has been praised for validating a Scottish sub-culture so rarely visible beneath the bag pipes and tartanry, simply by recognising it in his work. Born and raised in Falkirk, he is known for his use of the free-flowing Scottish vernacular of his home town with frequent references to popular and working class culture in his novels.  As a National Collective creative ambassador, his role will be to inspire and relate to people who otherwise may feel disillusioned with the debate.

So far, National Collective has amassed over one thousand followers from a range of disciplines and political persuasions, many of whom have signed up as active members to the open group via their website.  Interaction between members is heavily encouraged.  Regular meetings are announced via social media networks such as Facebook, and are intended to provide an opportunity for the sharing of ideas and formation of creative partnerships.

One of the primary functions of the group is to commission and produce a series of artistic works which they hope will play a key role in the Yes Campaign. The organisers are also urging the public to get involved by participating in their online projects.

Their current endeavour asks ‘what does Scottish independence mean to you?’ To get involved they are asking the public to send videos of themselves holding up a sign with a short reason of why they back independence. Submissions will then be collated to create a series of crowd-sourced videos for the campaign.

Individuals can also contribute to the website by sending in recordings or videos of their creative work, along with a description and biography. Alternatively people can help spread the word by asking friends to join and share website content on social networking sites.

Glancing at the National Collective website, the artistic work submitted so far is strong and varied.  From Alan Bissett’s take on Scottish unionism, a poem ironically entitled ‘Vote Britain’ to the bold, iconic images created by artist Jim Arcola, the pieces consistently direct the audience towards issues of identity with varying degrees of subtlety.  Most importantly, the expanding portfolio captured on the website sends out a clear message that outstanding and fresh creative talent exists in Scotland.

Already, the organisation is expanding; and In 2013 National Collective will consolidate what they have achieved so far by hosting a Creatives for Independence conference as a networking event for all those who are open minded, undecided, or in favour of independence.

The website itself gives a heartening glimpse of what an independent Scotland’s creative community could look like:  A place where talented, creative individuals will be able to enjoy creative fulfilment and professional success in their country of birth, building a diverse and confident culture which will  benefit society as a whole.

With over two years until the historic vote, there is still everything to play for and National Collective could potentially play an important role in defining the vision of a new Scottish society.

Elizabeth Thomson

This article was originally published on on 31 May 2012.