ON the eve of lockdown in 2020 a beautiful wee book came out. Imagine A Country is a collection of “ideas, dreams and ambitions” for Scotland’s future from a cast of a hundred diverse voices, pieced together brilliantly by author Val McDermid and her geographer wife Jo Sharp.

It’s not a cover to cover page turner as such; more a dip-in-and-out anthology. The volume purposefully excludes politicians, but not politics. Of those visions put forward by its many authors, I found myself aligning most closely with the musicians.

Imaging his Xanadu, the Shetland fiddle player Aly Bain (below, left) writes of a place where “the arts flourish and are viewed as an investment in our future instead of a throwaway subsidy”, where every day we see on the faces of young people “a belief in their imagination and creativity”.

The National:

Amen to that.

For as long as humans could talk, they could sing. As soon as palaeolithic man could hold a tool, he could craft a musical instrument. And, of course, a few daubs of ochre could really add a certain je ne sais quoi to the otherwise drab cave walls of a stone age living room.

Why then, if creativity is now and always has been at the centre of what it is to be human, is it so often relegated to afterthought status, particularly in the UK? Even from a hard-nosed philistine’s perspective, the arts contributed some £11 billion for Britain’s economy in 2019 — leapfrogging agriculture in its contribution to GDP. Culture adds cash value to the UK Exchequer, never mind intrinsic value in terms of making life worth living.

Why then, does Westminster continue to spend a lower proportion of its budget on cultivating this sector than almost all comparator countries across Europe?

READ MORE: Iona Fyfe among winners at 2021 MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards

And why, during the most punishing years of recent Tory austerity, were the arts the first head on the chopping block as George Osborne sharpened his axe? From 2010 to 2015 alone, Treasury cuts forced devolved governments Scotland and Wales to cut their spending on the arts in real terms by 11% and 12% respectively.

It has been possible to reverse some of that damage. However, after over 20 years of devolution, funding for our national arts body Creative Scotland bobs roughly around the same mark as it it did in 1999. I find this a rather depressing statistic. In a period where Scotland has done much to shake off our cringe and find our voice there is so much more we could do to express ourselves.

Conservative governments are guilty of it, but perhaps we all are to varying degrees: thinking of the arts as frippery. It is a damaging characterisation. Creative expression is neither reserved as a practice for the privileged, those with the “spare” time or the financial security to dabble, nor is it exclusively for the consumption of the well-to-do.

As the east end of Glasgow-born polymath, and son of a builder’s labourer, Alasdair Gray (below) put it: “People in Scotland have a queer idea of the arts. They think you can be an artist in your spare time, though nobody expects you to be a spare-time dustman, engineer, lawyer or brain surgeon.”

The National:

Upon seeking re-election last year, the SNP promised to remove fees for all children learning a musical instrument at school, making a powerful statement that music is for all and should never be limited by a family’s ability to pay. It is a simple, democratising and relatively cheap policy to put into practice. But it will only have full impact if it is backed by more music as part of the core curriculum. With that structure in place, an exciting musical renaissance could be realised — and what an exciting step forward that could be.

But has the pandemic taken us two steps back? Protect the NHS. Protect jobs. Protect the economy. Protect education. Protect bars and restaurants. Protect venues, even. Few people dispute the importance of all of doing all of these things.

However take, just as an example, the latest £21 million Scottish Government package announced in December to support the cultural sector since the emergence of the Omicron variant. Almost two thirds of this allocated for buildings, organisations, “the supply chain” – while the rest is for artists themselves. A creative landscape without arts centres, theatres and galleries would be a grim and gloomy place, certainly. But protecting people is what matters most of all.

Celtic Connections, probably Europe’s biggest winter arts festival, kicks off at the end of this month. In some form at least. What started in the early 1990s as a programme-filler in the doldrum months for Glasgow’s Concert Halls now attracts 40,000 visitors to the city and brings in £5.5 million in a normal year. At its heart, Celtic Connections showcases music that is thoroughly our own but — in the best of Scottish traditions — belongs to the rest of the world too.

READ MORE: Richard Walker: How Celtic Connections helped to shape my politics

This week, the festival announced that a number of shows will not go ahead as a result of continuing Covid uncertainty and restrictions. It is another heartbreaking symptom of this pandemic.

Within the arts, as with other sectors right now, there is a fairly wide spread of opinion over what feels right in terms of sustaining livelihoods and protecting public health. But there are also common themes of anguish and some powerful pleas from a beleaguered industry which deserve to be heard at the highest levels.

Kinnaris Quintet fiddler Laura Wilkie received the news this week that her five gigs associated with Celtic Connections have been cancelled. She knew it was becoming inevitable, but that didn’t soften the blow when it came.

“It’s very difficult”, said Laura, “I’ve thought about it a lot and musicians have to consider themselves and their audiences — nobody wants to put people at risk. But the question for me is when does it end? I’m not feeling angry or resentful, but you can only shut down so much to try and protect people from something which isn’t going away.”

The news about Celtic Connections came just hours after several thousand musicians had already applied to Creative Scotland’s Covid-19 Cancellation Fund for freelancers. This hardship grant covers the period between November 2021 and March 2022 and is capped at £2000 per applicant — one month’s wage to be stretched out over four.

The National:

Scots singer Iona Fyfe has had confirmation of one cancelled Celtic Connections concert while anxiously awaiting news on the other. Recently named Scotland’s Trad Musician of the Year, the 23-year-old is desperate to get out and perform: “I’ve had my formative years as a young musician taken from me — I’ll never get those back.” She laments the impact upon young and emerging artists in particular and worries that when live events resume, venues will prioritise established “big name” headliners, rather than taking a punt on new talent. Iona had gigs worth the equivalent of two months’ rent cancelled within an hour this week. She sums up her feelings: “be responsible, get vaccinated, test regularly – but let us play”.

Steve Byrne is more circumspect. The folksinger, due to perform at Celtic Connections’ opening night concert, expresses some relief that live performances are being scaled back — with a young child in school and a so-far Covid-free household. Like many musicians, Steve isn’t a full-time performer, with other professional interests in music policy and advocacy.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the warnings that he and others in the folk music sector had highlighted over a decade ago, and he points to a “huge cultural crisis in the making”. The structural weakness of the sector is in the predominance of low pay — a problem exacerbated by the rise of streaming which makes music available to millions but delivers artists a pittance in return.

Folk music is but one genre in a wider cultural sector among many industries facing challenging times like never before. But if we fail to prioritise the preservation and recovery of the arts then the future we rebuild won’t be worth living for.

We may not have to look far for the solution. Iceland has for some time paid young creatives a grant to live on while giving them the space and the confidence to express themselves and produce new works. Ireland just this week opened a consultation on paying artists and performers a basic income for three years while they hone their craft. What an investment.

Scotland next? Imagine that country.