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Tradition, TV & the individual Celtic Talent . 23rd April 2015

Keynote address for the Celtic Media Festival

23rd April 2015

Padhraic, colleagues :


Tha e mar mhòr-onoir gun deach iarraidh orm prìomh-òraid an fhosglaidh seo a thoirt seachad aig 26mh Fèis nam Meadhanan Ceilteach, ged a tha e cuideachd a’ cur nam chuimhne gu bheil an aois a’ tighinn gu luath.

O chionn còig bliadhna deug air fhichead ann an Uibhist a Deas, dh’fhosgail mi a’ chiad Fhèis Fiolm is Tbh airson nan Dùthchannan Ceilteach agus mi a’ cur fàilte air ‘s dòcha nas lugha na 50 neach-frithealaidh gu Talla Coimhearsnachd an Iochdair. Tha na h-àireamhan is an àrainneachd air atharrachadh ach tha a’ chiad bheachd mar a bha e – ’s e sin, leasan ionnsachadh bho obair chàich agus gach seòrsa rud eadar-dhealaichte ann an saoghal nam meadhanan a chur air adhart nar cànanan is nar dualchasan fhèin. Dh’obraich uidhir a dhaoine a rèir a’ bheachd sin thar nam bliadhnaichean agus gun do dh’fhàs a’ chùis gu bhith mar a tha i an-diugh, agus tha mise air bhioran a bhith air ais am measg nan daoine sin aig a bheil fhathast sàr-amas san amharc agus a tha a’ strì gus sin a dhèanamh air sgàth nan coimhearsnachdan aca.

’S e coimhearsnachd a’ phrìomh fhacal, agus cleachdaidh mise e caochladh uair an-diugh. Mar an ceudna le Dualchas agus Iomairteachd – rudan a tha a’ tighinn gu bith às ùr ann an Alba an dèidh an reifrinn.

(English Translation)

It is a very great honour to have been asked to deliver this opening keynote at the 36th Celtic Media Festival although it is also a reminder of how quickly I am aging.

On the 14th of April 1980 the very first Celtic Film and TV Festival welcomed something less than 50 delegates to Iochdar Hall at the top end of the Island of South Uist. The numbers and the surroundings have changed - and changed greatly - but the idea remains the same : to learn from the good work of others and to drive forward the various forms of media in our languages and cultures.   So many have worked on that idea over the years to make it what it is today and I am thrilled to be back amongst those still have a vision of excellence and who are striving to achieve it for the benefit of their communities.

Community is  a key word and it is one I will use several times today.   So is Culture and so is activism - all things of particular relevance and indeed being reborn in post Referendum Scotland.

But let me start with community, because this event was born out of a very specific community being served by a project that had community in its name.

36 years ago - in the spring of 1979 - I was working in the Western Isles of Scotland as the Director of a Community Film and Video Project called Cinema Sgire - Community Cinema I had been doing the job for a year and a half and I was increasingly conscious of my isolation . Not geographic nor personal - there is nowhere more sociable on earth - but professional.

Cinema Sgire had two purposes ; to make and to show visual material. The showing was comparatively simple as we had successfully established a mobile cinema circuit covering 9 islands . The making was more difficult not just technically - we were using half inch inch reel to reel video tape - but also creatively because we were operating in a linguistic vacuum.

For a period of six months in 1979 - it may even have been longer - Cinema Sgire was the only vehicle in Scotland for video production in the Gaelic language. The only vehicle - none was made by the BBC or the ITV companies and nobody else had access to video recording equipment.

Radio provided a little more - BBC Radio nan Gaidhelatachd was operating in the Highlands and Radio nan Eilean came on air in September 1979. But a national Gaelic service was still six years away. Radio Cymru - the UK’s first FM only station - was, by contrast, in full operation in 1977.

36 years later the implications of those facts may take a little time to sink in. Not only no Gaelic channel - few (precious few) opportunities for Gaelic broadcasters, no visual learning materials, no focussed Gaelic Audi visual or even media training and no Celtic Media Festival. It was a different world and whilst there were an increasing number of activists who wanted to change it, change was slow in coming.

And to make things harder still politically matters were just about to start rushing backwards.

The flowering of community projects in the Western Isles in the last 1970s - not just Cinema Sgire but Project Muntir Nan Eielan, the Co-Chomunn, the Bilingual Project, and even the theatre company Fir Chlis - was abruptly thrown into reverse by a series of savage cuts in public expenditure brought about by the newly elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher - a Prime Minister in office as a result of the failure of a weak Labour leader to deliver constitutional promises to Scotland (something of more than passing relevance today).

We all underestimated how brutal that period would become and how inhibiting it was to cultural growth.

But we were also inhabited by a lack of information, there being no internet and only limited contact between those countries “conveniently called Celtic” as TK Whitaker the Chair of the 3rd Celtic Film & TV Festival put it in his opening address in 1982.

Being, as you know Padhraic, of a curious, not to say interfering, disposition the lack of knowledge and the frustration at progress spurred me to action so in the early winter of 1979 I travelled to Ireland, Wales and Brittany to find out what I could about visual media production in the indigenous languages there , and to see if others shared my developing view that solidarity and learning from each other might be a way to redress the balance.

I met with nothing but enthusiasm during that trip and the particular highlight - which was literally to change my life - was the lunch I had with the then Controller of RTE 1, Muiris MacConghail.

I can date that lunch pretty precisely. I had received an introduction to Muiris from someone but when I got to his office it took me ages to be admitted. Then when I was he appeared a bit distracted and in addition to his usual pacing up and down the(something I did too when thinking, which used to make our later meetings when working together a little odd) he kept barking into the phone.

Although he didn’t tell me much then, I gleaned from the bits I could hear that the election of Charles Haughey as Leader of Fianna Fail on that day was not warmly welcomed by Muiris. Indeed given past run-ins, and Muiris’ previous government service for an administration of a different political hue it was seen by him as a career threatening development. Being Muiris he was planning several moves ahead already.

It was therefore fairly incredible that he still found time to take me to lunch, cross question me closely and accept in principle an invitation from me to chair the first Celtic Film & TV Festival which - ambitiously - I had already decided to hold on the Island of South Uist in April the following year, giving me not much more than three months to put it all together.

Funding , in retrospect, appears to have been remarkably easy to get. The Scottish Film Council - sadly missed now I have to say, though I was one of the pall bearers at its funeral as the Culture Minister who took through the creation of Creative Scotland - contributed as did a range of local organisations. The Scottish Arts Council supported a number of photographic exhibitions and as the intention was to hold events throughout the Western Isles - an intention we fulfilled - then the local authority also contributed. TV companies gave money through their delegate fees and through small subscriptions to a nascent parent body for the happenings. A local committee, convened by the Rev Roderick MacLeod then the Minister of Berneray and a local councillor, now the retired Minister of the Parish of Cumlodden in my own constituency, did the spade work and incredibly the Festival opened on time and on budget , a week after I had been married in the parish Church of Lochmaddy.

There is no doubt that the intention that I declared earlier as being the “idea” behind the festival - to learn from the good work of others and to drive forward the various forms of media in our languages and cultures- was fulfilled during that sunny week in April 1979. Not only was there conversation a plenty there was a small seminar programme , viewings in the event and in village halls throughout the Western Isles, and much local and indeed national publicity. There was also sociability in plenty too and the people of Lochboisdale I am sure still recount the story of a very large Welsh Film Director being carried to bed up the narrow stairs of the local hotel.

Those who attended that first event - and perhaps I am the only one here who did - will also recall a unanimous view that the Festival should be held again and that a structure should be created to facilitate dialogue between those who were working in tv and film in those countries. Radio was not yet included , still less anything digital or “app” related.

The purpose of that was to continue to learn but also , for Scotland particularly, to build the profile of minority language television and to press for a full time channel for each of the countries involved.

Wales was already in the process of securing that channel. Gwynfor Evans’ hunger strike forced the Tories to honour their commitment and on 1st November 1982 S4C started broadcasting, the night before the UK wide Channel 4 took to the air. Both Owen Edwards and Jeremy Isaacs had been to two Celtic Film Festivals before those dates and their involvement was part of the growing professionalisation of the Festival.

It was another 12 years before Ireland got its minority language TV channel and twelve more before BBC Alba came along. But in both those countries there was a steady growth in minority language production in the run up to the channel being seen as the next logical step. Ireland had always ensured that some production was part of main stream schedules which was also the situation with the advent of the Gaelic Television Committee as a result of Malcolm Rifkind’s input to the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the subsequent requirement of the 1996 legislation to have a minimum of half an hour a day on the new digital multiplex ,a requirement eerily reminiscent of the demand of An Comunn Gaidhleach to have “two news programmes and a children’s programme each week” made back in 1940 !

(I am not, by the way, failing to mention the Breton and Cornish languages in this account out of malice, but as their situations are very different and as their inclusion in this festival has always been in a special and different way because of that difference I think it better that I do not stray into their territories.)

Having an annual focus and an opportunity to see material produced in different circumstances undoubtedly helped those involved in these developments to achieve the progress they did. The CTG in particular leant heavily on experience in Wales during its establishment, but because there was a far less well developed independent sector in Scotland that policy decision did not assist the growth of production across the country which should have been a key aim.

The annual festivals and the development of a network of organisations that took responsibility in a rolling programme for the annual event meant that personal contacts and professional networks were established and maintained, sometimes used as the basis for co- or joint production (for instance in 1992 I took part in a four country collaboration called “Ports of Call “, one of the first and last Super 16 film projects to be paid for by BBC Scotland and which was commissioned at the Celtic Film & TV Festival in Wales that year) whilst excellence was celebrated through the annual competition (introduced for the first time at Harlech for the second festival) .

The early years of the Festival and its parent Association were not without controversy. There were tensions between broadcasters and community activists, difficulties with continuity of funding and disputes about those to be invited to take part in seminars - all the usual problems of a growing organisation . These were of minimal interest to most who attended and for them the event was usually judged on the basis of what contacts they had made and how that assisted the work they wanted to do. I suspect that is still true.

An event only lasts for the length of time this one has lasted if it provides a useful service to its core group. I think it can therefore safely be said that to those who work in the media in the Celtic countries this event is of importance and is very much here to stay. As the definitions of the media have changed so this event has changed. The inclusion of radio was an inevitability but the growth of digital media and the use of visual content in that media have also created new opportunities.

And that is what I want to focus on at the heart of what I say today.

In 1919 the poet TS Eliot wrote a seminal essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. The essay explores the relationship between the artist and the tradition in which they live and work. Much quoted from it is this remark :Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know. "

Anyone who has lived these past three and a half decades of the media in our countries will, on looking back, be astonished by the progress that has been made. Then we had virtually nothing - virtually no opportunities, virtually no funding, and virtually no prospects. Now there are jobs, studios, budgets , channels and audiences. For those who have not lived those years however it seems as if such things have always been though what they do and how they do it is, in reality, influenced by and still firmly rooted in the work of those who started with nothing.

And yet both groups have a common question - what next ? What should happen now to the media in our countries.

I am out of touch with what it taking place in Ireland and Wales, in media terms at least though I was very impressed by the range, quality and talent on show from this places - and others including Scotland - in the Festival competition final judging process.

But I have some better informed views , I hope, about what should take place in Scotland.

The purpose of this event was to learn and to grow. It was not simply to reproduce the structures and mores of the media elsewhere.

Muiris was always very critical of what he called “the sacred priesthood of broadcasting” even though he had, and his talent rightly secured for him, high episcopal rank in that priesthood. And just as politics is no longer, in Scotland anyway, a task for men in suits so broadcasting must no longer be a job only for the professionals.

That idea - of a democratisation of the media - was in the mix at the very start of this festival. Over the past three decades and more it has never quite gone away although the limelight has been pretty solidly occupied by the established, mainstream , media.

The mood in Scotland post Referendum has been one of questioning the continuing efficacy of traditional arrangements. Last year on Oban the first Scottish Rural Parliament heard evidence of widespread demand for a breaking down of distant local government in favour of localised accountability. The rapid and exponential growth of grass roots membership of the SNP and Greens mirrors that change as does the sudden strengthening of community councils across the country.

Community activism is alive and well in Scotland and it is becoming visible in the media as well. The first new newspaper in Scotland for generation, The National, although owned by Gannet , has a much more democratic feel and a genuine grass roots media is getting established too, with Common Space undertaking some ground breaking investigations including into my own failing local Authority, Argyll & Bute. A number of other such websites have also sprung up as well as a rash of blogs of various descriptions. Gender has been a key element in much of this with “Women for Independence” playing a big role in driving the issue forward

The Referendum also produced a cultural flowering with the National Collective to the fore and with bodies such as “Radical Independence” bridging the gap between debate and creativity.

In a democratic sense the West's Awake , if I may use that phrase. But at present tv does not seem to have noticed.

Yet the visual media cannot and must not be immune from these movements.

BBC Scotland has been , sadly, very slow footed in adapting to modern day Scotland. As a unitary and centralised bureaucracy wedded to the idea of a British state it has found devolution hard enough to swallow and its reaction to the referendum process , whilst it had some individual highlights , was widely regarded as fatally flawed by the London-centre dynamic from which it struggles to escape. STV did somewhat better.

It was hard, however, to escape the conclusion that BBC Alba was not a key player or indeed before or since. In fact the focus of the channel, remaining as it does on music and sport for much of the time, seems deliberately to avoid the more engaged and the more radical.

I think it is time for Gaelic broadcasting to wake up to the country in which it is now set. Perhaps too content simply to exist, those who run the channel seem reluctant to set a new course that reflects current and future reality and which would give them a better opportunity for the language, culture and place to thrive.

There is a major opportunity out there for the channel, though, if it choses to take it. The energy being released across Scotland by new found community activism could be used to create genuine community based broadcasting in the Highlands and Islands in the first instance. The widening of the remit of the channel would also open up the possibility of a widening of the financial base for its work, something that is required given the inability of Government to increase funding in the way it would have wanted.

TG4 has demonstrated that a positioning of a minority language channel in the information space can be a successful way forward. Scotland’s renewed democracy and the thirst for information and radical perspectives creates a good chance of an even more successful repositioning for BBC Alba if it chose to take it.

It would create a new platform for those who may never be mainstream broadcasters but who are experimenting in the visual media. I am sure all of those who spent hours in dark, analogue , edit suites in the 80s are astonished but excited in equal measure by the ease by which broadcast quality video can be put together today on a laptop with the aid of a mobile phone camera. That material dominates the internet and the fusion of a conventional channel with community produced material of such provenance that is driven by social and community imperatives could create an exciting new dynamic in broadcasting for Scotland. It would be a fulfilment, in a sense , of the Cinema Sgire dream.

But it could - and would - also build and nurture new professional, creative talent which would arises out of our traditions but which could then go truly global.

For that potential is also one of the big changes of the past three decades. In 1980 we were looking to fulfil what we believed were the unfulfilled demands of domestic , celtic language, audiences which were being denied contemporary media in their own languages. That was a human rights issue as well as a broadcasting one.

Now the challenge is different. We have the chance of serving , and being paid to serve, a world wide audience to whom language need not be , and is not, a barrier. Our modern creators can also do so with a fraction of the investment that would have been required in the early days of this technology and can supply without even leaving their homes.

All they need is talent. And that is what many of them have - and moreover talent developed, informed and sustained by living within two cultures, something that is common place outside these islands and which produces just the mix and the vision that appeals to a vast number of our fellow global citizens furth of these shores.

We have the training courses for them, we have the market for what they do. What we need is a domestic channel that can champion them by creating a creative place where they can cut their teeth, build their skills, debate with their audience and in the by change their own communities and country.

A channel not only of language, but fully engaged with community and country.

Padhraic , in the early 1840’s Scotland was the place in which documentary photography was invented thanks to the work of Hill & Adamson with the fisher folk of Newhaven. Documentary photography is now a staple of our world and we use it everyday without thinking where it came from. Perhaps a democratised visual media might have the same impact.

Jane Carlyle celebrated the new art form in its first decade with that memorable remark in her letters : “Blessed be the inventor of photography….It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else ….this art by which even the "poor" can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones. And mustn't it be acting favourably on the morality of the country?”

Though community is stronger than ever, Community media is still struggling to be born here in Scotland but the Gaelic community could play a role in making that happen. Just as Scotland brought this festival into being by curiosity and a desire to fulfil an idea, so it could play a role in helping to harness the changes that the referendum process has brought about and is still bringing about , allying them with the development of a distinctive Broadcasting channel, utilising the technological advances of our time and creating a new matrix for communities to speak ideas - and peace - to others.

A contemporary Jane Carlyle might bless that too. It would certainly act favourably on the democracy and ingenuity , if not the morality, of this country and perhaps all those countries conventionally called Celtic.

Padhraic ; thank you for the opportunity to reflect a little on the past, the present and the future. I am sure there will be much we want to discuss for a few minutes after I have finished.


A Neach-ghairm chòir, tha e ro fhurasta agus ro chofhurtail a bhith a’ coimhead air ais. Ach cha dèan sin adhartas sam bith mura dèan sinn ach comharrachadh far a bheil sinn an-dràsta. Dh’atharraich ar gnìomhachasan is ar dùthchannan gu mòr thar nan còig bliadhna deug air fhichead a chaidh seachad agus tha sinn uile nas treasa air sgàth sin. Nis feumaidh sinn ar dealas a thaobh Coimhearsnachd, dualchas is iomairteachd ath-ùrachadh, ag aithneachadh gur iad seo – agus tàlantan nan daoine fa leth – na rudan a nì an diofar agus a leigeas linn cumail oirnn a’ frithealadh air muinntir ar ceàrnaidhean fad nan còig bliadhna deug air fhichead ri teachd.

Cha soirbhich rud sam bith mar soirbheas fhèin. Tha gnìomhachasan nam meadhanan againn air sealltainn gun tèid aca air soirbheachadh. Ach creididh mise gu làidir gu bheil soirbheas nas motha– dhaibhsan is dhuinn fhèin – fhathast ri thighinn.”

(English Translation)

I am aware of course that it is too easy and comforting to look back.   But we go nowhere if we merely celebrate where we are. Our industries and our countries have changed greatly over the past 35 years and we are all stronger for it.    Now we must renew our commitment to Community, culture and activism, recognising that these are the things - allied to individual talent - which will make the difference and allow us to go on serving the people of our areas for the next 35 years.  

Nothing succeeds like success.   Our media industries have shown they can succeed.   But I strongly believe that the best  - for them and for us - is yet to come

© Michael Russell 2014