When novelist Alasdair Gray suggested that we should 'Work as if you were in the early days of a better nation' on the frontispiece of his 1983 short-story collection, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, the landscape he imagined might have looked and sounded a little like Scot:Lands. The New Year's Day centrepiece of Edinburgh's Hogmanay programme, Scot:Lands presents a microcosm of Scottish music and performance that both looks to its cultural roots for inspiration while remaining utterly contemporary as it is performed in the throbbing heart of the capital city.
With nine unnamed but iconic venues in Edinburgh's Old Town hosting some imagined new 'Land', each features a rolling programme of international artists curated by venues and figureheads from a particular area. So where High:Land will be run by The Ceilidh House venue in Ullapool, Heid:Land will be curated by The Pathhead Music Collective from Fife. While the former will feature the likes of radical folk legend Dick Gaughan and Nancy Nicolson, the latter will host a bill that includes Karine Polwart and Sophie Bancroft. Lobster:Land, meanwhile, finds Fence Collective founder King Creosote recreating the East Neuk of Fife, with all the area's musical delights that helped put Fence on the map.
Theatrically speaking, while Wander:Land will feature Dundee-based contemporary dance company Smallpetitklein performing to a live Philip Glass soundtrack, Shadow:Land finds dynamic actor and director Cora Bissett presenting a miniature version of Whatever Gets You Through The Night, her music and theatre collaboration with playwright David Greig, electronic duo Swimmer One and a host of others. With the venue where each audience member promenades to decided I Ching-like by the pick of a card, Scot:Lands makes for a bespoke set of performances that are as far away from a normal gig as one can imagine, as Edinburgh's Hogmanay director and head of Unique Events, Pete Irvine, explains.
“Edinburgh's Hogmanay's not just a street party,” he says. “It's a festival where we promote the work of Scottish artists to an international audience. Every year we try and do something different, usually focusing on the Old Town. In the past we've had international street theatre quite a lot, and last year we did a thing called Your Lucky Day, where people threw a dice to go to one of eleven different venues to see a single artist doing a specific thing. That was sort of based on the New Year Games, which we'd done the year before in four venues, and which finished with a giant football game in the Grassmarket.
“When something works, there's a temptation to repeat it, but we always want to try something different. The idea for Scot:Lands came from the band Lau, who next year are going to be doing a thing called Lau:Land. That idea of lands seemed to mirror this whole idea of 2014 being Scotland's big year, so Lau became part of this world they've imagined and interpreted as theirs. We wanted to imagine lands that relate geographically and metaphorically, so the idea became about place, and how a place inspires you or nurtures you or introduces you. We then decided we wanted to work with existing arts centres, and to have a range of things across nine venues that would allow curators to put on something special.”
As well as those already mentioned, these will range from a recreation of a Shetland folk session to Edinburgh art collective FOUND hosting an in-the-round candle-lit musical performance. For Cora Bissett, Shadow:Land may be a very different world to the Arches in Glasgow where Whatever Gets You Through The Night was first performed, but it's something she can use to her advantage.
“The show's always been fluid,” she explains, “with different songwriters coming in at different points when they're available. The whole thing's like a bit of a jigsaw that you can move about and do it in a boutique fashion if you need to.”
While a variation of Alasdair Gray's epigraph – 'Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation' - is engraved on a wall of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, it's no coincidence that Scot:Lands is taking place on the first day of the year when Scotland decides its future via the forthcoming independence referendum. Yet neither is Scot:Lands an exercise in box-ticking acquiescence to its masters. Rather, as is so often the case in Edinburgh's Hogmanay's performance programme, it is a quietly subversive sleight-of-hand, in which left-field or avant-garde art is put in the context of a high-profile civic event, where it finds a huge mainstream audience beyond the clubs, concert halls and studio theatres it is more often seen in.
This has perhaps more often been the case when European street art specialists Plasticiens Volants transformed the city itself into a spectacle, or when live artists Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich performed a faux ritual in the National Museum of Scotland. This was the case too when artist Spotov created an audience-operated Battleships-like game involving bizarrely costumed figures, and when Lothian-based electronic artist Michael Begg and Nurse With Wound collaborator Colin Potter presented Fragile Pitches, a three-hour sound installation drawn from recordings of the local landscape, inside St Giles Cathedral.
While there might not be anything on such a grand scale this year, the sheer diversity of Scot:Lands suggests a parallel universe of multiple possibilities.
“Everyone's been involved in creating their own world,” Irvine points out. “People can spend half an hour in one world, then go on to somewhere completely different, where they'll be introduced to something brand new, and which is a total one-off. A lot of these shows could run for three weeks in the Fringe, but these are totally unique, they're free, and if you miss this one performance, it will never happen again. The quality of the work will make people realise that there are really special things going on in Scotland, and that they're a rare privilege to witness.”
Scot:Lands begins at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh on January 1st 2014 from noon, with events at nine different locations in Edinburgh's Old Town running until 4.30pm. All events are free.
Scot:Lands – A World In A Day
Home:Land – It all starts here at the National Museum of Scotland, where audiences will pick up a Landing Card before a postcard will provide details of their first destination on a journey around Scot:Land's artistic riches.
High:Land – Ullapool's famed Ceilidh Place venue will host a rolling programme of tradititional artists, including Dick Gaughan, Nancy Nicolson, Nigel Clark, The Cast and the Joseph Peach Trio.
Wander:Land – Dundee-based contemporary dance company Smallpetitklein take over one of Edinburgh's landmark buildings, where they will perform work based on Tolstoy and Ralph Waldo Emerson to a live Philip Glass soundtrack.
Heid:Land The Pathhead Music Collective recreate a snapshot of musical life in a small ex mining village in Fife, featuring the likes of Karine Polwart, Sophie Bancroft, Corina Hewat, Amy Geddes, Tom Bancroft and others.
Lau:Land – Edinburgh-sired nouveau folk trio Lau create their own world with a little help from their musical friends, Fraser Fifield, Graeme Stephen, Donald Hay and others.
Shet: Land – Shetland Arts bring the spirit of Lerwick-based arts centre, Mareek, to town with the likes of harpist Catriona Mackay, fiddler Chris Stout and a host of others.
Shadow:Land – Mercurial actor and director reimagines her hit stage collaboration with a host of writers and musicians via a series of miniatures exploring various responses to surviving the wee small hours. Actors Frances Thorburn and John Kielty reunite with Bissett, musician Wounded Knee and others for a bite-size version of the show.
Lobster:Land – Kenny Anderson, aka Fence Collective pioneer King Creosote, aka King Crabsote takes a fishy look at the Collective's East Neuk pond with Withered Hand, aka Withered Claw and others from the, ahem, Fence Krillective.
New:Found:Land – Edinburgh-based art collective FOUND draft in some musical associates, including Scottish Album of the Year winner RM Hubbert, Emily Scott and others to perform a candle-lit meditation which treats sound and silence as equals.
Nether: Land – The Scottish Storytelling Festival allow Bob Pegg, The Prestonpans Mummers and guests to introduce audiences to a world of ancient rites via the Galoshins Folk Tales.
The Herald, December 27th 2013