The Afghan War: Tullochgorum Reel in the camp of the 72nd Highlanders, at Kohat. Image via Getty Images

Diversity north of Dundee

A Highlands culture war

Artillery Row

Performative virtue signalling has met its apogee in the person of Harry Josephine Giles, the Walthamstow born, Orcadian performance poet. They have struck a great blow for equity and inclusiveness by withdrawing themselves from the Highland Book Awards.

The reason given is that “literary events and projects…exclude writers of colour” and that, “all-white shortlists are common in Scottish literature”. Of course this may have some technical merit, but it is arrant nonsense. Giles, life itself is a continuous performance (their wikipedia entry is in Scots Orcadian – natch – and thus deliberately exclusive, but oh so minority).

This may all seem like a storm in a Scottish teacup, but it represents the latest chapter in a long, complex and sometimes violent history of Highland culture.

The Prize itself is organised by the Highland Society of London. A venerable institution, one of those founded amongst the coffee houses of Georgian London. Created in 1778, at the Spring Gardens Coffee House, where Drummonds Bank on Whitehall now stands. It was the brainchild of Lt General Simon Lovat – whose clan had fought both at Culloden, but latterly and led by him, at the Heights of Abraham with Wolfe – and 24 other Highland gentlemen. Since then it has worked assiduously, and often liquidly, with the, “view of establishing and supporting schools in the Highlands and in the Northern parts of Great Britain, for relieving distressed Highlanders at a distance from their native homes, for preserving the antiquities and rescuing from oblivion the valuable remains of Celtic literature, and for promoting the improvement and general welfare of the Northern parts of Great Britain”.

The ethnic minority population of the entirety of Scotland is fewer than 5%

This task, taken up amidst much tartan skirling and assorted pibrochs, has dealt with really serious threats to the culture of the Highlands over the centuries.  Initially its target was to overturn the Hanoverian anti-Jacobite prescriptions against the wearing of  tartan, the playing of bagpipes – which had been legally  been classified as not a musical instrument, but an instrument of insurrection, and thus dangerous – and other aspects of what was perceived to be a marginal and rebellious culture.

Despite the efforts of the Society these prescriptions had a long shadow. There was a glorious case in the 1990s, when one David Brooks was charged with playing his pipes on Hampstead Heath. He argued that despite the by-laws proscribing musical instruments, his was not one, but a weapon of war. The magistrate pointed out that he was thus practising with a dangerous weapon, which carried a prison sentence, not merely a fine. They settled amicably.

But beyond defending Highland dress and piping, the Society supports a great panoply of  culture specific to the place;  Gaelic singing prizes at the Royal National Mod; the Gaelic Singer of the Year award at the Trads; Highland Dancing prizes at the Glenfinnan Games; a dissertation prize through the University of the Highlands and Islands; and the Fiction prize at the Gaelic Literature Awards. It, in many ways, is the core defender of Scottish, specifically Gaelic and Highland culture. It is a culture rooted in history and place. Their involvement predates the fashionable notions of our post-devolution world by centuries.

But now, that cultural distinction, its very raison d’etre, is under threat from the usual, turbo-powered, hard left suspects. Because a culture, even a threatened minority culture, that is hefted like a Highland flock to the land from which it sprang, is suspect. It speaks of the little battalions and of innate small ‘c’ conservatism, and it must be overthrown. It must be overthrown in the interests of more fashionable minorities.

As to the Highland book award itself, the longlist of the prize featured 12 works, none of which, it has to be acknowledged were written by a person of colour, though one, Slaves and Highlanders: Silenced Histories of Scotland and the Caribbean, by David Alston specifically addresses issues of the historical Black experience of the Highlands.

However, given that the ethnic minority population of the entirety of Scotland is fewer than 5%, and the vast majority of that population lives in the central belt, demanding that the prize shortlists people from the minority community would be nothing but affirmative action, and counter to the aims of the society. In the Highlands Council district itself the number is according to the most recent census details about 1.5%. About 2000 people.

Not only that, the prize is co-organised by the Moniack Mhor writers’ centre, an institution that cannot be more virtuous and which is overt in its attempts to prove its equality status. Three of its six patrons are gay, one being Jackie Kay CBE, the acclaimed Scots, half Nigerian poet and writer, and one time partner of Carol Anne Duffy.

So other than a feeling that their book is not up to snuff, what could be Josie’s purpose in taking such a stand other than to open another front in the culture war?

It is forcing Scotland’s key cultural institutions into craven retreat

The answer may be found perhaps in the cringing grovel by which the Highland Book Prize responded to Giles’s action. They prostrate themselves before the activism and “applaud and support the reasons for this decision”. Really? When it was prompted solely by what appears to be demands for positive discrimination, rather than merit?

This disgust at anything that smacks of society as is, rather then the formless amorphous blob of competing grievance, found voice in a recent poem, no doubt BLM inspired, “Abolish the Police”, in which Giles describes the the police as:

“my enemies, knifeless

& penitent for forms.    A bureaucrat with a belt

of murder licenses”

It may also be found in Giles’s other recent forays into activism, as one of the lead authors of a letter attacking the Scottish Poetry Library’s attempt to oppose no platforming in literature.

The library had responded to trans activists’ attempts to no-platform gender critical authors by publishing a statement which said: “We support freedom of expression. We are a values-led organisation that embraces inclusivity, collaboration and a respect for pluralism – of languages, cultures and faiths. What we do not support, and will no longer ignore, is bullying and calls for no-platforming of writers in events programmes and in publishing”.

This was unacceptable to Giles and supporters, who whipped up a storm describing this statement as “serious institutional transphobia” and allying themselves “in solidarity with writers combatting racism, misogyny, ableism and other structural oppressions, so that oppressive action can be freely spoken about”.

Given that in the last few years it feels that little else has been talked about, this Orcadian performance artist seems to merely be doing that, putting on a performance.  In the novel which she has withdrawn, Deep Wheel Orcadia, a “science-fiction verse novel in Orkney dialect” one of the characters is described as, “tiresomegrumblingboring”, which seems terribly apt.

It may be apt, but it seems to be working. It is forcing Scotland’s key cultural institutions into craven retreat.

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