Planes, trains, automobiles and a ferry

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 07.53.57IMG_0909IMG_0688My first seven weeks with the University of the Highlands and Islands and in Shetland have flown by, literally as well as figuratively with not a few airborne hops, drives and trains (and a ferry) visiting the different parts of the University from Benbecula in the outer Hebrides to Skye, Oban, Perth, Elgin, Alness, Inverness and Orkney.

One of the unique things about UHI is that with so many smaller campuses people from different disciplines mingle in ways which generally don’t happen in larger city based campuses.

IMG_0896Fine art and archaeology in Orkney, for example, share the same building and staff collaborate on projects which explore their shared concern with place.

IMG_0892IMG_0904Likewise the proximity of the college to the Pier Arts Centre makes for easy communications and having such an internationally renowned gallery more or less on the doorstep demonstrates eloquently that you don’t have to study in the metropolis to access world class art while you study.

IMG_0854In Dunstaffnage, just outside of Oban, I visited SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science) which is one of the world’s leading research institutes in the field.  Interestingly its graduates don’t always pursue a career in science – one of them, Jessica Giannotti was inspired by her encounters with the marine micro world to demonstrate its visual richness in textiles, establishing a now thriving business as a designer.

Back in Shetland after my last stop on the tour, Orkney, autumn is beginning to make its presence felt as the days shorten and the wind picks up.  But autumn is also the start of the new academic year, full of expectation and ‘getting down to work’ which, like the new students at Shetland College UHI, is what I will be doing.


A month is a short time in Shetland

It’s the end of my first month with the University of the Highlands and Islands,  based at Shetland College UHI in Lerwick, althoughbottom up in the past four weeks I’ve spent as much time off the islands as on, visiting other parts of UHI’s 12000 sq mile turf (and from the air quite a lot of is indeed turf, wonderful stuff that it is).
 North Uist from aboveThe diversity of the landscape, from the voes of Shetland to the expanse of Culloden moor or the sandy beaches of Harris to the rolling hills of Perthshire, is matched by the wide variety of campus size and disciplinary focus.
The Creative Industries courses at UHI span from traditional music and contemporary performance practice to textile design and fine art in buildings dating from the 19th to the 21st century.  On Thursday I visited the brand new Inverness College UHI Beechwood campus on the outskirts of Inverness, nestled alongside the health science cluster associated with Raigmore hospital and the site of a new digital excellence facility which will offer a wide range of businesses and practitioners access to technology which exploits the advent of super fast broadband connections. Only open a year or so and a family of swans have already made their home on the delightful artificial loch which also doubles as a functional water catchment.
 UHIs new Beechwood Campus
Earlier in the week in Edinburgh I sat through yet another creative Industries conference which I suspect added little to anyone’s understanding of the challenges or opportunities which practitioners and businesses in Scotland face and did little more to advance a clear set of objectives for the public sector agencies charged with supporting them.  Despite a decade of reports and summits claiming to chart the extent, value and needs of the sector(s) it’s notable that we are still no nearer to a defined set of objectives that could, in another decades time, be measured against the progress made.  Maps continue to be drawn but agreeing the destination that they ought to help us get closer to seems as elusive as ever.  Vague terms like ‘stronger’, ‘internationalised’, ‘networked’ may give everyone a warm feeling of progress but they risk being vacuous unless specific goals for specific sectors are agreed by the people whose livelihoods are actually at stake.
Black house at Highland Folk Museum
A few miles down the A9 at Newtonmore I visited the recently relocated Highland Folk museum collections facility.  Visitors to the outdoor museum (founded by the extraordinary Isabel F. Grant) and its fascinating array of houses, shops and other examples of the built heritage of the Highlands are likely to be unaware of the vast collection of artefacts gathered together from a plethora of council offices, stores and attics where the range and significance of much of the collection was effectively hidden.  This Aladdin’s cave of everything from farming implements to fashions offers a rich seam of opportunities for academic researchers and creative practitioners looking or inspiration whether that ends up in a thesis or a design!
 fruit of the loom
holding head up highThe museum and archives sector is often seen as separate from the creative industries per se because it deals in ‘past’ creativity and so isn’t seen as contributing to the generation of new creative Intellectual Property (one of many putative definitions of the creative industries).
However there is an increasing awareness that collections of artefacts and written records can be a spur to and an important asset in the creation of new content whether thats a book, film, TV programme or, increasingly, online and interactive content.  Including curators and other museum/archive staff in conversations about growing the creative industries is, in my view, particular important where cultural heritage has strong connections to current practice, as it does in the Highlands and Islands.
Finally an interesting example of two creative industries meeting – jewellery inspired by US TV series Outlander, filmed in Scotland.  As it happens the books by Diana Gabaldon were themselves partly inspired by the character of Jamie McCrimmon in the 1966 series of Dr Who – an interesting instance of TV influencing literature influencing TV and finally Jewellery.when two creative industries meet

What’s in a chair?

Since being appointed to the Chair in Creative Industries here at the University of the Highlands and Islands I’ve been wondering about the origin of the term and finally came across a reasonably succint account here:

The concept of an academic chair originated with the medieval church. Teaching was said to take place ex cathedra (from the chair), because each bishop had a throne (cathedra) in his principal church. The model for later universities was the University of Paris, which developed directly out of the community of clerical scholars associated with Notre-Dame cathedral. The chancellor of the Bishop of Paris was responsible for appointing the masters (senior scholars), each of whom had a place from which to teach – by analogy, a chair. ” from the spring 2000 issue of Nexus, reproduced on the University of Toronto Law School website.

rise in TV spend and jobs in Scotland in the eye of the beholder

After a great week on Shetland meeting some of the people I’m going to be working with over the next few years to develop the creative industries here and across the Highlands and Island and some great film fun at the Screenplay film festival I’m off later today to Edinburgh for Tuesday’s Conference on Creative Industries in Scotland.  Amongst the many issues/opportunities I’m sure it will touch on there’s the question of the BBC and other public service broadcasters’ presences in, contribution to and representation of Scotland.  With BBC Charter renewal imminent and, for the first time, the Scottish Parliament and Government having a semi-formal (in that its via an MOU between Westminster and Holyrood and not in legislation) part in the process the following statistic ought to be borne in mind by all concerned.  Though the most recent OFCOM communications market report and BBC Scotland management review trumpet good news such as that the 2014 spend on first run originated programming by the main public service broadcasters (PSB) is an impressive 35% up on 2009, data-weary folk like myself may cast their minds back to previous reports such as the 2012 one and look at the picture over a slightly longer time period.  What do we find?

OFCOM SCotland data

Well first there is an interesting discrepancy in the figures.  In the 2015 graph the 2009 total nations and regions spend is shown as being £256m whereas  in the 2012 report it was shown as £281m and the figure for Scotland is either £50m or £55m depending on which you look at.  Revisions to figures and changes in the basis of their calculation are not that unusual so we’ll pass over that for now.The more interesting comparison is between 2006 and 2014 as it reveals that over that eight year period spending in Scotland, far from having risen remains lower by £2m.  It’s because there were such dramatic falls between 2006 and 2009 that the recent upturn looks (and to be fair in itself is) such good news.  But if you take a longer term view recent increases in spending in Scotland are only getting us back to the position we were in nearly a decade ago.

In other words the task ahead is pretty much the same as it was when Scottish Enterprise produced its ‘Building the Platform for Success report’ back in 2009 or 2010 when the Television Broadcast and Production Working Group published “Growing the  Television Broadcast Production Sector in Scotland”.  The latter sought measures that would increase employment from 2,910 to 4,676 by 2013.  What happened?  Well the latest DCMS Creative Industries employment figures for the UK and its constituent nations/regions reports that employment in Film, TV, Radio and photography’ has dropped from 16,000 in 2011 to 11,000 last year while across the UK as a whole it rose 8.2% and in the West Midlands, a region with more or less the same population, it rose 37.4%

DCMS employment stats

Of course there are caveats to be made e.g. we don’t have the specific TV employment figures here yet so its possible that TV has been stable while the fall has come from elsewhere but that’s of little comfort in itself and the bigger picture of static employment in Scotland’s creative industries is very worrying when we see 15% growth across the UK as a whole.

UK CI employment

So what can we do about this?  That’s for future posts…

Hebridean tour

Having spent my first three days with UHI in my new office in Shetland College, a day later than planned (See previous post) I set off on the first leg of my UHI grand tour last Thursday, making it to Perth in time to catch the summing up part of what sounded like a highly productive session at UHI Perth College on developing music research and spoke with a number of the music staff from across UHI who were gathered there.IMG_0669 IMG_0688 IMG_0718 IMG_0730 IMG_0747 On Monday I trained up to the ‘Executive Office’ in Inverness, which is the administrative HQ of UHI, and on Tuesday flew to Stornoway to visit Lews Castle College UHI (LCC).  From there a drive through the ever changing Lewis and Harris landscape took me south to catch the ferry to North Uist where on Wednesday morning I met the Fine Art staff at LCC’s outpost in Taigh Chearsabhagh museum and arts centre. From there it was south again to  LCC Benbecula which is ‘home’ to UHI’s Applied Music programme, though its students can be found across the entire UHI footprint from Kintrye to Shetland.

Already I’m beginning to get more of a feel for the many advantages but also the challenges faced by a University which serves such a geographically dispersed community of learners.  The variation in size of the campuses, the communities they serve and the vital role of reliable, fast broadband in making ‘networked’ courses possible and connecting staff and students to each other whether they are in the Hebrides, Perth of the Northern Isles all struck home.  So too the strength of the connection between staff, students and the wider community in all sorts of ways. From providing employment and demand for local services to partnership working with  local arts and cultural organisations UHI’s presence in the Hebrides is hugely significant and brings with a big responsibility.  I’m looking forward to learning more and working with both UHI colleagues and the wider cultural and creative industries community in the Hebrides and across the entire UHI footprint.


In honour of my new position as the most northerly professor in the British Isles* I’ve decided to start a new blog dedicated to any and all things vaguely relevant to culture and creativity in the Highlands, Islands and of course Shetland and for that matter high lands and islands anywhere.

Its somehow appropriate that this first post is being written in the departures area of Sumburgh Airport having recently ‘de-planed’ from the aircraft which was going to take me back to Edinburgh for the first time since I formally started in the job on Monday. Keeping our spirits up the PA just announced:

“This is an update for passengers travelling to Edinburgh…unfortunately there is no update”

The reason for my (delayed) flight only a matter of days after arriving is to undertake a mini-tour of the various parts of the University of the Highlands and Islands which host creative industries related staff – from Perth to Benbecula and Oban to Orkney – whom Im looking forwarding to meeting and learning more about the wealth of courses, research and creativity they are producing.  That’s if they fix the aircraft of course…

* – to the best of my knowledge!