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It can be humbling to look at the sky on a clear night

The cold clear nights of November have given us some awe-inspiring views of the heavens. There’s nothing quite so humbling as looking at the night sky. This evening I’m taking my scout troop up to the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh to see what a tiny role we play in this galaxy of 100 billion stars.

Alex Salmond MSP

Alex Salmond MSP

But I like to think that, out there somewhere, there are many little Scotlands struggling to make ends meet and debating their future in a starry united kingdom. On Tuesday, Alex Salmond (first minister, Scotland, Earth) will “launch” his long-anticipated white paper on independence. It is supposed to answer all the questions voters have about the referendum next year. Can Scotland pay it’s way? What would happen to the currency, our pensions, the armed forces, our membership of the EU?

Actually, the SNP government has already answered these questions many times in the last few months. On Tuesday this week, Mr Salmond was again outlining the economic case for Scotland going it alone. We could, he suggested, create 200,000 jobs over the next 20 years by exporting more, investing in manufacturing industry, getting more women into work, cutting corporation tax and relaxing the rules on immigration.

Alistair Darling Fantasy economics

Alistair Darling
Fantasy economics

Alistair Darling the former Labour chancellor and now leading the No campaign said this was “fantasy economics.” And he pointed to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which concluded that there was a £10bn black hole in the Scottish public finances which would need to be filled by either raising income tax by 9p in the pound (or increasing VAT to 27 per cent) or cutting public spending by 8 per cent. It transpired however that the Institute was making equally dismal estimates for the UK as a whole.

I don’t myself believe the referendum will be decided on such detailed arguments as the state of the public finances or the number of frigates in the Scottish navy, or the terms on which we would join the EU, or even the general health of the economy. I think it will be decided by emotional and cultural values. I am immediately contradicted, of course, by an opinion poll this week which found that 47 per cent of Scots would vote for independence if they felt they would be £500 a year better off (ICM poll in The Scotsman). But people will tell pollsters almost anything !

Carwyn Jones First Minister of Wales

Carwyn Jones
First Minister of Wales

Readers in Wales might be interested to learn that their first minister Labour’s Carwyn Jones made a flying visit to Scotland this week to encourage Scots to stay within the Union. It made for a “balanced” United Kingdom, he said. He also cast doubt on whether an independent Scotland could have a place on a Sterling Zone currency board.

But to stick with my feeling that the referendum will be decided on cultural values, we had a number of indications this week of the kind of country we want to be. Dundee put in a very energetic bid to be the UK City of Culture in 2017 but graciously gave way to a forgotten city somewhere in the East Riding of Yorkshire, saying it would carry on with its £1bn modernisation programme anyway.

The blacklisting of workers by large firms will not be tolerated, the Scottish government has declared. The likes of Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Laing O’Rourke and McAlpine’s will have to assure the government they do not operate a blacklist or they will not be awarded public contracts.

Jean Armour's Statue in Mauchline

Jean Armour’s Statue in Mauchline

MSPs also this week agreed in principle to a bill allowing gay marriage. There was a free vote: 94 for, 15 against, 5 abstentions and 8 did not vote at all. Among the doubters were those who were worried that churches which oppose gay marriage would be forced to conduct such ceremonies to avoid court cases over discrimination.

I don’t know what Jean Armour would think about gay marriage but she certainly stuck to her husband Robert Burns “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It’s now emerged that in 1786 she gave him a silver pocket watch with a touching little love note inside. It’s a hand-pierced piece of paper showing two love-birds and the initials J and R. The watch has come from an anonymous collector and is expected to fetch £2,500 at auction in Edinburgh next week.

From the inner workings of the heart and a pocket watch to the whirrings of the universe, this column knows no bounds. To put things in perspective again, I’ll finish with the words of another poet, Hugh McDiarmid:

The Bonnie Broukit Bairn
Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shaks her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk’s a wheen o blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin,
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn.
But greet, an in your tears ye’ll drown
The haill clanjamfrie!

The waterfront at Seattle
Creative Commons

Andrew McDiarmid

Andrew McDiarmid

by Andrew McDiarmid
Owner of Simply Scottish in Seattle

Greetings! I’m Andrew McDiarmid. I was born and raised in Edinburgh in Scotland and emigrated to the States with my family in 1990. I now live and work in Seattle and produce a podcast of music and features called Simply Scottish.

Previously a weekly radio show on radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, it’s now a podcast on iTunes, the Celtic Radio Network, and at www.simplyscottish.com. I’m going to be writing for the Caledonian Mercury, and I thought a good way to introduce myself and get to know you would be to explore with you what the phrase “simply Scottish” means!

SS Podcast Hi-Res Logo 2208x2208Could there be anything more simply Scottish than a dry stane dyke? Found all over Scotland and elsewhere in the British Isles, these walls are made of large stones held together without the use of mortar by the compressional force of each interlocking stone. You’ll find them lining driveways, forming boundary walls between fields, and standing as retaining walls in towns and villages.

Actually, a number of things could visually symbolize the words “simply Scottish.” For me, it’s my mother, Samantha. Her personality and character embodied a number of qualities I deem to be simply Scottish: an unshakable belief in God, loyalty to family, an adventurous spirit, unselfish kindness, a no-nonsense attitude, thriftiness, and a healthy dose of humor. She traveled the world and had a 40-year career as a teacher. Her students and friends loved her for these virtues. And I am largely who I am because of her influence.

Some years ago, when Simply Scottish was a radio show airing on various public radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, we commissioned Vincent Rooney, an artist in Scotland, to create a painting called “Simply Scottish.” He painted a small cottage by a burn, nestled at the foot of rolling Scottish hills. The artwork still hangs in the bedroom of my father, my co-host on Simply Scottish during the initial years of its production.

Simply Scottish  Painting by Vincent Rooney

Simply Scottish
Painting by Vincent Rooney

When my father and I chose the name for our show, we did so not only because it employs the memory-enhancing technique of alliteration, but because we wanted to get to the heart of Scotland and being Scottish, past all the hype, stereotype, assumption, and misunderstanding. We want to present Scotland simply and earnestly. We want to let the country’s beauty speak for itself and allow the friendliness and authenticity of Scotland’s people send its own invitation. In true Scottish fashion, we don’t want to boast. We want to welcome people to our land, because we know they will grow to love it and appreciate it in their own fashion and in their own time. And those who are Scottish by birth or who live there will gain new appreciation and insight about this small but mighty nation.

So what do you think embodies the phrase “simply Scottish?” It could be an object, a place, a person, an event, a sound, a taste, or a smell. It won’t be the only thing, but to you, and perhaps to many others, it communicates “simply Scottish.” Beyond hype or stereotype, it is pure and powerful. It is Scotland, distilled.

I will highlight your responses in upcoming posts in the Caledonian Mercury and perhaps build an episode of the podcast around them. If there’s enough response, I’d like to attract the attention of a publisher with the idea of a beautiful coffee table book with pictures and descriptions of the various things that embody the essence of Scotland. Whatever happens, we’ll all have a better idea what Simply Scottish means to Scots and Scotland lovers around the world.

Send me your ideas today!

Join the “simply Scottish” conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #simplyscottish.

The Rich Landscape of the Finzean Estate

The sun may be shining. The fields are gradually turning from green to gold. The soft fruits are ripening on the cane. The long summer nights are still with us. The air is yet warm and balmy. And yet, there are people who are already turning their attention to the autumn and the harvest season, none more so than Frieda Morrison, the Artist In Residence at Edinburgh University’s School of Celtic and Scottish Studies and a passionate exponent of the songs and traditional music of the North East of Scotland.

Frieda Morrison Host of the  Deeside Harvest Folk Festival

Frieda Morrison
Host of the
Deeside Harvest Folk Festival

Through her music and video production company, Birseland Media, she’s well on her way to producing the final line-up for this year’s Deeside Harvest Folk Festival at the end of September. It’s an event which has developed a reputation for bringing new and exciting sounds to Deeside. And she says that, once again, the team has come up with something really special, providing “a platform for some of Scotland’s finest folk musicians. The North East of Scotland,” she adds, “has a unique cultural heritage and this, combined with the finest of food from the region creates an opportunity to build a ‘folk n’ food’ event that will give people a ‘real sense of place’.”

A number of talented acts have already confirmed their place in Finzean Hall, an award-winning building rebuilt in 2003. Finzean itself is a small but thriving community with a determination to breathe life into this part of rural Aberdeenshire.

Fraser Fifield Multi-instrumentalist

Fraser Fifield
Multi-instrumentalist

The performers include the recently re-formed Malinky and Fraser Fifield, a local hero with an international reputation. Fifield is a multi-instrumentalist. The performance in the video below gives an impression of his range. He can play a wide range of wind instruments, as well as being a composer. One of the leading jazz magazines (Jazzwise) described his as “someone who can blow a low whistle like Charlie Parker…and knock out an air on a sax like a Highland traditionalist.”

Other include Aileen Carr, one of the finest ballad singers in Scotland, Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, singer-songwriters and instrumentalists and the Shetland duo Blyde Lasses who perform on fiddle, concertina and vocals who’ve just launched their debut album.

For more information:
W: www.harvestfolkfestival.com
E: [email protected]

By Andrew McDiarmid
If you’re an emigrant from Scotland like me, you’ve already pencilled in a trip to Scotland in the summer or autumn of 2014. If you’re like me, you’ve been seeking out the news coverage on Scottish independence, reading the blogs and perusing the Yes and No camps online. If you’re like me, you feel an excitement rising inside you and a growing need to make your voice heard. You jump at the chance to talk to someone about it, no matter how casual or non-existent his or her interest may be. You feel compelled by something inside, something that grows a little more with every article, debate, comment, campaign ad or reference to something Scottish.

Perhaps you’re not like me. Perhaps you are so distant from your time in Scotland that you’ve grown out of touch or indifferent to daily Scottish affairs. After all, it’s a challenge to live life with one foot in the homeland and one foot in your adopted country. It’s tiring, taxing, and bewildering at times. Perhaps you are so busy and invested in life outside Scotland that you simply have no time to ponder lofty ideals like sovereignty and fiscal autonomy. Depending on where you live, chances are life is very different from your life in Scotland. So why bother? Out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps you don’t even feel you have the right any more to think about Scottish affairs or weigh in on issues important to Scotland. That’s all in your past.

When you move to a new country, your attention and energies get taken up by local and personal affairs – finding and keeping a job, raising a family, building a network of friends and associates, and investing in local interests, politics, and other activities. Who’s got time for the motherland? While the bulk of Scottish issues may pass you by unnoticed, this is different. This isn’t a debate over the progress of Edinburgh’s tram project. This is not a conversation on the financial prospects of the Scottish Premier League. This is much bigger. The Scottish independence debate affects every facet of Scottish life. It touches every person living in and from Scotland. It’s history in the making and will affect the future of Scots for generations to come. As emigrants from Scotland, we must play an active role in the direction of Scotland’s future. We must make time for this. Sure, we left Scotland to pursue a new life. But it is still our homeland, our place of birth, our people, our heritage. Once a Scot, always a Scot, even in Seattle, Bangkok, Sydney, Zurich, Capetown, Los Angeles, or Manitoba.

But does our opinion matter? Even if we add our voice, will it be heard? Will it make any difference? In short, it will only matter if we express it and back it up with action. Although it is unlikely that Scots living abroad will be able to vote in the 2014 referendum, that doesn’t render our participation void. On the contrary, we can play an important role in the future of Scotland if we actively participate in the debate.

How do we do that? Well, the first step is educating yourself. Go beyond your initial knee-jerk reaction to Scottish independence and study the issue. Start by reading Your Scotland, Your Referendum, the Scottish government’s consultation document that explains how the referendum will work. Then start asking questions. What is the issue? Why is it happening now? What are the options? Who are the people in the Yes campaign and why do they seek that option? What about the No campaign? Who’s campaigning for that result and why? What are the pros and cons of each option? What’s at stake? How is the government involved? How are the media responding to and portraying the debate? How does this debate affect the people of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

Finding the answers to these and other questions will help you be informed about the debate. Once you’ve established where you stand, you have a responsibility as a Scotsman or Scotswoman to educate others. This is not a debate that will be settled with empty rhetoric, scare tactics or appeals to loyalty, tradition, or history. This debate will be decided by those who are the most objectively informed and the most subjectively dedicated to Scotland’s future and its success as a modern nation.

Who can we educate? As emigrants, we are Scotland’s ambassadors, whether we want to be or not. We represent Scotland to everyone we come in contact with. We can educate our friends, associates and local community on Scottish independence and what it means for Scotland, Britain and the country in which you live. We can submit op-ed articles to local, regional and national newspapers. We can be active and involved with local Scottish groups, ensuring that the independence debate is given fair voice and consideration. We can also educate people living in Scotland. Just over half of Scotland’s electorate voted in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections. Apathy and lack of knowledge about key issues can cause many Scots to forfeit their vote. We can help increase voter turnout for the referendum, allowing a greater percentage of Scotland’s people to make their voice heard in this crucial debate.

One of the tools most useful to the Scottish diaspora is the internet. Thirty years ago, you may well have depended on a benevolent aunt to send a few recent newspapers your way so you could keep up with the news. Or perhaps you gleaned information from the occasional letter or phone call. Not so today. With an internet-connected device, you have almost immediate access to a wealth of information and opinion on daily Scottish affairs. More so, you have a platform with which to interact, debate and comment with people in Scotland and fellow emigrants all over the world.

Both campaigns have active websites to stay up-to-date with events and progress. And in addition to the establishment media, there are new arenas in Scottish journalism that provide a great place to stay informed and get involved. As Stewart Kirkpatrick, the former editor of The Caledonian Mercury, has said: “There has never been a greater need for balanced coverage of Scottish life. The Caledonian Mercury is unique in encouraging all the voices of Scotland to be expressed.”

No matter what side you fall on, the independence debate is too important not to include your voice. Although I certainly lean to one side in the debate, I am far from confident yet on the details. We are talking about changing a political structure that’s over 300 years old. Can Scotland and England have a great, working relationship without being in a political union? In what ways do Scotland, England, and Wales stand to lose or gain either way? Are people afraid of the future? Willing to embrace it? Does our strength as a nation depend on standing as one entity or as independent entities standing together?

Don’t sit back and simply watch the debate unfold. Add your voice. Help fellow Scots answer the most important questions they’re facing in modern history. This is your homeland. Help decide where it’s going.

– Andrew McDiarmid is host of Simply Scottish, a weekly podcast of music and features. He and his family moved to the United States in 1990, living first in Texas before moving to Seattle, Washington, where he currently works as a media relations specialist. Listen to Simply Scottish on iTunes and at www.simplyscottish.com


By Keith Roberts

We had watched the catch being landed earlier in the day. Drizzled with garlic butter the langoustines stared up at us, fresh enough yet almost to breathe. A warming island malt, a 10 year old from Tobermory, rinsed the palate. Through the glass we watched as the ferry struggled to approach the same jetty that had welcomed the prawns hours earlier; the same one from which we had disembarked as dawn broke. The storm had risen through the afternoon; rain lashed the white beaches; wind whipped the waves into meringues. The ferry disappeared into a trough and my stomach began to fear the short crossing that lay ahead, assuming the boat would eventually dock.

But for all that we had enjoyed peace and solitude of the type we knew we could find nowhere else. We had escaped and we had found, and we had hope once more; just the two of us.

A few weeks earlier we had been three, but it was not to be. This time the miscarriage came with shattering news. It told of chromosome disorders, horrific disfigurement, short life. Perhaps we were fortune that there would be no life, but the revelation of what may lie ahead shook us to the core. So we escaped.

From our weekend base outside Bunessan, on Mull, we followed the familiar road to the ferry at Fionnaphort. Across the Sound Iona waited, arms open and welcoming as always. It was not a day for a nap on the White Strand, for it was November, chilly and windswept, and the ferries were on the winter timetable.

I headed for the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, lost in my own thoughts, buffeted by the wind. Crossing the golf course, where the hardy island sheep grazed the machair, I reached the cockle strand and gazed out into nothing. Further west lay Boston. Waves crashed on rocks.

Gilly headed in the opposite direction, through the village, to the Abbey, as I knew she would. Candles were lit. It was not for me, one who reserved candles for blackouts. I walked thrice round Sithean Mor, the Big Fairy Mound, and tramped through the wet to rise to the summit of Dun I. Gulls rode thermals; Highland cattle turned their long-haired docks to the wind; the corncrake had long since left. All around islands rose and fell in the swell. Of the Treshnish only the Dutchman’s Cap remained on the horizon. And from Staffa the overture thundered from the cave. I could almost hear it.

We met in the Nunnery, where pockets of pink and yellow flowers clung to gaps in the ancient stones. Sheltering we shared a flask of chicken soup, and rested against the south wall of the refectory, unaware then what lay in the ancient walls above us. Tears rolled, though I swore the wind could not be blamed. Denial.

Through the clouds a ray broke above the Abbey, the tower limned in autumn light.

‘I’m finding my peace’ she said, eventually.

I was still angry, but calming as exhaustion set in as the mud dried on my boots. Guilt it was; all those years of smoking. Now it may be too late. The years had passed as inexorably as the waves crashed on the shore. But the indifference had disappeared, replaced with desire and yearning. I had been found wanting, incomplete, incapable. She didn’t deserve such pain.

‘That’s good my love, Iona always helps.’

And so it was that we found ourselves at table in the Martyrs’ Bar, fed and watered, as the ferry struggled. There was time for another dram, and a last walk, up to the tiny school, past the Nunnery, but not long enough to reach the graves of our ancient kings in the abbey grounds. Across the sound the red granite cliffs of Mull took the setting sun, seeming larger and nearer.

The ferry made the slipway, engine running, her stay brief. We had to run, together, hand in hand, bedraggled and soaked. The return to Fionnaphort was not pleasant, but then it never was. Normally a mere ten minutes or so the crossing was eternal. The tears ran again, but they often did, leaving Iona.

It was later, weeks later, that I learned of the sheela-na-gig. Apparently sheelas were not uncommon. Many buildings hosted them. But on a Nunnery, in this centre of Christianity? We had rested beneath female genitalia, made of stone, an ancient fertility symbol.

It may have been the candle, or the fairies, but whatever it was the family is now complete. Nine months later the dam burst, and within another year or so we were four, in rude health. She always believed, I always doubted. Iona healed. And every time we pass that Bunessan cottage, eyes sparkle.

Children will gather here to see the torch on June 11

By Gillian Lambie

Over 290 school children will descend on Tomintoul, Moray, for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Olympic Torch.

The primary school, which has around 44 pupils, have invited seven others to join them in the celebrations – multiplying the amount of children in the village by almost seven.

Glenlivet, Inveravon, Knockando, Newmill, Crossroads, Botriphnie and Rothiemay pupils are also preparing for the day. Each school has made different coloured t-shirts and banners to represent themselves.

Buses from Lossiemouth High and Speyside High are also expected to appear on June 11 too.

Tomintoul, which is the only village in Moray to see the offical torch, is also the highest community in the UK that the route stops at. People from all over Moray are expected to travel to see the sight and the Moray Council and the local organising committee are currently working hard to make sure everything runs smoothly for both residents and visitors.

Mark, the owner of Glentorets Bed and Breakfast in Tomintoul, is also the co-ordinator for the organising committee surrounding the Olympic Torch relay. He thinks that parking is going to be an issue in the village but still looks forward to the volume of people expected to arrive.

Pupils from Tomintoul Primary School’s enterprise team are busy preparing for the opening ceremony that will be taking place on the day and said that everybody is really excited. Workshops are being set up on the day so children have choices of activites such as archery, taekwondo and football to take part in.

 

Tony Blair. Picture: World Economic Forum

Tony Blair. Picture: World Economic Forum

By Sam Bradley

Speaking at the Leveson Inquiry, Tony Blair said something quite prescient, though he might not have meant to. “You can’t disagree with anyone in politics now… and the environment in which media and politicians now work is more raw, brutal and crude in terms of interaction.” His sentiments were perfectly emphasised by someone who, of all things, would like least to support an argument made by Blair – David Lawley-Wakelin, the anti-war protestor who breached security at the court and accused the former Prime Minister of war crimes.

Lawley-Wakelin’s tirade epitomises exactly what Blair was talking about – that we can’t simply disagree with the decisions our representatives make, now we have to demonise them. Blair was focusing on what Lord Leveson called the “fusion of news and comment” in the media, but the increasingly polarised nature of British politics has been spilling over into the public arena of protest for some time now.

You could see it happening when the anti-tuition fees protests of 2010 dissolved into a miniature riot through Whitehall; just as you could see it when students in Edinburgh broke away from an ongoing Occupy demonstration led an improvised march through the city, causing chaos for traffic and a headache for the police trying to manage the situation. As a student journalist, I’ve been to many a protest that had “Millbank!” as a rallying call.

Simulated rage might be a frequently satirised part of student politics – sound and fury is nothing new. At the trade union protests last November, I witnessed the then-outgoing leader of Scottish Labour, Iain Gray, trying to talk calmly to a protestor who was determined to do the exact opposite of that.

In a protest that was held up as an evidence that families and normal working people could still get their voices heard, a young guy walked up to him and yelled “Labour, Tory, you’re all scum”, right in his face. When Gray asked him whether he knew why the protest was being held, the man just walked away.

Demonstrations like the frequent student protests, and the larger trade union-organised events, should be the coalface of our politics. The act of protest is itself, a confrontational occurrence. What we’re seeing is the absence of any proper debate or discussion. What is heralded by the participants as ‘showing resistance’ is just people gathering in the street to have a bellow.

All of this simply allows the politicians who should be being held to account by protestors and demonstrations to sideline the most powerful democratic tool we hold, to redirect political discourse away from the areas that matter and to vilify people attempting to have their say.

More concerning for the present is that the findings of the Leveson Inquiry – which so far, is doing a great job lifting up rocks and having a good old poke that the things it finds underneath – will be buried, by the growing pile of fire extinguishers thrown from rooftops.

Without civil interaction, without allowing for differences of opinion, our political climate will descend into an angry shouting match, signifying nothing.

By Martin Conroy

During those dark, cold, miserable winter months early in 1979, a soon-to-be 41 year old woman found herself visiting her doctor complaining of a pain in her knees. The doctor advised her that she probably had a touch of arthritis and took a blood sample just to be sure. When the woman returned, she was in for quite a surprise as it turned out not to be arthritis at all.

In fact, she was shocked to discover she was pregnant. The doctor explained that someone of her age should not be having any more children and said he would arrange to have ‘it’ removed and soon she would be back to normal. The woman returned home in floods of tears and was completely horrified that anyone, especially a doctor, could even suggest such a thing. Here she was with a new life growing inside her and to even suggest that ‘it’ should be destroyed was truly abhorrent.

The woman vowed never to see that particular doctor again and continued with the pregnancy. In October of that year the woman gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Both mother and son were absolutely fine; no complications, no problems. Thanks to that woman’s common sense and strong Catholic faith, that baby boy is now writing this article 32 years later.

I have never before spoken about this nor mentioned how the doctor referred to me as ‘it’ and wanted me aborted and so those of you who know me may now understand why I have such strong views on abortion. The most dangerous place for children in the UK today is in their mother’s womb; seven million babies have been killed in the UK since the Abortion Act was passed and I could have been one of them had my mother listened to her doctor.

I would like to say here that abortion is wrong and can never be justified. It saddens me greatly that so many in our society will argue that in certain circumstances abortion is ok. That’s like saying that sometimes murder is ok. As everyone knows, murder is wrong full stop, and can never be justified.

It is a non-negotiable issue and those who commit murder are quite rightly prosecuted and locked up. Abortion is also a non-negotiable issue and over 200,000 babies are killed in the UK every year yet nobody bats an eyelid. Why? Why do some think killing the most vulnerable people of all, the unborn, is acceptable in our so-called civilised society? I’m sure everyone will agree with the following argument:

 

The outright, deliberate killing of innocent children is wrong: YES

Abortion is the outright, deliberate killing of innocent children: YES

Therefore, abortion is wrong: YES

Unfortunately, many people will throw in red herrings and false arguments to try and justify abortion. People will talk about certain situations where abortion is right and we could discuss all the ifs and buts until the end of days but NOTHING justifies ending the life of innocent babies. I know everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I just hope and pray that anyone who reads this might think long and hard about why they think abortion is ok and perhaps change their mind? Remember, it is not a woman’s body that is injected with potassium chloride, suctioned, dismembered and then incinerated; it is the body of a new human life. Below are a few select quotes which speak very clearly on the subject and I hope some of you find them enlightening and perhaps make a conscientious effort to move away from the dark side!

“The fetus, we now know, is not an inert blob, but an active and dynamic creature, responding and adapting as it readies itself for life in the particular world it will soon enter.” – Science writer Annie Murphy Paul discusses her astonishment at finding myriad studies about what babies can learn in the womb.

“Biologic human life is defined by examining the scientific facts of human development. This is a field where there is no controversy, no disagreement. There is only one set of facts, only one embryology book is studied in medical school. The more scientific knowledge of fetal development that has been learned, the more science has confirmed that the beginning of any one human individual’s life, biologically speaking, begins at the completion of the union of his father’s sperm and his mother’s ovum, a process called “conception,” “fertilization,” or “fecundation.” This is so because this being, from fertilization, is alive, human, sexed, complete and growing.” – Dr. & Mrs. J.C. Willke explain in their book “Why can’t we love them both: questions and answers about abortion

“Some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, “from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and … modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins, and each of its capacities requires time-a rather lengthy time-to find its place and to be in a position to act” – Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II

Art in Birmingham's Ikon Gallery By Stewart Bremner

In the middle week of April, a friend and I took a trip through England, visiting many big public galleries. In London we visited the Tate Modern, the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery; in Birmingham the Ikon Gallery and the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum; in Manchester the Manchester Art Gallery. I learned that I have almost no affinity whatsoever for conceptual art and that, if I am to believe what I saw in some of these galleries, I am only interested in art that was made before 1950. Does this not make me seem rather like a philistine? It certainly made me feel like one and that was most unwelcome.

I have a history of problems with conceptual art, going as far as to label it Fashion Art. I am, frankly, tired of it. I’m tired of seeing it in all the major modern galleries, I’m tired of talking about it with every artist I know or meet, I’m tired of getting angry about it and, most of all, I’m tired of thinking about it. And even with all of that, I still can’t stop myself from once more rehashing my experiences of it.

Having seen so much of it in the past week, at the Tate Modern and Ikon Gallery, I feel like an idiot for not understanding it, for not caring one jot about it and for thinking that it is simply cannot be art. How can I call my self an artist and yet be so completely at odds with what seems to be the major art movement of my time? When I read ”As the title suggests, Steel Zinc Plain represents a territory or a space as much as an object. By placing it on the floor rather than on a plinth and allowing it to be walked across, Andre alters the viewer’s relationship to the work of art” why do I keep shaking my head and wondering what I am missing, before feeling stupid and excluded? If I had been alive in the nineteenth century, would I have shunned those appalling new pieces by the so-called Impressionists, with all of their mess and unlife-like appearance?

Conceptual art depresses me. It depresses me because it is omnipresent, seemingly to the exclusion of every other contemporary art form. I want to see work invested with feeling, that has been wrought by artists using the hand, eye and heart, rather than this stuff of sensation and empty questions. Alternately, as an artist I could simply be jealous that conceptual artists appear to be swimming in the depths of accolades and money, while the sole of my foot is barely even wet.

I ought to take a lesson from this and totally avoid conceptual art in future. This, however, would appear to be no easy task at a time when there seems to be almost no other form of contemporary art on display in public galleries, almost as if each and every curator is dancing to the beat of one drummer, following in the wake of the unclothed emperor.

In many of our public galleries, we see vast spaces taken up with a small number of thin-seeming conceptual pieces, while enormous collections are held in storage, away from the public’s eye. It seems wrongheaded, especially when one considers how disengaged audiences seem to be with conceptual art, compared to more traditional forms. At the Tate Modern viewers drifted through the spaces, never seemingly stopping for long, whereas in the National Gallery some paintings held constant and barely-moving crowds in front of them like magnets.

If we are to believe these admittedly-jaundiced memories, then something is clearly amiss. It would seem that many of those in charge of the public’s art purse are purchasing and showing work that the public does not particularly care for.

Recently, Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery held an Anna Barriball exhibition, that featured around twenty works lost in the brilliant white space of this mid-sized venue. On top of adding to the gallery’s reputation for hosting unpopular and unlikeable art, this was of a quality that even some art critics cared little for it. At the same time, the Royal Scottish Academy hosted the annual exhibitions of Visual Arts Scotland, the Scottish Society of Artists and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, all at once. Here was an exhibition showing a cross section of contemporary art; a vibrant, lively and attractive show, where walls had to be overly filled with paintings and which ran for only a month.

Last week in the Ikon Gallery, another attractive mid-sized space, Sarah Brown’s exhibition How to Use Fool’s Gold took up one whole floor. This time less than ten pieces failed to fill the space. There seemed little unity in the work and if there was a vision for the exhibition it was far from evident. Once again an exhibition of contemporary work in a modern gallery lacked any emotion and had few visitors.

When most of the money and public gallery space in contemporary art is stuck to what appears to be vacuous gimmickry, it is not just the majority of artists who suffer, but the viewing public too. The artists starve or give up to take a soul-destroying job; the public turn away from art thinking they do not like it and live an unenriched life of corporate entertainment and large-screen televisions. We can surmise that, just as with our financial world where the 1% have all of the riches, so too the art establishment only notices the fashionable 1% (some of whom it would appear are even part of the financial 1%). It is a sad state of affairs.

Happily, our England trip was not totally consumed by conceptual upset – we also got to see justly famous artworks of beauty and emotion. At the National Gallery we saw several rooms of great Impressionist works, including Degas’ Combing the Hair, as well as a wall of Van Goghs and Turner’s stunning Fighting Temeraire. Here Megan fell for even older pieces: Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Jan van Wyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Up north we particularly enjoyed two Modiglianis, with one in Birmingham and one in Manchester.

Our last stop at Manchester Art Gallery, turned out to be an unexpected highlight. With an impressive, well kept and well laid-out collection, covering an almost 700 year span, it packs an impressive punch for a gallery of its size. Its rooms of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art (including John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs and Charles Mengin’s Sappho) were a particularly treat, which was a genuine surprise given my previous lack of interest in work of that type.

While much of this work was often beautiful and even at times emotional, little of the contemporary work on show was either. I am an artist, who by very definition makes contemporary work, work that is, to me, both emotional and beautiful. Over the past few years I’ve met plenty other artists who are similarly engaged. I believe that this kind of work, made using the hand, the eye and the heart, would be well received by the viewing public, if only they knew of its existence.

Today I am part of the unfashionable 99% of artists. Being unfashionable does not upset me, neither does being one of the masses. What does upset me is the skewed perception of contemporary art that our public galleries foster. It think it is time for the 99% to get their turn. Who’s with me?