Balnacra Arts by Vicky Stonebridge

Scottish Rural Parliament

One of the odd things about wearing many hats, and operating many accounts with different names and hats is the duplication of tasks, a bit of the old multiple personalities. I went last week to the First Scottish Rural Parliament, I was wearing my Community development company/ activist hat. Many of the people there wear many hats, we often talked about which hats we wore. So I have just written up a report of the event for the community company website, with that hat on. I try to be very neutral and broad brush when i wear that hat. When i write on this blog, i feel more able to give a personal perspective, mostly, nearly. The event was pretty big and important so i’d like to mention it here as well, so rather than a complete re-write with my Balnacra Arts hat on, how about you get a copy of the ‘Kirkton woodlands and Heritage Group’ post with extra bits added in? Very sorry for those of you who may follow both blogs !

~ Thursday 6th November 3 of us from KWHG, accompanied by the Local Development Officer from Applecross, headed down together for the First ever Scottish Rural Parliament, in Oban. Rural Parliaments are nothing new in many other European countries, Sweden held it’s first in 1989. The Scottish Rural parliament is not part of Scottish government, aalthough it enjoys funding and support from Holyrood. The event was also sponsored by Caledonian MacBrayne & HIE.  It has been demonstrated in other countries that having a rural parliament is a highly effective means of getting rural issues to the table of urban centralist governments. The committee setting up this First Scottish Rural Parliament have been busy working at it for a long time. It is a non political party aligned structure.  It has been set up to give grass roots voices from rural and remote rural communities across Scotland  a chance to have a say in things and make real changes. The timing is perfect in many ways, the independence referendum campaigns saw a massive surge in political engagement, people no longer prepared to leave everything up to Politicians, people talking about what sort of country they want, why re-prioritising core social values against the back drop of deep austerity cuts being imposed from on high.

In recent years community land buy outs, community development companies and trusts, and many other local issue campaigns have made a real difference to the potential for rural communities to survive. However communities just getting on with it and doing things for themselves is not as simple as it could be, there are barriers, support needs and many problems which can only be solved at a higher level. There has been lots of background work to setting up the Scottish Rural Parliament, six key themes have been drawn out to focus the first parliament main event around. These were;

  • Rural businesses and employment
  • Land use, planning and land reform
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Protecting our natural assets and adapting to environmental changes
  • Broadband and connectivity
  • Support for communities to lead with confidence

Health and Social care was also added later to this list.

Many small local events had been held previously. We at KWHG had held one with Applecross community Company on 9th of October in Strathcarron. Delegates for the main Oban event had registered weeks previously, anyone anywhere in rural Scotland could attend. There were between 350 and 400 delegates for a very hectic and jam packed 3 day schedule, across various venues in Oban. Most people in attendance were like ourselves, community activists, charity workers, project workers, volunteers, all passionate and determined to make things better. Ministers from the Scottish Parliament also attended, along side other people from organisations such as HIE, and delegates from other European Rural Parliaments.

The schedule was exhausting, it left little time for networking and reflection. We arrived tired after a long drive to a very windy & wet Oban. After a frustrating time trying to navigate one way road systems, find venues or parking with no mobile phone signal or internet availability, we grabbed a hasty ( but tasty ) lunch at Corran Halls , then dashed off to find a hotel where fringe events were being held that we had booked places on. ~

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Leslie Riddoch and Peter Peacock hosted a very interesting fringe event on ‘Land reform’ it could have gone on for much longer as there was a lot of insightful discussion and information in that room. It was good to hear perspectives from Scandinavia and other countries about how land ownership, tenancy rights, planning rules and local democracy work elsewhere. It was clear that no-one in the room felt that the status quo in Scotland was working for the economy, wellbeing, prosperity or social fabric of rural Scotland.

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20141106_160946~These are my scribbles above, compared to the nice neat graphics of the official artist. It was a workshop on skills and training in rural communities, we were asked to draw, what would be ideal & what the barriers are. Because i’m an artist i always get given the pen at these things, when i just couldn’t actually get my head around what we were being asked to do, ending up doing more words than the other groups who managed to draw it just fine. I think the problem was i needed a cup of tea!~

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Thursday evening we gathered at the Oban Atlantis leisure centre which was the main venue for the event and is a local social enterprise company. This was the official opening and dinner. The speeches were interspersed with cultural performances. The SRP is not just about raising rural voices but also to celebrate our culture.  We were very tired and keen to head back to the hotel, but the evenings performances were in fact very inspiring and well worth the late night.
20141106_18104320141106_20375820141106_204406 Friday 7th. The speakers started at 8.30am !
The first was MSP Richard Lochhead.
~ I had volunteered to help out at the event, which i was getting frustrated about, why do i do things like this? as if there wasn’t enough to do? So i missed a lot of friday morning, i caught some of these speakers as there was nothing happening in the hall i was supposed to be stewarding, by the time it got busy and needed stewards i was pretty redundant because there was no space or room to corral lunch eating delegates into anyway, but the positive side was that it was a bit of time out from all that thinking and talking~
This was Followed by a controversial talk from Dr Carol Craig about ‘happiness’ indexes showing better quality of life in rural areas. many speakers from the floor disagreed and felt that rural deprivation is hidden and underestimated.
~ It was a tricky area, i get why it is good to celebrate what we get right , acknowledge our assets and the positive aspects to rural living, but in the context of this event which was all about trying to find ways to maintain rural communities and stop them dying out, this talk about how much we are less stressed and consumer minded and materialistically driven, was a bit too rose tinted for some people, why should we accept less?  ” scenery doesn’t pay the rent”~
We then heard from Anneli Kana about the Estonian village movement.
The rest of the morning was full of many more workshop streams across the various venues. Information from all of these was being collated and gathered to be put back to us by the final day of the event.

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after lunch the programme ‘appeared’ to be less intense, it was an ‘Open space’ session, which was intriguing as none of us were sure what to expect of this.20141107_13573420141107_142632
It was all explained to us by speakers and diagrams around the room. It is a means of people from the floor deciding and prioritising the subjects to be discussed. We were given the choices; to host a workshop on any burning question we chose, to attend any of the workshops, to be a ‘bumble bee’ and buzz from one workshop to another – the principle here was that if you could learn or contribute nothing, simply get up and move on. We could also choose to be a ‘butterfly’ and just float around or rest or listen. It sounded strange until the microphone was opened up. People got up wrote on sticky notes what they wanted to host a session on, ( local democracy, housing, using the sea more for transport, keeping young people in communities, arts, etc etc ) , they announced their name & topic to everyone, then placed their sticky note on the wall where it was allocated to a table or a room. When the spaces were all full up everyone drifted off to join in discussions which interested them. Some very intense conversations were had. Each workshop drafted up some action points, who, when, and what to be done to take things forward. At the end of the afternoon there was a general feedback session about lessons learned from the format of the ‘Open Space’ . It was a very good way of opening things up to see what issues were important to everyone, if people weren’t engaged or interested in one, then there would simply be no-one attend, nothing happen and people went instead to where they were interested. 20141107_13594720141107_140003
~ i found these principals very useful reminders to a general way of being, we can get so caught up in obligations, commitment and etiquette, it was great to have permission to walk away- to be allowed to take responsibility to follow ones own instincts. It wasn’t as easy at it sounds though. I did get trapped in a session, where it was difficult to simply get up and walk away, the ‘host’ did not engage any of us, but instead was delivering a lecture on a subject i’m happily already informed on, it was in a separate room and the intense eye contact while she delivered her information made it impossible to break away or interrupt without appearing rude. The speaker who explained ‘Open Space’ did remind us to not hog the sessions and to listen to others. But i found it challenging breaking away when this didn’t happen.  I also hosted a session, while people filed up and queued to announce their workshops, i got that itch, the itch to join in. the itch terrified me! sometimes i don’t mind public speaking at all, other times it makes me freeze and gives me the shakes & ringing ears. I don’t know if it is the crowd size or what. But that day it was a scary one. No-one had raised the issue of the role of arts, until the lady two in front of me… but she had a different angle so I went ahead and announced that ” i want to have a discussion about the role of arts, culture & creativity in community regeneration “. I really enjoyed the actual workshop, to my surprise 7 people came and stayed, there was a wide range of expertise and perspective, i could have listened to everyone & chatted for well past the hour we had!  we drew up some key points, a lady, Gill typed it all up for me, and we asked for the SRP to collate case studies of good practice in community arts projects, to set up a work group to look at the way of recognising the value of arts and… something about creative Scotland, i can’t remember now !  I’m glad i raised the issue. the right people at the right time were there. At the end the summing up was a bit esoteric for all tastes, but i liked that there was such a range in the room, from the practical pragmatists to the expressive and poetic types. We were asked to imagine the four winds, the North wind was the individual, courage, fierce, cold, harsh, determined, the South was community, common unity, the collective the warm supportive embrace of all . The East wind was intent, where do we want to go? what do we want? the West wind was here and now, action, lets do it.~

Friday night. Oban gathering hall. more speeches, and the presentation of the Rural innovator awards. The shortlisted projects had outlined their work the night before, Everyone deserved to win, you can see the speeches here. Stramash won the award for their excellent work with young people & outdoor learning.
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Our small group were all too exhausted to stay and enjoy the dancing for long!
Saturday morning, was another early start and rather intense session, a few talks and Q&A sessions led on without a break and speakers were not let off lightly from the floor. It was clear that people had a lot to talk about and are not content with light answers or just empty talk. The event overall was invigorating and inspirational but certainly wasn’t self congratulatory or passive. There is a passion for positive change in Scotland’s rural areas, and with two bills currently before Scottish government, the communities empowerment bill and land reform bill 2014, there is opportunity for things to be done differently.

~ i felt that the hostility in the room could have been prevented with more tea & coffee, and time to talk and reflect, we were all frazzled by this point! I also felt that the charged atmosphere was a good thing, that people were angry, and passionate, and will keep fighting for change. There were a lot of leaders in that room, a lot of driven people, and no-one was going to just blankly be told what to think or do. A lot of that ‘North wind’ energy!  The organisers did well to shoehorn everything in, it was one heck of a programme, i’m glad i didn’t have their job!~

Delegates then heard from Peter Peacock who had been up all night collating all the information from the previous days. His excellent summary was less controversial and seemed to be what everyone wanted to hear. There were a lot of questions as to how to precede in technical terms, who forms the committee, what membership structures will be in place etc. all of this will be brought back to the table by next spring. It is proposed that the Parliament will take place on a two yearly basis , but with lots of activity in between. There is lots more information on the website, and you too can get involved and have a say in things that matter to all of us. These three days were exhausting but very worth while. It is important that projects such as ours and all the people who work so hard to make a difference in small villages and remote places, are recognised as having something important to contribute to the bigger picture.
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20141107_083617~ Community work tends to do my head in on a day to day basis, i feel overburdened, harrassed and stretched too thin, unable to put my best work to use for the common good because i’m doing silly things that other people should be doing. However this event was a good reminder that i am not alone, everyone else there seems to have to go through the same things, fight the same battles, have the same burn out. But it also reminded me why we do what we do, what the stakes are, the importance of the ‘common good’ and that we have no choice, we have to make things better and fairer. If not one way, then another. Having said that, by the time we got home, i was exhausted to the point of being unable to function. If i want to keep fighting the good fight, i really have to pace myself! ~

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