Culture club: Why is culture so important for Scotland?

Written by Kate Shannon on 10 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Paisley is in the running to become UK City of Culture 2021 and is already seeing benefits

For a long time, Paisley has not had much to shout about. It has a proud industrial past as a leader in textile production but in more recent times, the town has fallen into decline. 

Once one of the wealthiest places in Scotland, the final closures of the mills in the latter part of the 20th century meant Paisley became a byword for poverty and deprivation. The high street had long been hit by changes in retail behaviour and many major employers left the town.

However, in the past few years, the town has started to witness a sea change and a lot of it is thanks to culture. 


In 2015, Paisley launched a bid to become UK City of Culture 2021, as part of wider plans to help transform the town’s future using its unique heritage. This was no mean feat but in July, Paisley was confirmed as the only Scottish place on the shortlist, alongside Coventry, Stoke, Swansea and Sunderland. The final result will be announced next month.

Although not a city – the competition is open to large towns and urban areas – Paisley would join Derry which won in 2013 and current holder Hull in reaping the rewards of the four-year tenure. 

Martin Green, Director of Hull 2017, said: “2017 has, by any measure, been a revelatory time for Hull and with season four, the thrilling journey continues. 

“We’ve an outstanding programme to take the UK’s first cultural quadrennial into 2018, which will challenge as well as entertain, ask questions and bring people together. 

“The city’s new-found confidence and its growing reputation for culture and creativity help lay the foundations for Hull to take its place as at the heart of the North and in the nation’s cultural future.”

So, what does this mean for Paisley?

The council has a wider set of plans to use the town’s cultural story to inspire change over the next decade – but winning UK City of Culture 2021 would turbocharge that journey.

Hosting the 2021 title would create 4,700 jobs over a ten-year period, generate an estimated £172m economic boost, bring almost one million visitors in 2021, attract massive investment in infrastructure and leave a lasting economic legacy by establishing the town as a visitor destination and a hub for creative industry.

It is hoped it will also help tackle poverty by harnessing the power of culture to make people’s lives better. Paisley’s 2021 programme will aim to make those benefits available to everyone in Renfrewshire.

Significantly, the bid partnership – which is made up of a number of local organisations, including Renfrewshire Council – believe the bid has already addressed negative perceptions of the town, raising awareness of its internationally-significant story at home and abroad, and helping build a new sense of self-confidence.

Holyrood spoke to Renfrewshire Council leader Councillor Iain Nicolson about what winning would mean for the town and why culture is so important.

He said: “Culture is a very subjective term. For most people, when you say ‘culture’, they think of opera and the like but it’s so much more. It encapsulates a whole community’s engagement with leisure. 

“We have changed the whole cultural offering for Paisley and we’ve also changed [the opinions of] a lot of Paisley’s people too. A lot of the community were sceptical about Paisley being a city of culture but when we submitted the stage two bid, you could feel the change and an optimism on the back of it.

“It’s a win-win situation. Simply being in the competition itself provides a change and self-belief with regard to us having an introspective look at ourselves. 

“We do have things to offer the wider world and we probably haven’t been very good at showcasing that in the past. It has made the council and all our partners focus on the qualities Paisley has, its rich heritage in textiles, music and film but it’s more about what this can do for Paisley going forward and for the people of Paisley to change their opinion of their own town. Sometimes we’re our own biggest critics.”

Nicholson said he has noticed a real change in people’s attitudes since the bid was first talked of, “people are starting to believe in themselves more”. 

He added: “People are proud of Paisley and entering the competition has allowed that to come through. Even if we don’t win, there’ll still be a legacy and we intend to carry on with the theme of culture, no matter what and build a platform for Paisley on the back of the 2021 bid.”

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop said Paisley’s bid will bring “undisputed cultural and economic benefits to individuals, communities and organisations all across Scotland”. 
Speaking to Holyrood, she said: “It’s an exciting prospect and a good fit with the government’s ambitions, as we recognise the significant contribution Paisley makes to Scotland’s rich cultural life and the local and national boost a winning bid will bring. 

“Paisley’s bid journey has been inspiring, beginning two years ago, with hundreds of people gathered at the picturesque Paisley Abbey for the official launch. Since then schools, businesses, cultural and community groups have thrown their support behind the town’s ambitions with extensive community engagement, more than 30,000 people have been involved.

“Just last week the University of the West of Scotland announced the Paolo Nutini Songwriting Scholarship which will see the award of a fully funded student place on the songwriting stream of the university’s acclaimed Masters in Music. 

“To me, this encapsulates the energy, enthusiasm and fresh approach of Paisley’s bid. It is the involvement of the communities of Paisley, the embracing of culture by the entire town – all the ‘buddies’ – that’s what makes Paisley’s bid so special.”

Since 2015, more than 34,000 people have been involved in the conversation around the bid – almost equivalent to half the population of the town.

That includes 14,000 primary schoolchildren, who were given a copy of a specially-commissioned short story by award-winning children’s author, Ross Mackenzie, and asked to submit their idea for the bid.

Famous faces from the town who have so far backed the bid include singer Paolo Nutini – who performed at a concert in the town last month – Hollywood actor Gerard Butler and artist John Byrne.

It has also been backed by more than 200 businesses, including Glasgow Airport, intu Braehead, Diageo, WH Malcolm, and Coats PLC and has cross-party political support, with well-attended receptions held at both Holyrood and Westminster sponsored by local politicians.

The council also launched a culture, heritage and events fund to increase capacity among the local creative scene – with demand so high, the initial £500,000 investment was topped up to £1m. 

In October, the City of Culture judging panel visited Paisley for the final part of the process and during interviews with the media, the panel chair, Phil Redmond CBE, said: “I’ve enjoyed going around seeing everything and actually meeting some of the people and seeing the enthusiasm of the people that are getting behind the bid.

“Each city is different and I think one of the great things is how you come and see the commonalities and the differences in each city. It’s been a really great, interesting day and that’s the thing I love about doing this – it’s a real privilege.”

Paisley 2021 bid director, Jean Cameron, said the competition has already proved positive for Paisley. 

“It has taken awareness of our internationally significant story to a new level and changed perceptions of the town,” she said.

“It’s also brought a new sense of self-confidence to residents and shown them how the power of culture can be harnessed to change people’s lives for the better. Buddies have really helped the town shine – shown what Paisley can bring to the UK and why the town wants the title, needs the title, and will deliver a year of world-class culture in 2021.”

Looking at culture more generally, why does Fiona Hyslop think it is so important to the lives of Scottish people?

She said: “We not only value culture for its intrinsic worth, but also the powerful and transformative effect it has on individuals, communities and Scotland as a whole. 

“The benefits of taking part in creative activities are increasingly clear, with positive impacts on people’s health and wellbeing and let’s not forget, they are fun too. It is vital we create the conditions to enable young people to access and engage in culture and the arts. 

“Our work with young people under the umbrella of Scotland’s youth arts strategy, Time to Shine and supported by initiatives including the Youth Music Initiative, Cashback for Creativity, Sistema Scotland and Get Scotland Dancing, are designed to ensure that no one’s background is a barrier to taking part in cultural life and giving young people all over Scotland a chance to take part in the arts.”

There’s often a perception that culture is something high end and out of reach of ‘normal’ people but Hyslop believes this isn’t the case.

She continued: “Scotland’s five national performing companies create and perform their work across the whole of Scotland and make a significant contribution to cultural life, both in Scotland and internationally. 

“Their performances and outreach programmes continue to be of the highest quality with a wide national reach across our communities. For example, the Theatre for Schools Scotland initiative is aiming to ensure every child in Scotland receives a minimum of one performing arts production, per year, as part of their education.

“Scotland’s festivals too work with a cross-section of communities to draw in new and hard to reach audiences. For example, the Edinburgh International Book Festival led free public events in Cumbernauld to draw on old and new stories with a diverse group of residents; the Edinburgh International Festival has built a strong relationship with Castlebrae High School in Edinburgh; and, the current festival ‘Luminate’ works across Scotland with our ageing population in care homes, village halls and community centres.

“Of course, culture is not just about that which is established, formal and public – it is also about that which is emerging, private and personal – and all are equally valid and all make a valuable contribution to the vitality of our communities and our position in the world where we are viewed as an open, outward-facing nation.”

A culture strategy for Scotland is currently being developed with individuals, artists and creative practitioners, as well as communities and organisations across the length and breadth of Scotland.

Hyslop said it will position culture as having intrinsic value and contribute directly and indirectly to the health, wealth and success of the nation, defining Scotland as a diverse and distinct society with creativity and innovation at its heart. 

She also hopes it will support the long-term development of culture in Scotland and will explore the role of culture across society, reflecting on its current state in Scotland, both what is working well and the challenges to be faced.

“More than anything, the strategy is an opportunity to position culture as a human right, where the right to creative expression, the right to participate and the right to earn a living from artistic and cultural pursuits is widely recognised across society,” she said.

According to Iain Nicolson, the City of Culture bid has been a hugely positive experience for Paisley.

He added: “If we don’t win, we’ll be highly disappointed but the amount of benefits which have come from the bid to date is phenomenal. Prior to this, the whole cultural agenda was a bit of a Cinderella subject for the council. 

“A lot of the focus of the council is, quite rightly, on delivering social services but the bid had put a whole cultural agenda forward and shown there’s an economic market there. It’s been a really good experience.

“Culture can lead to wellbeing and a sense of good health. Culture can work its way into people’s lives and regardless of what you do, whether you go to a class to do drawing or whatever, it’s all part of the fabric of life. 

“Historically in Scotland, I think the word ‘culture’ has always been associated with high-end offerings, whereas it can encompass everything people do as a leisure activity and it can improve mental health. It also promotes engagement with others, which is a positive thing.

“We have to get the message out there that culture is not just about opera and art galleries, it is so much more.”  



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