How good it was to see D. James Ross honoured with an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list, for “services to Renaissance and Baroque Scottish Music in the North of Scotland.” This particular Highlander has been, for many years, a beacon of excellence as musician, historian, raconteur and wit, and more besides. And it is only right that James’ contribution to our musical heritage has been recognised as work of major importance. His achievement has been, above all, to highlight a Renaissance Scotland which we should see as “a real Golden Age of music of national and international significance – a treasury of Musick Fyne, ripe for rediscovery.”
Respectful rediscovery, I would assert. Important in James’ work, and that of his many talented collaborators, has been the notion of authenticity – texts, venues, arrangements, instrumentation, and a range of stylistic considerations have always been foregrounded in the musical repertoire of Coronach and Musick Fyne, his two principal ensembles, and across all his work. That great music flourished in a 16th century Scotland beset by considerable social, religious and political change is remarkable.
But this was a Renaissance Scotland without either the subsequent “vast tartan monster” as Tom Nairn dubbed it, a sentimental mythologised version of Scottishness. Or, indeed, today’s slavish, one-size-fits-all centralised model. One central failing of the later Stewart courts which James has identified was their loss of respect for the indigenous creative traditions of Gaelic Scotland, the drift towards patronising contempt for a distinctive culture.
And it’s not too big a stretch to consider parallels between the 17th century and today. In the latest example of the drift towards centralisation, the subsuming of the trusted and effective Highlands and Islands Enterprise within an “overarching agency” for enterprise and skills. In this age of managerial and obfuscating language, we are supposed to be reassured by phrases like “review”, “improving...outcomes”, “building on...successes”, “a fair chance to contribute...support...benefits...engagement.”
In a way you can’t blame politicians for spinning. It’s what they do. But merely rebranding everything ‘Scotland this’ or ‘Scotland that’ will not guarantee support, engagement and so on. Nor, indeed, can you compel fealty to your particular imagined national identity. Creativity in 16th-century Scotland flourished in diverse and authentic ways across the land, while remaining internationalist. So – you would think - the diverse and authentic voices of the Highlands and Islands of today should be heard and respected.