LISTEN: Caithness-wide festival Northern Stories organised by Lyth Arts Centre aims explore nordic connections and encourage new storytellers in the region
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“I think about responsibility we have to tell our own stories. We have seen it particularly past two years and how the Highlands and particularly in the far north have been portrayed as empty, vast and wilderness places. We feel, as a cultural institution here, that we need to challenge this concept, and that we are a land rich in history of people and stories and we need to tell them and share them and challenge these ideas of an empty landscape."
It's no easy task that Charlotte Mountford, co-director at Lyth Arts Centre (LAC), and the team at the northern cultural hub have taken on. A bright and lively hub in the far north, LAC has a prime role in promoting the arts and foster the local storytelling tradition.
In October, they will hold a new initiative called Nothern Stories Festival which, on the wave of the success of last year's Northern Lights festival, will tie in with the themed year of Scotland's Year of Stories 2022 to focus on the rich tradition of Caithness.
The festival will not only showcase the best of Caithness but it will also explore ties with cultures on the other side of the pond.
“We are rooted in the local community but I like to think what we do has a global perspective," said Charlotte.
"We are really interested in exploring our Nordic connections and those we have in north America as well as with Norway.
“It's important to explore those links: what are the challenges that rural northern Ontario is facing? What parallels are there with Caithness today?
"We hope this will be a lasting legacy."
A bid and a mission that is being taken up by Caithness poet and playwright, and artist in residence at LAC, George Gunn.
“I think the strength of Caithness culture is that it is the only place in Scotland that can actually say to have two cultural traditions: of course there is a Celtic, Gaelic one, and that’s a very strong tradition in Caithness. And then we have another strong tradition, which is the Norse one.
"We are blessed with having a saga tradition right on our doorstep, and then we have a bardic tradition of the west, and these meet and blend in Caithness and I think that’s what makes it so rich."
Born and raised in Caithness, from a line of storytellers, George has seen and experienced the big changes the region had to face in the past decades, and how that has affected the culture around stories.
He said: "Caithness has very much an oral culture, it's very much a bardic culture, a culture of stories.
"Something that I am doing and the Caithness young creatives are working on as well is that stories come from everywhere, they come from the ground, they come out of the air, they come from history."
But history has affected Caithness in waves, he said, talking about crucial changes such as evictions and clearances, the war and then Dounreay.
"Those are the subject matter for people's stories, the art of storytelling has fallen off. With the rise of high-tech, people's words have become internalised, whereas storytelling is all about sharing."
A key element, according to George, is to retain and bring back people to the region, to which cultural hubs like LAC are vital.
“The definition of art for me is people in the landscape.," he said. "Now there is a focus to restore the landscape but we also need to put people back in that landscape.
"Places like the Flow Country – it is not wilderness or an empty landscape but an emptied landscape.
“People don’t know Caithness well – they tend to pass through Caithness to reach Orkney or other destinations, other areas in the Highland are more well-known.
“Our job is to get people to stop and look, be aware, listen, and contemplate, and engage with the culture of the north.
"The story of Caithness now is that it needs people to come and live here. We are losing our young ones, our bright and our best by sheer stupid economics. This is a story that has to be told.
"We need to work to make Caithness an attractive place for them to come back and settle, and that’s part of my job as an artist.
"Part of that is cultural confidence, and if they believe that where they come from is important, it's more likely to come back and contribute to that culture.
"If we don't do this, then the future of Caithness is dodgy."
You can listen to the full interview in the player or at linktr.ee/northernbibliospherepod on episode 22 of Northern Bibliosphere.