Winding road to voice of the arts

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Sheena Wellington (left), singer turned traditional arts officer for Fife, talks to Julie Morrice about investments in folk culture

A twisty little road leads to Sheena Wellington's house in the farmlands of Fife. "It's a long, whitewashed cottage opposite the postbox," she says on the telephone, adding, with characteristic tartness, "and it's not as picturesque as that sounds."

Ms Wellington is best known as a singer, above all for her performance of "A Man's a Man for a' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. But her working day is now as likely to touch on corn-dolly making and storytelling as on Scottish music. For the past three years she has been traditional arts development officer for Fife Council, a position she is clearly proud to hold.

"I was pleased to get it," she confides. "There was a very strong list of candidates."

To hear her talk about her work, it is difficult to imagine anyone else filling the role. With her warmth and energy, she seems to embody the great strength of the traditional arts. The passing of songs, stories and skills from person to person in a process that is as much about human relationships as it is about arts and crafts.

Her job description is appealingly open-ended: to promote and raise awareness of traditional arts in Fife. No soulless council desk for Sheena; she works from an office at one end of her cottage.

"It's not usually this bad," she says, surveying teetering piles of papers, "but no one's been down to do my filing for a while." There are mountains of cassettes, CDs and LPs on every side.

Ms Wellington is one of a kind; the only traditional arts officer in Scotland. However, there are now several traditional music officers: she mentions names in Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and South Lanarkshire, all friends and all musicians in their own right. The traditional arts may be taking on the mantle of job descriptions, three-year funding and National Lottery applications, but it is doing so in its own manner.

Traditional arts, for years the poor relations of classical music, theatre and opera, are making themselves felt in high places. There is now a cross-party group of MSPs monitoring them.

Ms Wellington is deadly serious about improving funding for Scottish traditional culture. She compares the pound;1.5 million of Government support for traditional arts, spread over three years, to the latest bale-out for Scottish Opera. "There have to be fairer shares of the cake," she says. "The extra pound;500,000 a year (on top of pound;7.47 million) is 10p per head of population. The amount of investment in traditional arts is small, but the results are out of all proportion to the money that goes in."

Certainly the traditional arts in Fife seem buoyant. Ms Wellington talks of wood-turning and willow-weaving at a wee farm in Kinghorn, of Sunday afternoon ceilidh dancing in a St Andrews hotel ballroom, where overseas students rub shoulders ith enthusiastic locals, of storytellers and cartoonists at a school breakfast club, of the 20-strong Young Fife Road Show taking their music and dance to Rumania, of stained-glass classes at Fife College, a mother-and-toddler dance group and a steel band workshop.

A steel band? "Well, it's traditional someplace," says Ms Wellington, "and there are plenty oil drums lying about Methil.

"There is activity all over the place, but it's particularly strong in Fife," says Ms Wellington. There is a whole lot of talent around. These people can teach and perform. All they need is mild support and encouragement."

The council takes a hands-off approach. Ms Wellington and her team provide advice and funding to existing and new enterprises, but are wary of starting up things. They feel projects are more likely to keep going if the community comes up with its own ideas.

Work with schools makes up only 20 per cent of Ms Wellington's output, but that is likely to increase. There are pilot residencies running with traditional singers exploring themes such as farming and fishing with Standard grade pupils and S1 and S2 classes, and plans for six residencies next year, each for 20 days.

Ms Wellington favours the intensive, longer-term approach, with extra funding for other musicians and artists to come in and boost the residency's impact.

Nursery classes are also on her agenda. "I try and put Scots speakers into nurseries. Quite a lot of children come in with Scots language, and it's good to show them that it's accepted."

Even incomer and ethnic minority parents, she finds, are delighted when their children come home with Fife vocabulary; and, she adds, the Chinese children make very good Highland dancers.

There is nothing exclusive about Ms Wellington's vision. She believes it is the birthright of every child to know its own culture, the songs and stories that are the folk history of the nation. "And Scots culture is good," she bursts out. "The Irish can say what they like, but we've got the best tunes. There is a special something about traditional arts. They're very hit-you-in-the-heart."

She is keen that the traditional arts are not seen as museum pieces. Her talented youngsters in the Fife Road Show are encouraged to write their own tunes and choreograph their own dances, and to see and hear their teachers in performance at Celtic Connections and beyond. It is, above all, a living tradition.

I leave Ms Wellington struggling into her smart jersey in order to go and give a talk on her life and work, illustrated, as ever, with song. She fits in a lot of such talks: to the Women's Rural Institute, the Rotary and Probus clubs. "They are always very generous with their donations," she says.

Just now there is a talented Fife youngster with a chance to go to the United States to study wooden flute with the man who played on the film soundtrack for Titanic. So, it's can-rattling time again.

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