Robin Downie

Alex Salmond used to have a sure political touch, but he has made some serious gaffes over the past year. The most recent, as I see it, is to propose a written constitution.

There might be an occasion to suggest this, once the referendum has been successful, perhaps some time afterwards. But raising it now just seems another bit of constitutional distraction from the pervasive economic anxiety. It will hardly set the pulses racing and convince the undecided voters. Who is going to think 'Yes, this is the Scotland I always wanted – one with a written constitution'? The Tory critic said he did not know whether to laugh or cry. As a hopeful 'Yes' voter, I felt like crying.

And, granted he decided to raise the matter, his suggestions for what might be included are absurd. No nuclear weapons in a Scotland which wants to be a member of NATO, a nuclear organisation? Free education? Is that to include everything from the nursery to postgraduate and adult education? The lawyers will be rubbing their hands at the scope for litigation. These are precisely the wrong sorts of items for a written constitution. But in any case, do we really need a written constitution as well as human rights legislation? It sounds just like another tier of bureaucracy.

Alex Salmond refers to European countries which have a written constitution. But these constitutions mainly pre-date human rights legislation. And perhaps he should consider the problems created in the US by their constitution. The right to carry guns, or whatever it says, was no doubt enshrined in their constitution in totally different circumstances. But it has created an ethos which President Obama is unlikely to change in any significant way, no matter how many children are murdered.

It is not possible to predict what economic or political circumstances will arise in the future and the hands of future politicians should not be tied by what was thought important by previous generations. What we need are inspiring policies for now and not tablets set in stone. When are we going to get the inspiring narrative developed from the basic idea that decisions affecting Scotland should be made in Scotland?

It is with great sadness that we record the death of Bobby Younger, one of the founders of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, publisher of the Scottish Review. Bobby continued to support ICS, SR and the Young Scotland Programme throughout the last 12 years. Bobby, the brother of the late George Younger, was a much-respected member of the Scottish Bar. He was 72 and had been ill for some time.

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29 January 2013

2The avoidable death
of a much-loved
Scottish institution

Kenneth Roy

6St Andrews: a town without a theatre. Photograph by Islay McLeod

The collapse of the Byre Theatre in St Andrews is none the less sad for being predictable. Last Thursday the directors hired an accountant to look at the books. There was no need to hang around. He advised them that the company was bust and should seek voluntary liquidation. This week the curtain will come down on 80 years of theatrical history.

So what? Small theatre; few dead. There are larger, more important victims of the recession in larger, more important towns than St Andrews. But the loss of a theatre is – or should be – an important event, and for various reasons it is worth pausing over this particular grave.

The Byre was the vision of Alex Paterson – A B Paterson as he styled himself professionally. He was a journalist and a prolific writer of homespun dialect comedies, and he was the leading light in an amateur society, the St Andrews Play Club. You would not have recognised him as a thespian. He was ruddy and plain-spoken. He got on with it – a practical chap.

In the early 1930s the players found the cost of hiring the Town Hall prohibitive and devised an enterprising solution. Led by Paterson, they leased a semi-derelict cow shed at the Abbey Street dairy farm and converted it into a little theatre with 74 seats. There was no restaurant and no bar in those days. The most the Byre could offer its customers was an ice cream. The play was the thing.

At first the Byre was a purely amateur endeavour, but in 1946 Paterson and his friends decided to engage a small professional company for nine months of each year. In a town of only 10,000 people? It did seem a hopelessly ambitious idea. Paterson made it work by cutting overheads to the bone and hiring a group of young actors.

Most of them had some experience playing walk-on parts with larger companies. The Byre gave them a chance to stretch themselves in more demanding roles. Technicians, often fresh from college, acquired skills in stage management, set design and lighting. These embryo pros – actors and technicians alike – were expected to co-operate in every department of the business, even down to the distribution of handbills in the streets. 'Group theatre' Paterson called it.

His artistic policy was ingenious. During the winter, when the indigenous population was swollen by undergraduates at St Andrews University, he presented challenging modern plays with an eye to the student market. In the autumn of 1969 – the season whose programme I have in front of me – the Byre produced 'Waiting for Godot', 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and John Osborne's 'Hotel in Amsterdam'. I doubt that any professional company in Scotland was more courageous in its repertoire.

In the summer, when the students were no longer around, Paterson turned to lighter material more likely to appeal to tourists, including some of his own plays. There was a local tradition that, whenever the Open Championship returned to the home of golf, the play of the week at the local theatre was Paterson's 'The Open'. With this eclectic approach the Byre became part of the furniture, a minor but much-loved Scottish institution, supported each year by a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council.

What went wrong? The Byre started to fail when the building became more important than what went on inside it. The company could not continue indefinitely in a converted cow shed, however charming it was. Alex Paterson recognised this and, in the early 1970s, raised enough money to build a larger theatre with modern facilities.

For a while beyond his death in the late 1980s, the annual season of plays was maintained. But then his successors made a serious error of judgement: they built a larger theatre still. The present one, opened by Sean Connery in 2001, was an immediate financial burden, as buildings often are, and the main ingredients of Paterson's original recipe – low overheads married to small-cast plays – were lost in an increasingly desperate scramble to keep the place viable.

By 2006 the Byre was no longer what they call a 'producing house'. It had surrendered what gives any theatre its sense of identity: it had given up its resident company. Instead it had been reduced to the status of a 'receiving house' for this and that, mostly that; it was a mere 'venue', a place to hang one's coat for a few hours, available for such irrelevances as weddings and conferences as well as any touring shows it could lay its hands on. The building was now everything. But the heart had been ripped out of it.

Creative Scotland delivered the killer blow. Almost as soon as the new arts quango came into being, it withdrew its funding, precipitating the inevitable slide into liquidation. Fife Council, owner of the building, is left to determine what, if anything, should be done with it.

Scotland does not lack such venues as the Byre; they're everywhere now. But it is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for these places. When J B Priestley evoked the magic of arriving in some dark provincial town in winter, and finding an unexpected light on a street corner – the light of the theatre – what he had in mind was a playhouse with a resident company of actors. He would have been captivated by the cow shed, but not much impressed by what it became. This was always an avoidable death.

One day, someone will re-visit Alex Paterson's modest vision and find it surprisingly practical. But first we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that the arts must be 'properly' housed in glittering buildings fit for the consumers of corporate hospitality.

Two boards and a passion used to be enough. They still could be.

3Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review

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