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Organic Scottish festival encourages global heroes

28 June 2013

Nick Thorpe reports from Solas, now in a new home


A dancer from the Bethlehem company, Lajee

A dancer from the Bethlehem company, Lajee

IN THE year that the Greenbelt Festival turns 40, Scotland's home-grown equivalent emerged last weekend as a flamboyant four-year-old determined to celebrate its cultural, and quite possibly political, independence.

A record crowd of about 1000 weekend campers, day-visitors, and contributors braved a typically Celtic mix of sunshine and showers to christen Solas Festival in its lush new home at the Bield retreat centre and organic farm near Perth.

In common with the resident alpacas, Garcia and Clyde, the varied programme of events on offer seemed simultaneously local and global. You could debate international food injustice while munching burgers sourced from local cows; enjoy the tartan nostalgia of Local Hero, or Japanese anime; and listen to the Scots Makar (poet laureate) Liz Lochead de-claiming in dialect, straight after a display from Bethlehem's Lajee dancers.

Solas is a Scottish-gaelic word meaning both light and spiritual truth, and the theme this year was "Imagination State" - an invitation to envisage a Scotland both outward-looking and distinctively itself. And, with a Scottish independence referendum looming in September 2014, there was plenty to discuss.

First on stage on Saturday was Douglas Alexander, MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary. He favoured "interdependence" rather than independence, a commitment to solidarity with neighbours and strangers at home and abroad, which he called a "dance with difference".

At times, that dance veered from passionate tango to emotional mud-wrestling. Visibly uncomfortable when a questioner spoke of Scotland leaving an "abusive relationship" with Westminster, Alexander called for language of the debate to be "cleaned up" - only to be picked up himself by the Scottish folk-singer Karine Polwart for using "abandonment" to describe Scotland's possible exit from the UK.

Liz Lochead, a committed yes-voter, was more relaxed when her turn came, believing that poetry was as much about "roughing up" language as cleansing it. She saw no reason why independence couldn't also be inclusive and hospitable.

The debate continued all weekend, whether between punters perched on haybales, or in presentations on "radical independence" and "radical devolution". The radical part was what everyone agreed on: the need to campaign for justice in a broken world.

The resident tribe of young people did their bit by catapulting Angry Birds at Christian Aid's cardboard wall of corporate greed, before heading off to try beatboxing, or to meet the farm animals.

The debate over sexuality/gay marriage felt less polarised than usual ("Get over it," summarised a session title). Instead, a Quebecoise contemporary dancer, Margie Gillis, embodied vulnerability and anguish when she improvised on stage to readings by Irish poet Pádraig ó Tuama. The result left many in tears.

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