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Belladrum: cuttings from the verb garden

I didn’t know what to expect from at the Belladrum music festival in Beauly near Inverness at the weekend – except for a good time. I’d been asked to chair a some debates in the Verb Garden – a big tent devoted to the spoken word. Would anyone be interested, would anyone be sober, would anyone be able to hear over the din of amplified music? What the heck – it involved a chance to see Jefferson Starship and the Waterboys.

It turned out to be quite an education with full audiences for sessions on energy, prison reform, even agriculture. Here’s a video from the verb garden – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAnpN4sdKlg The Belladrum Tartan Heart is becoming one of the defining events on the northern cultural calendar and has shown that is capable of doing a lot more than just raising a racket and selling beer.

Belladrum is sometimes described as the “Glastonbury of the North”, but it is much broader in its appeal. People from all social and class backgrounds are here and you quite literally see three generations of the same family all jumping to the same infectious rhythms. It is becoming a real focus of community cohesion and not a little pride among the thousands who gather here that they can stage something like this in the Highlands. The food is pretty damn good too.

As to the chat – well, rock musicians are rarely sought for their political views, apart from those, like Bono and co, they wear them on their chests like medals. So there was an element of risk in mixing them with the usual professional talkers from pressure groups and campaigns. Perhaps we were just lucky, but the musicians who made it to the Verb Garden turned out to by pretty articulate commentators on contemporary politics.

Justin Currie of Del Amitri, showed that he has lost none of the wit and intelligence that informed the lyrics of those seemingly innocuous pop songs from Glasgow’s vibrant music scene in the 1980s. Like his hit “Nothing Ever Happens” which contains the immortal lines: “Computer terminals record gains in the prices of copper and tin, whlie American businessmen buy up Van Goghs for the price of a hospital wing”. Pete Wylie, of the Mighty Wah, a veteran of the parallel Liverpool music scene of the 1980s, blew everyone away when he came on with Gerry Conlan, of the Guildford Four and Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six to campaign against miscarriages of justice and against 42 day detention.

Earlier, sixty seven year old Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship gave a spirited defence of 1960s values as he lived them in San Francisco in the hippie era. Nor had he any apologies for making a record in support of the Sandinistas in the 1980s. There was a certain irony in this rock icon saying he still believed in the fundamental values of communism, but his optimism was refreshing in an age of fatalism and disillusion.

Politics was a lot simpler, I thought, in the 60’as, when the Cold War held the world in a relatively stable superpower balance. Not any more. As the amplifiers were fired up in Beauly, Russian fighters were bombing military targets in Georgia and hundreds were dying in the South Ossetian capital,Tskhinvali, at the hands of invading Georgian soldiers. Yes, the Tartan Heart festival at Belladrum is a long way, geographically and culturally, from this perplexing dispute in the Caucasus. But that didn’t stop people trying to grasp what was going on.

Who exactly are the good guys, when pro-Western, democratic Georgia resorts to military invasion to prevent a province, South Ossetia, from exercising its right to self-determination? We are conditioned to seeing Russia as the bad guys, though on this occasion they were apparently doing what we did during the Kosovo conflict in 1999: supporting the right of a province to secede and defending its people against aggression.

On the other hand, the willingness of hard man Vladimir Putin to use maximum force in response to Georgia’s pre-emptive strike cannot but arouse fears that Russia may be returning to its old, expansionist ways. This is a very hard war to call, a kind of post-modern conflict in which no one occupies the moral high ground, not even the South Ossetians themselves who have been playing both sides against the middle.

There weren’t any answers in Beladrum, just a sense of relief that in Britain we resolve our domestic territorial disputes with arguments not bullets. Here is Scotland with a nationalist government determined to secede – rather like South Ossetia – but there is zero prospect of Edinburgh being invaded any time soon by English tanks.

But then. we don’t have a strategically vital oil pipeline running across the central belt which the United States of America wants to secure and which Russia wishes to control. Whatever else South Ossetia is about it is first of all about the energy crisis and a stark reminder that in a age of fuel depletion, oil and gas are becoming things to fight over. And we would do well to remember that Scotland, with 25 billion barrels of oil still lying under the North Sea, is delicately placed in the geopolitics of natural resources.

But many of the people whole turned up to Belladrum were concerned less with geopolitics that with the price of heating oil which has gone up 40% in the past year. Others were finding they can’t afford to fill up their petrol tanks – a serious matter in the Highlands where people often have to travel long distances to work and where public transport is inadequate.

Perhaps that’s why some appeared to be impatient with the environmentalists and their elevated talk of micro-generation and renewables in the debate on energy. This is a difficult time for green activists, and not just because of the apostasy of the Guardian environmentalist, George Monbiot, who has come out with qualified support for nuclear power. People in the Highlands are as concerned about the environment as anyone, but they also want to heat their homes and get to work.

The environmental movement is always strongly represented in the stalls and fringe exhibitions at pop festivals and environmentalism is almost a religion in the rock industry. But one of the great strengths of Belladrum is the way it attracts what the politicians like to call “real people”. They are not impressed with people who expect them to buy costly organic food when they are finding it hard enough to feed their families, and they made their views pretty clear. All credit, by the way, to the Co-operative movement who sponsored the Verb Garden event, knowing that they would have to answer for their own purchasing policies and justify the environmental cost of importing fresh vegetables by air.

Of course, Belladrum is first of all about entertainment. But It is wrong to think that people aren’t interested in politics just because they don’t trust politicians. It isn’t just about the music. They listen to the words too.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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