The Right to Culture International Conference, Warsaw, 6/7 Nov 2013

Distance makes the heart grow fonder: Remote locations and the dimensions of the right to culture

Andrew Ormston 2013

‘The right to culture, understood as the capability of everyone – irrespective of financial or geographical limitations – to freely access cultural goods, seems obvious today’
Krysztof Dudek, Director of the National Centre for Culture, in The Right to Culture as a Human Right – A Guide -Publ. The Polish National Centre for Culture & Wroclaw 2016 ECoC

This statement is implicit in much of the cultural policy making of the last half century. My own career has been based on a belief that artistic and creative culture was valuable, largely producer led, and people’s lives would be enhanced by access to it. Yet over recent years the mushrooming gap between wealthy cultural ‘haves’ and poorer cultural ‘have nots’, concerns over migration and national cultures, and the impact of digital on definitions of cultural consumer and producer challenge these assumptions. How do you exercise a right for something that is never fixed, and only comes into being at the moment of its apprehension? Yet this is a fundamental problem at the core of our values and ways of life. Spinoza famously said ” in a free state everyone is free to think what they wish, and to speak what they think”, but what if your thinking is less informed and your words unheard because of where you live.

Shetland, Mull, the Outer Hebrides,& Orkney are a long way, and an expensive flight from the urban cultural scenes of the Scottish Central Belt. My recent work in these areas has helped me bring some issues about access to culture into focus, particularly in relation to three cultural characteristics: the interdependence of culture and the creative industries in providing access to culture; how culture is constituted in unique ways in different contexts, from a Gaelic speaking West of scotland, to a Nordic leaning Orkney and Shetland; physical distance illuminates both the massive impact and potential impact of digital technology on culture.

Over three quarters of EU territory comprises rural areas, housing over a quarter of the population (IDELE Project). This is a heterogeneous segment of Europe and presents a challenge when it comes to both development and planning. Depopulation, social upheaval through localised demographic change, conservation issues, and lower levels of public service provision and private sector activity characterise more remote rural situations. The particular challenges created by these factors, however, vary from nation to nation and place to place. For example, in remote rural Scotland people share UK ideas of what constitutes a minimum standard of living, but some households need up to 40% more income to achieve it than those living in urban areas of England (HIE).

There are also common issues that arise directly from geo-demographic factors and the ability to exercise a right of access to culture is one such issue. It is not surprising that much of the debate around access to culture takes place where most cultural investment is expended and tends to focus on the marginalising impact of a cultural mainstream on minority groups.
‘Access is almost always a precursor to participation and we might not even be aware of the channels that exist to make every one part of the cultural experience.’ (Laaksonen)

But what about places where cultural access cannot be assumed, or where it is significantly different from the mainstream that is reinforced in broadcast, print or even digital media? The notion of cultural democracy rests on the respecting of everyone’s cultural requirements and a ‘level playing field’ of access, involvement and resourcing, but much of our culture doesn’t work like this. The notion of equitable access to and involvement in opera or ballet has proven unsustainable, even when an aspiration. There is a plethora of evidence that income, education and social background are key factors in determining access to the cultural production of arts organisations. But there can be little doubt that physical distance supersedes all of these. Cultural democracy is also defined by locale.

The problem for those that believe that the culture of the concert hall, theatre or gallery should be accessible to all is that the local approach to providing a right of cultural access has remained discretionary and largely project based. Half a century of community arts and the right to culture remains a postcode lottery.  This is particularly the case in remote rural areas where ‘rural communities do not often suffer from the ‘crowded platforms’ and multiple interests present in urban areas. The relative lack of local action and locally engaged government agencies mean that there is significant scope for local partnerships to develop‘ (IDELE Project).

Can this issue be treated in the same way as those of other minority interests, amenable to social action through culture and attention to cultural diversity? This approach has recognised and looked to respond to cultural plurality where it exists, such as in the case of Scotland’s re-energised Gaelic culture. But the cultural differences of most remote communities are less clear cut than this. We can’t simply treat remote communities as if they were a national minority as enshrined in the instruments set out to support access to culture. Our cultural lens onto remote communities is not filtered by a concern for social cohesion, but reveals a ‘raw’ connection between access to culture and the viability of the community’s existence.  I recently worked on plans for a St Kilda centre. The island was evacuated at the request of residents in 1930 who could no longer tolerate the gap between their hardship and the life they could hear over the radio. It is a World Heritage Site today, but only researchers spend time there. As Onora O’Neill points out “you can’t ignore the rights of those on the receiving end of communication”. Her concern is with communications that privilege freedom of speech (and by extension, freedom of expression) at the expense of the rights of those being addressed. It is possible to observe that cultural production and dissemination is often blind to those at the receiving end without necessarily subscribing to an idea of passive audiences being manipulated by a dominant culture. The people of St Kilda were also cultural producers, with strong traditions of arts, crafts and music making. These traditions are as strong as ever in many remote areas, and are arguably being refreshed. There have been genuine efforts to support culture that is more intangible – not embodied in a theatre or gallery, or an assessment of direct economic impact.

Fèisean nan Gaidheal focuses on Gaelic culture in Scotland (The Demand for Gaelic Arts) and impact research across its user base had to extend beyond Gross Value Added (GVA) to present a meaningful picture. The results identified a predominant view that access to Gaelic arts and culture is both a major motivation for young people and essential for future economic developments. Even more striking was a clear link between culture and decisions to return or relocate to a remote rural area. This strengthens the case of those who argue that remoteness is more about how you live than where you live. Yet still in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands too many young people leave and don’t come back.

The question of how factors of distance and low population density can be addressed to enable both public and private sector activity is not new. Traditional solutions have included: moving materials around a dispersed labour force, such as home-based arts and crafts; gathering together labour for seasonal activities like festivals and tourism activity; mobile provision like libraries or Scotland’s Screen Machine mobile cinema; or ‘hub and spoke’ where high quality centres service a network of small scale activity.  The population of Uig in the Outer Hebrides, future site of the St Kilda centre, is down to 240 people living across around 30 villages. The first question that was asked about the proposals was about job opportunity, and creating markets for other businesses, including cultural and creative businesses. Expectations of the new centre comprise both what could be considered a traditional response to the right to culture and a more innovative determination to pioneer new routes to culture, exploiting developments in technological development. The former will create a building-based resource that draws visitors and inward investment to Uig, and the latter will attract international attention, networks, education and research through use of remote access technologies (UNESCO).

This mixture of traditional and innovative working appears to be on the rise. The development of Mareel (www.mareel.org/?) in Shetland is in part a response to young people not returning to Shetland once their education is complete. It has proved controversial because of its ambition and bold minimalist design. It has also turned a traditional arts development model of projects to meet established local demand on its head. Mareel provides cutting edge production facilities and an innovative business model that aims to attract new business to Shetland and directly reach new international markets, and not via the established production and distribution centres in major cities.

The challenges of working at a distance can mean that means of delivering culture have been developed that are now needed in cash-strapped urban cultural economies if most people are to be able to exercise a right to culture. Orkney’s sophisticated volunteer workforce development sustains the St Magnus International Festival. Mull’s theatre and music centres merged into a more sustainable business unit. Organisational merger and integration of professional and volunteer workforces are radical moves that would not even be considered by many cultural providers. Remoteness can also translate directly into cultural innovation. if you work in Shetland or Orkney you are constantly reminded of the importance of cultures that are not Scottish. Shetland is actually nearer to Norway than mainland Scotland, and the cultural heritage of the Western Isles is as much Irish as Scottish. Most noticeably Gaelic culture and language, nurtured in remote areas, are becoming more significant as part of a national culture.

The recent White Paper laying out the case for Scottish independence highlighted that only 7.6% of UK BBC network production takes place in Scotland. It goes on to prioritise the creation of a Scottish Broadcasting Service. The reasons for this are not just about the direct benefits to the cultural economy created by television production, but also about the relationship between broadcast television and lived culture. The culture embedded in how we live has been traditionally reflected back to us through the arts and entertainment sectors. Culture from remote locations has often been forced into a host genre to enable this to be done successfully, often made romantic or even exotic in the process.  However, new modes of transportation, information and communication are opening up fresh possibilities for remote rural areas and have even created a ‘valorisation’ of the experience of remote living that has attracted people and industries to these locations. Technology offers the potential for network based approaches where once a critical mass of population and resource would have been needed for sustainable cultural activities. A recent tour of Uig included stops to view mobile phone masts that have been established by the region’s enterprise agency (Highlands & Islands Enterprise) working with the local community. This is important for day to day communications, but is also a cultural necessity as a means of responding to our rapidly evolving activity as digital ‘prosumers’. The line between cultural consumption and production is now so blurred that predicting where and how culture will be developed and consumed is increasingly difficult. The question of where to make an effective intervention to enhance a right of access to culture is not easily answered. The Amb:IT:on Scotland digital development programme (http://getambition.com/) was in part established to bring the digital opportunity to life in more remote areas. Here we have digital technology developing to directly address issues of sustainability and access to culture. Case studies impact on every aspect of cultural production and dissemination. The approach is one of providing a kind of ‘tool box’ for cultural organisations to work with and this is particularly effective when you cannot predict outcomes, and when resources are limited.

‘…..the enjoyment and fulfilment of the right to participate in culture requires an enabling environment and a legal framework that offers a solid basis for the protection of rights related to cultural actions’. (Laaksonen p.10)

Laaksonen is right to point to both an enabling environment and a legal framework. In the metropolis much effort is put into ‘tweaking’ cultural activity to enable people to access it, and the legal right can seem like an unwanted intrusion, particularly to those wedded to the notion of cultural entrepreneurship. Yet once you leave the cultural ‘noise’ of the metropolis it becomes clear that the right to culture is synonymous with the right to exist for communities in more remote locations. This requires a means of access. Today this requires the means to consume, produce and distribute culture.


The interdependence of each element of the cultural economy, from musician to broadcaster to educator, also translates into the need for a strategic approach. We have seen in the UK, however, that the results of a requirement for a cultural strategy are predetermined by the intentions of the key people in a locale: the gatekeepers and the budget holders.  The right of access to culture is umbilically linked to resource decisions. In remote areas democratic resourcing breaks down if based on per capita, even adjusted per capita formulae. Political leadership is more fragmented and strategic approaches more difficult than in the urban context. The evaluation of Scotland’s LEADER Programme for rural development points to the need for strategic direction and leadership and for investment to better serve innovation and become ‘cutting edge’. This challenge is European in dimension and research clearly points to the importance of networks and cluster-based working for rural development. Yet most SME’s do not cooperate and the impact of this clearly impacts on access to markets, technology, production capacity and capital. This lack of cooperation and networking also applies to the right of access to culture. The solutions for developing cultural and creative production are roughly similar to those for ensuring access to culture. This is also where socio-economic and geographic remoteness from the cultural mainstream take on the same characteristics. The right of access to culture is as much a challenge to cultural producers and distributors as it is to a government or regional authority.

A lens onto culture in remote areas is clearer and picks out the need for cultural producers to consider the rights of the cultural citizen. This leads Francois Matarasso to conclude that the cultural rights of the urban dweller can be enhanced by lessons from the very rural.
‘In the end, I believe that this is perhaps the most crucial role for contemporary rural culture: to engage critically with urban cultural values.’

The right to culture is exercised more in the connections between cultural actors than in the nature of some kind of ‘golden thread’ between the school fiddle player in Shetland and the Royal Opera House in London. Provide the right conditions and they will find one another if they want to.


1. Remote Rural Areas: Stimulating and Managing New Firm Creation and Entrepreneurship

through Local Action – A Third Thematic Report of the IDELE Project
2. Making culture accessible – Access, participation and cultural provision in the context of

cultural rights in Europe, 2010, Laaksonen.A, Council of Europe
3. A Minimum Income Standard for Remote Rural Scotland, 2013, www.hie.uk/MIS

  1. http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/


  2. The Demand for Gaelic Arts: Patterns & Impacts, 2006, Caledonian University for Proiseact

    nan Ealan

  3. SRDP 2014-2020 LEADER Working Group – Report, 2012
  4. 9 Observatory of European SMEs , SMEs and Cooperation , 2003, No. 5, Luxembourg:

    Office for Official Publications of the European Union

  5. http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/ gifford-lectures/baroness-oneill

9. Scotland’s Future, http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2013/11/9348
10.Using remote access technologies, Lessons learnt form the Remote Access to World

Heritage Sites – St Kilda to Uluru Conference, 2012, UNESCO Policy Brief 4 Remote

11. On the Edge – art, culture and rural communities, 2002, Matarasso.F, Robert Gordon