The quote from The Rough Guide about Kilmarnock being ‘a shabby manufacturing town' does need to be challenged as its perception of Kilmarnock is far too one-sided. However, we won't do ourselves any favours if we ignore the element of truth behind their words. These were the views of an outsider and as Burns so wisely commented “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursel's as others see us, It wad frae mony a blunder free us.”
I too am sometimes considered an ‘outsider' in that I came to the town around thirty years ago. Kilmarnock has a lot going for it, but like most precious things, we only realise their value when we have lost them. For the last few years I have been looking at Kilmarnock through a camera lens. It is surprising what that brings into focus. I believe that both the perception and the reality presented by The Rough Guide can be changed, but only we open our eyes and switch on the creative parts of our brains.
As the publisher of an International magazine about traditional music, I often host visitors from overseas including many from the USA. Inevitably, the Dean Castle is one of the places I take them. To say they are stunned by it is an understatement. I have much more difficulty when people write to me saying that they intend spending a few days in the area and ask for details of what to do. It is easy to come up with a general list, less easy when you are asked the specific question “What can we do over the next three evenings?”
What can be done?
“If I were to begin again, I would begin with culture.” These are not my words, I wish they were. They are the words of Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EEC. What he was saying was that if he could start again from scratch, he would concentrate on getting the basics of society right confident that the economic growth would follow. Try to do it the other way round and it doesn't work. This holds true for Kilmarnock. There is little point in building new factories if the people who direct them won't live in the community. All this creates is a branch economy syndrome that results in closure whenever the going gets tough.
When Jean Monnet spoke about culture, he was not meaning just Opera and Ballet, although they play a part, rather he was talking about all the things that we do to enrich our lives. This can be everything from the play-park football team on a Saturday morning, to tending our gardens, to a game of bowls or even a pub quiz. We can't live without art and culture. Even in the midst of extreme adversity, such as the holocaust, people were making music and thinking of higher things.
In my dictionary, culture is defined as “the customs, belief, art, music and all the other products of human thought made by a particular group of people at a particular time.” The word ‘culture' is also used in a biological sense “to maintain in a suitable nutrient medium so that they can multiply, grow or develop.” Both definitions give a good sense of the value of culture as the life-blood and building block of a community.
In economic terms, few doubt the value of Glasgow's year as ‘City of Culture' in 1990. Culture is important to Kilmarnock although we probably don't realise its impact, but try suggesting to the headmasters of Grange Academy, Stewarton Academy and Loudoun Academy, that they take away their music departments and you would have a fight on your hands. Their experience has been that music has been the social glue that has benefited their schools beyond measure.
Unfortunately when it comes to cuts, cultural activities become the soft target for politicians who have their eyes on the short-term. The founder of the Kay Park left his mark on the town with a bequest that showed a gratitude for his past and a vision for the future. He also endowed two local schools. What legacy are we leaving to the next generation? Will tourists visit Kilmarnock in a hundred years time to marvel at the architecture of our out of town shopping prefabs?
Burns is a central platform of the Ayrshire Tourism strategy but our current use of Burns culture is more based on ‘tea room and gift shop tourism' than real substance. We deserve more that that and I welcome the change of attitude that is now surfacing. If we are serious about tourism being an important industry for our future we need to take action now otherwise we might simply change the Rough Guide summary of Kilmarnock from ‘a shabby manufacturing town' to ‘a pleasant dormitory town, well situated for commuting to Glasgow'. “Come here, we're cheaper” is not likely to attract the tourist with the world at their fingertips.
Our architectural heritage is important but buildings must have a contemporary use or they will die. Numerous voices have argued against perpetuating the memory of Burns by monuments. Jock Thomson, Secretary of the Burns Federation from 1968 until 1981, felt strongly that the best method of promoting the ‘immortal memory' of the bard was by charitable works, such as the National Memorial homes and the Jean Armour Homes at Mauchline. If the culture that Burns celebrated really is to be of value to our community, then it must be a living thing and must also embrace our young people. One imaginative use for the Burns Monument in the Kay Park would be as a heritage centre focussing on contemporary Scottish culture. When we think of Burns, we first think of poetry, yet his letters show that Scots songs and music were his greater interest. His poetry may have paid the mortgage but the songs and music of Scotland were his first love. For the tourist, the international scholar and the local alike, the monument in the Kay Park could serve as a gateway to the Scots heritage that Burns was so passionate about.
I wonder what Burns would suggest if he served on the council today. Would he support demolition of the monuments erected in his name – surely better than just spending money on protection from the elements and vandals until they fall down. Or, given that £380,000 was recently spent on renovating the Kay Park monument alone, would he vote for uses that gave them some life and purpose?
Who will speak for the people of Kilmarnock? The Standard has opened a debate. Let us hope that it is an honest one. I vaguely remember that the person who spoke up against the destruction of many of the buildings in our town centre during its redevelopment in the 1970s, worked for the Planning Department of the Council. I think that he was sacked and drummed out of town.
Published in the Kilmarnock Standard