It is now three months in Scotland since the country went into lockdown, driving us into our homes with strictly rationed escape for exercise, shopping and essential work. Once we got over the initial shock of entering survival mode and panic buying of pasta eased, we quickly began to realise that all the fun things had been cancelled, many into the foreseeable future. Meetings with friends, family and grandchildren were forbidden. Our calendar on the wall in March, a healthy appointment list of artistic events stretching out into the early summer became a sea of white nothingness with no horizon as the lockdown continued: festivals gone, operas postponed, theatres, cinemas and concert halls firmly shut and weddings cancelled. Churches too were off-limits, adding a mean austerity to Lent, and heralding a very different Eastertide. Early on in lockdown, the ecologically precious River Tay reed beds caught fire leaving scorched acres, and a pall of smoke that could be seen from Edinburgh, a bleak symbol.

View of the River Tay in Perth
© David Smythe

Essential businesses have continued, and others have received help from the government, but in a myriad of schemes, many have fallen through the gaps. Tourism and hospitality shut completely as did the performing arts which will need inspirational, robust and eloquent leadership as well as additional assistance to ensure survival – we are looking at a possible loss of 6,900 jobs in the cultural sector in Scotland.

Housebound, we have turned to our screens and cultural offerings have slowly begun to appear. Our arts organisations in Scotland have been doing what they can to fly their flags, keeping in touch with their audiences. With its lorries repurposed on supermarket and food bank delivery duties, the RSNO had been quietly filming its Saturday night concerts in Glasgow and has been able to release its digital archive in hour-long Friday night streams. There is also the RSNO Challenge for the family – from kitchen percussion, learning and singing a round to making instruments from vegetables. Not to be outdone, Scottish Opera is putting an online opera for 8-12 year olds to learn together in weekly slots, called (topically) Fever. It also launched its new short film opera The Narcissistic Fish for grown-ups.  BBCSSO has been producing innovative Music in Isolation videos, the SCO similarly running Live from your living room with small groups of players, while the Dunedin Consort is putting its educational Making music series for primary schools available online. Lockdown has produced a valuable online musical resource for children to dip into.

More ambitious offerings have come from the Royal Conservatoire with the RCS at Home series offering everything from quirky whale head making to extended performances from students and others – I stumbled on Rakki Singh from the Manchester Collective performing Steve Reich’s Violin Fase. The National Theatre of Scotland has commissioned over 50 miniature digital performances in its Scenes for Survival. As skills of melding performers together digitally have been learned and mastered, all sorts of musical groups have been getting online, from choirs to ceilidh bands, even a digital premiere of lively Comic Sketches by Eddie McGuire for four bass clarinets performed by Calum Robertson.  Perhaps the most memorable has been Nicola Benedetti’s Foundation, virtually tutoring players from across the world and pulling together a concert which genuinely tugs at the heartstrings.  

While the online content has been creative, and the wider worldwide access to concerts and productions has been astonishing in its variety, no matter how lush your sound system or how big your TV, the screen experience does not come close to the vibrancy and excitement of being at a live performance. While some have embraced streamed content, others have found engagement more emotionally difficult or simply too much to take in after a long day juggling working from home and managing restless children.

There is hope as orchestras are beginning to find performing solutions in Europe. The Wigmore Hall series of live broadcast performances with no audience will be followed by a series from the City Halls in Glasgow, and in August in a tiny Edinburgh Festival, the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh will run similar concerts. Today, the River Tay reed beds are a sea of emerging green shoots, and I am looking forward to blowing away the cobwebs, turning up the volume and revisiting RSNO’s highlights from last year’s Edinburgh Festival performance of Götterdämmerung. It is not the same as being there, but it will do for now.