St Kilda the Opera brings out the bully-boys

IT'S not often that a positive story from Scotland scales the commanding heights of the BBC news.

So it should have been a pleasant surprise, the other day, to find the bulletins full of a lengthy report about a new operatic event designed to evoke the story of St Kilda, the far western island famously evacuated in 1930, after a series of demographic disasters finally reduced the tiny island community to a point where the authorities decided it could no longer survive. St Kilda the Opera is to be performed simultaneously, at the end of June, in four cities across Europe, as well as in Stornoway, and will feature live video images beamed from St Kilda itself; the 1.35 million project is funded by the European Commission's Culture Fund - which is meeting almost half of the cost - along with the Scottish Executive, which has contributed 100,000.

The trouble is, though, that there seemed to be some doubt, up at the BBC, about whether this was a positive story at all. To put it bluntly, it seemed to have made its way into the bulletins as a piece of weird exotica at best, and at worst as an example of a ludicrous waste of public money; on Radio 4's The World Tonight, the presenter could hardly contain her mirth and incredulity at the whole idea. Nor was the BBC the only media organisation to take this view; it was on Christmas Eve last year that the story was first given this negative spin, by a Scottish-produced newspaper which chose to lead its story by opining that "1m of taxpayers' money is to be spent sending a Gaelic opera on a tour of European countries where nobody speaks the language"; for all the world as if this represented an impartial report on a Scottish contribution to an art-form which, as everyone knows, is routinely heavily subsidised - the Arts Council of England's grant to the Royal Opera House alone now runs at a cool 24.9 million a year - and performed in languages unknown to most members of the audience.

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Now it is difficult, confronted with this level of prejudice, to know exactly where to start in challenging the cultural assumptions involved; but let's try disentangling a few strands of the argument. In the first place, the snigger-response seems to be based on the assumption that nothing that happened on a remote Scottish island, three-quarters of a century ago, could possibly be of interest in a European or international context. Yet the story of St Kilda is an iconic and unforgettable one in a dozen ways that should catch the attention of any 21st century human being. It tells of how a process of environmental, social and economic change made an old way of life unsustainable, and broke the community that once lived that life. It tells of the experience of human displacement and migration, and of the silent suffering of people forced to leave their home ground for ever. And it takes place against a setting so wild and spectacular that few people, once they have glimpsed the images of the towering cliffs and rock-pillars of the islands, can fail to be moved by it. This is a great human story, in other words, with tremendous contemporary and global resonances; and it takes a media culture dangerously out of touch with reality, and with the times, to write it off because of some strange conviction, drawn from the early phase of British urbanisation more than a century ago, that stories about "choochters" are never to be taken seriously.

Then there is the matter of language, and the astonishing persistence of negative attitudes to the Gaelic tongue, both in Scotland and beyond.

It would, of course, be madness to present an opera about the people of St Kilda in any other language. It's not only that this was the tongue they spoke, but that the Gaelic song tradition is one of the most powerful and beautiful on the planet. Even this much Gaelic, though - a work created in an art-form where language is famously no object, with a dozen techniques for making text available to non-native audiences - is too much for those 21st-century cultural bully-boys of both sexes who see minority cultures and languages as nothing but a pest, and can't understand why everyone doesn't just speak modern media English, like them. Of course, the lack of intellectual curiosity and elementary human respect entailed in such attitudes stunts the mind, even as it twists the personality. But until the people who embrace those views come face to face with the dangerous consequences of their militant cultural insensitivity, they are unlikely to change; which is, to put it mildly, unfortunate for us all.

And then finally, there is the quiet tragedy of the fact that many Scots are happy to collude in this sneering metropolitan put-down of Gaelic culture. For in matters of culture and language, respect for those who are "other" than ourselves is not divisible; and an ethic which sanctions the bullying and mocking of the small by the large, or of the economically weak by the economically strong, will in the end devour all but the two or three largest languages and cultures on the planet. It's therefore particularly sad for patriotic lowland Scots, members of a nation of less than five million people, to set themselves up as scourges of the Gaelic; and to reproduce in their attitudes to Scotland's most ancient and threatened tongue the bullying tone sometimes adopted towards Scotland itself by the political boot-boys of Westminster.

We all know, from our days in the playground, that those who are bullied sometimes become bullies themselves. That only happens, though, if they lack the wisdom to understand their own story; and to learn from it how to begin to love and respect the richness of difference, for the sake of all our futures.