Cultural highlights of 2021

Scottish cultural figures tell us their pick of the year

We've been in and out of lockdowns, and shut out before being let back in to venues during a year of flux and uncertainty. But the one reassuring constant has been a stream of top cultural activity whether online or in-person. As the end of 2021 approached, we spoke to prominent artistic directors, authors, actors, comedians, musicians, poets, and broadcasters from Scotland to tell us their number one highlight of the past 12 months

Alan Bissett author & playwright
My pick of the year was the new version of Candyman. First of all, it was the first film I went back into an actual cinema to see after lockdown, and as a huge Clive Barker fan I was delighted to see it making a comeback, even though I'm usually wary of horror reboots because so many of them have turned out hollow. However, I thought this was really fresh, it deepened the mythology and its mix of racial and class politics, and the sharp eye it cast on the mores of the artistic community were perfectly done.

Arusa Qureshi writer & editor
My cultural highlight this year was Push The Boat Out at Summerhall. Not only was it amazing to get a brand new festival of poetry in Edinburgh, the fact that it featured hip hop as a major element made it all the more special. The programme was well curated, with a nice mix of panels, screenings and performance events, and I was really pleased to be involved and on the bill with so many writers, poets and rappers that I respect. I hope that there'll be more editions of the festival in the future and that when it does return, it can be longer than a weekend so we can add even more poetry and hip hop to our lives.

David Greig Artistic Director of Royal Lyceum Theatre
My number one highlight of the cultural year was the second season of Cocaine & Rhinestones, a podcast on the history of country music. Written and presented by the acerbic, astute, informed Tyler Mahan Coe, it consists of two hour-long deep dives into themes, ideas and artists. Season two is focused on George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Taking in long sections on medieval jousting, bullfighting, ballet, the history of drag in America as well as beautifully polished explorations of Owen Bradley's Nashville sound and the invention of honky tonk piano, it's like nothing you've ever heard before. Quite honestly, it's the Moby Dick of country music.

Dawn Taylor Artistic Director of Puppet Animation Scotland and MANIPULATE Festival
This year, with COP26 on our doorstep, I was inspired by the way that artists in all disciplines have responded to the climate crisis, from large-scale works like Storm by Vision Mechanics to the pop-up Landing Hub venue. My particular highlight was Wayne Binitie's immersive exhibition Polar Zero at Glasgow Science Centre. By incorporating into his sculptures encased Antarctic air from 1765 and an Antarctic ice core which audiences could touch or taste, it offered a rare glimpse into the heart of something that is slowly disappearing. As most of us are pretty removed from it in the day to day, it was striking to be brought so close to the physical reality of our planet's climate history and future.

Iain De Caestecker actor
Il Buco was one of the first movies I had seen back on the big screen and it left a lasting impression on me not just for its original narrative and distinctive style but also as a reminder of the singular and special quality of cinema-going. In particular, the film's power to transport you to another place and time was especially welcome this year.

Jay Lafferty stand-up & writer
My cultural highlight of the year was the return of Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In August 2020, I stood in an empty, unfestooned Bristo Square and lamented to a filming news crew about the cancellation of the world's biggest arts festival. The creatives adapted and a colourful online event of work happened; but it's not the same as sitting in a room of strangers, holding a warm beer, and wondering if you are about to see comedy genius or improvisational carnage. This year, she returned, our festival, and maybe she didn't have her full party frock on but after 18 months of zoom crowds and beer-garden gigs it was amazing to be back in the country's capital, playing to socially distanced sold-out rooms of people remembering how to laugh and enjoy being in the moment again.

Jenny Lindsay writer & poet
Push The Boat Out, a new poetry festival for Edinburgh, spearheaded by Jenny Niven alongside Kevin Williamson, is such a welcome addition to the poetry calendar, with this inaugural weekend featuring a strong line-up of established and newer poets, local, national and international readers, and a digital element too. As one of the participants, it was a joy to meet with fellow poets after such a long time, and to facilitate a panel on the thorny issue of poetry and class, with Liz Berry, Victoria McNulty and Ross Wilson. This is a poetry festival unafraid to platform a range of voices, to explore poetry in all its forms, and is programmed by folks who care deeply about both poetry and its audience/readers in Scotland. It's a wonderful and rare thing that I hope thrives in 2022.

Kapil Seshasayee musician & activist
In September I was invited to perform in London at South Asian music festival Dialled In, organized by DJ collective Daytimers who had formed over lockdown. This festival ignited a revival and interest in scenes around South Asian music and it marked the first time I'd ever played to a crowd who resonated so closely with the narratives of my work.

Kirstin Innes novelist & columnist
While it would be totally wrong of me not to mention the fact that Rose Ayling-Ellis has kept me and my five-year-old gripped, emotional and IN LOVE every week during our first-ever Strictly season, if we're talking capital-C Cultcha then the absolute stand-out for me this year has been Burntcoat, the new novel by Sarah Hall. It's a slim, perfectly-formed gem of a book, an extraordinarily visceral take on sex, grief, creativity, disease, death and the strange mania of lockdown. I have no idea how she turned it around so quickly, but Burntcoat is absolutely the artistic response to the world that we need right now.

Mark Nelson stand-up & writer
My cultural highlight of 2021 is the triumphant return of TRNSMT. Scotland, as everyone knows has the greatest audiences in the entire world. To deny bands of them is a crime. After the past year, to see Glasgow Green full of folk dancing, drinking and belting back Oasis songs at Liam Gallagher was just beautiful.

Nicola Meighan writer & broadcaster
Books and the conversations around them have lifted my spirits and sparked ideas throughout the year. I enjoyed chairing a discussion with Tracey Thorn about friendship, feminism, The Go-Betweens and re-writing stories as part of Glasgow's literary love-in Aye Write, and I loved Edinburgh International Book Festival's hybrid in-person/virtual events. Highlights there included Alison Watt, Andrew O'Hagan, Tice Cin, Warren Ellis, Elif Shafak, Lemn Sissay and Nadine Aisha Jassat variously reflecting on the wonder of art, the beauty of music, the world(s) around us, magical thinking, the talismanic properties of Nina Simone's chewing gum, and the power of the word.

Peter Ross author & journalist
The Virginian singer-songwriter Lael Neale's second album, Acquainted With Night, summons an atmosphere of personal and spiritual yearning. Her use, as lead instrument, of an Omnichord (an electronic harp/keyboard/drum machine chimera) gives the whole endeavour the ambience of a dusty clapboard chapel deep in the American heartlands. The songwriting is masterful, recalling Leonard Cohen in some of the phrasing, and even, in the profound simplicity of 'How Far Is It To The Grave', William Blake's Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience. This album, not yet a year old, already feels like a classic.

Stuart Braithwaite musician & songwriter
My cultural highlight of the year was definitely Shade by Grouper. Her music is incredibly captivating and this astonishing record might be her best. Highly recommended.

Stuart Cosgrove writer & broadcaster
The outstanding event of the year for those of us obsessed with soul music was the
release of Questlove's Summer Of Soul, an award-winning film which revisited the Harlem 69 concerts that paralleled Woodstock. The archive has been almost impossible to source and clear for use and it was presumed the film would never be completed. Astonishing full colour footage of Stevie Wonder, Sly And The Family Stone and an angry yet inspiring Nina Simone.
Another film which is a must is The Tragedy Of Macbeth, Joel Coen's version of the Shakespearean classic starring Denzel Washington. There are many potential routes through the forest of interpretation; there is the powerful and foreboding presence of women, among them the three witches and the commandeering Lady Macbeth, played by the peerless Frances McDormand. It looks graceful and troubling with the uneasy sleep, unruly nights, nightmarish visions, Banquo's ghost, death's counterfeit and all the troubled tomorrows. It is a play so rich in interpretation it could be Scotland itself......And I may have forgotten to mention this, but St Johnstone won both national cups. I like the smell of Brasso in the morning.

Tony Mills Artistic Director of Dance Base
I didn't really engage with the Edinburgh Fringe as I was touring my own show, and so Hidden Door came at a time when I was able to really make the most of it. It created a vibe and level of excitement that doesn't happen a lot (in my opinion) in Edinburgh, outside of the Fringe. Not only was it impressive that the Hidden Door team had pulled it all together in the face of the challenges at the time, but it gave so many Scottish artists of various backgrounds an opportunity to present their work and have a much-missed exchange with live audiences. Attending Hidden Door was invigorating and a great way to wind up the summer.

Zara Janjua journalist & presenter
As someone who discovered a love of the great outdoors in lockdown (the grass is greener effect of being told to stay indoors for 18 months), I have fallen in love with adventure stories and there was none better than 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible on Netflix. Fearless Nepali mountaineer and former SAS solder Nimsdai Purja and his crew undertook a world record-breaking journey to conquer the 14 highest mountains in the world in just seven months. They battled injury, illness and even led rescue missions in the process; it was so inspiring that it might just get me off the sofa and away from my Hobnob dunkfest.

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