Scott McDonald, CEO of the British Council, reflects on his visit to Celtic Connections music festival in Glasgow. January 2023:

Celtic Connections is one of the largest traditional, roots-music festivals in the world. It was fantastic to travel to Glasgow earlier this year to experience the global collaboration taking place at the festival courtesy of Showcase Scotland first-hand.

As one of the founders over twenty years ago, along with Creative Scotland, the Showcase is a longstanding part of the British Council’s work in Scotland. The forum typically brings over 2000 musicians to Glasgow each year and It’s a chance to do what we do best – bringing people together to explore what they have in common, and to learn from each other through art.

We support this international dimension of Celtic Connections each year by bringing artists and industry professionals from around the world to the festival. Amongst the whirlwind of conversations at the Showcase this year, I heard Australian folk musicians discussing favourite tracks with Welsh musicians, festival organisers from Beirut speaking with counterparts from Belfast, and a band from Brittany chatting about traditions with a solo artist from Glasgow.

These encounters are what cultural relations is about - the discoveries that arise when people meet with open minds. You can hear stories from our international delegates in the video below.

Arts and culture have always been powerful ways to help nations connect – creating interest and relationships that are distinct from economic and political ties. Culture allows a nation to show its best self to others in an open and welcoming way.

Even during the pandemic, Celtic Connections and Showcase Scotland kept collaboration alive, ensuring artists kept working and were seen internationally and maintaining industry links. The creation of new initiatives like Global Music Match – for emerging bands – and Postcards from Scotland maintained vital connections between musicians.

This year, during the Showcase weekend at Celtic Connections, British Council Scotland hosted two seminars with experts and thought leaders about education and diversity in traditional music and about how archives are creating a living conversation with music heritage. We heard fascinating conversations about tradition, musical heritage and what this history means for Scotland.

Burns Night was a topic in these discussions as a tradition that has spread across the world, becoming a highlight of Scottish culture and a testament to the power of Burns and  the global reach of his writing. These moments are especially important to anyone who considers themselves part of the Scottish diaspora – including myself. I do have a doubly Scottish name after all.

As Robbie Burns knew, it is truly a great gift to know yourself and what others make of you. Taking this inspiration, British Council Scotland recently asked people what makes Scottish arts special or distinctive. The results of the research are set out in the two reports you can access here: To See Ourselves, and As Others See Us.

Scotland has distinctive arts assets, and I’d encourage you to read the reports. One of the themes that comes through most strongly is what you might call ‘cultural confidence’ – the way in which cultural life is integrated into 'the every-day' throughout Scotland. The country’s landscape also plays a special role in informing Scottish art and thought.

Probably the most important ingredient, however, and the one referenced by many of the contributors to our reports, is ‘Spiorad’. It’s what makes every encounter with Scottish art, landscape, or people different from one with art or people from anywhere else. It’s impossible to accurately define, but I think we all know it when we see it, hear it, or feel it.