IT was founded against a backdrop of world war and British empire when Scotland’s “cultural gas was at a peep”. Today the body set up to help the country find its voice in art, writing, architecture, music, science and engineering is celebrating its 80th birthday.

The Saltire Society was founded in 1936 to “improve the quality of life in Scotland and restore the country to its proper place as a creative force in Europe”. Since then it has championed the creators and thinkers who have helped, and still help, to shape the way Scotland sees itself and how the world sees Scotland, commissioning new writing, supporting the best emerging talent and reaching out across the globe.

This year the society has worked with broadcaster Kirsty Wark, classical composer Sir James MacMillan, former first minister Alex Salmond, architect Malcolm Fraser and many others.

According to executive director Jim Tough, the secret to its ongoing success is its independence. “We are a non-political charity that supports and celebrates Scottish culture,” he told The National. “We are, and have been, a platform for debate and discussion. Increasingly, I hope, we are playing a role in contemporary Scotland that values that independent thought and action.”

Every year the Edinburgh-based organisation runs a full programme of awards, shining a spotlight on civil engineering, arts and crafts, and literature, as well as honouring those who have made “outstanding contributions” to society through the Fletcher of Saltoun Awards.

Aside from this work, the society commissions pamphlets on a number of issues in its role as “a catalyst to make things happen”. According to the society, “rigorous conversations” must be encouraged to ensure we are “getting the best we can from our imagination as a nation” and help “great things” to be imagined and created here.

According to Tough, this is happening, and the evidence is all around us. However, it wasn’t always like that, with the society born of a frustration at the lack of opportunities for new thought and new cultural output in 1930s Scotland.

“The spirit of our work is what you might see in the Enlightenment,” he said. “Our byline is ‘celebrating the Scottish imagination’, whether it’s a writer or an architect or an engineer. The founders were concerned that Scotland’s cultural gas was at a peep. There was perhaps a lack of confidence and they wanted to help create outlets of expression to encourage a confident cultural life in Scotland.

“Part of that atmosphere was the Scottish Renaissance with poets like Hugh MacDiarmid reflecting on Scotland and Scottishness. Writers, academics and others were saying, ‘we want an organisation that will support, celebrate and promote Scotland’s cultural life’.

“Now our cultural confidence is high. You can look at the Saltire Society Literary Awards, which we held last week, or the success of Scottish visual artists internationally – Glasgow School of Art has been hugely influential in the last 10 years. Our museums are successful internationally.

“We have a lot to be proud of and to celebrate in our national life. I think we are in a strong place. But when we think about 1936, there was no Scottish Opera, no Scottish Arts Council, no National Theatre of Scotland, no Scottish Poetry Library. A lot of the major cultural players that we have now were not there.

“I think they were created in an atmosphere where that sense of ‘we are a nation and merit our own cultural institutions and that is desirable and possible’. I’m not saying that is a result of the Saltire Society, but I think the society helped create that atmosphere.”

In its time, the society has helped produce programme content for the Edinburgh International Festival and organised the first Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition in Glasgow.

This year, as part of 80th anniversary celebrations, it awarded more than £75,000 in grants to “nurture young talent” and recognise people who “have impacted on Scottish culture” through its Saltire Trust arm.

The programme allowed young artist Clare Paterson to embark on a three-month residency through the Steven Campbell New York Scholarship, which honours the legacy of the Glasgow-born painter.

One month into the scholarship, Paterson hailed the “wonderful opportunity” allowing her to collaborate with artists from around the world and begin a new body of work as a “once in a lifetime experience”.

Meanwhile, Saffy Setohy was awarded the emerging choreographers’ bursary, which led her to work with Scottish Dance Theatre and premiere new work earlier this year.

Clare Duffy’s Maverick Award paved the way to working with Abertay University, Perth Theatre and others to develop a new piece of software as part of he process of writing a new play “about who we are and who we want to be as digital citizens in the 21st century,” something she admits is “very ambitious”.

According to Tough, these awards are integral to driving excellence and having the biggest possible impact on the cultural landscape. “The more we do that,” he said, “the more we do for Scotland.

“We want to preserve and celebrate the best of what has gone before, but we want to have the widest discussion possible about issues facing contemporary Scotland.

“It’s no accident that during the referendum campaign we saw a lot of artists reacting creatively to big issues, and a lot of younger people.

“The Saltire Society is non-political, but we live in a political world. When you see a generation engaged in their country’s political future, I think that’s exciting.”

To mark its anniversary, the society will host a Saltire Celebrates event tonight at Oran Mor in Glasgow with music from Karine Polwart, Blue Rose Code, Cherry Grove and poetry from Christine De Luca. Tickets are available via Saltire’s website.