IT has been a tough year for a lot of folks but one of my biggest frustrations personally has been that because of lockdown I’ve not been able to be out and about in Stirling as much as I would have liked. That changed in the last couple of weeks and I feel a lot more upbeat for it!

I was able to go along with my partner Jonathon and support some events to launch a really exciting venture Stirling is organising – a bid to be City of Culture 2025. Stirling Council and Scene Stirling, a partnership of creative agencies and organisations from across the city, have teamed up to help Stirling bid for the prestigious award which can boost a whole host of exciting opportunities for cities to grow and develop their cultural output.

I’m backing the bid, much as frankly I hope that by 2025 Scotland is well on our way to becoming an independent country – but it’s important we continue to do what we can to support sustainable and ethical economic growth and Stirling’s arts and cultural organisations have these attributes in spades.

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I was grateful to recently attend the launch of a new exhibition at the Stirling Smith Museum and Art Gallery, titled The Perfect Foil, by renowned artist Robert Mach alongside MSP Evelyn Tweed. I have to confess I was glad to ditch Zoom for once, and meet people face to face. The energy and buzz around the exhibition was matched only by the brilliance of the art on display. The exhibition has since closed,

but the Stirling Smith remains open for visitors – I really would recommend a visit.

From the Smith we headed up to another of Stirling’s cultural gems – The Tolbooth. Once serving as municipal quarters for the burgh’s town council, the building was remodelled in 2000 into a fantastic arts venue right at the heart of the “top of the town”. There I explored the art of five Stirling creators, commissioned by Scene Stirling to explore different mediums. From sculptures, to dance, to the written word to illustrations, I was blown away by the breadth of local talent we had right under our noses. Hats off to the local team for highlighting our best.

Evelyn caught me up with her own adventures, having attended the opening of a new exhibition at Bannockburn House – itself a testament to Stirling’s volunteer spirit. The Bannockburn House Trust succeeded in their community purchase of their namesake in 2017, and since then an army of local volunteers have painstakingly cleaned, organised and maintained the house and grounds for visitors to enjoy. The exhibition in question was by artist Mark Leslie, who photographed local volunteers in period dress, replicating the works of greats such as Rembrandt. A lovely gesture to the volunteers, as well as showcasing the splendour of the house.

And just this past weekend, Bloody Scotland returned to the streets of Stirling, counting famous crime writers Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and even Stephen King as guests. The hybrid proceedings allowed participants to join from around the world, whilst maintaining the spark which makes Bloody Scotland the nation’s leading Scottish International Crime Writing Festival.

Too often popular debate pits arts and culture against “economic growth” with even in newspapers the Business Section being at the other end of the paper from the arts, but our creative sectors are huge businesses in themselves and I think will be vital to our recovery from Covid. In today’s world of struggling high streets, changing retail habits and pandemic-related economic dislocation, our thinking must evolve with the times.

Visitors want to visit and live in places. They want an experience, a story, an adventure, local food and interesting venues. Consumers and tourists don’t want a cookie-cutter high street they could find in any city in the country – they crave authenticity. And this is precisely the fuel arts and culture can add to the engines of our high streets and city centres – to create interesting, unique and engaging spaces and experiences. To make local stand out and feel fun.

The pandemic has been a tough time for local businesses and charities. And staring down the tracks at conjoining crises covering energy, Brexit, food, climate, health systems and more, it can be difficult to feel optimistic about things in your community. But I firmly believe that arts and cultural organisations, with the proper motivation, support and funding, can help our villages, towns and cities flourish.

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For most of the lockdowns we’ve experienced during this pandemic, it has been culture that’s kept our spirits up, our moods brightened and our days filled with entertainment; video games, plays, art, films, TV shows and more. We owe it to our creators, to Stirling’s creative industries, to furnish them with our time and attention as we seek to build better communities, and more sustainable local economies post-pandemic.

Even the process of applying for the City of Culture Award has kickstarted Stirling’s economic recovery. Bringing together public, private and third-sector organisations, our bid for the City of Culture has been a lightning rod to channel the creative talents and energies of Stirling into a coherent whole. It’s been electrifying for the city, and even if we come short of the award itself, the process itself will have been well worth it.