Sparking the Modern Enlightenment


  • Picture of Neil McLennan FRSA
    Neil McLennan FRSA
  • Fellowship
  • Fellowship in Action

Neil McLennan FRSA reflects on his first year as RSA Fellowship Councillor for Scotland.

In December 2017 I was announced at a RSA Fellowship Councillor for Scotland. In the early part of that year I gave a couple of updates to give a sense of activity I was involved in and what I was seeing from my involvement with RSA Scotland. In the latter part of the year RSA Fellows might have seen the World War One Commemorations work I involved in. Working in partnership with other organisations we brought about a magnificent new memorial in Edinburgh and now a total of four plaques commemorating Scotland’s Great War poets:-

  •  In October 2017 we unveiled a plaque at the site in Juniper Green, Edinburgh where Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves met as part of Owen’s Edinburgh enlightenment.
  •  On November 2nd 2018 we unveiled a plaque in Aberdeen to Charles Hamilton Sorley. That plaque is sited on the building he grew up in – Powis House.
  •  On 23rd November 2018 we unveiled the magnificent Scotland’s War Poets’ Corner memorial in Makar’s Court Edinburgh. The Celtic cross helps show the sharing of ideas and themes across borders and the symbolism of the sword turning into a pen is a mighty one.
  •  On 5 December 2018 we unveiled a plaque in Dundee to Great War poet Joseph Lee. A fine poet, artist and journalist, he served in both wars and is now commemorated at Airlie Place, Dundee where he lived twice in his life.
  • Next year we will unveil plaques to both Mary Symon in Dufftown and Lady Margaret Sackville in Edinburgh. It has been so important that we recognise writers and poets across the country and, in the year of commemorating the Suffragettes, we also recongise the war poetry (or more so anti-war poetry) of some of the finest female writers in Scotland at the time. Their words and warnings on war will echo into another century.

The second major project I was involved in saw an international orchestra gather for a global concert on the afternoon of 11th November. In total we had 45 locations across the world play Thoren Ferguson’s composition ‘Armistice’ in a stunning symbol of cross border cooperation and creativity. The project saw thousands take part either live or after the event watching the concert for peace. It came together after sharing my idea in a newspaper article and then harnessing those enthusiastic adopters of the idea into a truly global symbol.

Every week fellows are engaged in similar work, taking ideas into action, either directly with other RSA fellows or through their own initiative, enthusiasm and energy. These were key catalysts to the enlightenment- ideas, enthusiasm to progress them and the energy to see through the ideas into innovative and impactful action.

Towards the end of 2018 Head of RSA Scotland, Jamie Cooke, published some articles considering what the modern enlightenment might look like and how it might happen. One thing is for sure, our fellowship has thinkers and do-ers who have the ability to be part of such an era of innovation and inspiration.

Over the past year we have seen more fellows join RSA Scotland. We have seen international links continue to grow (many attended the Civic Reception in Edinburgh with our American friends, and the First Minister also presented at RSA House on international affairs), regional events take place (it was great to attend the St Andrews network event and also travel to the Borders) and thematic events (Mic Starbuck’s lead with the Health and Wellbeing zoom group shows what is possible to connect likeminded fellows online) inspire like-minded fellows. In the last few months the Angus Miller lecture, delivered by Jamie Suskin, gave us a glimpse into the future and some thoughts as to how it might impact on power, democracy and daily life. We are delighted that Jamie also became an RSA Fellow. He is now planning to give a similar lecture in London following the success of the Scottish event.

On the theme of London; with great IT connections the various events in London (indeed anywhere in the country) are now accessible for all. I have taken part in some RSA Consultations and working groups this year via zoom video conferencing, I have watched many lectures on RSA’s facebook page or direct video link and I have also linked up with many fellows using MyRSA or RSA Fellows Forum.

Last week I met with some Aberdeen fellows and activity is planned on the back of those initial coffee conversations. Likewise the Shetland network, our most northerly RSA Scotland fellows, plan to meet again next year. There is lots going on.

A year into the role of Fellowship Councillor I think I have a good sense now of the various levels of activity and engagement. From fellows who are happy to be connected into something bigger and look occasionally at the magazine and website and are inspired by something they read; to those who are key supporters in arranging events on themes of interest or bring together people regionally, all are welcome and all give or draw inspiration from RSA. Whether it is reaching out to fellows in your local area to connecting globally, it replicates the activity of those who powered societal change centuries ago.

One thing is clear though- the enlightenment happened not just because coffee. Coffee may have been the initial connector, but ideas shared over coffee had to be taken into action.

I reflect back on what we know about one hundered years ago. The year 1918 saw the First World War end. Many hoped for great things in 2019. Sadly the aftermath did not necessarily deliver on what everyone wished for.

As we approach the year end I would ask this, what is your new year’s resolution? What will 2019 bring for you and what will you bring to it? What is the idea that is burrowed away just waiting for action? Moreover, what will you do about it? Can you contribute to the modern enlightenment? If so, perhaps sharing a blog is a start sharing the ideas, then drawing some other fellows together to make ideas happen.

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