John Byrne Award 2015

Published by: New Music Scotland


Ruairidh Macleod’s improvised violin response to trade unionist’s famous ‘Alienation’ address hits the right note.

Ruairidh Macleod,a sixth year student at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, has won the prestigious 2015 John Byrne Award for his musical improvisation, De Profundis.

Now in its sixth year, The John Byrne Award challenges 16-19 year olds in Edinburgh to confront, develop and express their values in response to a given stimulus by producing a creative piece of work in any medium – a painting, a dance or even an HTML code. Work is carried out independently of teachers or parents.

The awards, sponsored by Cairn Energy and University of Edinburgh, were presented by the artist and playwright John Byrne at a ceremony at The Playfair Library in Edinburgh on Thursday 12 November at 19:00hrs. Educational consultant David Cameron hosted the awards evening, with John Byrne and Hamish Matheson, Chairman of the judging panel and senior geologist at Cairn.

The 2015 Awards stimulus for entries was Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid’s famous ‘Alienation’ Rectorial address, given to students at the University of Glasgow in 1972. Reid delivered his speech on his inauguration as rector of Glasgow University in 1972. The following day, ‘Alienation’ was printed verbatim in the New York Times and described as “the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address”.

This year’s winning entry was 17 year old Ruairidh Macleod’s improvisation on his violin, De Profundis. Ruairidh receives the £1000 award to spend on his personal development. Three shortlisted individuals/teams each also win a commendation prize of £500.

The three shortlisted John Byrne Award entrants who were commended this year are:


  • Bella Baillie: commended for her ‘passion, wisdom and intelligence’ for the painting entitled ‘The Malcontent’, portraying nude figures in an abstract landscape and symbolising a discontent from a common humanity.
  • Susie Bradley: commended for her ‘insightful interpretation of a complex contemporary issue’ for a piece of creative writing entitled ‘Identity’. Identity describes a fictional character, Ola Zeinah, from Syria. Her identity is portrayed through the eyes of a variety of strangers, her mother and herself. The piece explores identity, belonging, power, responsibility and equality.
  • Steven Dale: commended for his ‘portrayal of a marginalised group in society” for a painting entitled ‘The Hysteria of Youth’, portraying a male youth sitting alone with a computer in a room, and making a statement about the amount of time that adolescents spend socialising online.


Each commendation winner receives £500 for their personal development.

Each entrant had to submit a detailed report explaining how they responded to the stimulus and researched the issues. A shortlist then presented their work to the judges . This year’s judges were:

  • Hamish Mathieson, Senior Geologist at Cairn Energy
  • Florence Ingleby, Director at Ingleby Gallery
  • Stuart Ferguson, Director, Aker Solutions ASA
  • Emma Currie, Director, Acting Up
  • Maidie Cahill, Director of Corporate Services Scottish Qualifications Authority
  • Andrew MacDonald, The 2014 John Byrne Award winner.


 john byrn award

John Byrne Award winner, Ruairidh Macleod, said:

“The preoccupation with my piece was to create a work that profoundly showed the effects of our unfeeling, bureaucratic society upon individuals, and how this creates isolation, desperation and alienation. To truly convey my feelings, I felt the best approach was to create a piece as spontaneously as possible, so did this by recording an improvisation.

“For this piece, a storyline evolved: it opens very simplistically in order to create a sense of nostalgia for a sense of community and unstressed rural-ness that is lost in the sleepless cities of today. This soon develops into the sounds of industry, as the individual begins to seek work, but still with a sense of community.

“I was inspired for this by Jimmy Reid’s background in the Glasgow shipbuilding, and so imagined it on a shipbuilding site with sounds of hammering. Computer keyboards also reflect work, but introduce a more mechanical, unfeeling element. With the ‘persecution’ of these workers by commercial interests and government, the music becomes filled with a sense of terror and uncompromising power, which introduces the feelings of alienation. These cause the character to become more desperate, while the music reflects a sense of mounting insanity until the character decides to shoot himself; he is so unhappy with his isolated and desperate life.

“Having suffered from depression, I felt particularly moved by the words of the speech in describing the isolation, and so drawn to reflect this as much as possible in my creation. However the key values of hope and kindness are the most important, and hope returns in a final requiem for the individual ending on a major chord, that mourns his death, but also reminds that the last, most important value is that in the end there is always hope.”


John Byrne, said: “The John Byrne Award is a competition for the times. Its important that our young folk engage with their values in a creative way. Ruairidh’s improvisation on the violin is a great example of this. Well done Ruairidh!”


Simon Thomson, Chief Executive of Cairn Energy PLC said:

“We are delighted to continue our support of The John Byrne Award, an award which inspires Edinburgh’s young people to develop their own values and to strive for positive change in society expressed through a creative medium.”

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