What's New in the North
by Kenny Taylor
In the Wake of Metagama
A century ago, in April 1923, the SS Metagama – a Canadian Pacific Railway steamship that plied between Scotland and Canada - left Stornoway carrying more than 300 islanders. Headed west across the Atlantic, many of them would never return. The following year, two more vessels departed for Canada with more emigrants from Stornoway and Castlebay. This came in the bitter wake the Iolaire disaster in 1919, when nearly 200 islanders were among the servicemen drowned when the ship carrying them home from the First World War sank not far from Stornoway. The loss of nearly 1,000 young people in a handful of years had a major and lasting impact on the Outer Hebrides.
Those who left on Metagama and its successors had been encouraged to emigrate on an Assisted Passage Scheme, which required them to work on farms across the Great Plains. But many moved on more quickly to find better-paid work in cities such as Detroit and Chicago, where their descendants live to this day. To mark the centenary of the Metagama and its aftermath, writer Donald S Murray – a long-standing supporter of Northwords Now - worked with musician and songwriter Liza Mulholland, renowned Gaelic singer Dolina MacLennan and an impressive array of other talent to create In the Wake of Metagama: An Atlantic Odyssey in Story and Song.
Following its premiere at An Lanntair in Stornoway in late April, the show has moved on to several other venues, including Eden Court in Inverness and smaller halls in the islands. The whole project has been an impressive collaboration, also involving musicians such as cellist Christine Hanson from Canada, fiddler Charlie MacKerron of Capercaillie, singer-songwriter Willie Campbell, and Gaelic singer and piper Calum Ailig MacMhaoilein, whose grandfather emigrated in 1924. Artist Doug Robertson created new work to illustrate the show.
We’ll return to this project in the autumn issue, but in the meantime recommend reading some of the background to the history behind its stories: a history that resonates in the islands and across the Atlantic to this day.
The Cheviot and the Stag turns 50
There’s also a striking continuity in live performance across decades through ‘Metagama’ cast member, Lewis-born Dolina MacLennan. Dolina was an original member of the 7:84 company that took the ground-breaking The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil to venues across Scotland – many in small Highland halls – exactly 50 years ago.
The effect of this play – a tour de force of satire, song, acting and ceilidh music - on Scottish theatre, culture and politics was enormous. In part this is because it revealed stories of the Clearances to many who had been unaware of them before and raised important questions about ownership and use of Scotland’s natural resources, including land. By taking performances to places such as village halls, it also encouraged new audiences, including people who had previously thought that their voices and stories were ignored at national level, to realise that live theatre could be both exciting and a way for such stories to be shared, and shared powerfully
There’s a superb account of the earliest days of The Cheviot The Stag and the Black Black Oil in Alan Little’s Radio 4 programme What Kind of Scotland? First broadcast in April, this is available for a year on BBC Sounds at bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001kprx
It includes recent interviews with people such as Liz Lochead, Jim Hunter, John Herdman, Andy Wightman - and Dolina Maclennan, as well as archive clips featuring playwright and 7:84 founder, John McGrath, Bill Patterson and others.
Among Dolina’s comments, she reveals that the play hadn’t been rehearsed when it was first performed in front of an audience at a major conference in Edinburgh entitled What Kind of Scotland?
“We had just finished writing the last bit of it at five o’clock and we were standing on stage at seven!” So the premiere was actually an unrehearsed reading. But at the end: “We couldn’t get offstage; they clapped and shouted and stamped for half an hour.” When the nine-strong company’s tour of small venues began, turn-outs such as an audience of seven in Fraserburgh was a weird contrast. But the reception in many other places was effusive. The rest is history; one with aspects as relevant today as they were in the spring of 1973.
Look ahead to the Hoolie
I know – spring has barely sprung and some of the migrant birds aren’t yet back to brave the Scottish summer, so turning thoughts to early winter might seem premature. But when it comes to thinking ahead to what promises to be an excellent small festival of music and words, now could be the ideal time to get The Write Highland Hoolie in the calendar, including to book accommodation.
The Hoolie will take place in Mallaig over the weekend of November 10th -12th. It begins on the Friday evening with Duncan Chisholm, Hamish Napier and poet Jim Mackintosh (who reviews several collections in this issue) celebrating the life and work of George Mackay Brown in Beyond the Swelkie. On Saturday night, two more of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians, Ross Ainslie and Tim Edey are in concert before dinner. A full programme should now be online to reveal the writers taking part.
For poets, a further part of the Write Highland Hoolie to note is the festival’s Deirdre Roberts Poetry Competition, judged by Hugh McMillan, with the prize of an engraved quaich, £250 cash, and £250 book tokens to spend in the Highland Bookshop Fort William.
And looking back on Ullapool
This is a hard one: acknowledging that the 2023 Ullapool Book Festival will be the last. Over nearly twenty years, a dedicated team of volunteers has welcomed some of the finest writers in the land (and far beyond) to inspire audiences in sold-out seating in Ullapool Hall and the Ceilidh Place with words and music. We’ll be there again this year to fly the Northwords Now banner, and will likely take stock in the autumn issue with some of those local volunteers and writers from other places, to hear their tales of a festival that became such a valued part of the Scottish literary scene.
Farewell, Aonghas Dubh
Just a year ago, it was a pleasure on the third page of Northwords Now 43 to acknowledge the 80th birthday of Gaelic activist and poet Aonghas MacNeacail. Sadly, he died on 22nd December 2022.
Although he’s gone, his legacy of his work in Gaelic and English, as well as his influence on many people who were inspired by his writing, readings and teaching, remain. Our sympathies go to his wife, Gerda, son Rob and daughter Galina.
Congratulations to Marcas
He doesn’t yet know this is included in ‘What’s New..’ (though he will when he sees the page proof) but I couldn’t let the recent achievements of our Gaelic Editor, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, go by without a bit of applause from his fellow editor. Early this year, he won the Arts and Culture award in the 2023 Scottish Gaelic Awards, sponsored by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Daily Record, in a category backed by Creative Scotland.
It's been a very creative couple of years for Marcas, yielding Polaris, shortlisted for the Saltire Society Poetry Book of the Year award and the album Speactram, which was shortlisted for Gaelic Singer of the Year at the Traditional Music Awards in 2022. Elsewhere, Marcas has said that he has always used his writing to promote LGBTQ inclusion in the Gaelic Arts – something that will be an aspect of his forthcoming anthology for Drunk Muse Press Cruinneachadh, a multi-lingual travelogue featuring a range of Scottish and international poets. His garnering a broad range of voices is, of course, something that you can enjoy for yourself right now, within Tuath in this issue.
Early birds reading this issue may also be able to catch Marcas at Dingwall’s Word on the Street May 19th-21st, supported by Northwords Now, where he will be Gaelic Artist in Residence and performing.↑