Donald S Murray: Weaving Songs

16 Nov 2011 in Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Writing

LEWIS writer Donald S Murray’s new work, Weaving Songs, was many years in the making, though most of the poems were written in a matter of weeks.

THE book is a collection of poems and short stories inspired by his childhood growing up in Ness, and is a tribute to his late father, Angus Murray, who was a weaver in the village.

It is illustrated by photographs by Carol Ann Peacock, from Glasgow, and published by Acair, who said the collaboration between writer and photographer had resulted in a “stunning” book.

Writer Donald S Murray

Writer Donald S Murray

This collaboration was, in fact, originally suggested by Harris Tweed Authority chief executive Lorna Macaulay, who knew both artists were working on distinct but complementary weaving projects.

For Donald, who has enjoyed critical acclaim for previously published works Small Expectations, The Guga Hunters and And On This Rock, the book is something of a labour of love and a tribute to his late, beloved dad. It is also a celebration of Harris Tweed itself, with this having been the 100th year of the famous Orb trademark. It was this centenary, in fact, which inspired Donald to compile a book about weaving and its place in his own childhood, growing up on a croft in Lewis.

Donald, now 55, will be known to many as a former English teacher at The Nicolson Institute. He left Stornoway to work in Sgoil Lionacleit in Benbecula and moved to Shetland in 2006, where he still lives and works. While a small number of pieces from Weaving Songs had been written individually over the years, the rest took only a couple of months once Donald had decided to write a whole book.

He said: “I think the book had been lurking for a long, long time. One of the stories goes back about 10 years but the book itself didn’t take that long. About six pieces had been done beforehand, and then it was as if a switch was turned. There were some nights I was doing two or three a night. Norman MacCaig was once asked, ‘how long does it take you to write a poem?’ He replied, ‘two fags’. I’m about the same – though I don’t smoke, it doesn’t take me long at all. It’s as if, when I get the rhythm right, the words choose themselves.”

He added: “I am conscious that there was a compulsion in me to write from an early age, like there is a compulsion in some people to make music or draw.”

That impulse first showed itself at the tender age of five, when the young Donald was sitting on the floor at home, with crayons, designing a comic.

“It’s one of my earliest memories,” he said. “I gave it to my dad and asked him, ‘can you sell this in the shop?’ He came back the following day with thruppence. “It was obviously an important memory because it was stored away. Otherwise, I’d have forgotten about it.”

Image by Carol Ann Peacock from the book (© Carol Ann Peacock)

Image by Carol Ann Peacock from the book (© Carol Ann Peacock)

Some 20 years later, and Donald’s creative work was once again in the spotlight. This time it was a short story read out on Radio 4. He continued to write prose as he progressed through teaching. In 1998, he was shortlisted for a Saltire Award for a collection of short stories called Special Deliverance. Interestingly, he was late in coming to poetry, not beginning to write them until he was 41. He describes his poems as “not really poems; but narratives in verse”, and his new collection has already attracted the attention of literary editors.

Coincidentally, the same poem, ‘Weaving Song I’, was chosen by both The Herald and The Scotsman for their respective ‘poem of the month’ slots. It tells of his father practicing his precenting while working the loom, and was also the poem that “sparked the whole thing off”. It is also one of Donald’s personal favourites, as is the poem called ‘Weaving Stars’, about a neighbouring weaver in Ness, Donnie Gillies, who would work by night “when moon was clear and full / as if his shuttle was a sky-rocket / trailing in its slipstream a cloudy plume of wool”.

Many childhood memories are woven through Weaving Songs, but it is, primarily, a song for the late Angus Murray, dedicated to his memory, with love. Donald said: “My dad brought me and my brother up, which was really unusual. It’s much more acceptable now – we blur the genders a bit more – but way back in the Sixties and early Seventies, it was almost an unthinkable thing for a man to do.

“This book is a tribute to my dad. He was certainly the most paternal man I ever met; he was a natural father. I’m not saying he was flawless, but he had extraordinary patience and gentleness.”

Of the finished product, Donald said: “I think it’s a lovely book. Carol Ann’s photographs are wonderful and I’m very happy I went with Acair as a publisher. There’s something appropriate about having a book about an industry that is so basic to the Outer Hebrides published in the Outer Hebrides. It’s almost as if it matches the Harris Tweed definition – woven and published in the Outer Hebrides.”

It was natural, too, to choose Stornoway for the launch. Donald said: “Stornoway is where the book belongs and it’s where I belong. At the end of the day, I am a Lewis writer and Lewis made me what I am, with all its complications and complexities. It’s where my family came from for generations; it’s where my dad used to weave, day in, day out. I suppose, at the end of the day, Lewis is my favourite place on earth.”

Photographer Carol Ann Peacock

Photographer Carol Ann Peacock

Carol Ann’s contribution to the book grew out of a college project she did during the last year of an HND in Digital Photography and Imaging at what was then Glasgow Metropolitan College. She had decided to do a photographic project on Harris Tweed and its weavers after finishing a previous project which had focused on fishermen in the Uists.

She took photographs of every stage of the Harris Tweed journey: from the weaving in the loom sheds, to the machinery in the factories and the finished pieces in Savile Row. Some of the photographs are striking contemporary studies, such as snatches of dye pots and swatches of fabric.

For Carol Ann, though, it’s all about the weavers. She said: “Obviously, it’s a beautiful process to photograph but the most important thing for me about Harris Tweed is the warmth of the people involved. It’s also such a uniquely Scottish product: the level of craftsmanship is unbelievable.”

Acair manager Agnes Rennie said it had been, for them, “a great pleasure to work on Weaving Songs and to see a gorgeous book emerge from two distinct and separate pieces of work. Donald’s writing is visibly contemporary but firmly rooted in the cultural landscape which was the Lewis he grew up in. Donald doesn’t write Gaelic but the rhythms and melodic sounds of the Gaelic language are firmly imprinted in both his poetry and prose writing.”

She added: “Carol Ann’s photography documents the process of Harris Tweed production from mill to loom to the tailor’s shop and provides a timely reflection on an industry which is both synonymous with the crofting economy of Lewis and Harris and driven by the mercurial economy of the fashion houses of London and New York.”

Weaving Songs cover

Weaving Songs cover

Donald S Murray will be launching Weaving Songs in Stornoway Library this Friday (November 18) at 5.30pm. Weaving Songs is available, priced £14.95, from Acair and all good book shops.

© Katie Laing, 2011