Taking Stock

20 Mar 2012 in Dance & Drama, Gaelic, Highland, Music, Showcase, Writing

Taking Stock: The Claim of Crofting, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig,  Skye, 16 March 2012

A COUNTRY’S history is woven from many threads, and we need writers and artists to keep us connected with key events from the past. Without that connection we can blindly follow courses of action which betray core cultural values.

Historian Dr Issie Macphail and John Cairns of Open Book Theatre collaborated to host Taking Stock: The Claim of Crofting (A’ gabhail ealla: tagradh chroitearachd), a series of arts and cultural events on Skye to mark the end of the Crofters Commission, which is being replaced by the Crofting Commission. And they did it by weaving together a programme of factual presentations with music, poetry and theatre.

Poet Aonghas MacNeacail was among the contributors to Taking Stock

Poet Aonghas MacNeacail was among the contributors to Taking Stock

Poet George Gunn and musician Andy Thorburn worked with local primary school children over the course of a few days, teaching them new songs created for the occasion. Pupils presented their work at an evening event in Sabhal Mor Ostaig. Young voices declared superlative lines such as ‘the Kyle is quiet as a sea breath which no-one knows but me.’ They are accomplished and engaging performers who convey their history with sincerity and conviction.

Before the Crofters’ Act of 1886, those who eked out a living on Scotland’s marginal land had no recognition or security of tenure. The play, The Cheviot the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath was originally performed by 7:84 Theatre Company 40 years ago. It tells the story of how lives were lost in the struggle for basic rights at a time when people were being evicted to make way for sheep.

A cast gathered at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig last week and were given just three days rehearsal to prepare a series of excerpts from the play to present to the evening audience. Along with director Liz Caruthers, they pulled off a minor miracle. Characterisation was developed way beyond what might be expected in that time frame and the voice work and singing were exemplary.

When two characters bargained over the price of land, the exchange was brought to life as the actors engaged in seesaw movements. Whoever was naming a proposed price simultaneously rose up and inclined towards the other, seemingly forcing him to move away and become smaller. This simple, effective device added a compelling, visual dimension to the action.

Former traveller and tinsmith Arthur Dutch spoke of his life-long quest to make objects which his grandfather would have described as ‘eye sweet’. Story teller Essie Stewart – who, like Arthur, describes herself as a tinker – told the beginnings of a traditional tale she has translated from the Gaelic. Time did not allow her to finish, so we were invited to seek her out later and learn its outcome.

On the subject of time, an astonishing amount was fitted into this event, and there were numerous contributors. Journalist and broadcaster Leslie Riddoch was one of them. She outlined some of the achievements of small Nordic countries and how these could be inspirational to an aspirational Scotland. Maggie Fyffe and Camille Dressler from the Isle of Eigg related some of their experiences around the community buyout which took place there in 1997.

When introducing fellow poet Aonghas Dubh (Aonghas MacNeacail), George Gunn expressed his views on the role of poets and how they can unite earthly concerns with esoteric dimensions. Activist and writer Andy Wightman read from his new book, The Poor Had No Lawyers. The evening was rounded off with music and poetry from the band Babelfish.

The only disappointment with regards to this event was that it was all over by the end of the day. But perhaps this potent mixture of art and academia could be replicated across Scotland. In a jaded age of information overload, it just might provide the spark to ignite the imaginations of those who are currently disaffected with historical and political discourse.

A spotlight has been shone on the history of crofting and in the process some possibilities for the future have been illuminated. It might just be the singing children of Skye who help make them manifest.

© Jenny McBain, 2012