Tip of the Tongue – Bàrr Mo Theanga

16 Apr 2012 in Argyll & the Islands, Festival, Showcase

Isle of Jura, 8-9 April 2012

YOU know how it is. One festival leads to another.

I MET Giles Perring at the Edinburgh Storytelling Festival last year. I’d heard rumours of a music festival on Jura, famous for good spirit and an eclectic mix of music. But Giles was plotting a spring variation – a new Easter Festival which would have a basis in spoken and sung vernacular culture. But then it could go anywhere, on the theme of the spoken or sung word.

Ambrosia Rasputin (photo Douglas Cape)

Ambrosia Rasputin (photo Douglas Cape)

Over the winter, I got a feeling of just how large the range of tide could be. Links and CDs and publications were swapped. So I was not shocked to find that this local Festival had the Canadian novelist Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces) as a headline performer. And it was a performance all right.

A comfortable small bus was filled and we were taken on a comprehensive tour of the parts of the Island accessible by a slim tarmac strand. When the rain relented we would step outside. Anne would read sections from her novel, The Winter Vault, which contains sections about engineering works and depopulation on Jura and in the Nubian desert. It’s now on order from Western Isles Libraries and I look forward to hearing more from this huge imagination, quietly but powerfully expressed.

The tour was a double act with the driver, married into a local family and presenting a counterpoint voice of contemporary politics and the economic climate. We were issued with tea and fine cakes on a west-side beach and there was time for the assembly to chat and compare reactions. I think it might have been what used to be called a “happening”. Suffice to say the word spread and the bus was again filled for a second day’s outing.

That first evening, Anne was joined by the singer-songwriter Alasdair Roberts and the Lewis performer Maggie Smith. As host, I could not shirk from telling the story of Breac, the Norwegian prince who attempted to anchor his ship three nights running in the Corrievreckan, in a trial of love. The moonlight was a theme of the weekend, with big tides running.

I’d heard Alasdair in the company of the poet Robin Robertson but I’d felt there were just too many layers for me to gain a clear focus. As a solo artist, he is powerful. The guitar playing is dynamic and the voice has something of the emotive wail that enters much vernacular music. In fact he has recently had a residency at the School of Scottish Studies, in Edinburgh. His lyrics are humane and finely made.

Maggie Smith alternated between Gaelic and English workshops and performances, over the weekend. She also swung between witty ditties and intensely moving storytelling. Her central piece was a monologue written by the Lewis-based Eric John Macdonald. A herring-girl, now with white hair, looks back on days of travel and a strange freedom within an economy which demanded grueling work. It was completely engrossing. The gathering then adjourned to the hotel where the writer James Attlee and the performance storyteller Katrice Horsley were primed to work under the moon.

Presiding moon (projection and photo Douglas Cape)

Presiding moon (projection and photo Douglas Cape)

You could stroll outside and see the presiding force. A superb projection by Douglas Cape brought the full moon into the room. James Attlee writes reflective prose prompted by travel and by comparison. He is a man of ideas and, as we found, is blessed with a sustained Gordons-dry wit expressed in a fine speaking voice. It was all like Radio 3 in 3 dimensions. And then we were into Katrice, in full sparkling lunar corsetry, wailing with the wolves in Angela Carter and expounding sensual stories with the pace of a running pack.

Throughout the Monday, the pace slowed to a steady progression of events where visiting artists continued links with the local community. The quality of the various acts in community ceilidhs was high and the variety astonishing. There might be jigs and reels, a Gaelic song and then a gravel-voiced man took us to Leadbelly country with a medley of chain-gang songs that had all age-groups beating out the time.

Gary Cordingley (photo Douglas Caoe)

Gary Cordingley (photo Douglas Caoe)

Islay High School’s success in the Film G competition was a factor in an eclectic mix of story-films screened in the hall, but my favourite was a 1 minute short made with Pimary 1 to 3 in Bowmore. It was the classic slice of life where anything was about to happen but nothing very much did. And yet you were held, waiting in the minute. Sean Martin and Louise Milne introduced their sensitive documentary, A Boat Retold, which is based on the analogy between a rebuild of a historic boat and the versions of any story. Andy Mackinnon’s Sruth na Fear Gorm matches expressionist seas around the Shiant islands with improvisations by Peter Urpeth and Maggie Nicols.

But the finale revealed just how wide the variations of the rhythms of spoken language could take us. I was mesmerised by the performance poetry of Ambrosia Rasputin (Ivor Kallin), improvising rants of wordplay between sketched lines that left him very little security. This was perfectly matched by Giles’ improvisations on percussion and guitar. But Giles’ key medium was also voice. It echoed far and wide.

We were all left with a perfectly told example of a timeless story. Gary Cordingley has been working with “The Whirlpool Team” in a Jura storytelling project recorded in a new book and dvd launched at the festival. His telling of the story of the baker who wanted to charge a poor lad for breathing in the smell of his bread was engaging and memorable. That spoken story will now go on that bit further than it did before.

© Ian Stephen, 2012