Struileag / Shore to Shore
David Pollock reports on a major outreach project focusing on the contemporary Gaelic diaspora
ALTHOUGH it had its detractors at the time, the first national Year of Homecoming in 2009 was deemed such a success by the Scottish Government that they’ll be repeating the exercise in 2014, handily timing it to coincide with the staging of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
AGAIN, the format will be broad enough that it can accommodate populist events and unashamed exercises in drumming up tourism trade, while also finding room for artistic explorations of what it means to be Scottish, or of Scottish descent and dispersed around the world.
One such event officially launches this month, and it will focus its attention specifically on the “Gaelic diaspora”, a distinct culture of travellers and settlers who often find their own rich history lost amidst the wider story of Scots migration. Conceived and artistically directed by composer Jim Sutherland, who was raised in Thurso and lives in Edinburgh, Struileag / Shore to Shore is currently beginning a long process of gathering testimony and artistic contributions from Gaels around the world ahead of a final performance incorporating poetry, music and film at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness in 2014.
“Struileag is quite an obscure word,” explains Sutherland, himself a Gaelic learner, “I’ve been asked what it means by quite a few native speakers. It refers to an imaginary boat which was used in storytelling sessions, a bit like pass the parcel. When somebody had taken their turn at a storytelling ceilidh they would pass on the struileag, the boat, to the next storyteller.”
Pointing out that his initial discussions with bodies ranging from the Scottish Government to Creative Scotland have been overwhelmingly supportive and positive, Sutherland suggests that Struileag / Shore to Shore is so much more than just an arts event. “It’s a massive outreach project which will last for two years,” he says. “It will have community engagement in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, and internationally, culminating in a week of events and finally the show at Eden Court.” The show, he says, will be streamed live around the world, and will live on as a book, a recording and a DVD after the fact.
The way Sutherland describes the process of uncovering stories and testimony for the event makes it sound almost like a huge piece of genealogy research, with his investigations leading him to people in Argentina, Australia, Nova Scotia and most recently to Mairi Og Koroleva, a lecturer in Gaelic at Moscow State University.
“You wouldn’t imagine Moscow State University having a lecturer in Gaelic, would you?’ he laughs. “It’s been a surprising project, but it’s a strange old business these days when you’re working internationally. If you’re on Facebook and things like Twitter and Blipfoto, you find all these connections in an almost social way, research becomes a totally different thing.”
It’s the same way, he says, that he drew his pan-continental orchestra La Banda Europa together in 2006, and already it’s led him to a pipe band in Buenos Aires, the man in Seville who translated Sorley MacLean into Spanish and a Canadian rapper who speaks Irish Gaelic and is learning Scots.
Sutherland is quick to point out that the work produced will be a contemporary exploration of the Gaelic diaspora, not an opportunity to dwell once more upon traditional culture. “We’re looking at people’s lives, at what’s going on now,” he says. “We’re looking at language and the speakers of it, whether they’re first or second generation. The diaspora is an ongoing thing, it’s not about the clearances.” He recalls people coming around the doors in the 1960s, trying to headhunt Scottish workers for emigration to Australia or South America, and he’s privately glad that his father turned down the chance.
Although the show will eventually incorporate elements of music, performance and film (which will be co-ordinated respectively by Sutherland, theatre director Dan Ayling on behalf of Cryptic and film and television director Douglas Mackinnon of The Flying Scotsman and Doctor Who fame), its origins will be in poetry.
“These poems will then become songs, speeches, dramatic monologues,” says Kevin MacNeil, the celebrated Outer Hebridean author and poetry director of Struileag / Shore to Shore, who is currently commissioning a number of pieces to set things in motion. “I see my role as being to catalyse new pieces of art. It’s not to tell the world that contemporary Gaelic culture has elements that are of world class quality, it’s to demonstrate it.”
“There will be, for example, a piece written by a Scottish poet and performed by a rapper from Vancouver,” he continues. “Another poet is writing a secular psalm to the sea, because Gaelic psalms invoke the sea in their inherent acoustic qualities, although it’s unusual to have a secular psalm. Religion will be represented, though, because it’s a large part of the culture that this arises from – we’ve commissioned a prayer too. There will be a haibun (a Japanese blend of prose and haiku), which is rare in the Gaelic literary tradition, but that’s important because we want to build upon the cultural heritage rather than simply rely upon it. We want to do something that’s dynamic and not merely passive.”
Sutherland echoes this point, flagging up the fact that the project will be an ongoing conversation over the next two years, both with Gaelic-speaking communities around the world (he’s keen to hear leads and suggestions via the project’s Facebook site) and via an escalating programme of homegrown talks, discussions and workshops in the build-up period.
“We’re keen to engage with young people in the Highlands and talk to them about diaspora,” he says. “We want to know whether they feel the need to leave home to work, to go to Edinburgh or Glasgow or London or New York or wherever to survive. We’d really like to get people of all ages talking, whether that’s primary school kids talking to their parents or grandparents in Gaelic, and we want to hear ourselves how and where the language has gone out into the world.
“We want to be a part of creating confidence in the language and culture, to do something that we can be proud of. It’s not about nationalism, it’s not about the hills. It’s about people.”
The full Struileag / Shore to Shore website will go live later in November.
© David Pollock, 2012