Hebridean Treasure: Lost & Found – Finding the lost soul of Scotland and humanity

Hebridean Treasure: Lost & Found – Finding the lost soul of Scotland and humanity

credit: Sandy Butler

John Philip Newell works with talented young artists of Scotland to tell the story of an enchanted Hebridean world

From acclaimed poet and Celtic spiritualist John Phillip Newell, and award-winning dancer and choreographer Shane Shambhu, emerges an evocative dance drama based on the 'Carmina Gadelica' compilation by Scottish folklorist and author Alexander Carmichael. From the shared soul of the Celtic and Indian traditions, Hebridean Treasure: Lost & Found, which debuted at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh in March 2019, brings Carmichael's historical work to the present day, reiterating the eternality and connectedness of the universal soul.

The story of Carmichael's rediscovery of the lost Celtic past and its connection to nature is weaved through narration, largely of the poems and anecdotal accounts he collected along the way. It is first a tale of immense beauty, softness and joy, one of being grounded by the earth and sure of one's own irrefutable wonder. But as the history progresses, it becomes a story of loss, not just of material comfort, but of spiritual rootedness. Narrator Iain Louden's strength is counterpoised by Alison Newell's motherliness, a balance of male and female energy, revered by the Celtic and Indian cultures alike.

However, this narration is a mere canvas on which Indian classical dancer Kirsten Newell mixes the palette of Celtic and Indian traditions. Together with the ensemble of Indian and Celtic musicians, and a contemporised version of the ancient form of Bharathanatyam, Kirsten powerfully drives the emotive visualisation of how traditions and the souls of a people are linked throughout time and space. Her focus and presence on a small stage is enrapturing, and would undoubtedly carry through on a larger stage, with a bigger audience and more space for the cast to navigate.

Even with the technical difficulty of the power being lost (and thankfully, found soon after), Kirsten holds, in darkness, the attention of the audience and herself. The core of her technique is crisp and controlled, but like with the narration, is balanced with grace and softer edges so that your eyes and mind are glued without having to take the strain of a constant bombardment of harsh movement and manic energy that often Bharathanatyam artists struggle to downplay in such a physically-demanding dance form.

For those familiar with the dance style and the Indian culture and language, this production certainly resonates deeply. The popularised songs 'Nila Kaighiradhu' and 'Jab deep jale aana' are so masterfully handled by Indian vocalist Ankna Arockiam that they suddenly become spiritual hymns. For those less familiar, this is a torch to ignite a journey into uncharted lands, although writer Newell may consider drawing clearer links between the two spiritual traditions. Such changes could enhance the intellectual experience of audience, and clarify that what has been lost is not just the Celtic tradition and its connection of worship to nature, but the appreciation of its similarity to the Indian culture.

Nonetheless, even without an understanding of Indian religion and dance, the audience can expect moments of profound emotion created by the warm, comforting voices of singers Mischa Macpherson and Ankna Arockiam, whose own blend of individual styles again represents the shared roots of these two traditions. For those Scottish onlookers especially, the poignant melodies, played on the simple fiddle and rendered by Macpherson, is a wistful journey through the heart of the Highland wonders, great and small.

Hopefully, audiences will not actually have to travel for hours to the Highlands to experience such awe, and may be able to look forward to this experience at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe, where Hebridean Treasure: Lost & Found will be having another run (12–17 Aug). It will be interesting to see how Newell reconstructs the comparison and links between the two cultures, especially for what will be a more mixed, international spectatorship.

More intriguing would be to observe whether audiences are transcended beyond the words of the Celtic religious history to a higher level of connectedness, wherein the shared soul of humanity can be found. Hebridean Treasure, in its ambitions to appreciate the shared roots of two geographically distanced traditions, unequivocally maps out the way towards this understanding to where we hopefully find each other, ourselves and the Earth.

Siddharthiya Pillay is an MSc Management of Bioeconomy, Innovation and Governance student at the University of Edinburgh. Previously based in Durban, South Africa, Siddharthiya was the dance administrator for the South African Indian Dance Alliance. She is also an Indian Classical (Bharathanatyam) dancer, and has performed numerous times in South Africa, and twice in Edinburgh. She holds an LLM in Medical Law and BSc Hons in Medical Science, and enjoys writing fiction and poetry.

Siddharthiya is the winner of the Journalism Writing Competition hosted by Edinburgh University's Creative and Cultural Careers Fair (CCCF), in partnership with The List.

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