Songs of Home
Kirstin Innes finds out about a festival and a screening looking at the darker sides of the Scottish Diaspora
Between the numerous gigs, gatherings and soap carving workshops (we kid you not) squeezing under its umbrella, ‘Homecoming’ itself has become a rather vague concept this year. It’s refreshing, then, that in their 20th anniversary year the Scottish International Storytelling Festival has decided to address many of the real issues behind the origins of the Scottish Diaspora.
Subtitled ‘Homelands’, this year the programme – run mainly but not exclusively out of the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile – features live storytellers from New Zealand, the USA, Canada and Australia, all countries well-populated by people of Scottish origin. However, don’t expect the same sort of bloated, shiny ‘celebration’ that has characterised public perception of other Year of Homecoming events. From Deadly Doublespeak, an interactive workshop exploring Aboriginal language and storytelling, to The Trail of Tears, a storytelling session about the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from their homelands, the focus here is on indigenous cultures that have been marginalised and moved by more powerful settlers.
Of course, Scotland’s own storytellers might have a thing or two to add there. One of the most interesting events is a double bill screening at the Filmhouse, pairing up a BBC film of John McGrath’s 1974 play The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, which looked at the brutal realities behind the Highland Clearances, one of the driving forces behind the Scottish Diaspora, and Hallaig, a cinema adaptation of Sorley McLean’s poem about the loss of the Highland community on the island of Raasay.
‘I remember when [The Cheviot] came out, people sat up and listened,’ says the Gaelic storyteller and singer Margaret Bennett, whose late son Martyn wrote the score for Hallaig. ‘Until then, the Highlanders had stayed quiet about all those issues. About who took over their land; who owned the land. But these issues, the forced Clearances. They left scars. I think what [The Cheviot] did was it got people talking; made people a little braver and a little bolder to talk about these issues and not just to sit back and let things happen to them. The Gaelic language had declined in those years too – the Highland schools didn’t even entertain teaching it, so there was no room to revise and modernise the language. My mother was born in 1919: her generation of Gaels had practically resigned themselves to being the subservient race. They were self-conscious, they felt inferior; they were a dispirited people. McGrath and Sorley McLean in the 1970s dealt with issues – the emptying of the glens, the loss of our language – that had gone ignored for a long time. I think it’s time for Scotland to be reminded of them again.’
The Scottish International Storytelling Festival runs from Fri 23 Oct–Sun 1 Nov. The screening is at the Filmhouse on Sun 1 Nov, and Margaret Bennett will be participating in a tie-in discussion, Leaving the Land: Migration, Emigration and Clearance on Tue 27 Oct. See www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk for full listings