As the audience settle into the crowded theatre, they try to speak the Gaelic words which fill our programmes. Most falter pretty quickly, the language being fairly foreign in Glasgow. The atmosphere is one of familiarity, a certain contentment. The stage is set like any might be poised in advance of a ceilidh, awaiting its musicians, but the twinkling lights shining above and glowing birdhouses scattered among the musician’s chairs are reminiscent of any drive in the dark through the Outer Hebrides, where the bruised colours of Glasgow’s light pollution are replaced by true darkness, punctuated by stars and cottages.
There is something very unassuming about this performance: the musicians enter without applause, take their places and so we begin. The story is that of folklorist, archivist and collector of Gaelic song, Margaret Fay Shaw, who came to Scotland as a young girl and was pulled to South Uist in search of the origins of Hebridean traditional song. Together with her husband, she dedicated her life to faithfully transcribing the songs of the island and documenting the way of life there through photography and film, building up her archive in Canna House.
This much of the story, however, is garnered more from the programme than the performance itself, which does not offer a narrative, but a mix of live music, recordings and film presenting Shaw’s life’s work. The experience is more of an intimate concert with visual accompaniment than theatre, but is nevertheless anthropologically insightful about life in the islands in the twentieth century. Images of Hebridean life are contrasted with footage from the roaring twenties in New York and Paris, and there is a sense that the fishing boats and squinting, weatherbeaten faces of South Uist may have seen more life than the chattering parties of bright young things—and done more than their fair share of dancing too.
All of this, however, depends on a certain amount of nostalgia for the islands, either for some who hold their island heritage close, or others who romanticise their Scottishness by invoking Gaelic cultural roots. There is little beyond the manifest performance of music and image, which, while provoking in themselves an idea of Scottish heritage, do nothing to invite you into that story.
Fiona Mackenzie’s singing is pure and enchanting, and the musicians come together as an exemplary traditional band, but it is difficult to tell where the audience stand in relation to them. The projection screens tell us as much as Mackenzie does initially, creating a distance between the performance and audience until the latter half when we are addressed directly, allowed into more of Mackenzie’s natural charm, and invited to sing along. The latter is less unifying that perhaps intended though, because any Gaelic beyond an O ho rò presents a difficulty for the majority of the audience. Nevertheless, the intention of inclusion is a noble one, and the audience seemed more satisfied by their involvement than alienated by the language barrier.
This feeling of community continues into the later moments of the evening, as a tin of strùthan, a scone-like cake, is passed round the audience to share. The real emotional centre of the show, subtly threaded throughout its continuation, is reiterated in the final piece, written by Mackenzie and dedicated to Shaw. It relates a bit of wisdom: the song is older than the singer, the sorrow older than the song, and it’s up to us to be faithful to the song. It’s a legacy to which Eun Bheag Chanaidh is committed.