The 1983 tour of Fife had happened in large part because of the help and support of Jenny Wilson, who was Director of the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews. Jenny had previously been Director at Mid-Pennine Arts, and she was one of our earliest supporters. Later Jenny went on to become Director of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association. After recommendations from Jenny we were approached by the Scottish Arts Council to consider a tour of the Outer Hebrides. So, in October 1983, I went off for a preliminary reconnaissance to see if this attractive possibility would be viable. I began my journey at the southern islands, taking the Calmac ferry from Oban to Barra.
Barra then had a population of about 1200 people, of whom – I was told – only 9 weren’t Catholics. It was a Catholic island because its remote situation meant that the Reformation simply never reached it. On arrival I found a room at the Castlebay Hotel and discovered almost immediately that it was also a place that enjoyed a party. In fact it seemed to enjoy a party every evening.
Next morning I went down to the Highland and Island Council offices to introduce myself. They were expecting me, but still I explained in detail what I was looking for, namely a flat area of land large enough for us to pitch our marquee. They were enthusiastic, and suggested a few sites for me to go and look at, and then arranged for me to come back the next day so we could move things on further. I used the day to explore the island and look at the two pockets of land that were flat and big enough for our marquee. I discovered that Barra was a paradise, with vast and breathtaking beaches, mountain vistas, rolling machair, and plenty of ancient remains. I also took the ferry to Vatersay, the most southerly of the inhabited Outer Islands, with a population of 80.
Everyone I met was extremely pleasant, and apparently eager to please, but nevertheless I found it strangely difficult to get anything finally agreed to. When I returned to the council offices on my second morning, nothing more had been done. I reported back on the possible sites for our marquee and there was a lot of nodding and sympathetic murmuring, but trying to pin anything down was impossible. I was beginning to wonder if the idea of a tour to this place was going to be possible when one of the ladies asked if I had seen ‘the Father’. Puzzled, I asked who she meant – ‘Father Colin’, came the reply.
Barra had two priests, one, Father Calum, was based in Castlebay, which is its main settlement and where I was staying; the other was in Northbay at the other end of the island. Father Calum, who also ministered to the Catholics on Eriskay (the next island north in the Hebridean chain), was off the island. I phoned and was given an appointment later that day with Father Colin Maclnnes, of Northbay parish.
Father Colin was a surprise. I guess that he was about my own age, and he was clearly a charismatic man. When I explained what our intentions would be in coming to Barra he simply asked ‘why?’, and I had to think a little. Usually when asking whether we could visit and perform for a community, people were immediately charmed by the idea and went out of their way to suggest how it might come to pass. But Fr. Colin wanted to know why. Why an English theatre company wanted to come to a Gaelic speaking island with its own, entirely different, culture? Why money should be spent on this rather than on the Gaelic culture that was being left to wither? I had to dig very deep that afternoon to properly respond to his questions.
Father Colin MacInnes turned out to be a leading voice in the fight to reclaim the Gaelic language, both on the Islands and within Scotland in general. He sat on the Board of the Scottish Arts Council and argued passionately for a Gaelic culture that he felt was being ignored. He was also one of the founders of the Fèis movement on the Isle of Barra. These were Barra people who were concerned that local traditions were dying out. At a Fèis individuals gather for a week-long festival to develop their skills in Gaelic arts – song, dance, drama, and traditional music on a wide range of instruments. Now Fèisean appear throughout the Gaelic-speaking islands, but in 1983 Father Colin was fighting for the continued life of his culture. No wonder he was cautious about welcoming me.
In the seventh century Christianity came to Barra, and those early priests and saints, including (possibly) Saint FinnBarr, who gave his name to the island, fought to the death to protect the island and its community. In the old stories they struggled with dragons and serpents, and meeting Father Colin MacInnes that day I saw something still of the priest as a champion, someone who saw their role not just as offering mass and spiritual succour, but a leader who would protect and fight for the community and its way of life, its culture and language.
It was humbling to visit a community for whom the arts meant more than entertainment and diversion. The arts, along with the language, were right at the heart of what defined the place and the community. It didn’t surprise me, years later, to hear that Father Colin had moved to Ecuador and fought for his new community against the gang-bosses who intimidated, threatened and stole from them. At one point, it was said, he only escaped death at the door of his church by parishioners forming a human shield around him.
I didn’t know what to expect next. But when I opened the door to the council offices the next day, my third morning on Barra, there were wide smiles and a completely new attitude. Addresses and telephone numbers were handed me, and very quickly a week’s stay on Barra for the next summer was completely sorted.
I then made my way north, from Eriskay through the Uists and Benbecula, to Berneray and then to Harris. As I went north I moved further away from Catholicism, and by the time I was in North Uist it was clearly a protestant country, a place of the Free Church, the ‘Wee Frees’. Early in 1983, with the outline of the tour agreed, I returned with Moira Hirst, our horse-handler, and we plotted out a more precise itinerary for the tour, heading north again, from Vatersay and Barra. At the very end of our journey, in Stornoway, on Lewis, we found that we couldn’t work on the Sabbath, as it was strictly frowned on and even being seen out would have counted against any hope of the company being allowed to visit there. We thought we would just have to stay put and enjoy a quiet Sunday. We could watch TV and perhaps enjoy the bottle of whisky we kept for emergencies. But late on Saturday the TV was wheeled out of our room. As this was being done, we heard chains clanking outside and, opening the curtain, we saw the swings and roundabouts of the children’s playground being locked up so that no child might play on the Sabbath. In the event we decided against Lewis altogether; nothing to do with religion, but the long pull north on the A589 from Harris was daunting and probably not doable by our horses given the heavy loads they pulled. So our tour had to finish further south, in Tarbert, the ‘capital’ of Harris, and nearby Seilobost..
We read and learned from the experiences of other companies who had made (far shorter) tours of the islands. One result of this was that a friend (Sue MacGovern) went on an advance cycle tour of the route. Sue spoke to locals and put up posters two weeks before our arrival. Mindful of Father Colin’s words, I wrote a script based around local themes. A story of a voyage undertaken by a young girl in search of her father and younger brother who had been taken in a storm whilst out fishing. Being wordless it avoided the English versus Gaelic issue, and I was able to weave in a storyline relating to a very topical concern on the islands. That was the radioactive spill from English nuclear plants such as Windscale, which local fisherman feared threatened the fish stocks.
‘Seòl‘ (pronounced ‘shawl’) in Gaelic means as a noun ‘sail’, as a verb ‘sail, guide or navigate’. I chose it as the title of the production. In Barra we camped at Tangasdale, a beautiful site near to the friendly Isle of Barra hotel. I wondered if Father Colin would come to see the show. He turned up for our third performance, seemed happy enough, then left after thanking the cast. Next morning we received an invitation to participate in Fèis Bharraigh (Barra Fèis), which opened the next day. The weather was wonderful. Our large parade puppets, including a Kelpie, or Water Horse, led the procession, followed by our band and performers in masks and costumes. Then three trucks carrying local children playing a variety of instruments. That evening we were invited to the local ceilidh in Castlebay, and we joined in with the locals, enjoying the traditional dances until the early hours of the morning. We were told that we made it seem “like New Orleans (had) come to Barra”.
The tour was memorable to say the least. Two months travelling to 9 islands. Adventures came almost daily. Today there’s a causeway to Vatersay, but then it meant a sea journey. Unfortunately the coal-puffer was docked at the only landing place. So we had to carefully manhandle our equipment – ourselves, musical instruments, parade puppets – over the decks of the puffer before disembarking. Then a mile or so walking to the community for the parade, we passed the almost intact wreckage of a crashed German aircraft left behind from the Second World War. Our report adds “We were suddenly joined by a van load of workmen who were very drunk and very happy. We played for them and talked….they gave us an astonishing display of wrestling.”
‘The Guardian’ flew out their arts reporter Robin Thornber accompanied by photographer Dennis Thorpe (who took the 3 black & white photographs on this page). They stayed with us on Barra for a couple of days, joining in with our lives and reviewing and photographing our work. In the end they felt that Dennis’s photographs were so good that they published a full page photo-feature about the tour.
Leaving Barra we travelled to Lochboisdale where we were treated to a spontaneous ceilidh around the campfire – songs, dancing and stories. Then on through South Uist to Eochar (Iochdar) where Angus McPhee had lived. Of course I only got to know about Angus many years later. Then to Carinish, and through North Uist to Lochmaddy and the island of Berneray. On Berneray we arrived on the same day as the Annual Peat Procession and Auction. Like Vatersay there’s now a causeway to Berneray but then it also meant a sea journey. Getting the horses onto the deck of a small ferry was now a little easier – we lured them on with carrots. Once there we helped revive the old tradition of using horses and carts to deliver the peat to the crofts dotted around the island. The peat came from an uninhabited island, Torogay, and was then loaded onto carts and distributed. This also ended with a great ceildih, with our masks and still figure, and a display of Highland dancing. It went on into the early hours. One of the islanders, Chris Spears, dropped everything and joined us for the rest of the tour. Chris later worked with the company on several occasions, mainly making props for shows. It’s through Chris that I one day got to hear the story of Angus McPhee. This led us, thirty years later, to Angus – Weaver of Grass, a show in which we properly got to grips with creating a show for the Gaelic-speaking communities.
Everywhere that summer the travel days took us through stunning scenery; at every stop we had enthusiastic audiences. The show was well received and one of the most memorable experiences in the company’s history. It then went on to a short tour of the north-west of England. This turned out to be the last tour for two years as we spent the summer of 1985 moving into new premises.
BOB FRITH, MICK WILSON (m), SALLY MARTIN (admin), MERIGAN MARTIN, MOIRA HIRST (h), ADAM STRICKSON, MELISSA WYER, ALAN KENNEDY (m), KATHY STRACHAN, BERNARD TINDALL.