Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Michael (Ryan Hunter) is fifteen years old, and he’s got homework to do. He’s been told to write an essay on local history, but he’s not sure where to start. The library’s shut because it’s a bank holiday, and his dad (Stephen McCole) is annoyed with him for being so disorganised. There’s tension in the air. Michael’s mum (Mairi Morrison) speaks to him in Gaelic, but Michael responds pointedly in English. He’s feeling rebellious, rejecting his roots. Only his gran seems to understand him.
But then he remembers the plaque at Kirkintilloch, commemorating the young Irish migrant workers – or ‘Scotties’ – who died in a bothy fire in 1937. His interest piqued, he opens up his laptop, and begins to research the conditions in which these people lived…
…and then he’s there, amongst them, working the potato fields with Molly (Faoileann Cunningham) and her compatriots from the island of Achill. He learns about their back-breaking work, about their customs; how they’re treated as outsiders and how they long for home.
And he also learns some uncomfortable truths about his own family.
Scotties – written and conceived by Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet – is a satisfying play, fascinating in its illumination of a moment in history, and uncompromising as it draws parallels with the way migrants are still treated today. Not so much bi-lingual as trilingual (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English), this is a clear demonstration of how language shapes us and informs us, links us to our past and our future: it is integral to our sense of self. The scripting is clever – I don’t know any Gaelic, but I can always understand what’s happening; I don’t feel I’m missing out (although, no doubt, there is a deeper resonance for those whose mother tongue this is). Theatre Gu Leòr’s mission to bring Gaelic theatre to a diverse audience is perfectly served by Scotties: it’s accessible and engaging and makes me want to know more.
The play’s structure is effective, like high quality YA fiction brought to life on the stage. Seeing everything from the young protagonist’s point of view means that we can learn with him, and his innocence is beguiling. The music (by Laoise Kelly) is vivid and atmospheric, taking us from the giddy delights of an impromptu ceilidh down to mournful funereal pipes.
I like the set too: the gossamer-thin gauze between past and present showing how our history never really leaves us, is always there, informing what we do.
Scotties is in Edinburgh until Saturday 29th September – and it’s well worth seeking out. After that, it’s moving on to Achill Island (5th-6th October), where – no doubt – it will have an even more profound impact.