Eun Bheag Chanaidh (A Little Bird Blown Off Course)
National Theatre of Scotland and Blas at Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre
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MAYBE it would have been too obvious to have just dramatised the story of Gaelic song and story collector Margaret Fay Shaw – the American who was the title’s “little bird blown off course”.
Instead, for her music-theatre piece, Fiona J Mackenzie turned to the very artefacts of Shaw’s collection – the music, the books, films and photos – and they star alongside Mackenzie and her four versatile musicians.
There were times in the show when it might have been good to have the odd written caption or spoken explanation to anchor us better to the world unfolding in front of us.
At Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre last Friday, both audience and stage were on one level, so it was a challenge for the near-capacity crowd to see the set, musicians and props – such as the pretty little lit houses on sticks and model boats.
But the journey taken by the music and songs powered the night on.
Visually we were kept busy too, thanks to video designer Colin Bell.
One screen showed Shaw’s old films of long-ago island life – bringing in cattle, dancing on a pier, fishing at sea. The second offered a contrasting, sometimes complementary photo slide-show. And the third slowly panned around Margaret and husband John Lorne Campbell’s front room in Canna House, lingering on treasures, rescued and preserved.
The show is a charming experience.
The four musicians’ accompaniment is exquisite with imaginative arrangements making each song – many from Shaw’s collections – a gem of its own. In particular, percussionist Signy Jacobsdottir constantly brings surprising twists to traditional sounds – tinkling bells and shakers, among them.
It added a 21st century edge to a legacy of music that Mackenzie wants to remind the world now needs to be passed on by new generations, their way.
The overlapping of crackly old recordings with her live singing and musicians’ accompaniment – plus the filmed performances of Karen Matheson and other well-known singers taking up a song just heard on an old gramophone – also make Mackenzie’s point beautifully.
A list of songs in the programme helped you get a flavour beforehand of what lay in store, from PiLi Liu/ Song Of The Redshank – supposedly one of the earliest-known recorded Gaelic songs – to the dancing lilt of mouth music (puirt a beul), soothing lullabys, love songs, laments, sea songs and emigrant songs.
It would all make a fantastic album in its own right.
Mackenzie’s own two songs, A Little Canna Bird and closer The Stories That Tie bookend the show and Shaw’s impact on Gaelic culture: “... a dying ember, she blew on it and brought it to life again.”
Mackenzie’s show fans the flame.
The show is on at Strathpeffer Pavilion today (Friday).