For those of you not in the know, Gary West is a Professor of Scottish Ethnology and presenter of Pipeline on Radio Scotland.
What Gary West doesn’t know about the bagpipe in its multifarious manifestations ain’t worth a skirl. So it’s no surprise that this absorbing evening of drama, humour and music opens with Professor West playing small pipes to the accompaniment of the ten stringed, renaissance dated, cittern. I have to say this was my first ever exposure to such a delightful beast.
The scene is a Scottish kitchen where three men and a youngster (played by Gary West’s son Charlie) have gathered for an evening of chat and music. It seems a tradition.
Arriving late, Charlie brandishes an envelope full of ‘stuff’ that excites the men. They want to know its contents but West junior only wants a dram. For that he has to play the fiddle for the group’s entertainment.
Duly obliging we then watch, over the course of the next 40 minutes, a bottle and a half of fine malt disappear at breakneck speed.
A bit like the play really, which gathers no dust – unlike, until now, the contents of the envelope. For these are the transcripts of interviews with Scots (mainly Highland) soldiers recounting their memories of WWI.
It’s fitting, then, that these stories are recounted in the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Remembrance Day.
In one particularly moving section of the play, which effortlessly slips from seemingly ad libbed pure storytelling and reminiscence into full blown theatre, the four men, in turn, reel off the names of men engaged in Gallipoli (a battle that has, over time, been appropriated almost exclusively to the Australian army).
4th, 5th and 7th Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1st Battalion Kings Own Borderers, 7th and 8th Scottish Rifles, 5th, 6th and 7th Highland Light Infantry, 5th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and more, many more. Each take their place on stage as their involvement in this terrible bloody battle are recalled in personal memories.
The toll taken on the horses who battled through extreme conditions, only to be slaughtered on arrival, exhausted, on the beaches draws gasps from the audience.
Indeed horse stories feature prominently in the evening’s entertainment along with the human reminiscenses.
All four actors deserve praise for they inhabit the lives, however briefly, of the collection of memoirs some funny, some poignant that have been painstaking collected, at first on paper and then on tape, by Jock Duncan (hence the name): the ensemble is completed by Scott Gardiner and Chris Wright.
They interact with ease, chuckling, heckling (there;s a few university gags thrown in, singing, playing their tunes and reading, often in deep Doric dialect the tales that underpin 20th Century Scots culture so sadly and so profoundly.
These are survivors tales, but it’s noted that in one bloody field there were but three graves and now there are six acres. And that’s just one site.
This is a play that deserves a wider audience. Although it was sold out it had only the one performance and yet it is a new and massively worthwhile piece of cultural history that would entertain and engage universally. (Many of the songs elicited audience participation, although I’m ashamed to say my only contribution was to Waltzing Matilda, which bookended the Gallipoli section on ‘moothie’ and in song.)
The University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies Archive is to be praised for supporting this and I, for one, hope it reaches a far wider audience in the years to come.