Category Archives: Sunday 25th

Clavel – A film by Shona Main

James Robert Sinclair with his sheep - image Shona Main

James Robert Sinclair with his sheep – image Shona Main

I must express a very emotional and personal interest in Shona Main’s film.  My Granny was from Bressay; I still have a significant number of relations living in Shetland, and the last time I was there in 2010 was not only the year my Dad died, but it was the last time I was able to travel on a plane with my Mum due to her deteriorating mobility and eyesight.  Shetland is a vital part of me and my heritage, and I am still overwhelmed with emotion when I think about that holiday 5 years ago, and the unexpected death of my Mum just 2 years later.

It was a beautiful summer that July, and we spent time driving round the most stunning landscape in the world, up to the sheltered sandy beaches of Yell and Unst; feeding Shetland Ponies with apples en route; out to the Voes and over to Bressay to see photos of our ancestors at the Heritage Centre, then on to Sumburgh Head to witness the amazing travails of young puffins as they made their maiden flights.  Despite my bias, I can assure anyone who loves the natural world, who longs for a slower, quieter way of life, and who appreciates the very best qualities and characteristics of humanity, that you will love this film.

Debut filmmaker Shona Main introduced Clavel by talking about the subject of her film, James Robert Sinclair being “always there”, from when she was growing up in Shetland, through the times she returned, after leaving to become a journalist.  This idea of a particular adult (often not a relative) we might remember from our childhood or our early lives, who has been a constant, an anchor of emotion, of time and of heritage, translates beautifully into the constancy and importance of place which is explored in the film itself.

Shona talked in her introduction of her return to Shetland in 2011 at a time of great personal loss, and her determination to then make a film about James Robert, after having already started to write a book about him.  She told us that, although she had little skill in and experience of filmmaking, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and managed to finance the whole project through crowdfunding.  She also felt, that at the age of 45, her life experience would surely inform her craft, which I certainly felt was something I, and surely many others in the audience could identify with and feel inspired by.

So, Shona continued, she spent a whole year travelling to and from Shetland, with the support of her partner, and she developed a relationship and a certain level of intimacy and trust with James Robert, by following him everywhere and also by giving him carte blanche to stop the filming at any point, which he never did, as he said he enjoyed the company.

The hours they spent together were more like informal chats and conversations and the end result has James Robert telling his own story and narrating throughout.  Although Shona explained it is currently unfashionable to have the main character as narrator, she gleefully declared “I don’t really care for fashion”, which brought a ripple of applause, laughter and approving noises from the audience.

The music is a very important part of the film; it is beautifully synchronised with the cinematography, and enhances the viewing experience perfectly, as all good film music must do.  Shona talks more about the composers and musicians, Alice Mullay and Jonathon Ritch, who had also know James Robert all their lives.  The harmonium in Bigton Church, where he himself had attended christenings, weddings and funerals over the decades of his life, had been used to play much of the music on, and the final piece of choral music, Dagalen, is sung by the men of the village of Bigton – Shona also thanks the whole village for all their support throughout the filming.

This review has taken me the longest to write of all the reviews I have written so far, but it is amongst the shortest, as I felt it a near impossible task to convey such a visually moving experience in words.  Clavel, as it unfolded in front of me was a work of utter joy; the reflection of one man’s simple way of life, for which he expressed a quiet passion.  His continuing involvement with the sheep farming year was beautifIMG_1514ully filmed, and the long shots of Shetland’s unique landscape interspersed with more intimate moments and conversations with the people he is closest to, were perfectly balanced.

James Robert’s love for Clavel and his expression of his desire to die there was a moment among many in the film for which I cannot find the English language that adequately describes the emotion it stirred in me.  The only word which comes near is the Portuguese or Galician word “Saudade”, which has no literal translation, but has been described as a nostalgic or melancholic longing for something/someone which is beloved yet absent; “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Clavel is filled with saudade, but it is also filled with a series of sublime moments which warm the heart and send your spirits soaring into the big blue Shetland skies.

Lorna Hanlon



Dundee’s Four Marys, High Mill at Verdant Works – expanded review with photos, Friday 23rd and Sunday 25th October

Dundee's Four Marys (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Dundee’s Four Marys with American Mary (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Both performances of Dundee’s Four Marys at Verdant Works this week had sold out quickly.  It was apparent when large numbers of attendees started to assemble at High Mill, which has only just reopened after a beautiful refurbishment, that people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds had found great appeal in some aspect of the play.  Taking it on face value, with limited knowledge of the subject matter, I was initially intrigued by the historic voices I would surely hear, by how four late women of Dundee from different time periods (some overlapping) would be brought to life, and how they might interact with each other in Eddie Small’s play.

With everyone gathered, Eddie gave a brief introduction to the setting, talking of the history of the Dundee Mills, and introducing one of the curators who also gave us some detail on the refurbishment of  High Mill itself. We then took our seats on the main floor of the Mill.  The Four Marys themselves were standing on plinths, each inscribed with their name and dates: Mary Ann Baxter (1801 – 1884), Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915), Mary Lily Walker (1863 – 1913) and Mary Brooksbank (1897 – 1978). I was impressed by the actresses’ ability to stand very still for quite a long time as we the audience got ourselves seated and settled (tall ones at the back, which was anyone over 4 foot 3, according to Eddie’s instructions).

Mary and Emily, image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

Mary and Emily, (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The Four Marys kicks off with Julie Reilly’s entrance, as Maisie the Cleaner, who is dusting round the four statues and does a great job of setting the scene.  Then the modern day Mary, along with her pal Emily arrive, the story being that they are US tourists who have been locked in Scotland’s Jute Museum by mistake.

Mary Brooksbank (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

Mary Brooksbank (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

When Mary Brooksbank starts to sing – (a spirited and engaging performance throughout by Jane Campbell), the story of the Four Marys begins, and we are drawn into their characters and their worlds by the dialogue which is at first driven by Brooksbank – “the chattiest one”.  She tells us that she was sent to work in the Mill when she was “too young”. She complains about the poverty in Dundee, the inequality between the rich mill owners and poor workers, and how she had to fight for a better wage; all the different types of workers got different pay, so it was very hard to get them all to strike and be united in action.  Whilst she starts by expressing a rather low opinion of her fellow “statues”, as more and more detail of their good works and sacrifices is revealed, by themselves, and by each other, by the end of the play, Brooksbank is in full complimentary flow towards  her fellow women o’ Dundee, as they are towards her.

We hear more from each of the other Marys.  Mary Lily Walker, who “shone a light on the very darkest of days”, in a suitably restrained and finely judged portrayal, by Holly Whitfield. We learn that Walker had a comfortable background, her father was a solicitor, and she herself attended University College in Dundee.  She travelled to London to bring back ideas on social improvement, as she despaired at the prevalence of cholera and typhoid in poor communities in Dundee, and the existence of  poor houses – as well as the unequal treatment of men and women in the society of the time.  We find our that Walker spent many months compiling a factual report on 6000 houses in Dundee; the statistic that 2/5 of children did not survive until their first birthdays and the details of the the shocking conditions shamed the city,  We later hear that amongst Walker’s other achievements was to set up a milk depot and she also funded holidays for poor and crippled children.

Mary Lily Walker, as Mary Slessor listens (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Mary Lily Walker (foreground), and Mary Slessor  (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The choice that Mary Slessor had to make between the love of a good man and her calling to be a missionary in Nigeria is just one part of her story, and Lynne Binnie’s beautiful voice and gentle insistence of Slessor’s moral fortitude throughout a challenging life is a joy to behold. From the slums of Aberdeen, with an alcoholic father, Slessor went on to start at the mills aged eleven,  after moving to Dundee. She talked of the jute mills, “tainting your tastebuds” and the rancid fish smell in all the mills due to the jute being mixed with whale oil in the processing,  Slessor also explained how The Civil War in America helped trade in Dundee where the void for jute and linen for sailcloth, bags etc. could be filled due to blockading and lack of workforce in the USA.  In a moving and heartbreaking speech, Slessor talked of her time in Nigeria as a Missionary, when she eventually had nobody to send letters or stories to back home as her mother and sister had died whilst she was there.

Mary Ann Baxter talks of the 1830s in Dundee being a vibrant and exciting time, and further on in her lifetime, how The British Association for the Advancement of Science came to Dundee and delivered science lectures for workers – unheard of at the time. Baxter defends her family’s contribution to the setting up of the textile mills and offers an explanation of how the trade worked in Dundee – claiming that her family treated workers comparatively well.  She talks of the Dundee building boom in the 1850s and 60s, with 4 Railway stations in Dundee, and the Tay Bridge when it was built being the longest metal structure in world.  She also recognised the harsher conditions of the time – “diseases and pestilence….the drinking of spirits.”  There is also mention of her huge contribution to founding and funding the University of Dundee, and the part she played in having men and women educated in the same classrooms.  Marjory Robertson has a very hard job in presenting the modest character of Mary Ann Baxter, and it could so easily have become overplayed, underplayed, or just not credible.  Instead, her performance was an example in fine tuning; like a certain bowl of porridge, it was “just right”

Mary Ann Baxter (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Mary Ann Baxter (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The brief appearance by Gary Bottoms as the Guide who rescues the tourists from their historical lock-in is a finishing splurge of quality over quantity!

Essentially the play is an expositional exchange between the Four Marys, with the American tourists (ably and convincingly portrayed by Annie Bottoms and Gwen Teppett) providing links of steel between the bridges of history.  Whilst exposition is a tricky beast to tame or abandon in other forms of prose writing, the playwriting craft, in so many of its guises is often obliged to encompass the “e” word as an essential element, and it’s how the writer handles it that can make or break the finished work.  Along with the historic detail, we are shown the characters of the Marys through their words and the many excellent acting performances – in fact the dual layers of history and character are beautifully balanced.

Eddie Small has such a light yet deeply informed touch; the history of these four women, and, (at the risk of appearing in Private Eye),  Dundee itself is in his DNA, so we never feel as if the telling of their history is forced or contrived, instead we suddenly find, when the play is over all too soon, that we have learned a huge amount about the history of the city, and of course about the Four Marys.

I am not a native Dundonian, and I often find myself unable to remember where I put my keys or whatever was in my hand five minutes ago, but on the car journey back from Verdant Works, I was delighted to be able to regale my Dundonian husband with a slew of historical facts I had learned from the play, many of which were news to him.

An enthralled audience (image by Erkia Stevenson for Verdant Works)

An enthralled audience (image by Erkia Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Dundee’s Four Marys is a play which I am compelled to see again – listening to some of the comments afterwards, it was clear that others shared my desire.  After a wee speech from Eddie, ending with an emotional request for the audience to now applaud the women o’ Dundee throughout the ages, he invited Professor Kirsty Gunn up to speak a bit more about the  Mlitt in Study and Practice of Writing at the University of Dundee.  Kirsty, in fact took the opportunity simply to thank everyone involved for the wonderful evening, and to enthusiastically express the many positive thoughts  she had for the performance and the writing.  The very able and helpful staff at High Mill at Scotland’s Jute Museum finished off the evening perfectly with their professional and caring attention – allowing everyone to wander through the Mill at leisure before we headed out into the night, with some wonderful memories and a desire to return.

Bravi tutti!

Lorna Hanlon

Mother Tongue: Collette Bryce and Jen Hadfield

This was a slightly unusual event for the Literary Festival in two respects. Firstly, it comprised two poets performing consecutively, with only a vague theme of “deliberations of home” to connect them, in the words of Peggy Hughes introducing. Secondly, there was no opportunity for questions after the readings, meaning the poets’ only interaction with their captive audience was through their works. Fortunately, they did not disappoint.

Colette Bryce, performing first, won the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2003, and was Dundee University’s Poet-in-Residence between 2003 and 2005. She read from her most recent collection The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, but opened with a separate poem entitled “Dundee”, describing the train journey up the east coast past Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy and onwards, and the hay bales in fields like playing pieces in a “golden board game”.

The collection speaks a lot of her life and experiences growing up in Northern Ireland; the long poem “Derry” opens, describing a city of “suicides and riptides”, and schoolchildren hand in hand “like paper dolls”. “Re-entering the Egg” is “playing with scale” amid “childhood landscapes”; “the smallest breath knits round her like a shell”. Growing up, “the Brits” refers to the Army, and a beautiful image in one poem sees the narrator imagine dressing toy soldiers in dolls’ clothes, clearly evocative of the hostile environment that was her home country during the Troubles, and the yearning for peace among her family, friends and neighbours.

Other poems explore more domestic memories – “a giant’s hands might practice origami” with a gigantic paper road map, while “Magi” constructs the poignant image of a “mantelpiece nativity”, assigning biblical characters to the different liquor bottles arranged above a hearth in an array of “whisky, liberty and prayer”. The collection strays out of Ireland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to lament the closure of half of the city’s libraries in “A Library Book”, and Bryce returns to Dundee again outside the collection, with memories of learning to drive in a piece entitled “Car Wash”. A vein of wry humour runs through many of the pieces too – “Derry” assures us that Jesus was a Derryman, given that He was unemployed and living with his mum at the age of 33.

After a warm round of applause following her performance at the “cabaret mic” (in her words), Bryce ceded the stage to Jen Hadfield. A winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2008, her collection’s title Byssus comes from the fibrous tissue that “connects mussels to rock”, and, as such, represents “how we make ourselves at home in the world – how we anchor ourselves”.

The coastal theme continues with the opening poem “Lichen” – their “black and golden ears” and bivalves and puffballs are all fruitful sources of inspiration for the Shetland-based Hadfield. One poem recalls taking children from a school in Birmingham on a trip to the Devonshire hills, and how, when their iPhones were returned to them in the evening, they were “cracked open like geodes” beneath the “hot perturbations of Sirius”.

Hadfield’s soft, dulcet tones were haunting as she presented remarkable pastoral images – “Hydra”, on planting a garden, talks of “spades hewn”, and “turned roots parching”. A daisy is “one little sun against the sky”, standing up to being pulled by the “thread of wind”; a mushroom resembles a “severed head”, the moon “a bashed swede”, and a gate swings “like the chapped mouth of the wind”. “Wind turns like a great water wheel”, and “these acts exceed themselves like trout mouthings”. Poems, she said, are “little machines to remember themselves” – “themselves” being “something precious”.

One of her strongest works is “The Plinky Boat”, containing striking lines like “the present is a fine line; a puff of air will destroy it”, “things meta-flower so readily into their present selves”, and it ends with  the profound observation, true of every piece of art: “the poem wouldn’t exist, but we couldn’t stay”. She ended her reading with the collection’s final piece “The Moult” – addressed to the animal in question, it instructs to “shelter in the hoodoos and pluck your fur”, and “scratch off your dream coat of silver  ”. Whilst Bryce’s verses tend to dwell in urban settings, and Hadfield’s in rural ones, they are united in their strength in capturing locations and their memories in words – a thoroughly entertaining revue.

Adam Learmonth