Arts Preview: Interview with Ishbel MacFarlane, Platform 18 Winner

It’s an absolutely minging Monday afternoon and I’ve just barged into the Green Room at Scottish Youth Theatre, and into the middle of Ishbel’s rehearsal for her upcoming one-woman performance at The Arches, O is for Hoolet. I apologise, we satisfy the mandatory Scottish pleasantry of commenting on the mingingness of the weather, and then launch straight into a discussion of Scots language, socio-linguistics and self-worth.

Am I right in thinking this isn’t the first time O is for Hoolet has been performed at The Arches?

Well I did a scratch of it at Arches Live in October, and that was about 25 minutes long, and then I got the Platform 18 award and that has given me the time and funding and space to develop it into an hour long show. The stuff that I used at the scratch actually really closely formed the basis of what I’m working on for the show, so that was really good! It was a good example of how the development process can work, you can try something out and see if you like it, see if it went well, learn from it and go on to develop. This’ll be the first time the full show is performed.


How did you incorporate all the different materials and therefore different voices and dialects of Scots into the show?

Well, in some ways, I don’t look too closely into dialects within Scots. There’s so many issues surrounding the language, and I suppose I look at minority language in a wee bit wider detail as well as Scots. So, there’s different kinds of Scots, for example in the show I have a Liz Lochhead poem, she’s writing in her West Coast voice, there’s Jean Redpath, who’s a Fifer, and a 16th-century legal document from the Scottish Parliament. But there’s also lots of different Englishes. There’s my own Scottish English, there’s written Standard English, so bits out of linguistic books and stuff. And there’s a tiny bit of British Sign Language and a tiny bit of French, so just looking at lots of different aspects of different languages. There’s a whole show in looking at the movements of Scots within Scotland, the different identities ascribed to different dialects- or language varieties I should say, since the dichotomy of language and dialect is so politically fraught! Yes, there are linguistic concerns when deciding if something is a language or a dialect, but also socio-political concerns, so language variety I quite like because everyone has their own.


With O is for Hoolet winning the Platform 18 Award, there seems to be a receptive audience for work on the Scots language.  So do you think the socio-political assumptions people have about Scots are changing?

I think so. Obviously in Scotland we have, not a unique situation, but unique in the British Isles in that we’ve got two minority languages – Gaelic and Scots. There’s a complication there which doesn’t exist say in Wales, which only has one minority language which is completely unintelligible to English. We have that with Gaelic, but then we’ve got this other one. It seems to stand in this sort of middle ground, not immediately identifiable as a different language because Scots and English exist on more of a language continuum. There are people who think they speak proper English but are using Scottish constructions or vocabulary. It took me until I was 25 to discover the way I use the word ‘bucket’ is the way Standard English speakers use ‘bin’! So we’ve had 10 years since the Gaelic Language Act, and only now are people going ‘Oh, there’s another one!’

Do you feel we’ll be able to incorporate both Scots and Gaelic?

Yeah I think so, I don’t see why not. Interestingly, I looked at the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, and Scots and Gaelic aren’t considered that vulnerable on a global scale. In lots of ways Gaelic is a very healthy language, there’s Gaelic television, you can see it on signs, it’s taught in schools, there’s a dictionary. Some world languages in danger only have dozens or hundreds of speakers, whereas Gaelic has hundreds of thousands and Scots has millions. But people may not necessarily identify as Scots speakers, even though they are. So yes, I don’t see any reason why these languages can’t co-exist and feed each other. As part of my research for the show I went to Friesland in the Netherlands. They speak Frisian, which has a very strong identity as a minority language, and the kids there have trilingual education – Frisian, Dutch and English. Some kids have trilingual education from nursery! We’re made to be multilingual, monolingualism is the unusual situation to be in on a global scale.

You mentioned there that Scots speakers may not necessarily identify as such.  Why is that?

Well, just the other day I went to get my watch fixed at the local cobblers and he asked what I was up to. I said I was on my way to rehearse a show I was doing for The Arches about the Scots language (with a slight inflection because even people who are completely enthusiastic about Scots put a wee question mark after it, ‘Scots language?’). He thought I meant Gaelic, then thought I was talking about a ‘ye olde time’ language, then just dismissed Scots as a slang version of English. Now, he was a broad, broad Scots speaker, who maybe doesn’t identify what he’s speaking as Scots or slang or old-fashioned in any way, maybe just thinks he’s speaking English, maybe thinks he speaks incorrectly… I don’t know.  So there’s a lot of education that needs to be done, to let people embrace the variety and richness they have in their lives. That guy may have spoken differently to someone else who came into his shop that didn’t have the same accent as me.


So a kind of code-switching?

Aye, kind of. I mean code-switching is great, that’s how multilingualism works internationally. For example if you live in Ghana you’d speak about 5 different languages, a different one for church, one for the market place, one for home, one for the village next door. You’d never speak the church language in the market place because that’d seem a bit odd. And that’s fine as long as every one of those is seen as equally valid, and not a shit version of another one, which is the problem with Scots.


I think there has been quite a push in primary education to encourage children to speak they way they do at home, and not to correct any evidence of regional variety or impose a ‘correct’ way of speaking on them.  Do you think this will help?

Well when it comes to self-worth, you’re looking at things like ‘the Glasgow effect’, which says you’re more likely to die young, at any income bracket, in any social class, in Glasgow than in Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, other post-industrial places, and we don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s to do with self-worth. If you can own your culture, your identity, that’s got to be a positive thing. Maybe if these people who are dying prematurely at 55 of some preventable illness had been validated in school, and been allowed to speak Scots or Gaelic or been encouraged in some other way and had therefore done better and had higher self-esteem… You can see how early input or validation can have ramifications throughout your life.

There’s quite a lot of children’s literature being translated into Scots just now as well, do you think that’s another way of improving self-worth?

I think Matthew Fitt and Itchy Coo are so vital. In fact the name of the show, O is for Hoolet, comes from my mum and dad deliberately bringing me up speaking Scots, and me reading my alphabet book, which I use in the show, and saying ‘M is for Moose, N is for Newt, O is for Hoolet…’.  Because everything in the mainstream is Standard English, my mum and dad were very conscious that it was more complicated than they originally anticipated. So yeah it’s great, James Robertson did ‘The Hoose at Pooh’s Neuk’, there’s ‘The Gruffalo’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Wean’, they’re really well-done, the rhythms work, the feel of the original is there, there’s a naturalness to them that’s really impressive. I find it easier writing in Scots than translating into Scots so it’s a real challenge and I can see they’ve really stepped up to the bar. It’s very exciting.

Going back to the performance itself, The Arches is obviously a venue that has a reputation in Glasgow for cutting-edge, thought-provoking, slightly out of the ordinary theatre. Behaviour Festival as well is really a culmination and celebration of this. Do you feel it’s an appropriate context for O is for Hoolet?

I think so, partly because language and our presumptions about language and culture is something that maybe folk haven’t considered before. Often when you go to political work there’s an element of preaching to the converted, and while there is value in that, having something reaffirmed or explored in a new way, often the audience is all sitting like, ‘Yeah yeah, we agree, we know’. But when it comes to thinking that somebody’s a bit of an idiot for saying ‘yous’ for example, I think that’s something that people often haven’t really questioned in themselves. Why is it I would never change the way I dress for anyone else, or change my friends or the music I listen to for anyone else, but when I go into an interview I immediately speak totally differently? The most vital thing for me is that people leave the show questioning. It’s something that’s really valuable for a culturally literate arts community. It’s certainly important for me, and although it’s been something I’ve been working on and thinking about explicitly for 10 years, and even for my whole life I’ve been conscious of this kind of duality, doing this show I’ve still learned so much and there’s still so much I don’t know.

O is for Hoolet will be performed from 15th-17th April as part of Behaviour Festival at The Arches.

More information and tickets here.

[Caitlin Walker – @hirquitallient]

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