As Women Went On Journeys Through Geography And Time We Waulked In The Footsteps Of Foremothers (A Review Of Home Words By Katharine MacFarlane)

Hey Readers

As those of you know me will know, I tend not to do much on Sundays as they usually consist of church, comfort food, and blog chats. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but they usually happen at Celtic Connections and not at the Edinburgh Fringe. This year however all that changed due to one fierce woman and a fiercely talented poet.

It was at the fierce women event on the opening day of the fringe which I was privileged to be part of, that Katharine MacFarlane (pictured above) said she wanted a word with me at the end of our performance. Now I don’t know why but I suspected the bold Katharine may be planning something and as it turned out I was right.

You see when we did get time to chat, Katharine said that she was doing only one show at the fringe this year and she wanted me to be there to see her performance of Home Words. Naturally I was delighted to receive this invitation but it didn’t end with the invite I was also asked to blog about it. To say I was speechless albeit on a temporary basis, would not be overstating the case. To be asked to review a gifted poet such as Katharine is not something you turn down so I promised I would attend the show even though it was taking place at 1 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon a time at which on any average Sunday I would just be coming home from church.

When the day came I made sure I arrived at the venue in plenty of time and am happy to report I was first in the queue for the show. This is perhaps less surprising than it should when you consider I had left Baillieston at 10.30 in order to let Katharine down as she had been kind enough to leave me a ticket and it’s good job I was on the guest list because as you can see from the picture below I may not have got in otherwise.

Eventually the doors opened and I took my seat in the front row of what must surely be the plushest fringe venue I’ve ever been in. As I looked around the room, it was great to see our fellow fierce women Catriona Knapman, Emma Mooney, and Janet Crawford in the audience to show their support for Katharine. It should also be noted that Lesley Traynor turned up but was too late to get in and as a result missed an absolutely wonderful with beautiful poetry, and well told stories superb woven together with traditional women’s songs to produce an outstanding piece of theatre.

After welcoming us to the gathering, Katharine started a show,which would take us on journeys of geography and time as she explored some of the myths and legends Celtic Britain and the traditions of her Western Isles heritage.

The show started with Ring Of Brodgar, in which she describes the magic and majesty of one of Orkney’s most well known landmarks in that kind of lyrical language which is her trademark style.

This was followed by Maeshowe a poem of stunning quality and brilliant visual imagary which I have heard her perform before but perhaps it was of the intimite nature of the event or because there was better acoustics in the room but I got to the chance to listen to it more than you do when surrounded by background chatter. This was beneficial to both Katharine and my enjoyment of the poem

To demonstrate her versatility Katharine treated us to the traditional Gaelic song Aliean Duinn which she sang beautifully in a language which lends itself to song because of the oral tradition of it. Indeed many songs are passed down through the generations in this way from father to son, from mother to daughter. On hearing her sing I couldn’t help but wonder if she had ever competed at the Mod as she certainly has a voice you could listen to without your ears bleeding like they do when I hear certain types of musicians.

Next up was the excellent Blessing For The Bard in which Katharine again delved in to the Celtic style in which she is so comfortable. This poem evokes memories of my western isles roots which my gran always claimed made me different from those lowlanders who sold our country out for 30 pieces of silver. My gran was a woman of strong opinions Katharine is a woman of strong talents.

The show continued with Scots Pine being the next poem offered up to an audience who hung on Katharine’s every word as we savoured the delights from a performer whose natural place is to be seated at the top poetic table. Am I biased ? I don’t think so. I prefer to think that I’m just being what I always I am namely honest, plain speaking and telling it like it is. Well as regular readers who know me will know, it’s just the way I am.

This was like the cultured version of a girls afternoon but with one very definite star attraction hosting the party.
Now those of us who’ve attended these gatherings (which in this case was 99 per cent of of the audience) know that it is not uncommon for the host of the event to have a few wee surprises for her guest and Katharine was no exception to this tradition. Katharine’s surprise  however did not come in the form of favours or chocolates, but in an activity which consumed so much energy that it made my parish ninute aerobics exercise when we are forced to actions to certain hymns look like a walk in the park.

This activity known as waulking was as a process by which cloth was dyed and was hard physical labour.  It  was a tradition known to the women of the Highlands and Islands and was strictly a job for women only. Indeed men were strictly forbidden from entering any walking area and any who did so did it at their own risk.

Before the waulking started there were tables laid with food for women to feast on and believe me I think it’s safe to say that they would earn every bite as this was seriously hungry work. I know this because as you can probably guess this part of the show was interactive and Katharine had us kneeling on the floor doing a bit of waulking to get an authentic feel as to what life was like for our ancestors.

As our host explained with waulking being such a demanding job singing was an important part of a waulker woman’s day and no topic was off limits. Trust me some of those waulking songs could I suspect get pretty bawdy and maybe one of the reasons men were forbidden from coming in to the waulking areas would be to spare their blushes as well as the shall I say potent smells in a room in which vinegar would need to be used during the process.

It is I think fair to say I enjoyed singing the waulking song and trying my hand at an activity which may have been how Katharine’s and my own foremother’s earned their living. Though quite how any woman could undertake this intensive Labour for eight hours is something I would find very hard to contemplate. I do however know one inescapable fact anyone who worked as a waulker would never need to visit a gym or consider going on a diet.

At the end of this personal training session we returned to our seats exhausted but in good spirits as the show changed location and we travelled from the Western Isles to North Wales where we heard the story of Branwen who was the sister of Bran the king of that territory. Seeking to make a political marriage and thereby extend his influence he sought the hand of one of the kings of Ireland for his sister.

This was a story packed with power, passion, feuding, but most of all one of woman’s faith and how through that faith she managed to overcome even the darkest of days and how in a hostile country with no friends or support network once her own husband took the side of his courtiers rather than his wife she was still able to hold on to hope despite all the odds and obstacles stacked against her.

Whilst there is no doubt this is a story it is a story liberally sprinkled with poetry to assist in the telling of it. The poems Listen, Journey To St Kilda , The Wishing Tree , Branwen and The Starling are all excellent stand alone poems but it is when interwoven to the fabric of this story you see their raw power and passion and in The Starling which is the last poem of the sequence you see the beauty of hope in all its gentle fragility as Branwen puts her faith in that small bird and ties a message to its wing in the hope it will eventually secure her safe return home to the land she loves which of course it does. The show ended with a reprieve of the poem Listen which is a gentle but potent reminder of the forces of nature in all its majestic power which I have to say is similar to power of women As a trans woman I claim that power as mine and I claim the right to own it.

On this occasion however the power belonged to one woman. One glorious woman who by her poems, stories, and songs enthralled all in her company and left us spellbound in wonderment as to how we could learn so much in the space of an hour.
This was an hour in which women went on journeys (there was only one exception) of geography and time and we waulked in the footsteps of our foremothers.

Love And Best Wishes 

Gayle X


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