Inspiring stories of strong Hebridean women opens tonight

Muriel Ann Macleod, right, with Deeds Not Words costume maker Hannah Bamlett.
Muriel Ann Macleod, right, with Deeds Not Words costume maker Hannah Bamlett.
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Tonight (Thursday) sees the debut of a remarkable play on the history of women in the Hebrides.

Deeds Not Words, which has been created by the Rural Nations Scotland CIC theatre and arts company, is showing in An Lanntair in Stornoway for three nights before going on tour throughout the islands.

The play focuses on what happened when island women got the vote in 1918.

It tells the story of the Stornoway suffrage society — and fills in some of the blanks in this period of history.

Thanks to this play, we will learn more about the herring gutters as an economic powerhouse and about some women of great achievement, such as Helen MacDougal from Barvas.

The play is the result of a huge research effort by writer Toria Banks and director Muriel Ann Macleod into the story of women’s suffrage in the isles.

The research phase took three years and the total cost of creating this professional touring production was nearly £40,000.

A lot of public money went into making it possible. Mainly, a grant of £19,000 from Leader. Other funding came from the Scottish Government, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

A whole raft of local businesses made donations — either in cash or in kind — and community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust gave £1000.

Sonja Macleod, a board member of Point and Sandwick Trust, said they were delighted to support the play — and that she was very much looking forward to seeing it.

“It looks amazing. The thing that got me is that it’s not just the play; there are workshops and it’s open to the schools, and the fact that it’s travelling round small village halls is lovely”.

Sonja plans to take her son along as both his great grandmothers were herring girls. Two “strong, very formidable women as a lot of them were”, she said.

“They were working the land, working through the war effort, trying to make ends meet through extreme poverty and raising families.The fact there is going to be a play depicting all of that and the strength of these women is wonderful.”

She said the £1000 from PST would “make a very small dent” in the costs of such a production — but if it even covered the costs of hiring the village halls then it was “a job well done” to give all communities the chance to see it.

Sonja commented that these women’s achievements — and even the achievements of women today — “aren’t really marked”.

She said: “Although life is a lot easier in some ways for women now, because we’re not gutting herring on the side of the harbour, things are still very difficult for women in getting their voice heard and getting equality.

“I think the play is wonderful and I’m looking forward to reading the reviews as well.”

Muriel Ann, pictured above with costume maker Hannah Bamlett, said: “That funding from Point and Sandwick is really brilliant. It seems like there can be businesses here now, of all kinds, because there are trusts like that to support them. There’s a lot of business sponsors. It wouldn’t be happening without them. We just want the public to come and see this and tell us what they think — and tell us more stories!”

The play, of course, is linked to the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. It is in English with songs in Gaelic and a smattering of Gaelic in the dialogue.

The music and songs have been written by Mary Ann Kennedy and will be performed by Josie Duncan.

Three actresses will be playing all the roles — 25 in total — and Muriel Ann hopes to see as many Hebridean women as possible in the audience.

“At the end of the day, it’s your ancestors, your grannies. It’s what they were doing.” She added it reveals “a whole new side” to our history.

Muriel Ann said she had been rather “gobsmacked” by it because so much had come to light – like the existence of the Stornoway suffrage society.

The initial idea for the play had been to look at the fight for the vote in rural areas “because you only ever hear about the women in London”.

Their first lead on islands suffrage came when they discovered the Shetlanders had been political — “away down chucking bricks in Edinburgh” — and then they found a note in a suffragette journal that Stornoway Town Council were going to support the beginning of women’s suffrage locally.

We thought, ‘ooh!’ There must be suffrage here’,” said Muriel Ann. “Various speakers came from the national suffrage societies and in fact there was a society.”

There were about 25 Hebridean women in this Stornoway suffrage society and some of the stories of its individual members are told in Deeds not Words.

The herring gutters feature strongly. Muriel Ann said: “What really surprised me — and I didn’t know — was that so many women were gutting fish around the coast of Britain and bringing £75,000 a year into the Hebrides economy just before the First World War.

“These women went round the country, following the fishing, and earned money to send home. The men were bringing in £25,000 from fishing and other work, so we were earning more.”

Money from the herring gutting “built the islands”, said Muriel Ann, but by the time the war broke out this money was gone and all the women were left with was “knitting socks or being a maid on the mainland or doing the croft to feed everybody… but you weren’t being paid for that, of course.”

But then came the call to work for the munitions factories and the herring gutters’ skill with their hands meant they were perfect for this work.

Muriel Ann said: “We found evidence that the government sent a wee woman to round them all up and 500 went in one day. They were so desperate for work.”

Possibly the most compelling personal story in the play is that of Helen MacDougal.

She was a medic and an x-ray specialist, who served in military hospitals in Serbia and was captured as a prisoner of war — but only gets a brief mention in the Loyal Lewis roll of honour.

By contrast, Helen’s older brother Duncan MacDougal — a Free Church minister — was much celebrated in the history books.

However, he was sued for breach of promise for abandoning his fiancee after she was defamed as a woman of easy virtue. He had made no effort to ask her if gossip was true and this story will also be explored in the play.

“This history was written by men not by women,” said Muriel Ann, “and they don’t want to know what Helen achieved. She gets three lines in Loyal Lewis.”

However, thanks to this play, there are more lines about her now.

“What we’re seeing is that 100 years ago our women were pretty militant.

“They were aware of what was going on and they were out there doing something in the war because they could.

“I think because they were emancipated to travel already with the fish gutting, it was easier for them to take up the idea of going to all these places. It wasn’t a quantum leap for them.

“You don’t think of people being aware or emancipated or anything here. You think of them as being just poor – but this is a huge period of achievement.”

There is a plan to create a ‘Hebridean women of achievement’ archive, in conjunction with Museum nan Eilean, and the stories of the women from the play will be included in it.

Hopefully, people will also start coming forward with stories about women from their own family histories,so that these can also go into the archive.

“That’s really important to me because for so long it’s been ignored,” said Muriel Ann.

“I guess some people will say ‘we don’t need to know that’ but if you have a history where people stood up for their rights or did amazing things, then surely we should know it?”

These stories from our history should be a source of inspiration, particularly as the struggle for equality is not over yet.

“We have the vote but there is still a gender pay gap and other inequalities. In the world of theatre, the perception still exists that women should not be directors.

“I still get that,” said Muriel Ann, adding that she had two barriers to overcome in terms of theatre production: being female and being rural.

So what, ultimately, can we take from Deeds Not Words? Inspiration, hopefully, a bit more empowerment and a stronger connection to our roots.

“When you see what they did with not much, what could you be doing?” asked Muriel Ann.

“Why are we so quiet? It’s easy to complain about it but then what are we going to do about it?

“There’s a lot of inspiration to be had about women working for issues they believed in and wanting to make change.

“I think it’s really about confidence, about these women wanting to improve their lot, to do things differently, wanting to have more say in how things work in their society.

“It’s that tenacity, that when things go wrong they can think their way round it. We have a resilience as Hebridean people and there’s a positiveness in women to do things and make it happen.

“There’s also humour and a bit of a spark — and we’re clever. I’m seeing that in these young actresses we’ve got. It has been a lovely thing to do.

“It feels great to celebrate the past. That’s the point of what we do. These projects change how people feel about their place.

“I’m not just doing it because I fancied doing a show but because I know that it changes how we feel about our place and why we live here.

“Everything that celebrates the Hebrides changes perception and I certainly hope people will think differently about their grannies and what they did.”

The play is at An Lanntair on Thursday (Feb 15), Friday and Saturday, before going to Bernera Community Centre on Monday, followed by Leverburgh Village Hall on Tuesday.

It is then off to the Southern Isles, with performances in Carinish Hall, North Uist, next Thursday (Feb 22), Stonebridge Hall in South Uist on the Friday and Castlebay Hall in Barra on Saturday.

To find out how to book tickets for the An Lanntair performances log on to: http://lanntair.com/events/event/deeds-not-words/.