Over the last few decades women have increasingly insisted that they were written out of history during the 20th Century.
Last night in Stornoway there was the premiere performance of a remarkable play on the history of women in the Hebrides, Deeds Not Words, created by the Stornoway-based Rural Nations Scotland CIC theatre and arts company.
With a drumbeat of drama and details for many types of newspaper report, advertisements and personal correspondence, the play shows first, how in a crofting and fishing community – and industrial communities elsewhere – women played an essential role both out at work and in the home; and second the painful sacrifices made by women as well as men in the horrific maelstrom that was World War One.
The play is at An Lanntair tonight Friday (16th February) and Saturday, before going to Bernera Community Centre on Monday, followed by Leverburgh Village Hall on Tuesday.
It is then off to Uist, with performances in Carinish Hall, North Uist, next Thursday (Feb 22), Stoneybridge Hall in South Uist on the Friday and Castlebay Hall in Barra on Saturday.
The play is loosely based around what happened when island women got the vote in 1918. 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 grant of £19,000 from LEADER. Other funding came from the Scottish Government, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
An Lanntair’s auditorium was mostly full for the performance on Thursday evening. The play centres around three performers playing large number of different parts as the action shifts from New Zealand to Ness, Stornoway to Serbia, private lives to public campaigns.
Another aspect that audiences will be struck by is that Lewis – far from being cut off and isolated as so many people, particularly non-Islanders, always assume – was right at the forefront of political action, and closely in contact with others right across the world.
After all, for many decades telegrams had made it possible for news and information to reach disparate communities almost instantly – it just took slightly longer for news to reach people’s homes from the telegraph office. Poignantly, the play recalls how unpopular locally the Ness telegram lady became during the Great War as she so often brought dreadful news from the Western Front.
(Reviewer’s verdict: Don’t miss your chance to see this play!)
A whole raft of local businesses made donations to enable the play to go ahead — 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 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 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.” 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 .
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 fiancée 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 is explored in the play.
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?”
Muriel Ann Macleod, right, with Deeds Not Words costume maker Hannah Bamlett