Is it easier to sing than speak out? Thoughts on Hebridean women

Tomorrow night sees the launch of HebCelt 16 with the performance of Hebridean Women in An Lanntair. It’s got me thinking about who we are as Hebridean women and why, when we have some of the most beautiful singing voices in the world, we hear so little from our women in political or public life.

Like so much else at this year’s festival, the Hebridean Women gig is a sellout. I’m lucky enough to be going — and will be at large for much of the rest of the festival too: sometimes with the kids in tow, sometimes not. I’ll be making the most of my wee bit of freedom and I’m hoping to blog about it too, so stay posted.

For now, though, my eye is on the Hebridean Women gig, a show put together by An Lanntair’s project director Alex Macdonald. It follows on from the Lewis Women shows in the past, the first of which was held in 2005 to mark the opening of the new An Lanntair arts centre.

These concerts brought together some of the finest Gaelic singers from the island and now the concept has been extended to the whole of the Outer Hebrides. It brings together singers from the Butt to Barra, and across the generations too. They are Julie Fowlis (North Uist), Kathleen Macinnes (South Uist), Cathy Ann Macphee (Barra), Isobel Ann Martin and Mary Smith (both Lewis).

STELLAR CAST: The line-up for Hebridean Women

The show has been designed to encourage collaboration in performance, to promote music and song from the area, and also to provide a ‘master and apprentice’ style of working together for the artists themselves.

You can guarantee a night of world-class singing. These are women who travel the world with song — Julie Fowlis, for example, recently performed at the Battle of the Somme Centenary Commemoration service, as well as famously singing in the Disney animation ‘Brave’.

“Have songs, will travel,” says Mary Smith, who described Hebridean Women as “a lovely opportunity for the singers to meet up with each other — when you find out who else is going to be there, you just say ‘yes’.”

Each singer is celebrated in her own right and they are all artistic in other ways too, whether that’s working in theatre or being an actual artist. “We don’t differentiate between singing and art,” said Mary. “It’s all the one thing.”

HEADS TOGETHER: Mary Smith and project director Alex Macdonald

Well, here’s a thing: If Hebridean Women can express themselves so beautifully in song, and in all other art forms, why then does the Hebridean Woman not seem to have much of A Voice in public life?

While there are women who occupy big positions in the culture sector — Caroline MacLennan as HebCelt festival director has to be the example here — they are conspicuous by their absence in civic life. There are only three female councillors at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, out of 31. That’s less than 10 per cent!

This point was extremely well made by the journalist Lesley Riddoch when she wrote about the Hebrides a number of years ago in an article that also explored the significance of the decision taken to ‘rebrand’ the Western Isles as the Outer Hebrides, following a consultation involving the public and tourism sector.

“Hebrides means the place protected by the pre-Christian fire goddess Brigid or Bride,” wrote Lesley. “Without knowing it the island fathers have invoked the memory of the Celt’s most powerful female figure by the simple act of renaming the island chain.”

She hoped this renaming would be a symbolic trigger for women to begin challenging their apparent second-class status. Looking at the numbers, absolutely nothing has changed since she was writing in 2007. But it seems entirely fitting to me, when I think back to women of my granny’s generation, and those women before her, that the Hebrides be named after a goddess of fire.

For so many of these Hebridean women were firebrands. Tough as old boots — and totally in charge at home — but fierce and smart too. Plenty of them were political animals, albeit domesticated ones whose strong views about current affairs were mainly aired inside the house.

My granny, who was ‘in service’ in Glasgow as a young woman, had plenty fire. She would shout at the politicians on the telly and I remember her yelling: “That George Bush! If I could catch him, I would break his teeth with a stick!”

GENERATION FIREBRAND: My late granny, in spirited form as usual, and me

Then there were the Herring Girls, who travelled the length and breadth of the country, working in the most uncomfortable conditions.

During our blether about Hebridean Women, Alex Macdonald recalled how her granny, a Herring Girl, was all over, from Shetland to Lowestoft, and then went on to help with the War effort in a munitions factory.

“Hebridean women have always been strong, particularly that generation,” said Alex.

After the War, women reverted to the more traditional female roles, with the importance of home heightened so painfully with the loss of the Iolaire.

The menfolk benefited from these strong, nurturing, supportive mothers — former Chancellor Alistair Darling, who has a Lewis mother, is a case in point — but the number of women in public life has been startingly small over the past century.

HERRING GIRLS: One of the Stornoway statues in their honour

I’m happy to be corrected here but to my knowledge there were only three women in that time who rose to any kind of prominence politically.

Baillie Julia Fraser chaired committees of the town council nearly 100 years ago. Ann Urquhart was the first Lady Provost, 50 years ago. Kathleen Macaskill was vice-convener of the council at the time of BCCI, 30 years ago. Western Isles Health Board had one female chair, Mairi Macmillan.

There have been no female conveners of the council and no female MPs or MSPs, although there have been a few female candidates. While opportunities have opened up a lot more for women — since the 60s, in particular, with the advent of contraception — there are still barriers.

A big one is our fear of the labels we could attract. We’re wary of doing or saying too much in case someone calls us “difficult”, “bolshy”, “a ball breaker” or (the worst) “a spideag”, which roughly translates as an overly confident female, whose behaviour is unbecoming.

Language can be so powerful. In a recent interview, actress Emma Watson revealed that she used to be scared to speak out about sexism in case someone labelled her “difficult”.

Watson, who gave a speech at the UN in 2014 to launch their campaign for gender equality, said: “At some point, the sting has to come out of words like diva. It was ammunition used against me because I was so afraid of being called spoilt or difficult.

STANDING PROUD: Stornoway’s other Herring Girl statue

“Go for it — say what you need to say. Other people’s perception of you can’t be the most important thing. You have to let your perception of yourself have a lot more weight.”

I turned to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar convener Norman ‘Dokus’ Macdonald for his views. “There’s no doubt that the gender balance is very much skewed towards the male,” he said, giving two reasons why, historically, women might have been put off.

There was the previous timings of meetings — going back 15 years, they would go on until 9 or 10pm, sometimes even later if it was really controversial — and also the perception that these meetings were rather combative. Now it’s more family friendly, with meetings generally held from nine till five.

“Historically there is a feeling that council meetings can be quite adversarial in nature,” he added. “It’s more a perception than a reality now but it might put people off, if they feel they are going into an environment that is confrontational.”

Nationally, this is a good week for women in politics, with Theresa May taking the Conservative crown and giving us a female Prime Minister and First Minister. But we’ve a bit to go yet, locally.

Dokus said: “I would certainly encourage women to engage with the political process and I believe they would bring a great deal to the table in terms of their contributions. Women are involved in every other aspect of community life and I see no reason why they can’t be involved in this aspect of life as well.”

Does he think that sexism still exists in today’s Hebridean society? “There are some things that people will always refer to as being traditional roles for men and women. I personally don’t subscribe to that but there’s no doubt that some people do. For the most part, I would say it’s not sexist in intention — but if it’s interpreted by a significant number of people as being sexist then it becomes that.”

I’d say it’s still a real thing. Take this exchange, overheard in a bank in Stornoway last week. A bodach was carrying out his business when he asked his female bank clerk (one of three on that day): “Are there no men working here anymore?”

“Would you prefer to be served by a man?” she inquired. “Yes,” he said — then turned and walked out.

Sometimes that sexism is very subtle. I heard another bodach say, about Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner: “She seems like a bit of a spideag.”

There she was, giving big speeches here, there and everywhere, denouncing the Taliban for daring to ban Pakistani girls like her from going to school. After all, what did she know? Getting shot in the head might have had something to do with it.

It’s probably kinder to leave the bodachs undisturbed. But it might be time for the Hebridean Woman to shed her self-consciousness, rediscover her inner firebrand, and speak out. If that means going for public office, so much the better. And who cares what anyone else says or thinks.


Comments 4

  1. Katie, you write beautifully and truthfully. Kathleen Macaskill was my grandmother and whilst I am very proud of her achievements, it is sad that it still seems so significant – despite being so many years ago!

    1. Hi Annie. Thank you so much for getting in touch and for your kind comment! Who knows, maybe there will be a new wave of politicised women. It would be great. All the best. Katie

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