National Piping Centre, 8th August…………..
Those who survive war often say nothing of their experience, writes Dr Jack Taylor. So Gary West’s discovery that Jock Duncan, father of P/M Ian and the late Gordon, had taped, then typed out, reminiscences of some 60 World War 1 survivors over 50 years is a precious one, especially as it was done in dialect, mostly the Doric of Jock’s Aberdeenshire. They could speak freely, comfortable in the colour and cadence of their own language.
This play is the result. The four characters, played by Gary West (smallpipes), Charlie West (fiddle), Chris Wright (moothie and cittern), and Scott Gardiner (singer) sit round any kitchen table in Scotland. Charlie West plays young McHardy, a man who has learned he is the great-grandson of one the men Jock talked to. He bursts in with this news, and puts the transcriptions on the table.
Amidst music, banter, and whisky, the stories emerge. The first is about a pencil, a sergeant’s stripes, and great granddad McHardy aged only 17 before Beaumont Hamel. It is all the funnier for being in Doric.
Yet many of the tales are far from funny. It is striking how easily dialect allows horror to sit right next to the commonplace. For example, Jimmy Reid from Alford and a German swap tobacco for bread during the 1914 Christmas truce. Then they clear the bodies, or parts of them, with the awful associated stench……
‘I gid a lad a tin o Maconnachies and he gid me a broon loaf – but I didna care fort. Baith sides took the opportunity ti collect aa the deed bodies and beery them. My certainly that wis nae picnic, some were just bits and hid ti be collected into bags and the stink beat hell.’
Dialect can be hard to read and understand if you don’t speak it. The author gets round this by making his characters Scots from anywhere, bashfully and often not too successfully trying to imitate the words transcribed so faithfully.
The music is well-chosen. The songs – McGinty’s Meal and Ale, The Famous Forty Twa’, even Waltzing Matilda, and tunes – Flett from Flotta, Battle of the Somme, Jig of Slurs and Neil Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife – are familiar, and they all make their own contribution to the atmosphere. Piping is given its place, and the greats of the era are all there – Lawrie, MacColl, Center, MacLean, MacDonald of Inverness, MacLennan.
The audience at the National Piping Centre were drawn in. Gary West has clearly succeeded in making the dialect understood. This, together with the homely setting and nature of the subject, made for a thoughtful hour of respite from the hurl and burl of Piping Live.
This play could be performed anywhere. It only needs a table, four chairs, two bottles of cold tea (presumably), and the actors with their instruments. It would be popular in any village hall, school, or arts venue.
The next performance is in Blair Atholl on September 23rd.