Gaelic Theatre Gu Leòr on language, loss and MAIM

We speak to Alasdair C. Whyte and Evie Waddell about the themes of climate change, culture and survival in Theatre Gu Leòr and WHYTE's new show

Feature by Eliza Gearty | 06 Mar 2020
  • MAIM

"I'm part of Gaelic Extinction Rebellion," says Evie Waddell, a Gaelic singer, musician and dancer, when asked about why she wanted to take part in MAIM. "I wanted to get involved because of the theme of the piece. [Gaelic XR] makes sense – Gaelic people understand what extinction is, and how important it is to preserve things." 

MAIM is a collaboration between Scotland's award-winning Gaelic theatre company Theatre Gu Leòr and the equally lauded Gaelic electronica band WHYTE. Featuring movement, video and spoken word as well as live music by WHYTE, it is Theatre Gu Leòr's first departure from Gaelic text-based work. 

 "[The show] came off the back of our second album, Tairm," explains Alasdair Whyte, member of WHYTE and a Gaelic singer and composer. The album – a mixture of traditional and original songs – draws heavily on themes of extinction and loss. It was inspired by the concept of 'an endling' (the last known member of a species), and draws on the melody of the last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird, a mating call left forever unanswered.

Whyte says that the album holds the human species accountable. "One song in particular, that will feature in the show – mùthadh – is about climate change, changing our relationship with the land and language theft," he says. "The key thing in all these elements is that human beings have caused these changes. Mùthadh literally translates to mutation – which obviously has some pretty negative connotations, in English and in Gaelic."

The show specifically explores the impacts of climate change, non-native tree planting and land mismanagement on the Isle of Mull, where Whyte grew up – including the knock-on effect such things have on culture. The son of Riona Whyte, who won the An Comunn Gàidhealach Gold Medal for solo singing at the National Mòd, Whyte was brought up singing local Gaelic songs. Despite not being a native speaker, being surrounded by the music and the place names on the island gave him an early insight into how "deep and rich the Gaelic culture is in Mull." 

MAIM highlights a connection between the erasure of the Gaelic language and culture, and the destruction caused by climate change and human intervention. As native woodlands disappear, Gaelic place names are slowly slipping away too – Whyte has been researching the place names of the Torsay region of Mull and what is causing their disappearance. Does he think practices such as non-native tree planting directly threaten the survival of the Gaelic language and music in places like Mull?

"For me, they go hand in hand," he answers. "One section of the piece focuses on the huge clearance of Glenforsa on the Isle of Mull, for example. There are a few farms at the foot of the Glen, but nobody actually living in the Glen now. We've seen people actually being replaced by non-native trees, and these trees being planted on top of ruined settlements. That symbolises everything for me."

How can rural communities fight back against these forces? "There are little things you can do on a local level," says Waddell. "Mass tree planting..." "Native species, though!" adds Whyte, laughing. 

For Waddell, theatre is also a form of fighting back. "Theatre is, in my opinion, a different, effective way of protesting," she says. "It's a more human way than being on the streets and just shouting – people are more likely to listen." 

Whyte hopes that MAIM will be a call to arms, encouraging people to think about what they can do to respect their environment. "We've lost that deep connection with the land, that people who sang some of these traditional songs that are in the piece had," he says. "They were living off it, so they had to have that symbiotic relationship with the land to survive – obviously we don't have to do that now, and things have changed a lot in terms of what's available to us. But the more we live sustainably and locally, the better. So hopefully, by raising some of these issues in this piece, we can... not raise awareness, because I think everyone's aware of it these days – but get people to think a bit more about what they can do."

"I don't think it's been discussed as much in Gaelic," points out Waddell. "Through this project and Gaelic Extinction Rebellion, I’ve learned lots of new terminology, like what the Gaelic is for climate change." 

As well as being performed in Gaelic, BSL has been woven into the fabric of MAIM. Waddell identifies as half-deaf and half-hearing, and is performing BSL throughout the show. The piece therefore platforms two Scottish minoritised languages, and is additionally accessible to non-Gaelic speakers. 

The care that has been put in to MAIM to create a thoughtful, dynamic show – as accessible as possible, and interweaving various artistic mediums – only emphasises how important it is to preserve all art forms and protect all cultures from extinction. "Mono-linguism and mono-culturalism worry me deeply," concludes Whyte. "Without disrespecting other cultures and languages, celebrate what is local to you." 

MAIM, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 6-14 Mar; then touring Scotland until 27 Mar