Throughout September performance artist Catherine Weir has been taking part in the newly launched Plural Futures archive residency with Tobar an Dualchais and Atlas Arts, making a series of creative responses to the online collection. In this article she speaks about her practice and how working in the collection has helped her reconnect with her former Gaelic fluency.
As an artist my practice oscillates between performing with DIY feminist punk band Fallopé & The Tubes and a much more introverted drawing activity (I like to think the two balance each other out.)
Alongside this, I work in art departments for film and TV and, as the latest in a very long line of nosey women, I take particular satisfaction from jobs where I get to sort through archive material for use in feature documentaries.
I am also one of the many squillions of Gaels whose grandmothers were made to think that passing on their native language to their offspring would be doing them a disservice. To rectify this generational linguistic undoing my own mother sent me to one of the first mainland schools with a Gaelic-medium unit, in Newtonmore in the early 90s. Unfortunately, when we moved to Fort William six years later the high school wasn’t yet equipped to teach pupils who were already fluent in Gaelic, so it just got parked and from that point until this one my fluency has been perpetually dwindling.
Now I am 36 and pregnant with my first child and have a desire to revive my former fluency for both our sakes.
So when I first read about the Plural Futures research residency with Tobar an Dualchais and Atlas Arts, it felt like the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in a universe of spoken and sung Gaelic — to begin to revive my vocabulary and comprehension and re-establish a sense of the language beyond mere words and phrases, and then process it all through a mechanism I feel comfortable with in drawing and animation.
The sheer scale of the Tobar an Dualchais online resource, coupled with my own hyperactive personality, meant that my first instinct on beginning the residency was to try and plough through as much as possible at 110mph.
However, owing to the fact that I was seven months pregnant and no longer confident in my spoken Gaelic, it quickly became clear that I neither had the energy nor the skill level to navigate or meaningfully penetrate any of the material at anything faster than a crawling pace.
As someone who processes information more intuitively than academically, this was quite a novel experience. Where ordinarily I would sit under the waterfall and just let everything blast over me and see what happens, it was a funny adjustment to employ the same emotional and intuitive response to a gently dripping tap.
I geared my searches primarily towards entries that contained references to the natural environment and to women’s roles and perspectives. These themes, and the points at which they intersect, have for some time been pretty constant throughout my own practice but between lockdowns and global warming and watching my own body grow another one, they feel now more than ever especially deserving of my contemplation, however abstractly.
My process was very simple. I searched through the collection for entries that struck a particularly resonant chord and then listened to them on repeat while drawing. It felt like a very healthy and industrious experience, mulling and doodling and then starting all over again. It’s probably only with hindsight that I can see the impact these recordings had on me.
On the whole I was (cynical old me) unsurprised by how women were so often represented in old stories and songs: often mono-dimensional characters (virgins/witches/nagging wives) who existed almost entirely in relation to more complex male protagonists.
But something that tickled me greatly was how the word nature (nàdar in Gaelic) was used more commonly not in reference to the natural environment but more to describe the fundamental characters of either animals (both sexes) or women.
With this frequent low-level allusion to women as glamourous livestock there seemed to be similarly frequent moments of beautiful affinity between women, the landscape and non-human beasts.
Some powerful examples of this can be found in Annie Johnston’s 1950 recording ‘Cànan nan Eun’ (track ID 25889) where she imitates various birdsongs with her own voice and Donald MacIntyre’s 1953 entry ‘Chan Fhan Mi am Mòrar nas Fhaide’ (track ID 1765), where the woman in the song, so excited to go home, claims she won’t even need a boat. She’ll simply become a bird or a fish to traverse the sea.
It would also be a missed opportunity not to mention the strangest recording I found with this theme: the 1970 story ‘Boireannach ann an riochd màirt a’ toirt ionnsaigh air duine’ by Donald Alasdair Johnson (track ID 28124) where a young woman surreptitiously takes the form of a cow to attack her boyfriend who she’s in the middle of a tiff with.
Alongside these whimsical stories and songs were more functional, but no less poetic, entries, particularly those underpinned by spiritual or otherworldly intentions.
I enjoyed very much Murdo MacLeod’s 1977 description of a religious belief that a woman counting lambs was seen as very unlucky (track ID 18583) or John MacLeod’s ‘Tamhasg ro bhàs ann an cruth eòin’ (track ID 7111) from 1953 where he talks about a particular bird’s arrival being seen as an omen of death.
And of course there were a good few English language entries that contributed to my overall outlook. I loved in particular Dr Katherine Briggs’ 1959 story (track ID 17355) of a man who in a fit of jealousy takes his wife out onto the hill to kill her but each time he throws his rope over the tree branch, a bird throws it back down again.
This happens all night until the sun comes up and the husband realises what an awful unreasonable person he’s being and decides not to kill her.
Another is Duncan MacDonall’s 1953 ‘true’ story (track ID 229) of a 700-year-old woman who visited Loch Cluny every 100 years to renew her youth…
The Plural Futures research residency has been a really positive experience, and with each listen and re-listen of the Gaelic recordings, I felt my language skills incrementally improve and my vocabulary grow.
The animations, the tiniest looping moments of synchronicity between woman and nature, are what unfolded while I was digesting and re-digesting the gorgeous stories and recollections and songs of the contributors, and I would say the winding up of the residency feels less like a conclusion and more a beginning.
Throughout the residency, Catherine has made four short animations responding to various tracks in the collection. These can be viewed online via Tobar an Dualchais’ social media and on the Atlas Arts website.
The website www.tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.