Dear Scotland referendum

Dear Scotland. . . The Choral Music of James MacMillan, and the Fiction of Kirsty Logan

Cath Barton tells the story of her Scottish heritage, which takes in choral music and the poodle novelty acts of a circus family.


Cards on the table: I was born in England and have lived for the past nine years in Abergavenny in South Wales. I feel at home here, but I don’t identify as Welsh or English. My identity is rooted in Scotland, which is where both my parents were born and grew up, as did their parents. The family goes back I don’t know how far. I can’t explain this, it is an emotional connection. What I can do is give instances of connection which may throw some light on it.

Some years ago I was a member of a small choir preparing for a performance of the Scottish composer James MacMillan’s cantata for chorus and strings Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993), which was to be given in St George’s Brandon Hill in Bristol. The whole process was a struggle. The difficulty of the music was just the start of it: having to come in fortissimo on a dissonant chord unrelated to what we had sung previously after a silence of several bars was nerve-wracking enough. Coping with waiting outside rehearsal rooms on cold evenings while someone found a caretaker was trying. Worst of all we were struck by illness – conductor, choir members, nearly everyone! Sore throats developed into laryngitis and passed from person to person. Losing your voice as a singer really is tantamount to losing part of your identity, frustrating and deeply frightening. It might never come back.

So the triumph of that performance when it came, all voices restored and enhanced by adrenalin, was extraordinary. There was an emotional charge in the hall which was palpable. Not only had we got our voices back, but that music sang through us all in a transforming way. It inspired me to take a look at MacMillan’s solo songs and I discovered his settings of poetry by Scottish poet William Soutar, (1898-1943) for voice and piano. Singing the gentle, lilting Scots Song (1991) and Ballad (1994) reminds me of hearing and singing songs like The Skye Boat Song as a child. Macmillan’s use of the dancing scotch snap rhythm in his songs also has a sweet emotional tug for me, some deep link to my Scottish heritage.

In another arena of the arts I have been drawn to the fiction of the Scottish writer Kirsty Logan. I first came across her as co-editor of the literary magazine Fractured West, in which I am proud to have had a story published. When I read her fine collection of short stories The Rental Heart (2014) and subsequently interviewed her for Celtic Family Magazine, I especially enjoyed her story ‘The Gracekeeper’, which turns to be the basis of her forthcoming novel. It’s the story of ‘a circus boat in a flooded world.’ Kirsty has a fascination with the circus which particularly resonates with me because my (Scottish) Aunty Phyllis was in the circus. Not just any circus either. She was with Bertram Mills’ circus for 21 years, on tour and at Olympia in the winter, rode horses and elephants and went on to have an internationally-famous poodle act. My brother and I had time off school and were photographed by the local paper with Phyllis when the circus came to town. How proud does my little face look in those pictures! It was only after Phyllis died that I discovered that she and her entire act, by then with Billy Smart’s, had been in the film Berserk (1967) with Joan Crawford. I thought the film was terrible but Phyllis’s act was brilliant!

Kirsty Logan

Making a connection with Kirsty Logan and her writing carried with it an emotional feedback loop for me, back to my wild Aunty Phyllis, strengthening my sense of, and pride in, my Scottish heritage.

Hoorah for bonny Scotland and its strong, feisty people!