With the long nights drawing in and the Edinburgh wind beginning to bite, there is no better way to escape the cold than an evening of skilful storytelling. Performers Margaret Stewart and Pàdruig Morrison unite in a spellbinding blend of song and spoken word that tells the ancient tale of Chonnlaoich, or Connlaoch, a tragic hero inadvertently killed by the father he never met. The mournful, haunting atmosphere created by Stewart and Morrison exposes the audience to the realm of Celtic folklore, using the traditional Gaelic story to not only preserve but celebrate a heritage that is truly precious.
The story of Connlaoch’s life and death originates from as early as the ninth century, found in medieval Gaelic texts that preserved the written word but unfortunately not the melody. However, thanks to Margaret Stewart’s profound knowledge of traditional Gaelic music, the original musicality of Bàs Chonnlaoich was able to be restored. It is a special honour to witness Stewart perform the culmination of all her hard work in person, and her soft vocals achieved an authenticity and emotion that no other singer could have communicated.
Storyteller Pàdruig Morrison compliments Stewart’s melancholic singing with an authoritative narrative voice that revelled in the Gaelic language. He appears comfortable from the outset, and his narration, often punctuated by hand gestures that make the performance more communal, draws the audience into the fantasy world of Gaelic heroes and tragedy.
The performance is framed by minimal staging and soft, warm lighting, encouraging the audience to focus on the story and creating the illusion of intimacy. However, the setting of the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Netherbow Theatre feels incongruous with the oral tradition; one cannot help but feel that the story might have more resonance outdoors, told around the embers of a dying fire. Nevertheless, the power and sensitivity of both Stewart and Morrison transcend the setting and successfully carry the audience into Connlaoch’s world.
In keeping with tradition, Bàs Chonnlaoich is performed entirely in Gaelic, accompanied by a bilingual introduction and optional English translation through headphones. Although this is thoughtful in catering to those that didn’t speak Gaelic – most of the audience – the headphones act as an additional barrier for the audience, lessening the impact of the story by preventing it from being fully immersive. Written copies of the story are also provided in both Gaelic and English, and these alone are enough to understand the plot of the story without compromising the performance.
Stewart and Morrison’s revival of Bàs Chonnaloich epitomises the aims of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. By demonstrating the enduring value of Celtic oral tradition, the performance proves that Gaelic has a place in not only the heritage of Scotland but in its identity in the 21st Century.
Scotland & Ireland: A’ Seinn na Sgeulachd: Bàs Chonnlaoich; or Singing the Story: The Death of Connlaoch was performed as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. For more details, visit https://www.sisf.org.uk/events/
Image: Dara Vallely.