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Artyness columnist and musician Liza Mulholland will have her own contribution to Scotland's Year Of Stories

By Liza Mulholland

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When Covid restrictions eased in the summer and public buildings reopened, I was lucky to spend a week on the Isle of Lewis.

Liza Mulholland.
Liza Mulholland.

I was researching my mother’s family history and I learned loads, through talking with local folk and relatives, visiting my grandparents’ villages, as well as studying old documents in Stornoway’s archives.

One story which captivated me was that of crofters seeking land reform, who in April 1891 ‘raided’ the deserted township of Steimreway, from which families had previously been forcibly cleared. They proceeded to roof some of their old croft houses and till the ground, staking a claim to the land of their forefathers.

The proprietor of Lewis, Lady Matheson (of Jardine Matheson opium wealth notoriety) was not amused, and gunboats, marines and constabulary were brought in, and arrests made. Twelve men were tried in Stornoway under the 1865 Trespass Act and found guilty.

My great great grandfather had previously been a signatory on a letter from the crofters, petitioning her Ladyship to re-tenant former Steimreway crofts (no reply was had), but he was not one of those arrested. However, several men from his village were among the convicted and where were they sent to serve their 14 days’ imprisonment but Inverness Castle!

What delights me is that on their release they were greeted by cheering crowds of Invernessians, hailing them as heroes, and were led in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets by a piper. Inverness was then still largely Gaelic-speaking and locals clearly knowledgeable and supportive of the land reform movement.

Spirit 360.
Spirit 360.

What has this got to do with folk music, you may ask, as of course my fortnightly ArtyNess column is usually about music?

Well, I felt this important moment in the history of land reform, and of the castle, was a story worth re-telling, so submitted a summary to Spirit of the Highlands, the Inverness Castle transformation project.

From there I applied to Spirit: 360 – “Supported by the Highland Place Partnership through Creative Scotland Place Partnership funding, a new commissioning programme for emerging and established creative professionals – writers, musicians, filmmakers, visual artists, and others – to create new work inspired by local stories that reflect the Spirit of the Highlands theme”.

My proposal was to celebrate the theme, as embodied in those crofters, by composing a trio of instrumental and vocal pieces. I’m delighted to say it was accepted.

Next year, 2022 is Scotland’s Year of Stories. Telling stories is how humans have explored and made sense of the world since time immemorial – and Spirit: 360 constitutes a huge Highland contribution to this year. I’ll keep you posted on my musical project, Na Gaisgich (The Heroes).

Check out spiritofthehighlands.com

Wishing you all a happy festive season!

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