Introduction to Kilmeny,
a short story by Gerda Stevenson, based on the poem of the same name by James Hogg.
My name is Gerda Stevenson. I’m a writer, actor, director and singer-songwriter. I was born and brought up in the Scottish Borders, where
I heard Scots spoken in the street, and at the local primary and secondary schools I attended. I was also exposed to literary Scots at home. My parents are English (from Lancashire), and my father, the composer Ronald Stevenson, had a deep interest in Scottish poetry. He set the words of many Scots language poets to music – including works by Hugh MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Helen B Cruickshank and William Soutar. As a bairn, I was especially thrilled with Soutar’s poem BAWSY BROON.
Dinna gang out the nicht:
Dinna gang out the nicht:
Laich was the mune as I cam owre the muir;
Laich was the lauchin though nane was there:
Somebody nippit me,
Somebody trippit me;
Somebody grippit me roun’ and aroun’:
I ken it was Bawsy Broon:
I’m shair it was Bawsy Broon
My Dad used to take me and my wee sister for walks in the woods, where there was a particular old Sots pine tree, and we’d bring our miniature dolls and dolls’ furniture, to play with among its huge roots. Dad would sit on the grass, leaning against the tree, and while we played, he’d read out loud to us the poetry of Walt Whitman and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.
It was way above our heads, but I loved listening to the words, and the rhythms, and I’ve never forgotten Hogg’s KILMENY:
BONNIE Kilmeny gaed up the glen;
But it wasna to meet Duneira's men,
Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
Hugh MacDiarmid – another Borderer, from Langholm, lived nearby, and was a regular visitor to our family home. I remember being deeply moved by his poem EMPTY VESSEL, and I made a painting of it when I was a teenager:
I met ayont the cairney
A lass wi tousie hair
Singin till a bairnie
That was nae langer there.
Wunds wi warlds to swing
Dinna sing sae sweet,
The licht that bends owre aa thing
Is less ta’en up wi’it.
So, although we didn’t speak Scots within our family, I grew up being intensely aware of the language – its different registers, its ability to express the world around me, and, crucially the world of my imagination.
As an adult, working in theatre, radio, film and TV, I’ve engaged with many Scots language texts, classic and contemporary. I’ve been in several productions of David Lyndsay’s great 16th century play, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, which contains some of the most sublime dramatic poetry in Scots I’ve ever had the privilege to speak, a Scots with French resonances, as well as wonderful, rich demotic Scots. And I’ve also acted in Scots language plays by Liz Lochhead, Hector McMillan and Edwin Morgan.
So when I myself write in Scots, I draw upon the sound of the language as I heard it spoken growing up in the Scottish Borders, but I also employ my awareness of literary Scots – the literature I grew up with, and have worked with, in my professional life. Beginning always from a basis of Borders Scots, I nevertheless, at times, also use a mixture of registers and dialects, something close to MacDiarmid’s ‘synthetic Scots’ approach – the approach employed by Edwin Morgan, for example, in his Scots translation of Racine’s play PHEADRE. I had the fortune to play the title role in a production of Morgan’s PHAEDRA at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. In this text, Morgan deliberately uses a whole gamut of Scots vocabulary, boldly crossing regional boundaries. And why not? It’s all rich grist to the mill of language and creativity, as far as I’m concerned!
I write both in English and Scots. I feel very fortunate to have access to both: there are some things I can express more vividly, and with greater authenticity in Scots rather than English, and vice versa. It’s a question of instinct: the voice always dictates the language – whichever seems right.
I’ve always loved the work of my fellow Borderer James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. He was born in 1770, and died in 1835, and he’s best known for his brilliant novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which was championed by the great French author, André Gide. Hogg was a deeply human writer of songs, poetry and short stories too. I love the combination of boldness and subtlety in his multi-layered work, and his warm humour. I’m also very drawn to the metaphysical, and the supernatural aspects of his writing, evident in his haunting poem KILMENY, which is open to so many interpretations. Kilmeny is a young woman, so at odds with the material world that she can’t exist in it.
I wanted to write a contemporary re-telling of Hogg’s KILMENY, in prose – a short story focusing on the theme of the environment, connecting with the past and present literary traditions of my native Scottish Borders.
My narrative is very different from the one in Hogg’s poem, which I use as a jumping off point. Hogg mysteriously leaves things hanging – for example, although he mentions the name, he doesn’t tell us who Duneira’s men are.
So I’ve created characters and relationships, and although I’ve retained that sense of mystery, I’ve given my story a specific setting in time and place – my native rural Scottish Borders, during the pandemic.
I’m reading the story in the recording, and sound designer Rob MacNeacail has created a multi-layered soundscape, reflecting the metaphysical world Kilmeny inhabits.
Gerda Stevenson, 2nd April, 2021.
Gerda Stevenson, writer/actor/director/singer/songwriter, works in theatre, television, radio, film, and opera, throughout Britain and abroad. Her poetry, drama and prose are widely published, staged and broadcast, including plays and short stories for BBC Radio 4. Her stage plays include the award-winning FEDERER VERSUS MURRAY (which toured to New York, published by Salmagundi, USA), SKELETON WUMMAN, and an opera libretto THE ANCIENT MARINER – a contemporary retelling of Coleridge’s epic poem, commissioned by the University of Edinburgh. Her published by poetry collections are: IF THIS WERE REAL (Smokestack Books, 2013), also published in Italian by Edizioni Ensemble, Rome, 2017 under the title SE QUESTO FOSSE VERO; and QUINES: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland (Luath Press, edition 2018, 2nd edition 2020), reviewed by Jackie Kay in the Observer as “Fabulous. A ground-breaker of a book.”. QUINES will be published by Edizioni Ensemble in Rome, 2021, in an Italian translation by Laura Maniero, and is also currently being translated into French. She was winner of the Robert Tannahill Poetry Prize, 2017, and of the Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk (YES) Poetry Prize, 2013. Her other books include INSIDE & OUT – the art of Christian Small (Scotland Street Press, 2019), with an introduction and poems by Gerda, reviewed in The National as “One of the most beautiful books ever published in Scotland”; EDINBURGH, a collaboration with landscape photographer Allan Wright, for which she wrote a personal introduction and 22 poems. In 2020 she was commissioned by the Glasgow School of Art Choir to write a triptych of song lyrics for their COMPOSEHER project, with composer Dee Isaacs. Nominations include the MG Alba Trad Music Awards, for Scots Singer of the Year, three times for the Critics Awards for Theatre, Scotland, and for the New York League of Professional Theatre Women’s Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award. She was winner of a BAFTA Best Film Actress award for her role in Margaret Tait’s feature film, BLUE BLACK PERMANENT, and appeared in BRAVEHEART. Gerda is currently directing a film of George Mackay Brown’s play THE STORM WATCHERS for the online St Magnus Festival, 2021, in celebration of Mackay Brown’s centenary. www.gerdastevenson.co.uk
ROB MACNEACAIL – Sound Designer/composer
Rob MacNeacail graduated with a Masters in Sound Design from the University of Edinburgh, and has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Glasgow, where he also studied Sonic Arts. He is a Gaelic speaker, and was educated at the Gaelic Medium Unit, Tollcross Primary, Edinburgh, and Peebles High School. He comes from a family of professional musicians and artists, and plays bass guitar, piano and bagpipes. In common with many young musicians in Scotland, he has benefited from taking part in Feis Rois. He has been a member of several bands, including Miasma, Ruby and the Emeralds, and Chief Redbeard. Rob is also employed as a trained care-worker.
In 2021 he was awarded a grant from Creative Scotland to develop a Gaelic song project. His work as a sound designer and composer includes:
National Theatre of Scotland/BBC Scotland: 2020 – created the sound track for Gerda Stevenson’s short film SKELETON WUMMAN, selected for broadcast on BBC Scotland, part of the SCENES FOR SURVIAL lockdown series;
Amy Hardy (documentary film maker): 2019 - present, composer for project currently in production;
Teuchter Theatre Company: 2018 - '19 – sound designer and technical
assistant for plays written and performed by Colin Bramwell – UMBRELLA MAN and THE PINTS ON A SUNDAY;
Mac TV: 2019 – original compositions for television documentary AN IOLAIRE;
Glasgow Life: 2016 – sound designer for Struan Leslie’s production PIBROCH FIELD;
Catriona Taylor (documentary film-maker): 2014-2016 – sound designer and composer on short film FLOW and documentary film CARELESS;
National Theatre of Scotland: Jan - March 2011 – sound designer for Vicky
Featherstone's production of SOMERSAULT.