Air fhògair is air fhalbhan (Exiles and Vagabonds) Film Premiere

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Blog author: Eleanor Thomson

The Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies was delighted to host the film premiere for Air fhògair is air fhalbhan (Exiles and Vagabonds) on Tuesday the 28th of September.

The film was created by Viki Marker, Brittnee Leysen, Alasdair MacIlleBhàin and Dòmhnall Eòghainn MacKinnon, with the support of the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies, the University of Glasgow College of Arts, the State Library of Western Australia, the West Highland College at Kilchoan (University of Highlands and Islands), Tobar and Dualchais, the BBC, and the Alexander Turnbull Library (National Library of New Zealand/Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa).

By the mid-19th century, emigration to the Antipodes had become increasingly more common with many emigrants from the Scottish Highlands and Islands making the long and arduous journey across the ocean – not to a ‘saoghal fada thall’ (a world far-off) but ‘fada thall san t-saoghal’ (far-off in the world).

The short film invited viewers to find out how four migrants, namely Iain Gillies (Iain Mac Gill’Iosa), Duncan MacPherson (Donnchadh Mac a’ Phearsain), James McMillan (Seumas Mac ‘Ille Mhaoil), and Alastair Andrew McRae (Alasdair Anndra MacRath), navigated longing, compromise, and adaptation to their new environments through song. From initial reactions to life in the colonies to the setting up of community and traditions, this film showcases the ups and downs of the various stages of the emigrant experience in Australasia.

Iain Gillies’ song of dispraise ‘Nuair a Chula Mi An Sgeul’ spoke of his disappointment and resentment of his new life in Otago in 1858. He warned of the false promises of the emigrant agents who had lured him there and, although the poem never made it back to Scotland, Gillies looked with longing back to his home in Bracadale in Skye. Duncan Macpherson’s praise song ‘Duanag don Mhorbhairne’ was composed following his arrival in Otago in the 1880’s, after his family had been cleared from their homes in Morvern in 1864. The song looks to incorporate this sense of place and belonging with his new surroundings in the colonies. James McMillan battled the harsh realities of life in the mining towns of Australia by writing songs such as ‘An Cruadal a bh’ ann’, transporting the audience homewards with his vivid descriptions of the Ardnamurchan landscape. The film ends with Alexander MacRae’s song ‘Moladh Otago’ which praised the emigrant experience and sought comfort for them in the familiar themes and tunes of home.

The film documents the broad range of motivations behind the creation of this emigrant literature. It was not always a simple longing for home: the poets also tried to understand and connect with their new environments; and used the traditions of Gaelic poetry and song to incorporate their memories and heritage into these new landscapes.   

Air fhògair is air fhalbhan also explores the relevance of the emigrant tradition in today’s highland and island communities: including testimony from surviving descendants of cleared lands, such as Bourblaige in the Ardnamurchan peninsula; as well as interviews with relatives of the poets still living in places such as Cnoc nan Long in Achosnich. These complex histories and narratives were presented alongside performances of the songs by Alasdair MacIlleBhàin (Alasdair C. Whyte) and Riona NicIlleBhàin (Riona Whyte).

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