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31 July 2019

Taking to the stage

Scotland’s community sector has very few people who successfully manage to tell our story to audiences beyond the relatively closed world of those with an active interest. Lesley Riddoch is one such person but there are not many more whose message manages to connect with the wider public. Now one of Scotland’s foremost community rights activists is about to have his life-story transferred to the stage with a play written by Alan Bisset. Alastair McIntosh is a bit of polymath. Writer, broadcaster and philosopher but first and foremost an activist, this is a production we can all look forward to.

By Brian Ferguson, Scotsman

He is one of Scotland’s leading land rights and environmental activists. Now Alastair McIntosh’s efforts to help remote communities fight back against corporate power are set to inspire a major theatre production.


Work is under way to bring the stories of the successful community buy-out on the island of Eigg and the thwarting of plans to build Europe’s biggest quarry on the Isle of Harris to the stage.


Novelist and playwright Alan Bissett has revealed he is adapting McIntosh’s acclaimed memoir Soul And Soil, which he has described as “one of the most important non-fiction books of the last 30 years”.


Released to widespread acclaim in 2001, the book recalls his upbringing on the Isle of Lewis, explores how global capitalism came to threaten traditional ways of life in the Western Isles, and argues for a philosophy of community, spirit and place to help transform such areas.


The play is in development on Lewis, led by new Uig-based arts organisation Sruth-mara in partnership with the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway and its book festival, Faclan, which will stage a sneak preview of Bissett’s play in the autumn. National arts agency Creative Scotland is funding the early development of the play with a view to a full production being staged next year.


Bissett said: “Alastair McIntosh’s Soil And Soul is, for me, one of the most important non-fiction books of the last 30 years. Both reading and adapting it have changed my world-view profoundly, such is Soil And Soul’s benign power. It has a deep resonance for what it says about the way in which land is appropriated by indifferent upper-layers of society, at the expense of the people who live on it, but it also acts as a history of the Highlands, a primer on Celtic Christian theology, and a galvanising appeal to all of our better natures. What I hope we’ve done is taken Alastair’s mighty work and turned it into a piece of theatre that will captivate and transport a live audience into a deeply Hebridean story.”


Born in the village of Leurbost, in 1955, McIntosh was a key figure in the long-running saga over plans to extract 600 million tonnes of rock from Roineabhal, an isolated area in the south of Harris, which were first announced in 1991 and finally rejected in 2004.


He was also one of the trustees who completed a buy-out of Eigg in 1997 after decades of problems with absentee landlords.


McIntosh, who lives in Glasgow, said he had agreed to approve a theatrical adaption of Soil And Soul despite rejecting approaches to turn it into a film.


He added: “I’m in awe at the attention to detail, depth, elegance and beauty of what Alan Bissett has created in his script for Soil And Soul. I never thought it would be possible to capture such a multi-levelled story into a single script like this, and with such an eye for lines that matter, neatly woven in. I’m very much looking forward to working with Alan and the cast on this project, and to sharing what we are creating with an audience on Lewis.”


Andrew Eaton-Lewis, director of Sruth-mara, said: “The book’s themes – ordinary people vs corporate power, industrial development at the expense of small-scale agriculture, environmental damage – are more relevant than ever as the world faces a climate crisis. One of the book’s great strengths is the way it connects stories from Lewis, Harris and Eigg to environmental, cultural and land struggles all across the world. It’s a book that’s deeply rooted in the Hebrides but with a global perspective.” 


Roddy Murray, director of Faclan, said: “As Alastair’s place of birth and upbringing, the island is the crucible for the philosophy and ideas in the original book.”

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