ONE of the earliest books published in Scotland has been turned into a theatrical production for the

first time. The world premiere of The Buke of the Howlat will take place in Moray during the Findhorn Bay Arts Festival, which opens tomorrow.

Seen as one of the great gems of 15th-century Scots literature, the Buke is a moral fable against vanity and pride written in rhyming verse. The stage adaptation is by award-winning Moray playwright Morna Young who primarily writes in Doric and is a Scots language ambassador.

The production, to be staged at Brodie Castle, is being directed by Ben Harrison, co-founder of Grid Iron, who is regarded as one of the leading European practitioners of site-based theatre. Other members of the creative team include Ranald McArthur of Shooglenifty who has composed a new score for the piece while movement director Ruby Worth has been working with community participants including dancers, circus artists, a parkourist and students from Moray College UHI and Drumduan School who form the supporting cast of birds.

Harrison said: “Morna Young’s contemporary re-working of Richard Holland’s material honours the original but finds profound echoes in our time where we so often try to escape from our own body and identity in search of something unattainable.

“I can promise spectacle, great music, parkour, acrobatics, community singing, an outstanding core professional cast of leading Scottish actors, and fabulous design from Becky Minto, Scotland’s premier designer for site-based work.”


The National:

THE Buke of the Howlat was written around 1440 by Richard Holland, a cleric from Orkney who had become chaplain to Archibald Douglas, Earl of Moray, the head of one of the most powerful families in Scotland. It starts and ends with a story about a howlat, an ugly one who is so unhappy about his appearance he asks Mother Nature for it to be changed. However the middle sections of the poem are a long paean of praise to the Douglas family. Young, who did not know the story before being approached to write the play, confesses she was “terrified” when she first realised the scale of the undertaking. “I had a bit of a crash course into the story and the history,” she told the National. “As well as the English translation and the children’s version by James Robertson, I had the original Scottish version but when I sat down with it I didn’t have a clue what it was about even though I speak Scots.

“It is written in very old Scots so I had to sit with an old Scots dictionary and make my own translation.”


TO help her, she scribbled her research onto post-it notes and stuck them on the big white wall in her kitchen. She ended up with so many she said it looked “like something out of CSI”.

The problem was how she should adapt it for stage while remaining true to the original work.

“The question was how I celebrated the old Scots yet still make it accessible to a modern audience,” said Young, a recipient of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship, hosted by Creative Learning and Aberdeen City Council, when she explored the theme “the Folk, the Language and the Landscape of the North East”.

“I’ve used a mix of Doric and Scots and I’ve had fun playing around with that,” she said. “I hope I have created something that is accessible but also still pays tribute to the language Holland uses. Auld Scots is key to the poem and I have retained much of Holland’s exquisite language whilst making this accessible for our modern ears.

“Also while it seems to be about an ugly owl, what appears to be running through the story is status, class and privilege. I am a working-class girl from a fishing village so this was something I could take and run with. Class is something I tackle in 99% of my work. I have tried to create a piece that honours the original poem’s essence while translating this for a contemporary audience. And as a Moray quine, I’m delighted to return ‘home’ as part of this year’s festival.”


ALSO having its world premiere at the festival is a dance work called Extremely Pedestrian Chorales by Karl Jay-Lewin who lives in Findhorn. This follows on from his live dance and music piece Extremely Bad Dancing to Extremely French Music and is again made in collaboration with composer Matteo Fargion.

“One of the things Matteo does is take musical structures and translate them into movement scores,” explained Jay-Lewin who worked as a carpenter before taking up dancing at the age of 26. “The structure of our new piece comes from Bach’s Chorales and we look at questions such as when does walking become dancing and when do clothes become costume. We play around with fancy dress versions of the powdered wigs worn in Bach’s time in the in 18th century. Something happens when you don one as your whole appearance becomes a costume even though you are wearing jeans and T-shirt.”

As his often the case with his work the piece is humorous and at times absurd. “I have always felt there is something about the world that fundamentally does not make sense,” Jay-Lewin said. “Things don’t add up and seem absurd to me and this is like a little antidote to that.”