AWARD-WINNING musician Mairi Campbell is to appear in a theatrical adaptation of Soil And Soul, the landmark book by Scottish writer and activist Alastair McIntosh.

As founder of the Isle of Eigg Trust, McIntosh helped the community buy the island from the local laird and successfully campaigned against a plan to turn a mountain on Harris into a superquarry.

An exclusive work-in-progress performance of Alan Bissett’s adaptation of the influential 2001 book will open Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival on October 30.

Soil And Soul is one of three premieres to feature at An Lanntair on the Isle of Lewis in the coming months as part of #winterinthewild, a campaign led by the arts centre to encourage visitors to the Outer Hebrides outside of the summer season.

In addition to long-running book festival Faclan, held over Gaelic Halloween or Samhain, the winter months will see the return of the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival, a two-week celebration of the arts, science and stargazing in one of the darkest places in the British Isles.

Karine Polwart will open the latter in February 2020 with an exclusive work-in-progress performance of The Only Light Was Stars, the songwriter’s follow-up to her widely acclaimed show Wind Resistance.

The trio of premieres is completed with Move-Gluasad, a new multi-lingual work about migration by award-winning playwright and theatre-maker Julia Taudevin.

Created in collaboration with fellow playwright Kieran Hurley and produced in partnership with Hebridean production company sruth-mara, Move-Gluasad will be staged at community centres across Lewis in January.

Sruth-mara was founded by arts practitioner Andrew Eaton-Lewis around 18 months ago to develop “ambitious new arts projects” and facilitate collaborations between Lewis-based artists and those from elsewhere.

The production company is based at Aras Nam Fir Chlis (“house of the northern lights”), a former restaurant and hotel in which Eaton-Lewis and his wife Laura Cameron-Lewis are renovating into a space for artist residencies.

Soil And Soul’s first performance will come at the end of a week of development in the colourful building, with director Cameron-Lewis and Bissett working on the piece with a cast of five performers.

Bissett admits the prospect of adapting McIntosh’s powerful book, which weaves personal memoirs of growing up on Lewis with theology, mythology and political polemic, was a tough ask.

“I was daunted and delighted by the scale of this challenge,” says the novelist and playwright.

“It’s a very rangy book, in the best way. It doesn’t work in a very clear narrative, it digresses in all sorts of fascinating ways and goes down all sorts of avenues, none of which are dull.”

Bissett’s script follows the dramatic events outlined in Soil And Soul, beginning with McIntosh’s childhood and growing political awakening in the village of Leurbost.

The National: Soil and Soul author Alastair McIntoshSoil and Soul author Alastair McIntosh

“He has an in-betweenness which makes him unique,” says Bissett of McIntosh, pictured above.

“As a child, he was very middle class in a village of fishermen and crofters. He was the son of a doctor, he didn’t speak Gaelic, he was born in England. He was of the village and also apart from the village.”

As a youth and young man, McIntosh became gradually aware of the legacy of the clearances on the islands while working as a gillie.

“He’s observing the upper classes at play, roaming the land and treating it as their property for shooting things,” Bissett says. “There are some wonderful moments when he tries to raise the clearances with the people he works for and observes their discomfort. That’s the first real moment of dramatic tension, and it then sets the tone for the rest of the play.”

Before Bissett began adapting the book, he visited McIntosh, who had already turned down offers to make Soil And Soul into a film.

“He felt they were going to have this broad, almost Ealing comedy approach to it, make it into something like Whisky Galore! with plucky islanders with their quirky ways resisting powerful forces,” says Bissett. “A bit of a daft underdog story to play at the multiplexes. That would have been selling the book short.”

McIntosh advised Bissett on aspects of local culture and language, which the younger man was keen to get right.

The National: Alan Bissett at Callanish on LewisAlan Bissett at Callanish on Lewis

“Though I have travelled extensively over Scotland and have been to the islands many times, I’m not of that culture,” Bissett says. “I’m a central belter, not a Gael. So I was very nervous of being patronising or making basic errors. Alastair was very good at holding my hand, telling me people don’t swear as much as I thought. I said to him: ‘Well, you see, I’m from a very sweary culture’. He said: ‘Yes, it shows’.”

While in Lewis, Bissett immersed himself in the island’s landscape and culture and spoke with locals who know the charismatic writer-activist.

McIntosh’s personality shines through Soil And Soul, which is set to be developed into a full-scale production next year.

“If the play didn’t do that, I would really have failed,” says Bissett. “He’s such an idiosyncratic person. He’s accrued all this wisdom and there’s a deep spirituality and seriousness to him but there’s still a twinkle in his eye, a playfulness. That’s a rare combination. There’s a lot of love in his heart but he also understands the nature of the struggle.”

McIntosh stipulated he didn’t want religion to be mocked in the play, Bissett says, and despite his key involvement with the campaigns on Harris and Eigg, he was reluctant to be depicted as a hero figure.

“As far as he was concerned, these were team efforts,” says Bissett. “He was saying he didn’t do it himself. But he was involved in both of those struggles, both of which were successful, and he wrote the book in which his story is front and centre.

“I had to gently suggest it might be inevitable that would be the main character in the play, even if that makes the real-life Alastair slightly uncomfortable, which I think is to his credit.”

#winterinthewild: AN LANNTAIR HIGHLIGHTS

  • As well as appearing in Alan Bissett’s adaptation of Alastair McIntosh’s memoir Soil And Soul, Mairi Campbell will perform her acclaimed show Auld Lang Syne for An Lanntair’s Burns Night in January.
  • Gaelic TV and radio presenter Niall Iain MacDonald will share testimony and unseen footage from his two solo attempts to row across the Atlantic from New York to Stornoway.
  • In a double-headed event, adventurer Dan Richards discusses his new book Outpost: A Journey To The Wild Ends Of The Earth and land artist Julie Brook explores the ideas behind her dramatic sea fire-stacks.
  • Fiona Mackenzie of the National Trust for Scotland celebrates the life, photography and film of anthropologist Margaret Fay Shaw.

The full programme for the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival is announced on October 1. Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival, October 30 to November 2, An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, festival pass £60, individual events: various prices, under-26s half price. Tel: 01851 708480. #winterinthewild