AS a dramatic genre, the Western is fascinatingly diverse in its origins and its destinations. For instance, John Sturges’s 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven was, famously, inspired by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film The Seven Samurai.

In more recent times, The Proposition (2005), the screenplay for which was written by rock star Nick Cave, created a Western from the brutality of the formation of colonial Australia.

Last year’s TV miniseries The English (which starred Emily Blunt and Chaske Spencer) subverted the gender and racial assumptions of the traditional Western, revolving, as it did, around the relationship between a white Englishwoman and an indigenous American man.

Now, courtesy of Scotland’s Gaelic drama company Theatre Gu Leòr, we have the stage play Stornoway, Quebec. Written by novelist-turned-playwright Calum L. MacLeòid, the drama is a self-declared “wild Gaelic Western” in which, the company promises, “ceilidhs meet Colt .45s.”

Set in Quebec in 1888

The play takes us to a remote saloon bar where five people have been trapped by a snowstorm. One of this ad hoc quintet is Donald Morrison, a famous son of Quebec’s Gaelic-speaking community, but also the most wanted outlaw in all of Canada.

As if this set up wasn’t intriguing enough, Morrison has Màiri MacNeil (who is, apparently, a “badass Barra woman” and “a whisky-fuelled, pistol-slinging, bounty hunter”) on his tail.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the saloon-based conceit of MacLeòid’s drama was the outcome of an evening enjoying Quentin Tarantino’s similarly snowbound 2015 movie The Hateful Eight.

However, speaking to me from his home in Dingwall, the writer insists that is not the case.

“People don’t believe me when I say this”, he admits, “but I hadn‘t seen The Hateful Eight when I started writing this.” Which is not to say that the playwright is making any claims to pristine originality.

MacLeòid is more than happy to acknowledge an American influence on his play, albeit one that is quite distinct from Tarantino’s film. “I was very consciously ripping off the Simpsons episode Mountain of Madness, in which Mr Burns and Homer get snowed in”, he says.

When he finally did get around to watching The Hateful Eight, the writer was relieved to find that it was very different from his play. That said, he admits to being glad that he hadn’t inadvertently followed Tarantino down the route of having a character hiding in the basement (an idea that almost made its way into an early draft of Stornoway, Quebec).

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American cinema and animated TV series aside, the origins of MacLeòid’s play lie in his time living in Montreal. It was then that he decided that he wanted to write about the history of the Gaels in Canada.

The writer was aware that the story of the Scottish Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton was “well trodden territory”.

Therefore, living, as he was, in the province of Quebec, he decided to create a tale set in the predominantly French-speaking territory of Canada.

Through his research, the author became fascinated by the true story of the outlaw Morrison and the Scottish-Gaelic settlement of Stornoway, Quebec. The initial outcome of this fascination was his Gaelic novel Fon Choill (which was published in 2020).

When it came to dramatising the tale for the stage, MacLeòid was ready, he says, to “have a lot of fun” with this narrative from Gaelic-Canadian history. When he was writing the novel, the author had, he tells me, eschewed the “Western tropes” that so easily attach themselves to Morrison’s story.

Conversely, when he sat down to write the stage drama, he wanted to load the wagon, so to speak, with the kind of pistol-slinging and bounty hunting we are so familiar with from Western movies. Indeed, the writer explains, Morrison had actually been a cowboy out in the American West before going back home to Quebec.

A meilding of fact and fiction

Inevitably, given the nature of the subject matter, the stage play is a melding of fact and fiction. MacLeòid was very aware, he explains, that he was reflecting something of the experience of a community that was, in the late-19th century, Gaelic speaking, but would, within a few generations, have become entirely Francophone.

That experience is reflected, for example, in the drama including a married couple comprised of a Quebecois French-speaker and a Scottish Gaelic-speaker.

The play’s main character, Màiri MacNeil, a female bounty hunter from Barra, who was raised in Texas, is “an invention”, says the playwright. However, this imagined figure is rooted in historical fact.

Gaelic-speaking women who ended up in the American West after the Highland Clearances didn’t all become “dutiful wives and mothers”, MacLeòid comments. The historical record shows, the writer continues, that “there were strong female characters” from the Gàidhealtachd who established themselves as the kind of people who helped build the myth of the Wild West.

Another woman looks to the west

MacNeil isn’t the only woman involved in Stornoway, Quebec who looks west.

The show’s director – Theatre Gu Leòr’s celebrated artistic director, and acclaimed actor, Muireann Kelly – will leave the company early next month to take up her new role as artistic director with Fíbín at An Taibhdhearc, the National Irish Language Theatre in Galway.

MacLeòid is proud that his play will be the last one under Kelly’s leadership of Theatre Gu Leòr. He is delighted for the director as she takes on an exciting job in Ireland, but he is also sorry for the loss her departure marks for Gaelic culture and Scottish culture more widely.

“It’s been fantastic working with Muireann”, he says. “She brings so much expertise and experience, having lived Gaelic and Irish theatre for so long.

“She’ll be sorely missed, not just by the Gaelic theatre industry, but by the wider Scottish theatre sector. Theatre Gu Leòr has been amazing.

“I’ve always been a huge fan. In fact, it was seeing their production of Shrapnel that really made me want to write plays in Gaelic.”

Stornoway, Quebec is touring until April 15: