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Morna Young – The Buke of the Howlat

Morna Young is a long way from Moray as her new play prepares to take flight this week in the grounds of Brodie Castle, near Forres, as part of the third Findhorn Bay Festival. As an actor, Young is currently onstage every night at Glasgow Pavilion, where she is appearing in The Celtic Story. In Brodie Castle, meanwhile, her version of The Buke of the Howlat, an epic fifteenth century poem written in Scots by Richard Holland, tells the story of a young owl who believes himself to be ugly, blaming Mother Nature for his perceived lot.

With such body image issues hindering the owl’s daily life, the all-powerful birds of the forest gather to hear his plea. Somewhere in the midst of this is a potted history of the entire Douglas clan in a promenade production told in Young’s version of Holland’s yarn by four song-birds who gather at dusk with a choir and a community cast overseen by director Ben Harrison.

“It’s an intriguing and mysterious text,” says Young, still domiciled in Glasgow before she returns to Moray, close to where she grew up, for the show’s opening on Thursday night. “I’d never heard of the story, so came to it completely new. I tend to write in Doric, so sitting down with this old Scots poem, I was absolutely terrified of it at first. It was like a new language, and I had to have crash courses, both in old Scots language and the history that went with it.”

Young had first been approached with a view to adapting the poem by approached by Findhorn Bay Festival director Kresanna Aigner, who became creative producer on the project.

“I first came across the Buke of The Howlat a week past our inaugural festival in 2014 when I was invited to attend the Scottish Text Society launch of the new publication of the original poem,” says Aigner. “It’s similar in theme to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, and relates how Richard Holland is wandering in the woods beside the River Findhorn when he meets with Howlat, the owl and eponymous anti-hero of the tale.

“I knew immediately that this needed to be written for stage, and should be created and performed in Moray. From that moment I have explored the text and discovered its significance in Scottish literary history. The Buke of the Howlat was one of the first printed books in Scotland and is the oldest known example of alliterative verse in Scottish literature, and provides clues to speech patterns still extant in twenty-first century Scotland.”

A children’s version of the story by James Robertson, who excised the Douglas part of the story, was published in 2016.

“One of the most freeing moments was speaking to James Robertson,” says Young. “I talked to him a lot, and the main question that came up with me is what can you do to celebrate this story about this owl that finds its place in the world in a way that makes it accessible for a family audience. The second freeing moment was speaking to Nicola Royan, the Scots historian, who pointed out that there are no right answers, and which version of the story I tell is really up to me.”

It was this that liberated Young to find a form that framed her story with the use of four actors as songbirds, as well as being able to bring in music and ceilidh elements that made the play a communal experience for both the audience and its large community cast. It also caused Young to look at the original poem’s author.

“The story of Richard Holland is really interesting in itself,” she says. “There’s very little written about him, but he was a man of the church who came to work for the Douglas family, so I decided to take his story as an angle to celebrate both him and what he’s written. Doing that in 2018 made me think about who I am as a writer – I’m a working class female playwright from a small fishing village – and ask what lens I’m writing I through.

“That made me think about status, class and privilege, which are all the things I tend to write a lot about anyway, so I was able to look at who this man Richard Holland was within the hierarchy he existed in, and how he might feel about a twenty-first century playwright trying to stage his poem. We had lots of fun with that in trying to make it accessible. There’s no room there for two hour lectures.”

This sleight-of-hand, in which serious issues are looked at in an entertaining fashion, are key to what Young hopes to achieve with The Buke of the Howlat.

“For me,” she says, “I think the world of the play echoes what I discovered while writing it, which is about class, privilege and looking at hierarchical worlds. I’ve been part of conversations about class in theatre and the structures we exist in, and I feel that it’s so pertinent just now.

“There’s nothing in The Buke of the Howlat that’s going to bash a moral over anyone’s head, but those things do run through it. For me as a working class female writer I feel proud of that. There’s a real joy of seeing professional actors working with fifty people in a community cast, and a real sense of excitement. Underneath that, what interested me as a writer was the opportunity to explore class structures, and the language within those structures, so I hope it can be interpreted on many levels.”

Young likens this to her play, Aye, Elvis. Originally seen as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint’s lunchtime theatre season at Oran Mor in Glasgow, Young’s play starred Joyce Falconer as a Doric Elvis Presley impersonator.

“On one level it’s a ridiculous-looking comedy about a female Elvis impersonator,” she says, “but underneath that it’s about gender and poverty. I think you could say the same sort of thing about The Buke of the Howlat. On one level it’s a story about a bird that thinks it’s ugly, but underneath that it’s about status. I think I’ve reached a point now where I can enjoy the story on all those different levels.”

The Buke of the Howlat, Brodie Castle, near Forres, September 27-October 1. Findhorn Bay Arts Festival runs from September 26-October 1.

The Herald, September 25th 2018

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