Julian and Margery

I wrote a play! With support!

Over 2022-2023 I was supported with a Play Development Bursary from the excellent Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I was given funds to give me time and space to complete a first draft over twelve months – as well as the chance to attend excellent workshops and sessions with a wonderful mentor, in the form of Catherine Grosvenor.

The play is about a number of things – motherhood, madness, illness, history, faith. At the centre of it are two real women, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. They were two of the earliest writers in the English language, and they met in Norwich in 1413. Their stories, their conversation, and how their books made their way to us today are all fascinating to me, and I was so pleased to spend a year obsessing about it all. I intend to spend many more years of tasty obsession whether for the play or not. They’re in my life now, and like so many people over the last 600 years or so, I firmly believe them to be mine now.

As part of my year I took two different trips to East Anglia to visit the places to women lived, and worked, and travelled, and wrote*. I pilgrimaged with them, sat with them, worshiped with them. And I also wrote out conversations happening around me live, in 21st century Norwich and King’s Lynn, because once you go somewhere with your writer ears on, it’s hard not to listen in and it turns out the world is hilarious. I also had to take my kid with me because of her tiny person needs, and that meant also my husband. I had to rely on my in-laws for childcare too at points. I say this because Julian and Margery had to wall themselves in a room, or travel across the known world to have the space to write and think. I took a day trip to King’s Lynn, and had some afternoons in libraries, but the work of getting to a place where you can do the work, is a massive part of the work. And that is gendered.

The church of St Julian's in Norwich - showing the recreation of Julian's cell on the south wall (a small room with windows attached to the side of the church)

The process of the year was incredibly hard, incredibly rewarding. Particularly valuable was building a relationship and trust with Catherine Grosvenor, my mentor. Louise from PSS had paired me with Catherine, using her amazing spidey-sense about such things (she did a great job on the director for the development day as well) even though she hadn’t known that seeing Catherine’s play, Cherry Blossom, in 2009, was a turning point for my life – in the light, and incidental way that those things often happen. There was a wee moment in Cherry Blossom when one of the actors leant against an imaginary door frame and something about it made my brain explode. I wanted to learn how to do that. I decided in that seat in Trav 2 that I would leave academia behind (temporarily, I thought – lol) and go somewhere to learn how to lean against imaginary doors like that.

And so a decade and odd change later I was sitting in a room in the CCA with a director and four amazing actors reading my words, making me laugh in an uncool way at my own words (and actually cry at one point, don’t tell anyone). The draft is so rough, and the form is not there yet, but I am very proud of what I managed to achieve on the 1/3rd of a brain I am working with, three years into motherhood. I think it has the potential to have wee moments that might make a 22 year old Ishbel’s head fizz, or maybe even explode. I would like that. She would like that.

Next for the play is a week or two in Wales to write up a second draft. I have a scholarship from Gladstone’s Library to continue working on it and to use their amazing theology collection to deep dive even further into the ideas of Margery and Julian. And also to be fed very well three times a day and sit in a fantasy library reading, thinking and writing. So. That’s not ALL bad.

In fact, maybe – maybe – in the words of Julian of Norwich, all will be well, and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.

*Margery didn’t write, she was most likely illiterate, she dictated. Stay back, imaginary Margery Kempe scholar I envisage reading this.


Julian and Margery – researching for writing

I was awarded a Play Development Bursary from the excellent organisation Playwrights’ Studio Scotland in order to write a play over the course of 2022. I will be writing that play about two excellent Medieval women – Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, who met in 1413 and who were both smart, varying degrees of wise and also, to us, straight up kookie-dooks.

Julian of Norwich was an anchorite, which means she lived walled up in a room attached to a church. She wrote, she prayed, she listened to the complaints and worries of the people who came to ask for her prayer. Margery Kempe was a pilgrim and Not A Preacher (it was illegal for women to preach) who chastised those around her and taught them about God’s love. They both had visions of God, they both

I have one million things to say about these two women and the world that they lived in. In the play I think I’ll be able to say six to eight things. For now I am at the one-million-and-growing stage in my process. I am sookin up aw hing. I love this part – I read, I take notes, I’m even doing an evening class looking at The Book of Margery Kempe. For this project I also have been to King’s Lynn and Norwich, and I will be going back there. I have been attending all sorts of church services, I am going on a pilgrimage that Margery did. There are words on the page in the future, but for now there is my favourite state in the world – travelling undergrad. What joy.

Publication of O is for Hoolet

You can hold a Hoolet in your hand! Salamander Street are an excellent new independent publisher of theatre, performance and live art and they have published O is for Hoolet! Also included in the book are some of my answers to audience questions and also a second short performance which I made for the launch of the second edition of the Concise Scots Dictionary.

Putting the script together with George Spender from Salamander Street has been an incredible experience. The text as it stood was very vague, only a document for my line learning and for my lovely techs (Elena, Marisa, Sarah and Tommy over the years!). Getting it to the stage where it could be together in a codex of tidiness took surprisingly long but was totally worth it.

As George says, if you want to know if it’s jobbie or jobby, this is the book for you.

Airts o Soons an Een

I am giving a short talk on Scots language and the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery very soon. The event is part of the Scottish Storytelling Festival and will bring in my five years of art historical study and my five years of Scots language activism into one glorious half hour.

The details are below and you can read about it on the Portrait Gallery website.

Tuesday 29 October, 12:45-1:15pm



In this lunchtime talk, Ishbel McFarlane, theatre artist and Scots language advocate, will explore Scots language in relation to pieces in the National Galleries of Scotland. She will look at the cultural importance of Scots language – also called Doric, Glaswegian, Scots dialect, Scots slang, Lallans, and many other names – and how that linguistic culture interacts with visual culture: Part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2019.

The difference between Lallans and Scots

A friend of mine recently asked me for clarification of the difference between Lallans and Scots as terms for one of the ways people speak and write in this part of the world. I did what I almost always do in these situations and I phoned my dad. We chatted and he confirmed what I feel.

So, here’s what I feel about the two terms as I wrote in an email to my pal that I thought you might like:

Lallans and Scots are basically names for the same thing, though I would say that ‘Scots language’ is the preferred term now. Lallans is a long-time name for the language (Burns sometimes used it), but the political connotations it took on in the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ of the twentieth century mean that it is associated with the ‘synthetic Scots’ as used by Hugh MacDairmid etc in the mid-twentieth century. By that I mean that sometimes ‘Lallans’ is used to talk about a kind of Scots which doesn’t have to be rooted in a specific place.

So, if you are using or writing in a kind of Scots which uses words or grammar some of which is traditionally from the North East and some is from Fife and some is from Ayrshire, that is sometimes called Lallans, but I’d be very happy to call that Scots language, and I think most people would. For example, Matthew Fitt’s translations of the likes of Harry Potter use mostly a sort of Angus Scots (he’s from Dundee) but he might take good words from anywhere, and that is still described by him and others as ‘Scots language’ now. The additional complication is that most people would refer to the specific language of an area not even as ‘Scots’ but as ‘Fife’ or ‘Doric’ or ‘Glaswegian’ etc. So that’s handy for you… I’d still use ‘Scots language’ for that, and maybe refer to the language variety.

So, if I was writing a blurb for a board at, say, Glasgow Cathedral I might say:

Scots language, which is sometimes called Lallans, has been used in the area for many centuries. The language variety of Scots spoken in the area today is often also referred to as Glaswegian.

Is that useful? If you have a specific situation in mind let me know and I can see what I think I’d do. It is a MINEFIELD. No-one like the speakers of a minoritised language to kill it through in-fighting!

Ishbel’s 2018 in Review

My sweet friend, Deborah Pearson, does a round up email of her year for friends and colleagues. It is so incredibly stuffed with things from her wide-ranging work life and I always love reading it. We had a wee conversation back and forth this year where I marvelled at her productivity, and she said I should compile a list of what I’d done in 2018 and I’d be surprised. And dang it all, she was right! It is in no way the same order or magnitude of Debbie’s globetrotting work, but I was moved to share said list with some reflections from me, so here you go, you lucky people! My 2018 in vaguely chronological order:

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I started the year right in the deep end of The Employment Hellscape, including the Big Nine Days. At the heart of those days were the three community pop ups with PAS in Fife. I was project artist on the six-month engagement, and the pop-ups were a big part of that. You can read about the early part of project here. The pop-ups were exhausting and surprisingly brilliant, involving balloons, community mapping, superheroes and Pixar.



whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.03The other aspect of the Big Nine Days, was the first sessions of the Minority Language Training, which I spent the last half of 2017 making. We did our first session at the funders, The Scottish Government, and it was a high stakes day which went well. The team were brilliant, and we spent the whole of that session saying how similar everything was for the three languages – Scots, Gaelic and BSL, so it was nice to feel that connection. Finishing that day I felt more proud of myself than I have in years.


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I made the tricky call to retire Plan as a show after our last event with the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Glenrothes. Touring with the EIBF was such a joy – a great and fun team with lovely audiences and wonderful workshops. I decided that 2018 needed some drastic action to make fearfulbel move on from known knowns to unknown unknowns and make new things. Retiring Plan was an acknowledgement that even an existing show takes creative energy, which I needed for The New Thing.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.03 (1)By comparison, it was glorious to do Hoolet again in a theatrical setting when we went to Corymeela for Carafest over Easter. Doing it along with the Minority Language Training is a different sort of affair, as you might imagine – we perform in work places, with group discussion and post-its for afters. It was nice to have an audience who were expecting theatre, for a start. Also, spiritally-minded folk interested in the arts and social justice = an audience of Ishbels, so that made it easier. Corymeela is a totally inspiring peace and reconcilliation centre on the north coast of Northern Ireland, in utterly beautiful surroundings, with beautiful buildings and lovely folk. We were spoiled.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.01I did two projects with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland this year. I again led the Aye Can Summer School, looking at Burns and Scots language more widely, and then was also one of two theatre artists on a week-long summer school (with some sessions through the earlier months) for the launch of the North East Arts Hub. It was such a challenging job – starting with long Sundays of commuting for workshops, and ending with everyone living together in a bunkhouse for a week. But the setting was unreal (North Sea swimming FTW!), I absolutely loved working with Pete Lannon (the other theatre artist), and the kids and the folkie music was glorious.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.01 (1)I spent a lot of the summer working away on my own, researching a project with no prospect of doing anything. I have slightly tended to put the cart and the horse only one way round when it comes to making work – I have to perform on a certain day so am forced by terror to create so that I’m not standing like a numpty on said day. I am trying to get a practice where I make things and see what happens, rather than waiting for the approbation of funding, invitation or development. I love academic libraries, so it’s worth it just to hang out on the eighth floor and look over Glasgow.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.00When Debbie challenged me to review my year, one of the things I uncovered was the LADA DIY that I attended in the late summer, which I had filed under ‘does not count’, maybe because no product came from it? Except that I did do some writing, as well as learning and being in the UK’s newest New Town (yay!). DIYs are led by artists for other selected artists. They are practice, research trip and workshop all in one. Every other participant lived in the London area, but I came all the way down from Scotland to Kent. I’m pretty sure everyone thought this was weird, and I was not immune to feeling annoyed at the London-centric nature of so many opportunities and so much stuff (funding for travel expenses was fine from Central London, could not cover from Scotland), but the workshop itself was challenging and enriching and I got a lot from it. I even wrote one of the below about it…


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.04In the autumn I was asked to join the Scots column team at The National, a national print and online newspaper in Scotland. I somehow also filed this under ‘does not count’ (I should look in that drawer and see what else is in there) and so when people asked me at Christmas whether I had done any writing recently I was like, ‘Em, no, not really.’ Even though I’d been doing a monthly column since August. On the right, I’ve sneakily included a picture from my first column of 2019, which I am most proud of. I have relaxed into writing in Scots more. To begin with it felt so laborious and like moving from a nippy wee bicycle to trying to use a shopping trolley with two broomsticks to manoeuvre each paragraph and sentence. So much of Scots reading and writing is about confidence, and so the people of Scotland can read me practicing every month. YOU’RE WELCOME, SCOTLAND. If you want to read them you can see the list here.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 16.31.04 (1)The final thing in Debbie’s email was a wee list of disappointments, professional and personal, and this photo of my much-loved workspace is dedicated to all the work that seems to have gone nowhere in 2018. I was shortlisted for three separate things, all of which I did not get. Plugging away at it is definitely the way to move on, but I’ve started to think about applications as very time and energy consuming invitation to punch me in the face. Other people have ways of dealing with these punches, but for me they hurt, and they make it harder to go again. I comfort myself that I would have cried with joy at being shortlisted, even to be rejected, five years ago, so there is progress in my failure. Except, of course, I have been shortlisted many times for many things and haven’t ‘won’ anything in, well, years. It’s not nothing, and to be honest this year it has felt like the main thing, so there’s that.


whatsapp image 2019-01-11 at 17.36.02And yet I am not unhappy! 2018 included a quite unreasonable number of holidays, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites ticked off, and a transcontinental train journey across America that I have been dreaming of for a decade (pictured). Tommy gave up his job working for The Man and has been so much happier that he spent late winter and all of spring basically just skipping. We run an Airbnb in our spare room as Tommy’s paying job (his main job is an artificial intelligence research project which he is doing on his own at the moment), and had lots of friends to stay so we’ve been able to share our nice house with nice folk and help people out sometimes. We have been involved in the Scottish Green Party again, and I’m on the committee for our sub-branch and ran a good event at our local Asylum Seeker Night Shelter. I have got much, much better at BSL (though my BSL Level 3 exams sadly belong in the disappointing failures paragraph) and I’ve learnt loads of stuff from museums, trips, podcasts, books and the internet. Life is excellent, art is good, 2019 is new and so are we.


Minority Language Training references

For anyone who has attended the Training on Scotland’s Native Minority Languages and wants to look into where we got our info for a bit more depth, enjoy!


A brief history of BSL from ‘Sign Community’:


A History of Deaf Education from Bristol University


‘The influence of deaf people’s dual category status on sign language planning: The British Sign Language (Scotland) Act (2015)’ by Maartje De Meulder, article in Current Issues in Language Planning, volume 18, 2017

The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Edited by Michael Lynch, published by Oxford University Press, 2001

The Discursive Construction of the Scots Language, Johann Wolfang Unger, published by John Benjamins, 2013

Why Gaelic Matters, Derek Thomson, published by Saltire Pamphlets, 1984

Gaelic in Scotland, 1698-1981: The Geographical History of a Language, Charlies W. J. Withers, John Donald Publishers, 1984

Dictionary of the Scots Language: www.dsl.ac.uk

Oxford English Dictionary: www.oed.com

Bridging the Gaps: Beath High

HoB 1I am the artist in residence in the ‘Bridging the Gaps’ project that PAS (Planning Aid for Scotland) is running in Cowdenbeath over the next few months. The project is concerned, as so much of planning is, with place. It focuses on what makes the three project areas – Hill of Beath, Crossgates and Kelty – good, bad and what needs to be different. We have already started by gathering the ideas about the places with the young people, we will move out into focus groups in the community, and will then combine all of these ideas into art works and pop-up exhibitions in the places, about the places. We might even compete for money from the Aspiring Communities Fund to make some of these ideas real.

We started the project with my interactive performance piece, Plan, which encourages the audience-participants to imagine themselves part of a jury who must design a new town for 40,000 refugees in an imaginary, post-war 2017. We did Plan with some of the pupils at Beath High, who we are going to be working with over the following weeks and months.

It was pandemonium.

The budgeting was, unexpectedly perhaps, the most engaged part of the exercise for the young people, with debates about the quality of housing people should be allowed, whether a town really needed a sports ground, a football pitch, a leisure centre, and a theatre, instead of houses (turns out it sort of did). When it came to arranging the town, though, there was a sense that it didn’t matter, that putting things down was enough. It was really difficult for the pupils to imaginatively start from scratch. There was a lot of chat about whether the new town looked like Kelty. Even when we came to name the place, there wasn’t a sense of ownership that there has been every other time I’ve done the show. I eventually suggested we call it New Town. A gap. A creation that is just a place to exist – a town that’s not anywhere and belongs to no-one.

I was strongly reminded of Greater Belfast by the theatre maker, Matt Regan, a show about Regan’s complicated relationship with the place he is from. A line that came back to me when the kids had no sense that the place they were building could be, should be, would be worth anything: ‘Things that come from where I’m from are shite, d’ye know?’

As our discussions moved from the imaginary in the first week, to the real in the second, we made place maps of the areas where the young people live. I was working with a group of girls on a map of Kelty. Fife, where Kelty is, and Kinross-shire, where I’m from, are neighbouring East Central Scotland regions divided by a common M90. In Kelty secondary age children can either go to Beath High or Kinross High, where I went to school, but the difference between the places and the people is striking. The Scots language use is much higher at Beath High, the language variety in general is much more distinctive, with differences in vocabulary, intonation, pronunciation etc. After our session me and the other project leaders travelled around the areas where we will be working with the community. The memorials that we saw in each area were dominated by mining, everything from statues of individual miners to honour those who died in accidents, to murals of fossils that made the coal that made the town.

We will be moving on to collecting the young people’s stories about the places on their maps, which we will embed in audio form in the drawings using technology/magic. And I have no worries about this. It might seem that giving teenagers free reign to create from a blank page is what they dream of. But it was when we started listing each shop, building, pub, on a single junction in Kelty that they started to get excited, telling me their stories – good and bad – how the places we were drawing made them feel. There is no no-place. The game at the heart of Plan is nothing, but Kelty, Hill of Beath and Crossgates are real – really good, really bad, really boring, really scary, really nice, real.


Chinese, English an Scots

A wis contactit bi a chappie wha is interestit in leids, and wha his bin gien Scots a go o late. It’s aye a shock fir Scots speakers, and Scots fowk in general, that onybody fae furth of Scotland wud gie Scots the time o day. Bit they dae. James Chonglong Gu is an owersetter hissel and jumps atween leids aw the time. An he’s haein a wee loup aboot in Scots, fir tae sae whit like it is.

A wis chattin yesterday tae a Gaelic speaker wha wis sayin that they’d raither A didnae yaise the term ‘native speaker’, wi regards tae Gaelic as it pits a divide whar there disnae need tae be ane. An then we talked aboot hoo in Scots thir’s ainly native speakers as thir’s nae drive tae share it, nae wey tae learn it in college or evening classes or Scots medium scuils. Bit there shuid be. Gaelic can dae it, an so kin Scots. It’s stertin, thir’s bitties, but nae fu plan.

It’s a braw thing tae share yer leid, tae hae fowk hae a ploy wi it, yaise it as their ain. It is. James Chonglong Gu his scrievit a wee poem, an an introduction tae hissel in Scots, jist fir the jo he gits frae leid and sharin. A noble hing.


Oreeginally fae the wunnerfu kintra o China, James Chonglong Gu is an enthusiastic linguist, scriever an researcher in Inglis an owersettin wi’ muckle experience teachin’ in China an ayont. The noo, he’s a dedicatit PhD researcher in owersettin’ atween Inglis an Cheenese at the University o Manchester, Unitit Kinrick o Great Breetain an Northren Ireland.
Aye interestit in leids, James stertit tae be fascinatit bi the bonny Scots leid o late. This poem wis inspiret bi his recent veesit tae Scotland nae lang syne.


Wee Bonnie Caledonia

O wee auld Scotland
Aye sae bleak an aye sae grim
An sometimes a wee bit dreich

Hooivver let it dishearten ye not prithee
Acause tis aye sic a feast fer ye eyes
An a braw land packit fu o craic

Awed we shall aw prepare tae be
As ilka glen, brae, loch an’ ben is a wunnerfu treat

O wee auld Scotland
Aye sae dreary an aye sae chilly
An sometimes a wee bit melancholy

Hooivver fret ye not prithee
Acause tis precisely what tis sae weel kent fer
An why tis sae majestically bonnie

Humbled we shall aw prepare tae be
As tis nature’s masterpiece that awbodie will agree