Ishbel’s Summer Performing Top Five


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I was working on two shows this summer, touring O is for Hoolet to festivals, and working with the Edinburgh International Book Festival (and their ReimagiNation festivals through Booked!) on Plan. Here are my top five experiences:

5. The Solas Audience: In at number five was one of the earlier events of the summer, the performance of O is for Hoolet at Solas festival in June. There was a wee mix up and the end of the show got curtailed, which wasn’t great, but it was still the most receptive audience I have maybe ever had for Hoolet since I first shared it at the Arches Live scratch 2014. It turns out that I make theatre which I would like, and what I am is a spiritually-inclined, Iona-community-ish, equality focussed, artsy person who might go to Solas. They are my people. I don’t only want to do shows to my people, but it’s really nice every now and then to have a show where absolutely everything lands. And I got falafel in a yurt afterwards.

4. Returning to our Cosy Belladrum Caravan: Doing O is for Hoolet at festivals this summer was a learning experience like no other. Columbafest in the Gorbals at the start of the season gave something of a false sense of security. It wasn’t a ‘real’ festival: it was in a building, the audience sat quietly like a traditional theatre audience, rather than coming and going. Belladrum is much more of a ‘normal’ music festival, with mud, tents, competing events, noise and a 15 minute turnaround between shows. Performing there was difficult, and didn’t turn out to be the best match of show and venue. Luckily our wonderful producer Jill, of Feral Arts, had chosen us a wee Airbnb in a caravan in a garden near the site. When we eventually retreated there the hosts had a wee fire on, and me and Marisa (Stage Manager this summer) read our books and watched the chickens. Lesson learned: take a risk, then take a rest.

3. The Cities of Our Dreams Panel at EIBF: This event was something of the fulfilment of a life ambition, to be on an ‘expert’ panel. It was excellently chaired by Daniel Gray, so I didn’t talk too much (could do with a Daniel Gray accompaniment to my daily life), and also on the panel were Honor Gavin and Adam Kaasa, who I had never met before and who talked about their inspiring project, also connected to cities and utopia. It was so bloody interesting, and the audience questions were amazing. As my pal, Amy, pointed out – no-one was there because they liked us. No-one had ever heard of any of us (except my FanParentsTM). The audience trust the EIBF, and if they see something on a subject they find interesting, they will go along and expect it to be good. And I think it was.

2. The Hugely Varied Audiences for Booked! and EIBF: With the Book Festival I did Plan five times over the summer, twice for schools, and once each for the public in Irvine, East Kilbride and Edinburgh. Each audience was so different. Each space was so different. Our last performance was in the same hall, at the same time, as a baby dance class – audiences could design a new city while also putting their hands together 1-2-3. In Edinburgh the audience was the most diverse I’ve ever had. We sold five children’s tickets, five OAP tickets and twenty adult tickets. It was packed. And the discussions ranged between the ages equally – it was so heated that someone tried to stage a coup. In Irvine and East Kilbride audiences were smaller, but more specialised, bringing their New Town knowledge to the process. What a joy.

1. The Author’s Toilet: If I think Columbafest spoiled me, how can I begin to describe the luxury of working with the Edinburgh International Book Festival? It is unlike any arts festival I have ever worked with in the level of care and attention you’re given. They understand that performing is not nothing. They give you food, and space, and great chat even after weeks of 16 hour days. But best of all was the authors’ toilet. In the words of my pal, Rosie, may I forevermore wee in the authors’ toilet of success.


I posted this list of Podcasts that I love on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago, and I realised that I wanted to have it somewhere where I can link to it without trawling through my Facebook. So, as part of #trypod, here are my tips on podcasts.


Podcasts have been an increasingly huge part of my life for the last seven years. I listen to a dozen or so every week, mostly while doing housework or while walking places. It is the medium I consume and enjoy more than any other, especially since I’ve been ill and I’ve seen no theatre at all. Almost every interesting thing I say is prefaced with the phrase, ‘I was listening to this podcast about…’. This month a load of podcasts I listen to are encouraging people to share podcasts with pals as part of #trypod. So here are my top pods, and some of my favourite episodes:

These I listen to as soon as they are out:

*Answer Me This!* (the entry level drug of podcasting for me, comedy podcast where they answer audience questions)
– listen to any episode, they are fun and funny – and listen out for Tommy Herbert in the jingles. Actually in AMT327 our wedding features quite heavily, though with a libellous claim that we had horrible ham for the ham guests. It was lovely ham.

*99% invisible* (about design in the broadest sense)
– listen to Sanctuary Parts 1 and 2 (most recent episodes, they are about the sanctuary movement protecting refugees in the 1980s); Ten Thousand Years (fascinating and about storing nuclear waste but SO FASCINATING)

*Criminal* (about crime: dooers, victims and people in the justice system)
– listen to Officer Talon (about a police dog and his handler)

*Mortified* (people read out their childhood writings)
– listen to 50 Shades of Awkward – so many of the episodes of Mortified show how boys are secretly desperate for romance and girls are secretly very randy

*The West Wing Weekly* (analysis of WW)
– start at the start

*The Allusionist* (language)
– listen to Please; also, because everyone loves the swearing one, Detonating the C-Bomb

These are some of my background podcasts that I go to several times a week, classics:

*Stuff You Should Know* (explaining things, good chat)
– listen to How Barbie Doll Works

*Judge John Hodgman* (John Hodgman arbitrates people’s disagreements)
– listen to Mommy Nearest

*In Our Time* (Melvyn! Yeah!)
– my advice is to stick to the literature ones first, Melvyn can get a bit badgery with the scientists when he hasn’t really understood

My special binge-and-can’t-get-enough-until-I-overdose-and-then-don’t-listen-for-a-year:

*The Memory Palace* (short historical stories written, researched and performed by one guy)
– listen to a recent one which I really liked, A Portrait 

That’s enough for now. I will probably recommend personal ones I think individual people will like (like Ella Leith or Geraldine Heaney might like this 99% Invisible about architects designing deaf spaces: I’ll have a think.


ReimagiNation Cumbernauld

Here’s a wee blog I did for the Edinburgh International Festival’s Booked! blog about the work I’ve been doing with them doing my new show, Plan. Thanks go to the wonderful Amy Conway for her very able and enthusiastic help as my assistant. You can see the blog on the Booked! website here.

Fresh Plans

Crudville. Supercity. Clintown. Jefflandia. Knewtown. Pitsville. Shaun Junior. Paxtoun. Jjam. Dragon City.

These are some of the names that were selected for the various towns designed by school children, and participants of CACE Older People Active Lives, as part of my show, Plan.

They. Are. Great.

Jefflandia? Come on! Dragon City? Yes please!

In Plan, the audience play a jury of ordinary people in a post-war world. They must design a town for some or all of the 40,000 displaced people living nearby in a tent city. They choose how to spend the money they have, buying houses or swimming pools or hospitals or train tracks or any of the other things that land could be used for in their new city.

Once they have done that, they design the city itself – deciding whether to have houses nearer parks or schools, whether factories should be near the population for ease or away from it for noise and pollution.

Over the course of a fortnight of performances, a dozen different cities were built, each with their own design, their own benefits and their own problems.

The range of names that the groups chose is indicative of the breadth of kinds of town that were designed. Some were optimistic, like Paxtoun, named with the Latin word pax to represent peace after the war. Some groups felt they had made a place to live that was better than anywhere else, so they proudly called their place Supercity, or Shaun Junior, suggested, rather unsurprisingly, by someone called Shaun. They are imaginative and often quite American with suffixes like ‘-ville’ and ‘-landia’. They are playful with puns like Clintown (possibly for Hillary?) and Knewtown.

But what I found interesting were the names like Crudville and Pitsville. As part of the show, we reflect on the work that has been done on the city, and we often found things like insufficient road access, or lack of connection to the towns nearby, or even the fact that not all groups housed all of the 40,000 refugees. But it was before that process that groups chose a name. Even when given a blank slate to design somewhere, knowing all they know about the problems in the real life place where they live, many groups were not optimistic about the possibilities for new life.

And yet.

And yet the discussions about what to include in the towns was passionate and well argued, whether people were justifying paying more for better housing, or having things to do for fun in the town, or why town halls and places of worship were needed to create community.

Interestingly all the groups of older people were concerned that there was enough for young people to do, and every single group of school children made sure to include a care home for the older people.

After the groups took part in Plan, they met with the two writers they will be working with, Mike and Daniel. They talked about their experience, about the failures and triumphs and they connected their new place to Cumbernauld. It has been so interesting to see which things about Cumbernauld that they like and hate. The wonderful green space was often brought up by the older people as a great strength of the place, but one young girl, when asked what was wrong with Cumbernauld said, ‘There’s so much grass EVERYWHERE’.

But they also thought about what they love about the place that they live in, what is important to them. Mike and Daniel used Plan as a jumping off point to explore the past and future of Cumbernauld, as well as some pretty exciting ideas for new stories, which I am looking forward to reading.

It is hard to make a place to live that pleases everyone, but working in Cumbernauld has been a great chance to think about what the most important things are in our cities: houses, transport, food, work and people. In the discussions someone suggested that People Make Cumbernauld. And in this case, People Made Pitsville or Crudsville, but we are all really working to make Supercity.

A Wee Bit Chat wi Bella Caledonia

Here’s a transcript o an interview A did wi Bella Caledonia aboot O is for Hoolet fir their airticle aboot Scots at the Fringe. 

Furstly, whit can the readers o Bella expect gin they come tae yir shaw?

They can expect a variety o chairicters wi different viewpoints aboot Scots leid – the likes o Robert Burns, Jean Redpath, David Crystal. They can expect a variety o leids (though it’s maistly English). They can expect laughs, an personal stories, an buiks aw ower. Thir’s een a sang. The clatter maistly cams gin a trip oan the buiks. It’s aboot Scots at its core, but it’s aboot politics and pooer – aw leid is. Minorotised cultures the warld ower hae shared experiences. Ye can think aboot it whether yer a broad Doric speaker, or a Staunard English speaker, or from doontoon Detroit. Ha. A like the phrase ‘doontoon Detroit’.

Whit wir ye ettlin tae achieve when furst ye screivit Hoolet?

Thir wis the personal aim. A’d hid a furst go at scrievin Scots in Spring 2014, an the wey it left me trauchelt broucht me tae thinkin o the contradictions o ma ain experiences wi Scots – ma fear, ma prejudice, ma shame, ma sacred respect, ma love. A wantit tae get ma ain feelins sortit bi pittin it aw doon, bi collectin ither fowk’s opinions an research an seein whit cam o it. Ma external aim is efter haein a luik at ma ain linguistic prejudices, A wantit tae gie ither fowk a chance tae luik at thir ain predjudices, thir an culture, thir ain history. A’m no duin yet. Daein this shaw is daily self-examination.

2015 an 2016 hae seen ye stravaig east tae west, clachan tae clachan an toon tae toon. Whit did aa this galavantin reveal anent the state o Scots in Scotland?

Aye. Scots is as complex aw ower the country as it wis in ma ain hairt afore A sterted this. Een noo. A hud Scots speakers wha hid nae idea whit they were speakin wis a leid. A went tae scuils whare the teachin an support staff hud nae bother talkin with the bairns in Scots, whether it wis aboot no cuttin across the grass, or settin up the animation saftware oan the computer. Some fowks wis angry aboot Scots no bein mair unitit. Some fowks was angry aboot Scots no revellin in its differences. A fun that non-native speakers wis wantin tae learn, but felt they’d nae richt tae. But, A fun that fowk wis prood o it an aw, thocht in it, cherished it, mournt it. But it’s no deid. Hoo can it be  whan we can see, hear, think, write, speak it ?

Whits the maist memorable scuil yiv been tae, an whit made it special?

We wis at Buckie High an the attitude tae Scots there wis amazin. The hail o Buckie seemed tae be Doric spikkers – the wummin at the Post Office, the Coop – een whan fowk spak English tae them, they spoke Doric back, an thir wis nivver ony problem. Dr Michael Dempster, wha wis oor heid o Creative Learnin oan the tour, he liked ane o his scuils in Ayrshire whare they’d trilingual signs up wi English, Scots and French – aw the leids they learn. Braw stuff.

Were the dominies mair or less receptive tae Scots than ye’d hoped?

Thir wis a richt mix! Buckie was gran, an fowk wis excitit tae hae us. It wis maistly Michael wha warkit directly wi the scuils and the domines, an he’d a wheen o stories! In ane scuil, he’d been brocht intil the Staff Room an gien a seat when a dominie comes breengin in: ‘I’ve got this Scots language rubbish on today, I can’t be bothered with that guff’ (though her exact choice o leid wis no as decorous). It wis a bittie a awkward introduction atween the twa a thim aifter thon, though Michael fun it hilarious!

Yiv pleyed tae mony fowk, young an auld. Dae ye hink thit bairns tak a different view o Scots than aulder generations?

In some weys, aye. A’d say the young is yaisin Scots mair in their scrievins thin thir parents did – A aye quote David Crystal oan this, ‘the internet isnae subedited’. But mony o the same poisonous an self-hatin attitudes exist in the younger generation as in the aulder. Aulder fowk aften complain that the young’s losin the leid, but wha else is tae blame bit the auld ? We continue the same auld cycles o violence agin oor ain culture. Bit we can try an step in an tak anither road. Mak it new.

Whits the maist common hing fowk spier at ye anent Hoolet, an whits yir response?

The single maist common spierin A’ve hid aboot Scots is : what does the word baffies mean and is it Scots ? It’s frequency is, A think, connectit wi the fact that Scots isnae visible ootside the hame. A’m aye finnin oot that a word or turn o phrase isnae jist ma mither’s, or ma faimily’s – bit it’s aw ower Scots, an it’s written in a dicitonar – thon mark o officialdom. The visibility o Scots is sic a bone o contention. We’re tryin tae mak a wee collection o visible Scots at the Fringe – hings written oan posters, or cafe blackboards, or signs in shoppies. Visibility an audibility halps wi the reality o a leid. We wannae celebrate it. Gies a haun tae collect it bi taggin photies oan Twitter or Instagram wi the hashtag #FringeScots

Gin thir wis ae myth aroon Scots ye could dispell fir evermair an ae truth ye would hae abdy in scotland ken, whit wid they be?

Jingso. A myth wuid be that it’s ‘Old Scots’. Een reviewers wha hid seen the shaw last year wid talk aboot Old Scots – it’s ainly as auld as English is auld ! Whan fowk say stuff like ‘bairn is the old Scots for child’ A wannae sae, ‘Aye, the ward bairn wis yaised in Anglo Saxon an can be fun in Beowulf scrievit in the saxth century, an the furst citation o ‘child’ is in Cynewulf’s Christ poems frae the eight century, but sin ‘child’ his the same Indo-European base as the Gothic word ‘kalbo’, A think we’re aiblins splitting hairs oan which is the ‘old’ one.’

As fir a fact A wish awbody kent ? That human beins are made tae bi multi-lingual. It disnae matter if yer different tongues is ‘leid’s or ‘dialects’. The leid/dialect hing bothers fowk, but ma view oan it noo is this : fuck it. A speak it. A learn it. A yaise it. A teach it. It’s mines.

Does Hoolet hae a message?

Aye, three.

The furst twa gae thigither,

  • Pinched frae Tom Leonard : Aw livin language is sacred.

  • Leid chynges.


Tell yersel thae mantras ower an ower whan ye laugh at kids sayin the word ‘like’ ivry 3 seconds or whan ye get someone tae say the ward ‘poem’ cause they say it ‘po-yum’ or when ye want tae say, ‘You can’t have literally died – you figuratively died.’ An if ony ither numpty tells ye aff for ony o that, luik up hoo Tom Leonard finished his poem wi the phrae, ‘all living language is sacred’ in it.

Second : it’s hard tae escape the prejudice aroon ye whan ye were growin. It wis hard fir yer parents, an yer teachers, an the perfect strangers wha correct each ither’s language. But it’s no impossible. Be kind, be unnerstaunin, be firm, be brave.

Things I Learned Touring O is for Hoolet Spring/Summer 2016

There is so much to say about the tour. It was spread over six weeks from April to June 2016. It involved a lot of me, Sarah (the Stage Manager) and Michael (the Creative Learning leader) in a van saying ‘Scotland is really beautiful’. It involved a bit of me sitting on beaches and thinking. It involved some boats – ferries and tall ships. It involved one cat friend. It involved a lot of packing and unpacking the van. It involved many episodes of The West Wing (I rewatched three or four series over the course of those weeks). It involved hundreds of conversations. Here are some things the tour taught me.

Scotland is big.

During the biggest stint of the tour, when we were away near a fortnight in one go, I was invited to an audition in Glasgow on our day off. (NB. I have had one audition and one offer of acting work this year – both fell in the 11 days we were away on that part of the tour. Ha ha, theatre gods, ha ha). This seemed perfect. If I could sweet talk Sarah and Michael into doing this move on their own, I could nip down and up in the day. It would mean a lot of travel in one day, but I could do it.

We were in Thurso. Audition in Glasgow.

Google maps informed me that the fastest way down was to GET A BOAT to Orkney and FLY A PLANE from there. No. I would have to be a long bus/train route. Turns out that was going to be an 18 hour round trip. In fact, by the time I got down, it would be too late to get back up the same day. Even driving it was going to be 14 hours. How many times do I have to learn that there is So Much Scotland beyond Inverness?

It was a privilege to skirt some of Scotland’s edges, the mainland anyway. We only made it to Coll among the islands. I really hope we get to tour it to Orkney sometime soon – Orkney is a great place and Orkney is a great language variety. There’s also not enough in the middle of the North East – Angus, Aberdeenshire. I’m greedy, though, look at our cool map of stops.

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We went to many places I had never been before, or where I have spent very little time. Highlights I will return to: Elgin, Galashiels, Dumfries and Galloway (a real eye-opener for my other half, who came to see the last show at The Swallow Theatre and was like, ‘Where ARE we? This place is beautiful.’ Notice he said, ‘where are we?’ even though he had driven down by himself – he gets magically beamed from place to place by sat nav).

Scotland is small.

As always happens in Scotland, I met people who knew people who I knew. This is a trick I have gained from my mother who can find a blood relative in any group of Scots of 12 people or more. People told each other about the show, and we would get someone coming to see it in one place on the recommendation of a friend who had seen it a hundred miles away. During the show, in a totally flawless manner, I took to sneakily mentioning the fact that we are doing a Fringe run (book here book here book here), and almost everyone who spoke to me afterwards felt that they might come down or up and see it again, and bring someone. Edinburgh is near. Even when it is 8 hours away.

Scots is big.

Or people see it as such. The variation in Scots is a real joy, but it is also used by people as a reason not to use it. I was told in Eyemouth that there were worries about the new Scots Language Award being taught in the school because if you taught someone Eyemouth they wouldn’t be understood by people up the road. The differences are a point of pride, but they are also a separator. But how can I talk about the importance of seeing the connections between different varieties of Scots, when I want to highlight the difference between different varieties of Anglic languages more broadly? If we unite we have more bargaining power, but it is the unification of the languages of the United Kingdom to one monolithic monolingualism that is my issue. I might need another few tours to work that one out. For now, you can watch me wrestle with issues like these on the blog where I answer audience questions: As I discovered on tour, I basically reinvented the wheel/Language Log.

Scots is small.

Or people see it as such. Part of why I started this project back in 2014 was to make myself write in Scots, to increase my confidence. And what do you know, it worked. Talking with many different people, particularly long chats with Michael in Scots, increased my confidence times 100. The talking and also the fact that one audience member quoted a writer to me (whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten) who, when asked how to work towards improving the lot of Scots said: yaise it in season, yaise it oot o season. That opened a door, to give up stressing about whether this place or that place was the place for Scots. That same night in Galashiels I was asked about language ownership and I talked myself into the place where I felt, screw it, IT’S ALL MINE IT’S ALL YOURS AND ANYONE WHO FEELS OTHERWISE JUST ISN’T HERE YET. My website banner line to describe what I do is ‘Theatre making, performing and thinking while talking’. I did so much talking on this tour, I got to do a whole wheen of thinking, but there’s so much more to do.

Roll on the Fringe, the world’s largest festival of thinking while talking.

The Hoolet Tour That Was

I am going to write a blog about the intense, fun, challenging and elightening experience that touring Hoolet nationally was, but for not, for the archive, here were our public dates and places. MUST REMEMBER EVERYTHING MUST NOT FORGET:

O is for Hoolet, toured in association with Feral Arts, made in association with The Arches.


You can book any of the dates on the list by clicking the hyperlink on the venue name.

Sat 23rd April 6.45pm – Platform, Easterhouse, Glasgow

Sat 30th April 7.30pm An Cridhe, Isle of Coll

Thurs 5th May 7.30pm – Mac Arts, Galashiels

Fri 6th May 7.30pm – Eyemouth Hippodrome, Eyemouth

Wed 11th May 7.30pmKinross Parish Church, Kinross

Thurs 12th May 7pm – Lemon Tree, Aberdeen

Sat 14th May 7.30pm – Macphail Centre, Ullapool

Sun 15th May 7.30pm – Mill Theatre, Thurso

Wed 18th May 7.30pm – Drouthy Cobblers, Elgin

Wed 1st June 7.30pm  The Gaity, Ayr

Fri 10th June 7.30pm – Tynron Parish Hall, Tynron

Sat 11h June 7.30pm  – Swallow Theatre, Whithorn

Winner of the Arches and Traverse 2014 Platform 18 Award.


Language is personal. Nothing gets closer to our hearts. And yet, by its own nature, it’s always social. Who owns it? Who appoints it? Who governs it? And why?

In this one-woman show about the Scots language, Ishbel McFarlane presents collected fragments – stories, interviews, memories, characters and attitudes – to challenge and disrupt our expectations and prejudices about language. By interrogating the history of Scots, and the ways in which it is taught and subdued, the audience is invited to question the way forward for minority languages. Winner of The Arches Platform 18: New Directions Award 2014.


‘A witty, intelligent, and interesting discussion on the subject of language’ ★★★★★ Darrow

‘A passionate call to arms for the study and preservation of minority languages.’ ★★★★ The Times

‘McFarlane is engaging as herself and as the linguists, philosophers and writers she embodies.’ ★★★★ The Skinny

‘An engaging, heart-warming piece which is a lovingly made look at language as a living, pulsating, external thing as natural as breathing.’ ★★★★ The List

‘Heartwarming and cerebral, ‘Hoolet’ is a triumph of both style and content.’ Kirkintilloch Herald

‘A gorgeous, thinky, clever hour’ Kirstin Innes (Author of Fishnet)

Writer and performer: Ishbel McFarlane

Dramaturgy: Vanessa Coffey

Design: Lisa Sangster

Produced by The Arches

Job Opportunity

Wanna come and be a tour buddy with me and Sarah, our Stage Manager? You will get to ride in the van, travel all over mainland Scotland and some of the isles too. You will also be spreading the word, words and politics of Scots Language.

All the information is available on the Creative Scotland opportunities page. You can find out how to apply here.