Beyond the borders
Raymond Ross on a theatre group that's been branching out for 10 years
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Rowan Tree Company, a small theatre group set up to tour village halls during the 1987 Borders Festival. Since then, it has produced 10 plays as well as numerous music, song and storytelling shows, and is now exporting Borders culture to South Africa and Canada.
Formed by Judy Steel, wife of former Liberal leader Lord Steel of Aikwood, Rowan Tree is in many ways unique. Although it has received some financial backing from local government, it has never applied for Scottish Arts Council funding. It is committed to the Border Scots tongue; to the development of traditional material, including songs and storytelling from the Borders; to the celebration of the work of Border writers such as Walter Scott, John Buchan and the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg; and to developing new works, songs and music.
The company has a core of four permanent members: two professional musicians and performers, Hilary Bell and Lucy Cowan; actor and writer John Nicol (a biology teacher at Jedburgh Grammar); and Steel as writer and director. Although set up to tour within the Borders, it has often appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe as well as at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.
The company is celebrating its anniversary with three shows. Mungo Park, which premi red at the 1995 Festival Fringe, travelled to the Grahamstown Festival in South Africa this summer. Written and performed by John Nichol, the show explores the life of the African traveller who was born at Foulshiels near Yarrowford. Accompanying it to the southern hemisphere was Fishtales, a play based on the early writings of John Buchan, which will also run at the Fringe. The third show, The Rivers Run with Song, a celebration of songs associated with the rivers Tweed, Ettrick and Yarrow, is to tour the Borders this autumn prior to a short Canadian tour.
One kind of venue Rowan Tree has not played to date is schools. "I don't find performances in classrooms or assembly halls very satisfying,'' says Judy Steel. "I don't feel they are conducive to creating magic or to transporting people into another world. Our kind of theatre is very intimate, and you have to be careful even of the village halls you choose. It's to do with the ethos of the kind of work we do as much as it is to do with black-out facilities or other technical matters."
Having said that, Steel's company is committed to education, and is currently working on a teaching pack which includes a CD to complement study of James Hogg at university and senior secondary level.
"At the James Hogg Festival in 1985, a Border teacher told me that they didn't teach Hogg because there were no texts available beyond The Confessions of a Justified Sinner,'' says Judy Steel. "I contacted the Canongate press and ended up putting together a new collection of Hogg's prose, poetry and letters, called A Shepherd's Delight. It sold out and went to reprint. But now that too is sadly out of print."
Steel is inextricably bound up with the Ettrick Shepherd. It was watching a TAG production of The Confessions in the early 1980s that inspired her to pursue her love of Hogg and acted as a catalyst for her growing involvement in the theatre. The Steels' home, the converted Aikwood Tower, which features in Hogg's The Three Perils of Man, houses a permanent Hogg exhibition.
"I think Hogg is excellent material for senior secondary, because of his imagination and rootedness,'' says Judy Steel. "When older visitors come here they usually remember Bonny Kilmeny -that wonderful, lyrical sweep of the imagination - from their school days. And yet it's not used in schools now. I'd like to think the new Scottish studies syllabus will have a place for Hogg as an integral part of Scottish culture."
* Fringe Festival: Fishtales is at the Famous Grouse House, August 10-19 * Book Festival (Teepee): The Rowan Tree Company will entertain with stories and songs of James Hogg, August 14 5pm; Judy Steel reads poetry for the Millennium Forest Project, August 15 4pm, and introduces music, stories and poetry associated with Aikwood Tower, August 19 11am