The first Gaelic feature film, out this autumn, gives teachers and their charges plenty of food for thought
"Lan Fhirinn na sgeoilThe truth is in the story". The tagline to Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, a film to be released in Scottish cinemas this autumn, sums up a deceptively simple narrative in a deceptively simple way. Set in contemporary Skye and with themes ranging from the nature of truth to the importance of heritage, it should give teachers and their pupils plenty to ponder on.
In the film, Aonghas and his younger brother and sister are taken to Skye after their parents die in mysterious circumstances. There they are raised by their grandfather, who tells them a story about a crimson snowdrop a story that hints he is 1,000 years old.
Being thoroughly modern kids, Aonghas and his siblings cock an eyebrow at that. But slowly they (and the audience) are won over by their grandfather's storytelling prowess as Seachd flits between fantasy and reality, past and present.
When the serious-minded Aonghas stands at his grandfather's deathbed, he is looking for the truth. In rejecting the old man's stories, Aonghas represents many young Gaels who feel a pressure even a desire to reject their heritage. What he find is that "facts" and "truth" do not necessarily equate or, as the grandfather says, "There is no truth only stories."
Ambiguities such as this provide plenty of teaching material, whether it be for modern science or religious and moral education. As the quintessential wily, wise old humbug, Caimbeul is as unforgettable as the superior breed of shaggy dog story he spins so well, not just to entertain the children but also to reassure, educate and reacquaint them with who they are.
The tales there were meant to be seven (seachd) in the film, hence its title breathe new life into the narrative style familiar from Gaelic song. There are plenty of kelpies, shipwrecked Spaniards, evil landlords and magic flowers. But, as director Simon Miller says, "Every story was written from scratch."
Growing up "an English kid in Scotland", Miller has taken an unusual route to directing the first Gaelic feature film. Seachd based on his short Foighidinn: The Crimson Snowdrop was fuelled by his love of history, in particular the history of Livingston, where he grew up.
The action relocated to Skye when Miller got in touch with Chris Young, whose Young Films production company (responsible for Gregory's 2 Girls and Festival) had relocated to the shadow of the Cuillins, which feature so prominently in the film.
With support from BBC Alba and the celebrated Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeacail, Miller and co-writer Jo Cockwell developed a script. "Even though we had developed pretty detailed treatments and written an enormous quantity of dialogue for the modern-day stuff, it needed to be carefully adjusted into Gaelic an idiom in English doesn't necessarily translate," he says.
Even in their choice of crew, Seachd's makers deliberately pursued the educative possibilities. "We felt this was an opportunity to help with Gaelic education, which we did by recruiting Gaelic speakers from the media course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig College on Skye," says Miller. The aim throughout, was to combat the stereotype of Gaelic as a dead language and prove it could work in the cinema and, therefore, the modern world.
Shooting the film also boosted the careers of many Gaelic-speaking crew members, as Miller recalls: "One came up from the Gaelic college and worked for the first time as a camera assistant on our short. Now he works within the industry."
Meanwhile, Miller is working on his next feature (set in the 9th century reign of Kenneth I) armed with the knowledge that, in English or Gaelic, it's the truth of the story that wins over an audience.
Inspired by the young actors and professionals involved in Seachd, producer Chris Young has taken their commitment to education beyond the production.
Supported by Highland Council, Bord na Gaidhlig and the Gaelic Media Service, Young Films will bring upper primary and lower secondary pupils from Sleat Primary, Portree High and Plockton High together with Gaelic-speaking film professionals to develop 10-minute shorts for next year's Celtic Media Festival in Galway.
The Seachd website offers resources, from a T-shirt of the movie you design yourself to a history of the Scottish Highlands.