A Daunder Through the Thistles: Discovering the Mamaloshen of Scotland

Showbill for
Tura tro na Cluarain
A Daunder Through the Thistles

Professor Joe Goldblatt

The mamaloshen or mother tongue was the language of my ancestors who migrated from eastern Europe in the nineteenth century in search of better lives. My grandmother of blessed memory often read me stories in her thick eastern european accent that to Jewish people throughout the world is known as Yiddish.

In Scotland, as the Jews migrated here from Lithuania, a new dialect was created entitled Scots Yiddish. The late English literature scholar and chronicler of Jewish culture in Scotland, Professor David Daiches, referred to this dialect as “Scots Yiddish”. He offers the following example of the seamless blending of these two accents with this phrase that he heard from a Jewish boyhood friend ““Vot time’s yer barmitzvie, laddie?” (What time is your bar mitzvah boy?)

Perhaps this is why when Christina Stewart, Susi Briggs, Grace Stewart – Skinner and Alpin Stewart confidently took the stage at the Scottish Storytelling Centre the fine hairs on the back of my neck rose as they began to speak fluidly and seamlessly in Gaelic, Scots and English. I immediately knew that I was once again listening to the mamaloshen of my childhood as their expert pronounciation sounded so similar to the musical dialects of my youth.

Their brisk and deeply moving one hour musical drama entitled A Daunder Through the Thistles is in fact a wee wander through a lifetime of human experience from birth, to childhood, to adolescence, marriage, and finally death. The stories told by the performers are deeply moving and resonate with all age groups as their messages are universal and encompass lives that are well lived with compassion, love, and hope.

Christina begins by reminding the audience that “Life is a journey.” Thistles are the symbols for this journey as they are both colourful and hardy. Her brilliant smile and bright eyes radiated intrigue as well as mystery as she and her fellow players began to spin tall tales from Scottish folklore.

The first tale involved the land of the faeries and through the use of music and spoken verse one could actually almost see the faeries flying throughout the theatre. Christina painted beautiful word pictures as she described the faeries wrapped in a yellow cloth that has now become the banner of the Clan MacLeod. The banner was symbolic of their success and is displayed today at their seat at Dunvegan Castle. It is known as the faerie flag and due to Christina’s highly visual descrption of the faeries and their flag you could almost hear it rustling in the wind. And as her eyes rose to the heavens to admire their fluttering yellow banner, so did ours.

Susi Briggs is a master storyteller whose melodic voice, effective use of the pause, magical wink of her eye, and occassional dramatic gasp, drew every audience member deeply into her true story of the love affair of Susi and Brian. The story involves a romance that took twenty – four years to reach full blossom and with every line the story teller recited we fell more deeply in love with the characters as our hearts were soon overflowing with empathy and finally delight.

Grace Stewart – Skinner is an accomplished musician whose command of the traditonal Scottish harp, the Clarsach, mesmerised the audience with her gentle touch of each string. In additional to performing several traditional Scottish melodies Grace also emotionally and expertly joined the story tellers in spoken verse and song.

The fourth member of this extraordinary ensemble is Alpin Stewart whose spoken gaelic was the source of gravitas and great depth of spirit of the highlands and isles that is needed to ground this performance in a traditional Scottish folkloric experience. His strong voice caressed each of the Gaelic words in a way that made one recall sitting in a croft in the highlands or islands and listening to a favourite uncle tell tall tales by a glowing peat – fired hearth.

The programme concluded with the best rendition I have ever witnessed of poet Hamish Henderson’s The Flyting of Life and Daith. In this poem the characters of death and life debate one another until life finally triumphs. As performed by Susi and Christina, the audience was quickly engaged in this lively match of two strong wills and soon we were relieved when, as we should be, life emerged triumphant.

The final melody spontaneously encouraged the audience to sing along as our voices blended with the performers in singing the final words “Keep you in peace until we meet again.” The performers, lined up at the front of the beautifully decorated stage, held the final note along with the audience as if to encourage one another to continue forever this never ending story of faeries, romance, life and death and finally hope.

Some dialect scholars actually believe that Gaelic and the Jewish ancient language of Hebrew have many similarities in their pronunciation and may even have a shared origin. Perhaps that is why when I heard the musical language of Gaelic, Scots, and English as expertly performed in this daunder through the thistles, I remembered and cherished once again the tender mamaloshen stories of my own grandmother.

Thanks to the the rare talents of these four storytellers, a Jewish man who immigrated from a boyhood in Texas to an adulthood in Scotland once again heard his grandmother’s beloved voice. Thanks also to these expert guides, my daunder through the thistles was both colourful, hard, and filled with hope for a better world. Hamish Henderson wrote, “Quo life!” and indeed these remarkable performers woven a beautiful tapestry of elegant tales that that shall be remembered and treasured for as long as we believe in faeries, romance, and our mysterious journey through life itself.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is a member of the council for the Saltire Society of Scotland and is a champion of Scottish culture and folklore. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.