Ishbel McFarlane – ART FACT. Thoughts on her project for Untaught to Shine

A project which is women-focussed, promoting women on stage and women’s stories. A project which allows me to be writer and performer. A project which lets me collaborate closely with one of my closest creative buddies. A project which allows me to use my neologism collabormates with impunity and not a little pride (shut up, haters). A project which is based in a gallery and involves the use of archives and art historical research. A project using, quite casually, Scots. That is what this project is.

‘Surely,’ you cry, ‘this is too representative of Ishbel’s deepest concerns and passions to be a real project – it must be science fiction.’ No, I tell you, it is not.


After that enormous set-up, I think that Untaught to Shine might forever be called ART FACT somewhere in my heart.

A couple of years ago, when Stellar Quines sent out a questionnaire on women in Scottish theatre, I filled it out with a hooray in my heart. I’d say that about 23% of my conversations over the last four years have been about women on stage and film, whether we value women’s stories. It’s a real joy, then, to be involved in part of the outcome of the research that Stellar Quines commissioned back in 2010. I am working in partnership with Vanessa Coffey on a 10 minute piece for Untaught to Shine.

Vanessa and I trained together at that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and have worked together a couple of times since then. We’ve had great fun putting together our idea for our slot. We decided to focus on a calotype of two fishwives by Hill and Adamson, those renowned early pioneers of photography in Scotland. The men took dozens of images of the fishing community in Newhaven. The fisherfolk there were regarded not only as distinctively picturesque, but they were seen as a model of utopian, working village life, in stark contrast to the privations and degredations of life in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

What particularly interested Vanessa and me about the women was the tradition of ‘chumming’, which they seemed to fall into. In Newhaven, from young childhood, two members of the same sex would pair off as partners for life. The first woman to marry would have the other as her bridesmaid, they worked beside each other, and they would walk the long way to Edinburgh together (carrying a hundredweight of fish on their backs – that’s eight stone – attached by a strap across their forehead). They chummed for company and for safety. They would support each other in times of joy and need. We wanted to explore that powerful model of female friendship and see how it compares to modern working women’s relationships.

Though we trained together in acting, Vanessa’s work since we graduated has focussed on the physical, with her own company merging verbatim theatre and dance, while my work has been more with words and poetry. It’s nice to feel, as we discuss female support historically and in our lives, that we are chumming each other with our different skills to make something neither of us could do alone. And that’s ART FACT.