Tour De Force: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights…


For the last few years Scottish Opera have been taking to the highways and byways of Scotland with their Opera Highlights show. Last night was the premiere of the 2018 show, and it’s safe to say that they have surpassed themselves, with director Daisy Evans putting together the perfect programme to introduce opera to those who may not be familiar with the genre, while keeping the die-hard fans happy – and how.

The structure could not have been more suitable. A lone woman (non-singing actor Hannah Birkin) sits on stage at her laptop as the audience enter. The music began with an eclectic and entertaining run through a selection of tunes played by Jonathon Swinard, the show’s musical director. Then the four singers arrived, dressed unmistakably in the individual colours of the Google sign. They take the mystery woman, and the audience, through a tour de force of opera, answering, as they go, the most commonly asked questions by those for whom the ways of opera are a mystery.

The promise of a mixture of the old and new was upheld, with works from the well kent likes of Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Britten, and Gilbert & Sullivan, but also a new work from Scottish Opera Composer in Residence, Samuel Bordoli. The performances, from Soprano Sofia TroncosoMezzo-soprano Sarah Champion, Tenor Richard Pinkstone, and Baritone Dawid Kimberg, were superb across the board. It is incredibly moving, and exciting, to be in a small theatre when talent like this is on stage. You realise that it is not simply the singing which makes a great opera singer, it is in the acting and the interaction, with each other but, most importantly, with the audience.

Handling the comedy and tragedy, and everything in between, in fine style, these performers had their audience in the palms of their collective hands. There were laughs, tears, and at times a revered silence with nary a rustle of a caramel wrapper to break the spell. I have seen the last two Opera Highlights shows, and this was the best yet. The good news is, wherever you are in the country, you don’t need to miss out as they head from Glasgow to hit the road, starting in Ayr on the 22nd. For the full list of dates, and how to buy tickets, go to the bottom of this page. Opera Highlights was the most fun I’ve had in a theatre for some time and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Here’s the trailer to explain more:

You can follow Scottish Opera in all the usual ways, on FacebookInstagram,  TwitterYoutube and, most appropriately, Spotify.

Here are some images from the show, with thanks to Scottish Opera and Credit to Sally Jubb Photography:

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OPERA HIGHLIGHTS – Touring Scotland Autumn 2018 

Gaiety Theatre AYR Sat 22 Sep BOOK TICKETS


Wick High School WICK Thu 27 Sep BOOK TICKETS

Forres Town Hall  FORRES Sun 30 Sep BOOK TICKETS

The Macphail Centre ULLAPOOL Tue 2 Oct BOOK TICKETS



Memorial Hall LANARK Tue 9 Oct BOOK TICKETS

Victoria Hall Helensburgh HELENSBURGH Thu 11 Oct BOOK TICKETS

Gardyne Theatre DUNDEE Sat 13 Oct BOOK TICKETS

Inverurie Town Hall INVERURIE Tue 16 Oct BOOK TICKETS


Joan Knight Studio, Perth Theatre PERTH Sat 20 Oct BOOK TICKETS

Theatre Royal Dumfries DUMFRIES Tue 23 Oct BOOK TICKETS


The Byre Theatre ST ANDREW Sat 27 Oct BOOK TICKETS

Holiday From Hell: A Review Of Jonathan Whitelaw’s Hellcorp…


If it’s true that the Devil has all the best tunes, He (and it’s almost always a He) tends to get all the best films, plays and books as well – with one notable exception. Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, and Byron all depicted versions of Satan/Mephistopheles/Lucifer, and in the last 100 years the representations are innumerable.

One regular narrative trope is where the Devil leaves Hell to visit us here on Earth, notably in films such as The Omen, Angel Heart and even The Witches Of Eastwick. The stories range from the sublime, (Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle), through the mawkish (Meet Joe Black), to the ridiculous, (God help us, Little Nicky – if you ever needed proof that neither deity exists then that film is surely it).

Jonathan Whitelaw‘s latest novel, Hellcorp, takes the above idea, runs with it, and has great fun with it. Whitelaw quotes Mark Twain at the beginning of the book, “Go to Heaven for the climate. Hell for the company.”, which gets to the heart of our fascination with all things Hellish – it’s where the fun is to be had. The reason that endures is a whole other conversation.

Hellcorp opens with our anti-hero in consultation with the Pope. He wants to make Hell legitimate, and feels that in the Pope there is a man (and in this case it IS always a man) who should understand. This desire for change is rooted  in an unshakeable feeling that He is in a rut – His unreciprocated lusting after His secretary, Alice, (particularly poignant in the current climate), only exacerbating the feeling.

Constantly being the bad guy has taken its toll. He decides that His work is now so well-understood, so set in stone, that it can be carried out in His absence. To this end He sets up a company, the titular Hellcorp, which can handle things while He takes a well-earned vacation. The only problem is approval for leave is needed from His line-manager, who just happens to be God, and there are conditions. He can have a holiday as long as He solves a mystery which has even the Almighty stumped.

After some fairly one-sided negotiations, the Devil finds himself in Glasgow – where better to blend in? – where he awakes on an operating table. There He meets Jill Gideon. She will become the Watson to His Sherlock as they traverse the city trying to solve ever evolving crimes, although perhaps Moonlighting‘s David Addison and Maddie Hayes is a better comparison as the two constantly, and entertainingly, bicker and fall out. Questions of faith, (although not as you might think), trust, guilt and revenge are explored, but with an unusual theological bent.

The unconventional detectives find themselves coming into contact with a host of Glaswegian ne’er-do-wells, as well as Demons – the two often indistinguishable. These are individuals who make even the Devil shake his head in disbelief. What becomes clear is that Jill’s role in this tale is central, and as her desire for retribution becomes stronger, so her partner, unexpectedly, becomes almost valorous – a twist which no one sees coming.

Hellcorp brings to mind John Niven’s The Second Coming, (where God takes a holiday, leaving his son, JC, in charge), Alasdair Gray’s Fleck, (his take on Goethe’s Faust), but also the political tribulations and machinations of Yes Minister, Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life & Death, and even Andy Hamilton’s excellent radio comedy Old Harry’s Game.

It is yet another example of the innovation and diversity in evidence in the sometimes maligned genre that is Scottish crime fiction. In recent years we have had books from writers as distinct as Graeme Macrae Burnet, Graham Lironi, Louise Welsh, Douglas Skelton, Doug Johnstone, Denise Mina, Manda Scott, Charles E. McGarry, and Stuart David, among many others. All these writers are markedly different from one another, and to them you can add Jonathan Whitelaw. If you have read the above review and come to the conclusion that Hellcorp is not for you then I have failed you. Buy it, read it, and if you don’t then Hell mend you.

Hellcorp is published by Urbane Publications.

An Indelible Event: A Review Of Donald S. Murray’s As The Women Lay Dreaming…


It’s a well-worn argument, but the lack of Scottish history taught in schools has undoubtedly had a negative affect on the Scottish cultural psyche. To quote Sam Henry (then President of Scottish Association of Teachers of History) in The Scotsman in 2005 this situation means, “we are not doing justice to pupils and their grasp of their own heritage and their ability to come to terms with the world.” I won’t go into it much further here, except to say that a prime example of such gaps in many people’s knowledge of Scottish history, outside of the Highlands and Islands, is the sinking of HMY Iolaire on 1st January 1919 off the port of Stornaway. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters with over 200 out of the 283 aboard dying. They were returning from the First World War, so close to home they could almost touch it. The very definition of a national tragedy.

The first I heard of it was in song (in my mid-30s) and I found it embarrassing that was the case, if understandable. However, learning about it in this way does suggest that such stories told artfully can help fill in those gaps in people’s knowledge and awareness. So it is with Donald S. Murray’s new novel As The Women Lay Dreaming (Saraband Books) which gave me an insight into the Iolaire disaster which no history book could manage, in a manner similar to the way Iain Crichton Smith’s novel Consider the Lilies gives perspective to, and understanding of, the Highland Clearances. Murray’s is a powerful book, one which tells of a survivors’ story and the effect such a terrible event can have even through the generations.

It is told over three periods of time, beginning in 1936 with Alasdair’s story – a boy who we first meet in Glasgow. Brought up hearing Glaswegian on the city streets, his mother spoke Gaelic and his Aberdonian father Doric. This linguistic confusion represents a key theme as the novel unfolds. After their mother’s premature death his father struggles to cope and Alasdair, and his sister Rachel, are sent to stay with their grandparents, on their mother’s side, on the Isle of Lewis, a move which is jarring to say the least. We then jump to 1992 where Alasdair, now an art teacher back in Glasgow, is finally taking the time to look through his grandfather, Tormond Morrison’s, journals.

These journal entries make up the rest of the novel. They look back on Tormond’s time in World War One, and the Iolaire disaster, trying to make sense of both. His original diaries sank with the boat, so these are recreations, including, vitally, some of his drawings. Written in a mixture of Gaelic and English, Alasdair tries to make sense of Tormond’s account of a time defined by understandable confusion and turmoil in an attempt to place himself in his grandfather’s shoes. They conclude with the boat’s sinking, the event central to the narrative as Tormond was on board the Iolaire the fateful day it went down.

Murray explores many themes as he compares people and places, touching upon class, religion, art, memory, family, grief, and much more. Beginning chronologically, Tormond’s story is one of a young man who is trying to work out who he is and what he believes. His discovery of a skill for drawing, married to a desire to better understand the lives of others, offers him the promise of another, or at least a different, life. When this is encouraged by Foster, an Irish senior officer, he begins to dream as to what the future could hold, despite having ties and commitments at home. The tragedy of the Iolaire puts paid to those, and Murray makes clear that while the fallen are rightly mourned, the individuals who survive deserve care and consideration. Those who make it home in body often leave something of themselves behind.

In 1936, when young Alasdair and Rachel join Tormond and his wife Catriona, the problem with mutual understanding comes not only from a language barrier (literally for Rachel, who is so traumatised by this move she refuses to speak), but from the cultural differences between the children’s life in Glasgow and what is expected on Lewis. For instance, what passed for religious knowledge and education in the city, where knowing the simplest of prayers was sufficient, just won’t pass muster. However, the two are looked after and loved by their grandparents, and as they become accustomed to their new surroundings, and close bonds are formed, particularly between Tormond and Alasdair, things improve markedly.

In 1992 the older Alasdair looks back on these years with great fondness – in many ways the time which would shape his life. A love for drawing and appreciation of nature which his grandfather would inspire would provide the spark for his own career in art and teaching, but as he reflects on the journals he also begins to understand more about this man who gave him so much. At the centre of As The Women Lay Dreaming is a call for greater understanding and empathy. Tormond, who had witnessed too much at a young age, still had the capacity for love, and forgiveness.

As important was the way he used his art and writing to try to help him come to terms with the world around him. This, in turn, would not only allow his grandson to better comprehend a man who had a huge influence on his life, (although he knew him only briefly), but also better understand himself. With As The Women Lay Dreaming Donald S. Murray has pulled off a similar feat. It not only brings to life the disaster of the Iolaire, but also a place and its people over two periods of time, using personal and individual stories to examine wider themes. This is a novel which reveals new layers with every reading. It is history brought to life through fiction, and when it is done in a manner as moving and beautiful as this it is invaluable.

As The Women Lay Dreaming is published by Saraband Books

Pop Life: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To Carla J. Easton…


For the latest SWH! podcast Ali caught up with musician Carla J. Easton to talk about her new album Impossible Stuff, which is released on the 5th October on Olive Grove Records.

As well as explaining the Canadian roots of the record, and how time spent in there changed her life, she also talks about the importance of home, her many collaborations, her musical history, Teen Canteen (right), Ette, and the documentary she is working on with Blair Young about women pioneers of Scottish pop.

Carla is one of the most innovative and interesting musicians working today and it was a pleasure to talk to her and get a better understanding of how and why she does what she does. If you love music you just have to take a listen, but it’s also a fascinating insight as to what is involved in the artistic process. Continue reading

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…


The evocative seasonal change from summer to autumn needs a suitable soundtrack to match, and I think SWH! can provide just that. It’s another strong selection which once again proves that we are living in good times when it comes to Scottish music. We have the return of old friends under new names, debut appearances, new discoveries, and the reissue of a lost classic. Coming from all over Scotland there’s electronica, indie pop & rock, Americana, country, soul, harmonies and heartbreak, and some of the finest songwriting you’ll find anywhere. If any or all of that appeals to you, read on…

Allan J. Swan has been making music for many years in various shapes and sizes, not least with the mighty, and much missed, YAK. His latest release comes under the wonderfully monikered Bang Bang Cannoli. The album is called Something Better, and this first release, ‘Oblivion Now’, is a taste of what’s to come. An old school electronic track which gently builds, adding strings and drums as it does so, with Swan’s understated and plaintive vocals, it’s where Vangelis meets Aidan Moffat, or if Tangerine Dream were fronted by Stuart Braithwaite. Swan identifies himself as “ of many bald beardy suicidally depressed men that has blundered about in the Glasgow music scene for the last 20 years.” There may be many, but few make music as good as this. This is ‘Oblivion Now’:

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A Life In Film: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To May Miles Thomas…


4oyoqq68z6zvhepr87pdFor the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer & director May Miles Thomas (left) about her incredible film Voyageuse and the issues and themes it addresses, such as family, sibling rivalry, ageing, grief, and much, much more.

During their chat the two also discuss different approaches to making film, May’s previous projects, using setbacks as inspiration, the problem in getting heard in a crowded market, and the primary importance of story in her work.

It’s a fantastic listen, one which is essential for anyone who is interested, not only in the process and reality of filmmaking, but all aspects of creating art in Scotland. There is also mention of Hitler, satanism in Glasgow, Sian Philips, and the CIA. What more could you want from a podcast?

If you are in London on Friday 14th you can see Voyageuse on the big screen as it is showing at the Picturehouse Central, when there will also be a Q&A with May Miles Thomas and Dame Sian Philips. For everyone else, you can watch the full film over at Vimeo as well as view the trailers for other productions from Thomas’ Elemental Films, and the full-length version of the much discussed The Devil’s Plantation. If you visit the latter’s website you will find all the information you need to follow in Harry Bell’s footsteps (and for that to make sense you’ll have to listen to the podcast first). In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Voyaguese: Continue reading

Take Two: A Review Of Kirstin Innes’ Fishnet…


If ever a novel deserved a long life it is Kirstin InnesFishnet. A winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, and one of The Independent’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Books of 2015, it was, like far too many others, a casualty of the liquidation of Freight Books. So it is most welcome news that it is being republished by Black & White Publishing, in a beautiful new edition, which makes it the perfect time to republish the SWH! review of Fishnet from 2015*. Having read it again, we stand by every word:

As if confirmation was needed, the 50 Shades phenomenon proved once more that when it comes to fiction, sex sells. It was also a timely reminder that there are too few novelists prepared to write seriously about sex. This is particularly true with regard to the sex industry and those who work in it, both of which are all too often stigmatised and stereotyped without a second thought.

Kirstin Innes’ novel Fishnet gives the subject the serious consideration it deserves, and in doing so she has written a book which will challenge the reader, making them reassess what they thought they knew as it refuses to offer easy answers but raises many uncomfortable questions. If after reading you haven’t reviewed your own attitudes, to the selling of sex and so much more, then I’m afraid it says more about you than it does Fishnet. Continue reading

Scots Whay Hae! Presents… Starry Skies’ new single & video, ‘Starry Skies’


Against all odds, and just when we need it most, kindness is having a welcome renaissance, at least in terms of our culture. At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, talking about his collection of essays The Passion Of Harry Bingo, journalist Peter Ross explained that the key to his work is kindness. He never belittles or condescends to those who he writes about, no matter how alternative their lifestyles or interests may appear. From S&M clubs to the subject of self-harm, Ross approaches his interviewees from a position of empathy and understanding.

It’s refreshing to hear, and other examples can be found in the work of Grammy winning singer/producer Adam Bainbridge, who is better know as Kindness, and in recent books by Helen Taylor and Helen McClory. What unites them is a desire to understand the choices and lifestyles of others, and include them in any conversation – benevolance without patronization. In short, and in the words of Abraham Lincoln, the theme is, “Be excellent to each other”.

To those you can add the forthcoming Starry Skies’ album Be Kind which is out in UnknownOctober on Fox Star Records. Starry Skies are a bit of a Supergroup, as well as a super group, with members of Sister John, The Gracious Losers, and Attic Lights involved, as well as a various guest appearances when playing live. They are ably led by singer-songwriter Warren McIntyre,  a man who has played with legendary bands The Ducks, The Moondials, and many more. This is a band of multi-talents who come together to make a greater whole. Continue reading

Paint It Black: A Review Of Helen Taylor’s The Backstreets Of Purgatory…


I recently attended the Glasgow launch of Helen Taylor’s debut novel The Backstreets Of 39330800_598687323859088_5110516692849524736_nPurgatory. It was a fascinating and refreshingly different approach to a book event. Instead of the usual chat with chair/readings/Q&A format Taylor replaced the former with a talk on the life and work of the infamous Italian painter Caravaggio (along with an old-school approach to slideshows – see right) to a packed Byres Road Waterstones.

This decision was not as left-field as it may sound as Caravaggio not only plays a major part in the plot of The Backstreets Of Purgatory, but also the structure, with chapters being named after the artist’s paintings (a selection of which are at the bottom of this review). But the important question is, “Is the book any good?”. The short answer is “Very”. The long answer begins now.

I had no knowledge of The Backstreets Of Purgatory before its launch, and only a little more than that afterwards as Taylor avoided spoilers even after her reading. The back cover proclaimed it as “Caravaggio In Glasgow, A Tale of Art, Insanity And Irn-Bru”. While pithy, that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Struggling Glaswegian artist Finn Garvie dreams of being the city’s answer to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, but spends most of his time contemplating work rather than creating it, occasionally caricaturing patrons of the local Bingo. His long-suffering girlfriend, Lizzi, senses he views their relationship in a similarly lackadaisical fashion. This is in part due to Finn discovering a new muse in the shape of au pair Kassia, who, to his chagrin, doesn’t want to know. Continue reading

New Musical Success: A Review Of The Best In New Music…


This is proving to be a summer of love with a soundtrack to match. With incredible albums already from SWH! favourites Modern Studies, The Scottish Enlightenment, Tracyanne & Danny, Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert, and Kathryn Joseph (more of which below), and the promise of releases from The Gracious Losers, The Starry Skies, L-Space, and Carla J. Easton this long hot summer is shaping up to be a memorable one in terms of Scottish music. You want proof? Keep on reading and be convinced.

I first heard Lynnie Carson at one of Warren McIntyre’s Seven Song Clubs which are held at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre every month. It was a solo set and I was immediately blown away. Her voice has a warmth which is rare and welcome, and this is to the fore on her latest single ‘Love Is’, which she recorded with her band, the excellently monikered Hawking Gimmicks, made up of some fantastic musicians as was shown with their set at the recent Seven Song Club Weekender where they were a highlight. If you get the chance to see Lynnie, either on her own or with the band, don’t miss it as this is someone with music in her very bones, and the love she has for what she does is infectious. This is ‘Love Is’:

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