Travel: Scots' epic arrival retold

By Lindy Laird

In January, a spectacular event will relive the story of Waipu's Scottish founders and their long journey from the Highlands to Northland, via Nova Scotia and Australia. Lindy Laird talks to Canadian playwright and theatre director Bev Brett, who is helping to stage the Grand Pageant of Waipu.

WAIPU'S Scottish story resonates the world over among people of Celtic heritage, as well as those who just love a great epic tale.

Bev Brett is one who has been captured by the story, much as the ex-pat American was once captured by Cape Breton's St Ann's area in Canada.

"I have an Irish background and lots of Atlantic Canadian ancestors so I have always loved Celtic fiddle music and stories and songs. So, when I came here from 'the Boston States' in 1974, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven with all the music and dance and stories and humour and characters," Brett says.

"The Irish culture just blended into the Scottish here and the languages are very close, and the history."

In St Ann - a district, not a township - the Gaelic College, a Scottish-history museum and learning centre, is founded on the site of Reverend Norman McLeod's farm and church.

McLeod was the religious and community leader who inspired hundreds of Scottish people to leave Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and settle in Waipu in the 1850s.

A playwright, theatre producer, drama teacher, Gaelic speaker and Cape Breton resident, Brett would often come across New Zealanders retracing their ancestors' journeys, searching out their roots, and she realised that for people from a place called Waipu, at the other end of the world, the local story was their story, too.

It is not the first time the respected Canadian playwright and director has been involved with Waipu, or helped the McLeod story cross the oceans.

Brett wrote The Margaret, a play about the two-year, ship-building period before the Normanites left Cape Breton for the voyage to the Southern Hemisphere.

In 2004, Brett brought a team of St Ann's Players and The Margaret to Waipu and Whangarei, forging new connections between the two places.

"Our great adventure, 23 of us taking the play to a place we'd never seen, and to get such a big welcome, is still talked about. Some members of our cast connected with relatives they didn't even know they had."

Although the 150th anniversary and re-enactment had been held the previous year, the group heard much about it, read the pageant script, watched the footage.

Now, through cyberspace, Brett is working with the artistic team on the second Grand Pageant. Her knowledge of the history and Gaelic language of the times is adding greater authenticity, her input praised by pageant director Lachie McLean, team members Helen Frances and Patsy Montgomery to name just some, and narrative writer, acclaimed New Zealand author Fiona Kidman. "I love the idea of working on a project on the other side of the world.

"And I love really big theatrical projects," Brett says from her home on Cape Breton, adjacent to a property where McLeod once lived. "I've done a few projects about people's community history. It is so important to them. I love the community pride that results."

Brett is aware of the sensitivity around previous artistic interpretations of McLeod, which portrayed the Presbyterian minister as controlling, punitive and worse.

"I totally support artists putting their own interpretation on to something," she says.

"I understand why people were upset, though.

"Had the [Waipu] Pageant come first, before all of the other interpretations, they may have been less threatened.

"The minister as a sex abuser is pretty extreme. Unfortunately, it got dirty, but that isn't unusual in any small place.

"This is also about the leader of their wonderful story and people may have thought that it wasn't balanced.

"The pageant and play speak to me of the Gaels' love of their people and their land, which in Gaelic means the same. 'Co as a tha thu?, or 'Where are you from?', means who are you from?'."

The Waipu Pageant, with its large-scale telling of a specific history and culture embodies "co as a tha thu?", and celebrates remarkable local talent as well as stories.

"I loved that [the last pageant] was more of the story of the people than of the leader," says Brett, who will be in Waipu for the 2013 event.

"I loved the music, which gave it epic proportions.

"I loved that it showed the reality of economic refugees who were of the land. Their determination to keep their culture and traditions as one land and sea-based people with a unique shared story, and not disperse, came through in a very powerful way," she says.

"And the spectacle of it all. All the people, video screens, fireworks, cars and horses. Burning the croft! The Maori coming down the river in the canoe. It was so theatrical."

- Hamilton News

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