Highland Dancing at Kandos

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19 people have come from Lithgow, Bathurst, Gulgong Ilford and Kandos-Rylstoneto Kandos today to work with Highland choreographer Cheryl Roach and me, Annemaree Dalziel I am interested in the landless Gaelic speaking people whose society was in upheaval, colonised by a British government that was determined to break Gaelic culture and the threat it posed to British rule. in 1747 in the wake of the battle of Culloden - disastrous for the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Gaelic culture was proscribed in an avowed attempt to break Gaelic culture. Speaking Gaelic, men wearing tartan and carrying weapons were all banned for a long generation.

The lairds lost their traditional control over their clans people and this spelt the end of a land-based culture, rich in dance, song, language and pride. Seduced by a material industrial culture of the south of Scotland, England and Europe they began to demand income from their lands rather than the fighting arms and loyalty. So they shed their people and replaced them with sheep. One farmer with hundreds of sheep could manage lands that had supported dozens of families. Displaced people from Skye came to this area to make new lives, determined to have their own land, to rebuild a society and life for their families.

We are dancing together to create a performance, Whispers in the Grass, a story of dispossession, grief and survival. Dance, speech, poetry and song are the archives of oral cultures and we are building our own archive of feeling. It is one of many stories of the Scots diaspora to Australia in the 19th century and it follows a local story, the story of how local farmer George McDonald’s forebears came from famine in Skye in 1852, to the Capertee Valley. It is laced with ironies and gaps, ironies in how one displaced indigenous people became part of a society that displaced the Indigenous people of Australia, and the local Wiradjuri tribes of the Capertee and Cudgegong valleys. Gaps because hardworking Gaelic speaking people had little time to write in a new language, English. It is the story of how a landless family were forced to emigrate and a space to imagine their inner lives as they struggled to own land on a new and very different island.

Skye is wet and buffeted by weather across the Atlantic, it is cold and harsh and beautiful. The Capertee valley has a hotter drier climate, totally different and is similarly wild and beautiful. Both lands were ravaged by improvement agriculture driven by profit (and survival). Today George McDonald is using sustainable agricultural processes to restore balance to his land. Native grasses are returning to his pastures, new pastures better suited to this country and climate. In this work I am using native grasses, mainly poa labillardieri (native tussock grass, a strong and tough fibre good for weaving and edible when it shoots fresh) and kangaroo grass (themeda australis, highly nutritious and an important Indigenous food source).

The workshop links steps from well-known Highland dances to tell a story of forced emigration, part of a massive social upheaval that saw millions of people leave Scotland in the Scots diaspora, largely for the colonies of the British Empire. This is a story repeated all over the globe, over time and human history. It is going on today. In this work we are exploring forgotten histories laced with grief, but full of hope, courage and dreams of another future, trying for a people thing of beauty.

Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean wrote extensively about the Clearances, here linking that experience to the beauty of the place people were expelled from. (The Cuellins are a mountain range on the Isle of Skye.)

Beyond poverty, consumption, fever, agony,

beyond hardship, wrong, tyranny, distress,

beyond misery despair, hatred, treachery,

beyond guilt and defilement; watchful,

heroic, the Cuellin is seen

rising on the other side of sorrow


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Highland Dancing at Kandos
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