O is for Hoolet




Scottish Storytelling Centre

Venue 30


12-29 Aug (not 15, 22)



Ishbel McFarlane’s parents brought her up speaking Scots to her at home, but when she started school and was taught in, and expected to use Standard English both in the classroom and the playground, she refused to communicate in Scots.  This show explores language and the way it is used – what is ‘a minority language’, and who decides that it is one?  Its title refers to the confusion she experienced as a child learning to read, when the letter O was accompanied by a picture of the bird she knew as a Hoolet.


The show’s ‘bingo’ format is unusual: we are invited to participate by taking pink cards, on which are written a question or questions and the name of the person to whom the question is directed.  When a number is announced and displayed on a screen, the person with the card bearing that number reads out the question and names the person who is to answer it – often Ishbel herself, at a variety of ages in her life, but we also hear from eminent scholars of linguistics, both living and dead, poets and writers, and even Mary Queen of Scots.  We learn something of the history of the Scots language, and the different attitudes towards it in Scotland’s past – and, indeed, today – and the contrasting responses different people may have to the same prohibitions or encouragements.


Ishbel is a talented actress, and plays all the ‘answerers’: I particularly loved her four-year-old self and her response (or refusal to respond) when asked various questions.  Some of the answers are unintelligibly scholarly – whereupon Ishbel herself may be called upon to interpret the answer.


I loved the little houses scattered across the stage, whose roofs were books to which she would refer in response to some questions.  The ‘question and answer’ format was a good way to get information across in an enjoyable way: the ideas flowed thick and fast, and there wasn’t always time to grasp them before we moved on to something else.  The questioning of expectations and attitudes – that one has to speak Standard English or risk being seen as a rustic idiot, that Standard English is somehow ‘best’ and the only proper way to talk – was done cleverly and entertainingly.


The show was greatly appreciated, and Ishbel warmly applauded.  It’s not all-singing-and-dancing (though there is some singing) but it is thought-provoking and a welcome change from the hysterical screaming that so many Fringe shows seem to feel obligatory.



Mary Woodward