Stornoway, Quebec

Apr 10 2023 | By More

★★★★☆   Wild Gaelic Western

Traverse: Sat 8 April 2023
Review by Allan Wilson

Theatre Gu Leòr’s, Stornoway, Quebec, is a wild Gaelic Western, based loosely around the real figure of Donald Morrison, the Mégantic Outlaw, and set in a failing hotel in Quebec.

Morrison, whose parents emigrated from Lewis in 1840 to join the Gaelic community around Lac Mégantic, became a cowboy in Texas, but fell into a life of crime after being cheated out of his family farm, then setting fire to it to prevent the new owner profiting. As the authorities pursued him, he eventually found sanctuary back in his home community in Quebec.

Daibhidh Walker and Elspeth Turner. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Calum L MacLeòid’s play, directed by Muireann Kelly, brings five characters into a remote hotel saloon as a snowstorm approaches. In her opening soliloquy, Elspeth Turner as the feisty Màiri MacNeill, switches between Gaelic and English in the one scene where surtitles are not provided. Turner gets MacNeill’s message across, however, through vivid expression as she talks about her past history with Morrison.

They had led the best cattle rustling gang in Texas until Morrison betrayed MacNeill and the other members of the gang. She had become a bounty hunter, determined to bring Morrison to justice. MacNeill’s heart still longs for a return to Barra, which her family had to leave during the Highland Clearances.

complex character

MacNeill is welcomed to the saloon in search of a room by hotel owner Jean Baptiste Bouchard and his wife, Uilleamina. Sam James Smith ably demonstrates the stress that Bouchard is experiencing from knowing that his business is failing, but could be given a lifeline through hosting a team of Pinkerton agents as they attempt to find Morrison.

Uilleamina, possibly the most complex character in the play, is brought to life by MJ Deans, conveying both her inner strength and her vulnerability as she is struggles with a difficult pregnancy, only partially eased by medication, while being haunted by memories of the Scotland she never knew.

Daibhidh Walker, Elspeth Turner, Sam James Smith and MJ Deans. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Daibhidh Walker’s Major Malcolm MacAuley is the villain of the piece, having been ultimately responsible for the loss of Morrison’s farm. There are regular hints of other underhand schemes from which he hopes to profit.

The final character to appear is Morrison, himself, neatly portrayed by Dòl Eòin MacKinnon not as the expected gun-toting, loud-mouthed hero, but as a restrained, polite character to whom things are done, rather than as a doer. He is overcome with relative ease by MacNeill in the inevitable bar-room brawl.


Tensions rise and alliances are formed and broken as and it all gets rather explosive as the characters are forced to remain in the saloon by the arrival of the snowstorm, when some would rather be elsewhere.

Dòl Eòin MacKinnon and Elspeth Turner. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Underlying the whole performance is the strong sense of the Gaelic culture that still persists in many communities, with the importance of story-telling, poetry, loyalty to family and community, and a yearning for the old country. Matt Padden’s sound design maintains this theme with Gaelic song (beautifully delivered by MJ Deans), and fiddle, with the transfer to Canada hinted at by the addition of traditional Quebecois foot-stamping. There are also occasional plaintiff notes from a harmonica, echoing the spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s.

In addition to the surtitles, providing translation for most of the Gaelic dialogue, BSL is provided by the almost ghostly figure of Catherine King, drifting through scenes in period costume, largely ignored by the rest of the cast.

vivid soundscape

Becky Minto and Emma Jones on set and lighting design respectively, have created a believable, ramshackle saloon setting, which, thanks in no little part to Padden’s vivid soundscape, feels threatened by snow.

With this splendid production, Theatre Gu Leòr may have created a new genre, the Gaelic Western. Where can they go next? They emphasise that ‘All characters and events in this show, even those based on real people, are entirely fictional – dead or alive!’. Perhaps they might consider trying to tell the real story of Donald Morrison in their next production…

Running time: Two hours (with a 20 minute interval)
Traverse, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED.
Sat 8 April 2023
Evening: 7.30pm (Run ended)

Stornoway, Quebec On Tour:

Eden Court, Inverness
Tue 11 April 2023
One performance: 7pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Tron Theatre, 63 Trongate, Glasgow, G1 5HB
Thurs 13 – Sat 15 April 2023
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Elspeth Turner, Dòl Eòin MacKinnon, MJ Deans, Sam James Smith and Catherine King. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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