THEATRE: Hidden history of Hebrides homers

SCOTLAND is a nation redolent in history, yet while many revel in our ancient past, our recent history is often conveniently forgotten.

For instance, take the phenomenon of "the homers" - children from broken homes who were relocated to foster families in the Hebrides.

If you’ve never heard the term you’re not alone, few people have, yet the practice continued through most of the Sixties into the early Seventies.

A new play at The Traverse seeks to uncover a little of the secret history of these children, but the Hebridean-born author admits that the subject came as a revelation to him as well.

Iain MacLeod grew up in the Highland village of Ness on the Isle of Lewis, yet he was completely unaware of the homers until a few years ago.

"I heard about it through a friend who was working on a documentary about it," he recalls in a lilting Hebrides accent.

"I thought: ‘Jeez, how have I never heard of this?’ I was quite amazed that this had happened and I knew nothing about it and it turned out that a few people I knew had actually gone through it."

The practice was backed by the Catholic Church, so many of the children were shipped to the mainly Catholic Southern island.

"The parents also got a little money from Glasgow City Council for the upkeep of the children," explains MacLeod. "So once the money stopped many of the homers returned to Glasgow to get a trade, but quite a few of them stayed up there to make a life for themselves.

"I was amazed by how widespread it was. I had a friend who lived in a village with only 16 houses and he told me 11 homers lived there."

The opportunity for drama was immediately apparent to MacLeod, 28, who has already been writing drama for over a decade. Since he wrote his first play for the National Gaelic Youth Theatre when he was 17, MacLeod has enjoyed the kind of multifaceted career that most creative people can only dream about.

After gaining a first-class honours degree in Celtic languages, he travelled the world, won a script-writing award for the Gaelic soap Machair, enjoys a career as a director of television documentaries and short dramas, released four albums as a guitarist with the Anna Murray band and been invited to Buckingham Palace as a young (over?) achiever.

For MacLeod, Homers is the culmination of a long relationship with the Traverse. He first debuted his work at the theatre at the tender age of 19 in 1993, with the short play Road From The Isles, but his association with the Traverse’s artistic director (and director of Homers) Philip Howard stretches back to his days with the National Gaelic Youth Theatre.

"I met Philip when I was about 16-17 and ever since he moved to the Traverse he’s given me bits to do, which has built up to the chance to do a full-length play.

"I’ve learned an awful lot. This has been the longest I’ve ever spent on a single piece and there have been an awful lot of drafts, but they’ve been very good in helping me along."

MacLeod started his career writing in both English and Gaelic - a process he says felt "completely natural" to him. His facility in Gaelic drama - quite a rarity, you have to admit - naturally led to a stint writing for Machair, but his move into directing documentaries has also helped develop his playwriting.

"I was writing and researching documentaries and a friend of mine was a trainee director and he was looking for someone to do a placement. I wasn’t sure at first whether I’d like it or not but I did and I found that the two disciplines are quite helpful, especially as far as structure goes. You have to be very structured when you’re directing TV programmes - you shoot all this footage and then have to edit it down to the relevant story."

Homers is set in 1967 and follows Mary (Mary Gapinski) and Alex (Alastair Bruce), two homers sent from separate care homes who meet on the boat to the islands and are put in with the same family in the Hebrides. They don’t know where they’re going or why.

"A kind of holiday," they’re told. Tensions, needless to say, ensue. Wherever they go they feel out of place. The teacher who barks at random in a strange language and looks straight through them; the minister with his inexplicable penchant for Elvis and the stranger living near the cliffs, who they are warned to stay away from.

SAYS MacLeod: "A lot of the homers said that when they went up there wasn’t any help or a structure to deal with social problems. A lot of them were put with older families and many of them had come straight from homes so there was a number of behavioural problems."

Nevertheless, the last thing MacLeod wanted was for Homers to become was a ‘It’s Grim Up North Uist’ piece of earnest-but-dull socially conscious theatre. The fish out of water scenario naturally loans itself to generous helpings of bizarre humour.

"The play’s a real mixture of realism and the very odd," MacLeod explains. "The village sometimes descends into the absurd. Imagine arriving in a strange place and having no idea what language people were speaking," he chuckles.

"There are quite a few characters with odd linguistic or physical traits and I brought them together to bring out the humour."

Homers is a natural choice for the Traverse’s annual Highland tour - it even stops off at Ness, the Lewis village where MacLeod was brought up. Will he be going along to gauge audience response?

"Yeah, but I might go along incognito," he laughs, "because I’m really not sure what the reaction will be. I’ll probably have to wear a big hat and sunglasses."

Homers, The Traverse, previews Sat, Sun and Tuesday October 8, 8pm, 5 (4), then from Wednesday 9 to Saturday 19, 8pm, 9 (5/4), 0131 228 1404