Final islanders on St Kilda set to inspire new Scottish podcast musical

It is an isolated archipelago 40 miles off the Outer Hebrides that is home to around a million seabirds, but has had no permanent residents for 90 years.

Now the evacuation of St Kilda after around 4,000 years of human occupation and its final islanders are to inspire major new Scottish musical, which will unfold as a podcast.

A host of the nation’s leading stage and screen stars will be playing characters in Atlantic, which spans half a century in the run-up to St Kilda’s evacuation in 1930.

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Kate Dickie, David Hayman, Blythe Duff, Richard Rankin and John Kielty will be among the cast of Atlantic, which will based on the real-life experiences of late 19th and early 20th-century islanders.

Billed as “a story about a community out on the edge of the world”, it is hoped to attract global interest when it is launched by Scottish podcast producers The Big Light in June.

Two of Scotland’s leading musical theatre creators – writer/director Scott Gilmour and composer/musical director Claire McKenzie – have created brand new music and songs for the eight-part podcast, which also features traditional Gaelic material, performed by Ainsley Hamill.

Their award-winning partnership, Noisemaker, was behind songs and music in the hit stage shows My Left/Right Foot for The National Theatre of Scotland and Oor Wullie for Dundee Rep.

The Creative Scotland-funded series, which features a four-strong musical ensemble, has evolved from a 2017 stage show co-commissioned from Mr Gilmour and Ms McKenzie by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where they both graduated from, to the new podcast series, which was developed after an approach to The Big Light last year months into the ongoing shutdown of the theatre industry.

Northern gannets seen on top of the remote and steep cliffs of St Kilda. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Northern gannets seen on top of the remote and steep cliffs of St Kilda. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mr Gilmour said: “The original idea we had for Atlantic emerged from talking about Scottish identity and heritage. It sparked the idea of a story about a community which had been in the same place for hundreds of years and we set it in St Kilda.

“It followed the story of two main characters, who still exist in the podcast, but the thing that didn’t crop up much was the story of St Kilda and its community. It influenced how we approached the writing, but it wasn’t the driving force of the stage show.

"The series has allowed us to go into a lot more detailed storytelling about the community and the eventual decision of the islanders to evacuate St Kilda, across the last 50 years of it being inhabited.

“Through the eyes of two young islanders we meet at the beginning who go on very different paths, across the arc of the podcast we see how St Kilda is affected and influenced by the growing changes in mainland Scotland and the all shifts happening across the world.

Atlantic will be launched on The Big Light podcast network in June. Image: Zero Design

“They feel quite distant to a community that is literally right in the middle from the Atlantic and disconnected from all that, but it’s not able to escape the shifting changes of society.

“It was always in the back of our minds as a piece we felt we had unfinished business with.”

Atlantic’s 12-strong cast, which also includes Kirsty Findlay, Sebastian Lim-Seet, Lawrence Smith, Danielle Fiamanya, John Macaulay and Brian O’Sullivan, have worked on the series over the past two months without actually meeting, recording their parts separately either at home or at The Big Light’s studio in Glasgow.

Mr Gilmour said: “Claire and I are both podcast-mad and we had talked about working in that form.

Kate Dickie is among the stars of the podcast. Picture: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“Podcasts have been expanding so much in the last couple of years to embrace fictional storytelling and narrative work. The series has really came out of the pandemic.

"The series is very much inspired by real events that happened within the community and used them as placemakers to influence the fictional characters.

“For us, music is a language that can completely transcend, regardless of your nationality. You can tell stories to a much wider, more universal, audience.

“The lovely thing about the cast we’ve worked with is that it was so varied – some of them work very much within musical theatre, but with others people will be probably getting the chance to hear them sing for the first time.”

Ms McKenzie said: "The music and songs are pretty much all brand new, because of the podcast form. It’s basically a completely new score.

"With the added storytelling of what was going on in St Kilda, right through to the evacuation, there’s so much more in it now and many more characters, as we’ve grown the world of the stage show into an eight-part series. I think it’ll transport people to a very different place to where we are now.

Some of the real-life inhabitants of St Kilda in 1924, six years before it was evacuated. Picture: Newsquest (Herald & Times) /Scran

“We were drawn to a podcast because of how accessible they are to anyone at any time. We’re hopeful the series will draw interest from around the world.”

Atlantic producer Cameron Angus Mackay said: “When we were first approached by Noisemaker, we felt it was a really exciting opportunity to work with two genuinely brilliant and well-established musical theatre writers.

“We’re trying to bring something new and daring to the podcast market with Atlantic – we feel it's going to be a bit of a unique offering, with a properly curated musical score, the soundscape and the drama.

"There was a desire to have a mix of up-and-coming names and some established TV, film and stage actors in the cast. Scott and Claire had either worked with a lot of them before or were aware of them from other projects.

“The Big Light very much aspires to deliver the very best of contemporary Scottish culture to a global audience. Atlantic combines Scottish history and island life with new writing and acting talent.

“There is still so much mystery and intrigue around St Kilda and Scottish history in general. We feel there’s a real opportunity with Atlantic to reach people in all corners of the world who have an interest in Scottish history and storytelling.”

Outlander star Richard Rankin during the recording sessions for Atlantic. Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
St Kilda is believed to be home to nearly a million seabirds.
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