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Celtic Connections columnist Anni Donaldson reviews one show looking at the life and music of Margaret Barry

This article first appeared in Common Space

THE gulf separating the lived experience of singers Margaret Barry and Karine Polwart could hardly be wider. 

Margaret, born into a family of street musicians in Cork in 1917, and Karine, a 40-something from Edinburgh, show the distance women have travelled in the world of traditional music and song.

‘She Moved Through the Fair’ by Colin Irwin and Mary McPartlan, which played at the Tron Theatre as part of Celtic Connections, gave us a funny, poignant and honestly tuneful evocation of Barry’s colourful life.

Karine Polwart

Finding herself homeless at 16, she took her chances on the road with just her bicycle and her ‘banji’, as she called it. Living rough at times and singing for bed and board, she traipsed around Ireland’s cities and country fairs singing on street corners, in pubs or wherever she could earn her keep.

Although she learned the hard way how to command an audience and compete with the clatter of street and stall, her powerfully sweet and melodic tones gave voice to Ireland’s eternal longing for itself in ballads of migration, of loves lost and found, of failed rebellion and roving in the years after the failed Easter Rising.

The self-styled ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ was strong in the face of the Irish Catholic Church’s view of independently-minded single mothers like herself, of a male-dominated culture and general prejudice against travellers – she held her own and had the last laugh.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: James Kelman on the Dirt Road to Lafayette

Bumping into tradition-hunters Robin Roberts and Alan Lomax in 1951, Barry’s gifts were recognised and she went on to become the centre of the growing Irish community in London, taking up residence at sessions in the famous Bedford Arms with her new musical partner, fiddler Michael Gorman.

Caring little at all for her appearance, lack of front teeth and more for stout, Margaret went on to a colourful career touring the US. Mary McPartlan (main picture) lovingly rendered Margaret’s signature songs like the Galway Shawl, The Factory Girl, My Laggan Love, the Wild Colonial Boy and others including the exquisite title song.

Larne-born actor Ruby Campbell’s fine portrayal of Margaret through her life gave a real sense of this huge character and the size of the toss she never gave for convention or sobriety.

Polwart’s play, Wind Resistance, by contrast, expressed more 20th century concerns for land, nature, community, birth and motherhood. Centred on her beloved Falla Moss, Polwart’s multi-dimensional performance combined songs and stories old and new, chat, audio interviews and wondrous back projections of geese in flight.

Read more – Anni Donaldson: Is it time Scotland paid a new piper?

Polwart drew the connections and cooperation between bird, land, people, history and agriculture, weaving her tale around the love story of Roberta and Will who settled in Falla Moor in 1919. This deeply moving musical essay shared one highly creative woman’s art through reminiscence, via football, medieval medicine, peat bogs, moss and birth.

That Polwart had the funding and freedom to do what Barry could only do by force of will shows how far we have come in recognising the art women can make given half a chance.

We must thank Celtic Connections for reminding us of those uproarious foremothers like Margaret Barry who carved those first paths through the peat bog of centuries of tradition and silt and ended up on the boards of the Tron Theatre.

Pictures courtesy of Celtic Connections

Agnes headshot

Agnes Owens

24th May 1926- 13 October 2014

Agnes Owens nee McLearie the Vale of Leven’s own “writer in residence” has died at the age of 88 near her home in Balloch. Born in Milngavie, Agnes’ writing was steeped in what has been described as a “tough, social realism” which reflected the woman she was and the life she led.

Described by teachers as ” a hopeless case”, her parents, determined to educate Agnes who was equally determined to work in the local paper mill, sent her off to learn shorthand and typing – a skill she later admitted was very helpful when she started writing many years later.

Agnes married her first husband Sam Crosbie in 1949. Due to the acute post-war housing shortage, the couple travelled to Garve in the Highlands with their two month old baby daughter Ann, looking for work and somewhere to live. Travelling around the Highlands, sometimes living in tents or squatting, they settled for a short time in a condemned building in Keith in 1950 where their son Bill was born. Agnes and Sam went on to have two more children, Irene and John. Sam died from thrombosis in 1963 and Agnes later remarried.  Agnes and her second husband Pat Owens settled in the Vale of Leven in 1964 and had three children, Catherine, Margaret and Patrick.

Life was tough for Agnes as a young married woman. Bringing up seven children with Pat working in the building trade, she worked as a cleaner, typist and in the Westclox factory to make ends meet. Her children remember her rushing in from work and cooking the dinner with her coat still on.

Agnes began attending a Vale of Leven writing group organised by the University of Glasgow Extra-Mural Department in 1978, “just to get out the house”. What went on around her began to be reflected in Agnes’ writing.   To her tutors, Liz Lochead, Jim Kelman and Alistair Gray her talent was obvious from her very first short story ‘Arabella’ based on a character she met back in that condemned building in Keith. When asked what made her write that story, she answered, “Spite”.                                                                                                                                                gentlemen of the west

Agnes published her first novel ‘Gentlemen of the West’ in 1984 when she was 58. Writing about the lives of hard drinking west of Scotland building workers came easily to Agnes – both her husband and son John were brickies. ‘Lean Tales’, co-written with James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, followed in 1985 but at that time she was still cleaning houses because ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”.

Agnes Owens young picture                                                       ‘writing books didn’t pay the rent”

A week before Christmas in 1987 Agnes’ youngest son Patrick was stabbed to death outside her home. She was at his side trying to resuscitate him as he lay dying on the street. Only a few days later, her family remember her shopping at the local co-operative, still resolutely doing what had to be done.   In an interview later in life, Agnes described herself during that period ‘You weren’t ill, no, and you never became ill, but you would have loved to have died.”.   This was a devastating time for the whole family who recall her strength throughout the murder trial. Patrick’s attackers were indicted on a reduced charge and served a reduced sentence.   A furious Agnes challenged the judicial system and wrote to Margaret Thatcher seeking justice for her son. Writing “went out of the window” for a while after Patrick was killed but Agnes eventually returned to writing as a way of coping with the tragedy. A play co-written with Liz Lochead – a comedy called ‘Them Through the Wall’ –  was performed by Cumbernauld Theatre Company. One of the characters in the play was based on her son Patrick.

Agnes was never too impressed by academics analysing her work. When one critic described her novel – A Working Mother published in 1994 – as “the most important book about alcoholism that he had ever read”, Agnes remarked dryly that she didn’t know she had written a book about alcoholism! On another occasion, at a reading, she was asked how she structured her day around writing. “Probably between doing the washings and making dinners!” she replied. As her family grew up and left home, and with more time for writing, Agnes published another novel For the Love of Willie, which was shortlisted for the Stakis Prize 1998, and continued with a number of short story collections and novellas . Agnes seemed finally to believe her own value as a writer when her Complete Short Stories were published in one volume in 2008. She remarked, “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

complete novellas       “This is the kind of book that writers have, not like the wee skinny books I do,” she says. “It’s what I’ve been striving for: a thick book!”

Agnes Owens’ hallmarks as a writer have been described as ‘a frank irony, a deadpan gothic quality and a down-to-earth insistence on the surreality of most people’s normality.’ These also accurately reflect Agnes Owens the woman. She has been described by many critics and peers as a neglected and under-celebrated writer. Her close friend Alasdair Gray once described her as the “most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors. However, her modesty, pragmatism, humanity strength and dry wit will endure in people’s memory alongside her written legacy.

  “the most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”

Alasdair Gray

Her children describe Agnes as a mother who was always there for them, not a ‘touchy feely’ Mother, but a strong and resolute individual,  who allowed them to make their own mistakes but who was protective at the right time. A survivor of tough times, Agnes was, on the surface, like many working class women of her generation.   Unlike them she broke through the everyday demands on her energy, attention and emotions and found time to write and to write very, very well. Alistair Gray described Agnes’ talent as ‘too tough to be killed by learning that writing was not a full, free life but another sort of working life that she had known since childhood.”

Agnes Owens

Agnes will be remembered for all that she was as a woman, as a strong socialist, and as a writer. Focussing on the lives of ordinary people she gave them life through the art of her imagination and her clean, razor sharp way with words.   Agnes leaves a lasting legacy as a pioneer of the new wave of late twentieth century Scottish women’s writing. Her large and loving extended family are immensely proud of her.  Agnes’ daughter Irene sadly died in 2013 but she is survived by her remaining children Ann, Bill, John, Catherine and Margaret, husband Pat, and by her many grandchildren and great grandchildren.


Rubha Phoil – Sleat’s Forest Garden

Skye Permaculture

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

It would be hard to miss the colourful entrance to Rubha Phoil – Skye Permaculture when you step off the ferry from Mallaig at Armadale pier on the southern tip of Skye. The Sleat Peninsula, known as the garden of Skye and the 16 acre spit of lush verdant woodland at Rubha Phoil is just that in microcosm – a meandering magical woodland garden. Rubha Phoil is Gaelic for Paul’s Point, named after Paul Macdonald who landed there with his brothers in their flight from Glencoe following the massacre of 1692.

Armadale Ferry Terminal and Rhuba Phoil                      RuAerialNorth%20copy

The Macdonalds themselves settled further up the road but their landing place remained just that.   Their descendant Lord Godfrey Macdonald sold Rubha Phoil to its present owner Sandy Masson – site unseen- in 1989 when, according to Sandy ‘land was cheap’. Sandy a warm, tanned and and vibrant woman in blond pigtails, blue dungarees and wellies talks to me as she walks

Fell in Love


Sandy is supervising her band of volunteers as she goes, searching all the while for her precious rake which ‘someone has pinched’. She arrived on Skye by motorbike and fell in love with the island. A maker and retailer of soft toys from east Yorkshire, surprisingly, Sandy found the climate on Sleat warmer than her native North Sea coast.

The move was chiefly inspired by a permaculture course Sandy attended in 1989 run by Graham Bell of Coldstream, now an elder of the permaculture movement.    Sandy claims the course changed her life. “It made me look inwards as well as around me and I realised it was time for a change. They were teaching about climate change and if people had listened then, would it have made a difference?”.

After a spell working as the National Coordinator at a permaculture centre in Devon where she found ‘lots of people who cared about the planet’ , Sandy moved to Rubha Phoil permanently. Taking up residence with her partner initially in a caravan in the Meadow they build their own wooden house and had moved in by 1991.

I realised it was time for a change. They were teaching about climate change and if people had listened then, would it have made a difference?

Equitable use

Permaculture ethics emphasise care for the earth, gaia, and its inhabitants and for the equitable use of the planet’s resources. The ethos is based on sustainable agriculture methods which aim to produce more energy than is consumed, to save and retain soil, recycle nutrients and waste and provide food for local consumption.

love your weeds


At Rubha Phoil they grow organic vegetables, herbs and flowers for food and remedies, and have a flock of roaming hens who produce fresh eggs . The produce is eaten by Rubha’s team of residents and volunteers, surpluses are shared or sold to campers and local people.

rhuba lane

Everywhere on Rubh [pronounced Ru], as Sandy calls it, there are colourful painted wooden signs, posters and notices instructing and advising visitors on the ethos and principles of Skye permaculture, on the traditional Gaelic terms for herbs and how they were used locally and about composting. A distinctive feature of the site is how they manage waste – food, water and human. Composting is a key activity onsite and the earth worms, ‘our friends in low places’, are everywhere honoured as the stars of this particular show.

‘Les Pipes’

Sandy has the distinction of being the ‘Compost Mentor’ for Skye and Lochalsh. There are open water sewage systems, compost toilets, reed beds and willow urinals – ‘Les Pipes’.   The worms, busy in their boxes under the charming wooden toilets dotted around the glades, keep the place surprisingly clean and odour free. It is a remarkable place altogether.



According to Sandy, “People come here looking for something they are not finding elsewhere in society. A place where they can be creative.”. Sandy speaks about Mary Queen of Scots whose embroidery and colour work with her threads kept her sane during those long years of imprisonment.   “Being creative is what keeps your head together”.   The evidence of that is everywhere.

The place is a hive of happy industry in preparation for a forthcoming Midsummer Party and Gardens’ Open Day. Young people are painting and erecting signs, potting plants for sale, baking cakes, setting tables, weeding and clearing paths. They are volunteers spending anything from a week to months at a time on site. In exchange for the work they do they are given bed and board. They live in tents, in the community house or in one of the log cabins dotted around the site. French, Spanish, English and Glaswegian conversations could be heard around the place.


Vision for Rubh

There is a serious side to Sandy’s vision for Rubh. She is concerned about youth homelessness and unemployment with many young people unable to get a house because they have no job. Scotland’s high rate of heart disease and of suicide, particularly among young men, is also a worry. She is convinced that young people can learn important lessons and skills at Rubh – how to live and work on the land, build cabins, cook and look after themselves and others. They can do physical and creative work to help keep them mentally and physically well.

In a recent venture, Skye Permaculture was registere by Highland Council as an Activity Agreement Provider to young people in Skye and Lochaber. Rubh lends itself well to providing an activity-based experience of work and learning. Mentoring and guidance are available to young people who haven’t secured a college or training place.

“People come here looking for something they are not finding elsewhere in society. A place where they can be creative.”

Budget and Cook

The scheme aims to help them develop skills and confidence, how to budget and cook on a low income and to plan their future.  Rubh has also been given Scottish Innovation Grant Funding to establish a textile workshop. The wooden building designed by local architect Magnus Gunnison of Broadford was opened earlier this year.

625470_703321273020236_472495333_ntextile workshop  Rhuba Phoil Textile Workshop

“Being creative is what keeps your head together”

This part of Skye is popular, with 220,000 visitors per year arriving by ferry from Mallaig. The beautiful natural environment of this unique Visitor Centre has much to offer day trippers and visitors. It has an Eco-campsite and according to Sandy, “People say it is the most beautiful campsite they have ever seen. They always want to come back – to enjoy living close to nature, to sit round campfires and walk in the woods”.

     Kevin’s Eigg View                   view off the headlands

“People say it is the most beautiful campsite they have ever seen.

Each of the private pitches has its own name: Calum’s Camomile Camping, Kevin’s Eigg View and its own fire-pit. Most have their very own seaview overlooking the Sound of Sleat. There is a little cabin in the woods for the use of campers when it rains and they are always welcome in the community house.

IMAG0075  Campers’ Cabin

Havens for Children

The woodland walks leading through a maze of rhododendron tunnels and the Faerie Glade are havens for children, seals are a common sight on the shore and the rock cave is popular. Gentle Bahii visitors built a quiet meditation cabin among trees they planted as part of the International Peace Forest. Recent ventures include the addition of yurts, a wigwam and Seagull Sanctuary Cottage for holiday lets.

 They always want to come back – to enjoy living close to nature, to sit round campfires and walk in the woods”.

Rubha Phoil is now a charitable trust and Sandy an acknowledged elder of the permaculture movement in Scotland. Perhaps the early permaculture visionaries knew what was coming when they began to alert the world to climate change and to advocate a greener future for planet earth and its inhabitants.   A visit to Rubh is a delightful introduction to these principles and who knows, aside from a grand day out, it may change your life.

A version of this article first appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine Sept/Oct 2014

Rubha Phoil Forest Garden

Armadale Pier



Isle of Skye

IV45 8RS



Tel: 01471 844 700




Colm Dempsey’s Violence Against Women 365 International Poster Exhibition, now in its tenth year of touring, visited Scotland in March 2014.

In an interview with GlasgowAnni, Dubliner Colm describes how the Exhibition came about and the impact it has had on worldwide audiences over the years.

Colm’s interest in domestic abuse was instigated by his feelings of helplessness as a friend and as a police officer when his former (and first) girlfriend disclosed to him about the domestic abuse she was subjected to by her Garda officer husband.

In this extract Colm tells how that love story inspired the creation of 365.

The impact on the audiences who have seen 365 has often been profound.

Listen  as Colm tells the story of one woman for whom seeing the exhibition was life changing.

365 in Dumbarton Women's Aid Refuge

365 in Dumbarton Women’s Aid Refuge

365 in Dumbarton Women's Aid Refuge

365 in Dumbarton Women’s Aid Refuge

Colm Dempsey’s Violence Against Women 365 International Poster Exhibition, now in its tenth year of touring, visited Dumbarton Women’s Refuge as part of their International Women’s Day 2014 celebrations.

In an interview with GlasgowAnni, Dubliner Colm tells how the Exhibition came about and the impact it has had over the years.

Colm Dempsey

The idea for the exhibition came to Colm after meeting the late Ellen Pence during a visit to the world famous Duluth Domestic Violence Intervention Project in Minnesota and touring the San Diego Family Justice Centre in 2001. Back at his job as a Garda officer felt that Ireland was ‘centuries behind the U.S. in its approach to domestic violence.   It was like going back in time to the eighteenth century’.

‘Ireland was centuries behind the U.S. in its approach to domestic violence.

It was like going back in time to the eighteenth century.’

Colm’s visit the U.S. in the first place was instigated by his feelings of helplessness as a friend and as a police officer when his former (and first) girlfriend disclosed to him about the domestic abuse she was subjected to by her Garda officer husband. Colm describes how his friend had nowhere to turn and how her difficult situation was made much worse by her husband’s position in the force, describing him as ‘a criminal in uniform’, Colm wanted to know ‘how to do my job better’.

‘a criminal in uniform’

The posters Colm brought back from the States formed the germ of an idea that saw the first 365 exhibition open in Dundalk Museum in 2004 with financial support from the Irish Department of Justice and the attendance of two senior Government Ministers. The exhibition was endorsed by Tanya Brown the sister of Nicole Brown who was murdered by O.J. Simpson.  Tanya wrote the foreword to the exhibition brochure. This created a media storm and generated a great deal of publicity for 365.

Among the visitors to the exhibition was Jan MacLeod of the Women’s Support Project in Glasgow and an invitation to visit Scotland soon followed.

‘I blame Jan MacLeod for everything’

‘I blame Jan MacLeod for everything’ jokes Colm who has since taken his exhibition all over Scotland returning several times to raise awareness of violence against women in Fife, the Western Isles, Glasgow, Edinburgh and West Dunbartonshire. Colm is impressed by Scotland’s national approach to tackling violence against women and thinks people here ‘get it’.

The exhibition has toured the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, has visited thirteen countries to date including U.S.,Canada, Cyprus, Russia and Taiwan and has the prospect of a visit to Norway and a return to Scotland in 2014. Having seen so many different national approaches to violence against women Colm’s view that Scotland is the most advanced of the UK jurisdictions is encouraging. Ireland, in his view, has a a bit of catching up to do.

The impact on the audiences who have seen 365 has often been profound. The visual impact of the at times very hard-hitting posters campaigning against domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault and child sexual abuse can be disturbing. The many different approaches and designs speak loudly of each country’s priorities and courage in confronting people with such difficult issues. Visiting the exhibition can be demanding for the visitor and comes with a health warning to alert them to what may disturb. Colm recalled the story of one woman from Dumbarton for whom seeing the exhibition was life changing. She told Colm during 365’s second visit to the area that she had been inspired by the exhibition to rethink her life and had since left her abusive partner.  Now happy and settled with a new partner, she put it all down to that first eye opening visit to 365.

Exhibiting 365 in the Women’s Refuge in Dumbarton was a gamble for Colm and organisers Moira Swanson, Chair of the Refuge Management Committee and Refuge Worker Janine Jardine. According to Moira, ‘All of those who attended commented on the visual impact of the exhibition’. Hosting it there also raised the profile of the valuable work being done by Dumbarton District Women’s Aid. ‘Members of the public and local politicians who visited said they didn’t realise all the services offered by West Dunbartonshire Council and also the range of services provided by Women’s Aid…the “not just refuge thing! “’, Moira added, highlighting a common underestimation of what Women’s Aid Groups actually do in addition to running refuges.

local politicians who visited said they didn’t realise… the range of services provided by Women’s Aid…the “not just refuge thing!”

Moira Swanson,  Chair, Dumbarton District Women’s Aid Management Committee 

When he is not touring with his exhibition, Colm is a researcher and Children’s Rights and Child Protection Specialist and Trainer working with  organisations across Ireland. His expertise in domestic abuse and violence against women continues to be focussed on improving the lives of children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. Happily relocated to Galway, Colm can be assured that 365 will continue to inspire people to do their jobs better, to get people talking about the unspeakable and to encourage people to speak out and get the help they need to live their lives free forever of abuse.

365 in Dumbarton Women's Aid Refuge
365 in Dumbarton Women’s Aid Refuge
Dumbarton District Women’s Aid:
CONFIDENTIAL Domestic Abuse Helpline 01389 751036

Visit Violence Againsnt Women 365 International Poster Exhibition on Facebook


Irene Campbell 

Born: 22 March 1954 Died: 13 September 2013

Counsellor and Feminist Activist

Irene Campbell who has died at the age of 59 years was a person-centred counsellor and feminist activist who worked to end domestic abuse and violence against women.

Irene grew up in Milngavie in a large family.  The highly acclaimed work of Irene’s mother,  Scottish writer Agnes Owens, provides an insight into Irene’s early influences and the values in which she was immersed from an early age.

Having settled in the Vale of Leven, Irene joined Dumbarton District Women’s Aid in 1990.   Irene was an active member of the wider Women’s Aid movement in Scotland campaigning to bring the issue of domestic abuse into the public arena, to change public attitudes and to provide better services for women and children.

In 2003, Irene moved on to establish West Dunbartonshire Council’s CARA (Challenging and Responding to Abuse) Project. Now a person-centred counsellor, Irene specialised in working with women survivors of domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.  Irene was one of the early pioneers in Scotland who introduced the 3-stage Trauma Model developed by American feminist psychiatrist Judith Herman into their work with women recovering from the impact of domestic abuse. Irene’s work combined trauma-informed counselling with new models of advocacy also developed in the US for use with domestic abuse victims and survivors.  The subsequent success of these approaches has led to their widespread use in many specialist violence against women services around the country, and to their incorporation in new methods of policing and prosecuting domestic abuse in Scotland.

Irene Campbell developed the CARA service as one of the key domestic abuse support agencies in West Dunbartonshire – an area with high rates of domestic abuse.  Irene was at her best listening to women with  kindness and a sensitive professionalism that was often rare in their lives.  Her collaborative and training work with a wide range of local support agencies including social work and housing, health, the criminal justice system and the police has gone on to make a significant contribution to improving local multi-agency responses to all forms of violence against women.

Irene was a kind, generous and loving woman, who always supported people who were being treated unfairly or cruelly.  She was razor sharp in seeing and cutting through red tape.  Irene’s passions for her garden, for art, photography, music, reading and the  Scottish landscape were reflected in the home and life she shared with her extended family.

Irene Campbell leaves a great personal and professional legacy in the life she lived,  in the body of work she created and in the difference she made to many people’s lives.

Irene is survived by her husband Gordon and her son Calum


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