“My name is Seonag and I am a Time Traveller.” Those words should pique the interest of any self-respecting sci-fi fan, coming as it does at the end of the pre-title sequence to Scottish TV pilot Siubhlachan (The Traveller), but there’s one small thing which sets it aside from its contemporaries: it’s in Gaelic.
While the stigma attached to foreign language film and television may have lessened in recent years, Scottish Gaelic is still struggling to find a foothold in the entertainment world. That’s something writer/director Uisdean Murray is trying to change with Siubhlachan (pronounced shoo-lach-an), which was first aired at Christmas 2009 on digital channel, BBC ALBA .
“I’m originally from the Isle of North Uist where the short film and pilot was shot,” notes Murray, when asked about the thinking behind shooting the pilot in Gaelic. “Gaelic was my first language, though they didn’t teach in a Gaelic medium when I was in primary so I lost a lot of it, though I have a strong understanding of the language and culture.
“I realised my ambition to become a filmmaker when I found myself writing scripts during my lectures when studying a degree in Chemistry. After my degree I studied TV Production at Cardonald College and worked as a freelance cameraman and editor amongst other jobs. During this time I would write, produce and direct several films including the horror films: The Jemima Trilogy and the crime thriller Sweet Stained.”
Scottish science fiction dramas are thin on the ground these days, BBC Scotland not in the same league as the home of Doctor Who, Torchwood and Life on Mars, BBC Wales. How did the opportunity to bring Siubhlachan to television come about?
“In 2008 I was told about a new competition called FilmG and they were looking for short films made in Gaelic, something I had always wanted to do but never had the chance to,” continues Murray. “The main prize of the competition was the opportunity to produce a pilot for broadcast. I wrote the short film Siubhlachan, which included a lot of mythology which hinted at a bigger story, though I had to cut all this out to make the five minute maximum running time for the competition!”
The short is the tale of young Seonag (Cassandra MacLean) who is mourning the loss of her maternal grandfather (Angus MacPhail). Heading to the beach, Seonag stumbles across a box containing a pocket watch, one which she soon discovers has the power to send her back in time to meet her grandfather once again.
“I’ve always loved the concept of time travel so wanted to explore this idea. Someone in my family had also passed away so that definitely inspired a lot of the story. The film was made on a no-budget with a three man crew on North Uist, though we had a lot of support from the Islanders. I did all my pre-production from Glasgow and we went to Uist without meeting Cassandra until a day before shooting. It was also her first time performing for camera. She did a marvellous job, as did Angus MacPhail who plays the Grandfather.
“We won the FilmG competition and we were awarded the prize to make the 30 minute pilot, something that was very ambitious considering the budget we had. The short has since played at a lot of festivals worldwide including some popular genre film festivals, such as PiFan in South Korea and the Trieste Science + Fiction Festival in Italy.”
The TV pilot expands the short’s cast and concept, introducing a foe for Seonag in the shape of The Mystery Man, meaning further casting was required. “For the Pilot I cast other actors from Uist who had done some local drama plays and I also cast David Walker as The Mystery Man, an experienced Gaelic actor, who I had met at the FilmG Awards night.”
Though the basic ideas are set-up in the film, Murray doesn’t believe it’s vital to have seen it to enjoy the pilot. “We have a recap at the start of the pilot, but I would recommend watching the short first if possible.”
Returning to the decision to film both productions in Gaelic, I ask Murray why he thinks there’s yet to be a Gaelic breakthrough movie or TV hit: what does he think is holding things back? “I’m not sure. I think, as with any language, it helps if the writer and director have a strong understanding of the language and culture and how to make this work for the screen in a way that appeals to a wide audience. With Siubhlachan we tried to make a Gaelic production that was accessible and cool.”
The final moments of Siubhlachan open up many more possibilities for the series, so will we soon be seeing Seonag and her grandfather back for more trips through time? Murray is hopeful: “Though BBC ALBA were very interested in developing the series, they don’t have the budget to make it at the moment so everything is on hold.
“We just really hope we get the opportunity to continue the story and explore the mythology we have mapped out. To bring the story to a conclusion would be great!”
The pilot episode of Siubhlachan is currently on BBC iPlayer and will remain there until Saturday 14 August. It will also be repeated on BBC Alba on Friday, 13 August at 7.20pm (which should lead to an extended run on iPlayer).
To watch the original five minute “prequel” to the TV pilot, look no further than the video below.