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Discovering Glen Art

Glen Art helps those from a military background return to civilian life. They do this through their projects and artistic events that bring people together and strengthen relationships between ex-service personnel and their communities. Funds raised provide direct and prompt assistance to those in hardship.

Fiona MacDonald, an opera singer from Arisaig, is the founder of Glen Art. We spoke to her to find out more about their project ‘Voices of the First World War’ and what’s next for Glen Art.

What inspired you to found Glen Art?

Over the last ten years I’ve been involved in performing and organising events mainly for military charities. I was inspired to become involved in the welfare of veterans because my father was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and by my great aunt Mary McKinnon whose name appears on the Arisaig War Memorial. Mary was a nurse who died when the hospital ship she was on, The Glenart Castle, was torpedoed in the Bristol Channel in 1918, and Glen Art was founded because of a wish to continue her work.

 Glen Art's War Dog – Commemorating the role of dogs in war from the Western Front to Helmand Province.

What is ‘Voices of the First World War’?

The project launched its development stage thanks to funding from Creative Scotland in 2014 to mark the centenary of the First World War. We aimed to collaborate with communities across Scotland to engage them in research of the names of their local war memorials.

We contacted a number of communities and helped them to research some of the names from the memorials, and held workshops for them to attend, bringing their own family stories and materials, photos and press cuttings.

From this we collectively chose one name in each community to inspire performances of music, poetry and prose from the era. Together we researched the unique history behind the name and the person, and we will incorporate their story in our performances.

Each programme will be tailored to the individual communities – the performances will involve a variety of singers and instruments and number of participants – ranging from small scale to collaborations with orchestra, namely our partners the Music Co-Operative Scotland.

What has the response been like to ‘Voices of the First World War’?

Some of our findings were as we predicted, in terms of the levels of enthusiasm we found in each community, but some were particularly exciting and rather moving. For example in Killin, our workshop led to the village asking us to help them with a concert which was filmed by Forces TV. The concert also raised over £2,000 for the village which paid for a defibrillator and training for volunteers.

We’ve also been delighted to have the support of HRH Prince Charles the Duke of Rothsay who chose a name from the war memorial at Balmoral.

Our research led to further interest in the role of Dogs in the First World War, which has developed into another Glen Art project. Our team of veterans and volunteers created a war dog themed garden at the Gardening Scotland Show at Ingleston, which was funded by a grant from Comic Relief but was a direct result of our First World War research. The garden was visited by more than 30,000 people.

Another direct development of the research was an event funded by Heritage Lottery Funding, which commemorated the Sinking of the Lusitania. The Lusitania was built in Clydebank shipyard in 1907 and sank when on 7 May 1915 with the loss of 1,198 lives. During our research for the Voices of the First World War we approached The Tall Ship and found out that a sailor who had served on the ship has also been a survivor of the Lusitania so his story formed part of an exhibition about some of those on board.

Pipers from the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland  commemorating the Sinking of the Lusitania on Glasgow's Tall Ship in May 

What’s next for Glen Art?

We have now completed our research and development phase for ‘Voices of the First World War’ and are looking to secure funding to help us carry out all of our community performances.

As well as this, tonight (Wednesday 11 November) we will host a Festival of Remembrance in London ‘A Night to Remember’ featuring words and music for remembrance where we will be joined by some of the cast and creative team from the film Kajaki: The True Story, as well as some of the actual soldiers, and families of the soldiers, involved in the Kajaki incident which the film portrays. Our special guests for the evening will be Twiggy, actor Jason Isaacs, and Dr Bill Frankland. Dr Frankland is 103, and was for three and a half years a Japanese Prisoner of War. It’s a huge honour for us that he will read at our annual Festival of Remembrance.

We will welcome theatre company Theatre of War to Scotland in November. The company, founded in America by director and translator Bryan Doerries, produces ancient Greek tragedies for service members, veterans and their families. These adaptions provide a unique way for audiences to explore their own experiences of tragedy, and through this classical art form there can be redemption, comfort and a sense that suffering and healing are part of a timeless process. Performances are at Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall on 29 November and at the Mackintosh Church at Queens Cross Glasgow on 30 November, both at 6pm. The cast include Jason Isaacs and Leslie Sharp, and the expert panel will include Major General Andrew Mackay, details will be available at www.glenart.co.uk.

Jason Isaacs and Lesley Sharp in Theatre of War 

We are also planning to contribute to First World commemorations of both the Battle of Jutland and the Somme in 2016, and we will again create gardens at the Gardening Scotland Show and Ayr Flower Show with a team of veterans and volunteers.

Finally, we have a new initiative BRAVEHOUND which again comes form our First World War research for the Voices project, as we researched the role of dogs in the First World War, we have discovered what a fantastic aid they can be to veterans living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re going to be working with David Heyhoe, whose beautiful dog Treo was awarded the Dickin Medal for his life-saving work in Afghanistan as an explosives sniffer dog (Treo died recently, but has been a huge inspiration for us). We are also commissioning a new Requiem for the First World War. These are very busy, and exciting times for us, and we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the support of Creative Scotland.

Find out more about Glen Art and Fiona MacDonald at www.glenart.co.uk.

This article was published on 11 Nov 2015