We boarded the minibus in Edinburgh and were driven to the town of South Queensferry, which sits under the iconic Forth Railway Bridge (those of you who have seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps might recall it). We disembarked the bus and were ushered, to the sound of bagpipes, to the ferry that would take us out to the island.
Inch means island, and the Colm was a saint of some stripe – the island a holy one. A monastery founded in the 11oos became an Abbey in the 1200s, and it was to be amongst the ruins of buildings from the 15th century incarnation of the Abbey, and hidden from the world war two battlements, that we were to see the play.
First of all the ferry trip through a beautiful summer’s evening, with the sound of Medieval plainsong to soothe our way. The song itself was called ‘Inchcolm’, we were told. The ferry passed smoothly along the river Forth, the esturine tang of the sea coming in through the open doors.
Then we realised there were witches on board. Three of them, prowling and reading our fortunes, but not telling us them, only laughing. But the island was in sight, not too much longer. We were handed blankets to keep of the chill night would bring, and to make us all one of a piece, an audience wrapped in wool.
Once on the island, we were told, there would be no photography, no phones, no running water for our use. We would be at the mercy of ushers and performers. And so it was. A battle was taking place as we approached. Norwegians versus the Scottish forces.
Those who know Macbeth, might know Inchcolm is mentioned in the opening of the play:
Ross: That now Sweno, the Norway’s King craves composition;
Nor would we deign him burial of his men
Til he disbursed at Saint Colme’s Inch
Ten thousand dollars for our general use.
The Norwegians, when they ruled parts of Scotland, would bury their noblemen on this island, and those who fell in battle should be buried there especially. Canny Scots asking for a nice price for this privilege, having soundly beaten them thanks to help from Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, soon to be Thane of Cawdor, and King hereafter…
Once on the island, as I said, no photos, only absorption in a wonderfully acted play, put on by actors from University of St Andrews. Prior to the production and after, D, A and I enjoyed the familiarity of the St Andrews atmosphere the students carried. Something impossible to describe, this ‘St Andrewsness’, but it’s instantly recognisable to all three of us.
During the performance, we were swept from scene to scene around the ruins, up stairs and downstairs, out on the lawns and into grassy courtyards, in long, high-ceilinged rooms where Banquo walked with blood in his mouth all dripping nearly on our toes as he walked by, away from the stricken Macbeth.
We were witness to the breakdown of Lady Macbeth – out, damn spot, eerie in the echoing space, eerie as she looked my way and I froze, and I swear the hairs on my neck went up – we saw the glint of cruelty in Macbeth’s eye, his vulnerability, his love for his wife disintegrating, his inner crumbling vanity. We were even Burnam wood, at one point, some of us wielding branches as we walked towards the finale.
It was truly the perfect setting and a wonderful experience I hope to repeat one day, though if I never do, at least I’ve seen it once. This was the first time I’d seen Macbeth performed, and it has set a high standard to be followed.
One last, lovely thing. On the ferry back, we traveled with the actors, all know to us now. Lots of friendly chattering and warming cups of tea, and the boat slipping over the dark water and by the lights of both distant banks, and just as we were disembarking, Macbeth (not Macbeth any more, of course, but it’s fun to say this) threw a nice remark my way – a compliment on my coat. Well, who couldn’t be charmed? Here’s more information, if you are at all in a position to go and see it.