EXACTLY a year on from her ‘People and Songs of the Sea’ CD being named Compendium Album of the Year by top Chicago-based Celtic radio station, Liveireland, Shona McMillan has made another splash across the Atlantic with her project being named Creative Project of the Decade by The Irish American News in their ‘Best of the Decade’ list.
‘People and Songs of the Sea’, which first launched in 2008, was a project aimed at documenting the cultural heritage of fishing communities throughout Scotland, including Eyemouth, but it has clearly resonated with people much further afield.
And although she is thrilled and also quite dumbfounded at her latest piece of recognition, Shona said that with many of the fishing communities she featured in her ‘People and Songs of the Sea’ album and touring exhibition now dwindling away at an alarming rate, her work was far from over and she is now gearing up for the next stage of her project - a film examining the difficulties faced by working fishermen at present.
Discussing just why ‘People and Songs of the Sea’, which won praise from a number of politicians including Michael Russell MSP, won its Creative Project of the Decade, Irish American News said no album had moved them more in the last 10 years adding, “this album is a blessing for all who would touch the brave souls and deep hearts of the communities now virtually gone in Scotland.
“That Shona has grabbed this moment in history to chronicle this for all time is a miracle of her intelligence, her heart and her commitment. This is more than simply music. This is important. A lighthouse of an album in an often dark world.”
But Shona, who was dubbed ‘a true hero of the people of the sea’ by Eyemouth author Peter Aitchison, said that with the industry she holds so close to her heart crumbling she found it hard to get into the celebratory mood.
“At first I was unsure just how I even came to be eligible for an award from the Irish American News but I now understand that it was my award win last year that put me in contention.
“Seeing the winners of the other 14 categories, it is a great honour to be amongst artists of great stature in the world of traditional music. That my project has been selected because of its educational, cultural and musical value – that motivates me all the more in the work I undertake to raise the profile of our fishing industry its heritage, culture and community.
“Winning this award might be good for me personally but with the industry experiencing so many problems at the moment I don’t feel much like celebrating.”
After focusing on the thriving past of fishing communities in the likes of Eyemouth, Fisherrow and Port Seton, Shona now wants to highlight the changing fortunes of those involved in a new film and said while others seem to have almost given up she is more than prepared to stick her head above the parapet.
“I want to tell the story of what’s happening now,” she continued.
“‘People and Songs of the Sea’ celebrated all that was good in the fishing industry and I don’t want people in 10 years time thinking where did it all go?
“The project talked about the proud cultural heritage and looked at how things were but now I want to address the present and how if things carry on the way they’re going and at the same speed, there might not be any future at all.
“It really gets to me knowing that many of the boats I photographed just a few years ago have now gone.
“As well as looking at things from an economic point of view it is important to also consider cultural heritage; if the industry fades away what cultural identity are communities like Eyemouth going to have?
“I endeavour to build a multimedia project so future generations can realise the importance of Scotland’s fishing industry. I want to present today’s stories through heartfelt words said in the local dialects of our fishermen.
“Of course all this takes money and to date I have received no funding towards my exhibitions, photography equipment or any of my costs. It’s been an uphill struggle at times but coming from a fishing family, this subject is close to my heart. International recognition tells me that people around the world are also touched by this project.”
Shona said although at times she felt like it, she didn’t want to be “a lone voice in the wilderness.”
“A few of the guys I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks have said I should give up the ghost and just get on with my own life but I can’t, it’s too important to me.
“I just get the impression that people don’t care any more but when I get a knock or someone tells me to quit it motivates me even more.”
Shona is planning a second exhibition for Homecoming 2014 and in addition, she has set up a People of the Sea online group, posts photos each month to a “Celtic Reflections” Facebook page, makes video clips which she posts to her Youtube Channel and writes a blog on http://www.shonamcmillan.blogspot. And over the last six months, these sites have realised 40,000 hits and continue to grow.
Eyemouth Harbour Master Ivan Stevenson commented: “Over the last few years we have seen Shona worked to raise the profile of our fishing industry, the cultural value of our heritage, the economic and social problems we now face in this most difficult time.
“If someone can make a film which lets us give our voices to tell our story, Shona is the person to get this done. We support Shona in her project and are delighted she has won this award for all her hard work.”