Absent voices…

sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

Several times a week we drive past some old buildings on what is left of the old docks in Greenock, known as the sugar sheds. These cavernous places are remnants of the once mighty Greenock sugar industry, in which huge quantities of the stuff was brought down the Clyde from the colonies in the West Indies to be converted into all the stuff that we are now addicted to.

The buildings are stunning- like vast Cathedrals, with light filtering down from high windows. It has massive cast iron doors and columns that shout out with Victorian pride.

More recently I have been looking forward to a project called Absent Voices, which has gathered together artists poets and musicians to this end;

Absent Voices is an artist-led project centred on the Scottish town of Greenock, telling the creative story of Greenock’s sugar industry. Using the category A listed Sugar Sheds on James Watt Dock as a catalyst, eight artists are working within the community and reaching out to the wider world. Absent Voices is principally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The artists in Absent Voices are:Alec Galloway, Greenock born glass artist & musician; Alastair Cook, an established Edinburgh-based artist; Anne McKay, a Gourock based painter and folklore archivist; Rod Miller, a Greenock artist and photographer; Yvonne Lyon, a musician & songwriter of international renown; Kevin McDermott, singer songwriter of Kevin McDermott Orchestra; Ryan King, glass artist and musician and Alan Carlisle, glass artist and recording engineer.
The Sugar Sheds is category A-listed building which sits at James Watt Dock in Greenock: this vast red-brick and cast-iron former sugar warehouse with its distinctive zig-zag exterior sits in the shadow of Greenock’s Titan Crane and opposite Greenock Morton FC’s Cappielow Stadium. It has not been used for sugar-making since the 1960s. Its doors were shut on sugar completely in the mid 1990s. Prince Charles is a known supporter of retaining the former sugar warehouse and even visited the building in 2002 to add his voice to a campaign to save it from demolition. Despite several attempt to demolish it and a fire in 2006, it has now been made wind and watertight and part of it is currently used as storage space. The building was used as a venue during the 2011 Tall Ships Race, which opened many eyes to its potential as a space which could be used for public events.
Old gate, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock
I scoued the Absent Voices website, and there is hardly a mention of the despicable origins of the sugar cane that was being processed in Greenock. The voices that seemed well and truly absent were those whose lives were lived in service of the plantations where the sugar was grown.
The notable exception I am proud to say, appeared to be our friend Yvonne Lyon, who has included slave songs in her exploration of songs of work. (However, it later turned out that the website might not fully represent the actual content of the exhibition- see below!)
I am particularly sensitive to this because of the debate around this rock on the shore a few hundred meters from my front door. It is a legacy of a time when our relationship with colonial exploitation and oppression made it possible, if not essential to regard the ‘others’ as less than human.
In case you think I am making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill, check out the Scottish government’s own description of the Triangular trade, from their own website. Here are a few bits that are relevant to Greenock;
…from the 1750s onwards ships did leave from Port Glasgow and Greenock for the triangular trade, often transporting enslaved Africans to Virginia as well as the Caribbean.
After the American War of Independence the slave trade was consolidated into the ports of London and Liverpool, and Scottish investors and merchants invested through those routes. A steady direct trade was maintained with the Americas with the importing of slave-produced goods throughout the period and beyond.
.There are dominant architectural reminders of Scotland’s importance in the trading of sugar produced by enslaved labour, such as giant sugar warehouses in Greenock. Leading up to 1813 – 1814 one of the largest sugar companies in the world operated from Greenock. These warehouses signify the major role of Scottish plantation owners.
By the early 19th century they owned a third of the plantations in Jamaica (which was the largest producer of sugar).The British Islands of the Caribbean and the colonies of the Americas were owned and run by British settlers and administrators. It was common for merchants in Britain to establish their own plantations or create relationships with agreed suppliers for plantation goods. Therefore it was British people who bought, sold, and oversaw the enslaved.
Networks or communities were often established that resulted from ties back home. Alexander Horsburgh, the surgeon with responsibility for business affairs on the Hannover, noted in his journal in 1720, that there was an established Scottish network in Barbados, Antigua and St Kitts. The Hannover sailed from Port Glasgow and Horsburgh was instructed by its Scottish owners which Scottish plantation owners to contact with his cargo of enslaved Africans. These included Colonel William McDowall of Wigtonshire, a plantation owner on St Kitts.


Lady Nugent, the wife of the one time Governor of Jamaica, also noted the high presence of the Scotsmen on the islands. That Scottish presence started in the early years of the colonies and continued. Mrs Alison Blyth noted on her visit to Jamaica in 1826 that:

“…the Lord indeed knoweth. I always thought that wherever I went I would be proud of my country but here I feel almost ashamed to say I am a native of Scotland, when I see how her sons have degenerated”.

In telling the story of the Sugar Sheds, I am genuinely staggered to hear that this dark history of the sugar trade was not in any way engaged with in a meaningful way. Sure, the Sheds were built well after the slave trade officially ended, but they were built using wealth and prosperity that still cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, and represent the rich corner of a triangle of misery. The people cutting the sugar may no longer have been slaves, but the lives of the freed workers of the Caribbean were if anything made worse by the abolition of slavery.

During my lunch break today however, I took a walk to the McLean Museum to actually visit the Absent Voices exhibition. I looked at the paintings, listened to the songs and watched some of video footage. It was really lovely, and a large part of the content clearly confronted the relationship of the sugar trade to slavery. It was art at its best- asking uncomfortable questions and making us confront issues that lie buried.

Why is this central part of the exhibition missing from the publicity and the website? Was it ‘mission creep’ from what was intended only to focus on a local Greenock landmark? Certainly there are not Caribean or African artists involved in the project.

I was particularly moved by Anne McKay’s paintings, some of which feature the spirits of the slaves in the hills looking down over Greenock…

If you get a chance, go along and take a look.

Light from top window, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

Music makes things different…


It is true you know.

I was thinking about the impact of creative gentle songs, crafted and honed, sung simply and tenderly- just like those Yvonne and David Lyon treated us to last night. We are left physically, spiritually and emotionally changed.

So I am grateful.

Grateful to Yvonne, and also to all those other people whose music becomes the means that life can travel.

The turn of words and tune that wrap up memories in beautiful blankets.

Time capsules of grace.


Yvonne Lyon- living room gig…


What are you doing with your Saturday night (tomorrow.) Nothing special?

If you live within striking distance of Dunoon, there are still a few tickets left to come and hear Yvonne Lyon sing in our house. A tenner each for a beautiful music in an intimate and relaxed setting.

If you have not come across Yvonne’s music before (why ever not?!) then you are in an increasing minority. This is what some others have to say about it;

‘just stunning music’

– Bob Harris, Radio 2

‘listening to Yvonne is a life affirming experience. She is the bees-knees!’

– Iain Anderson, BBC Radio Scotland

‘a fine voice…a fine album and one that is refreshingly positive’

– The Telegraph

‘this is an awesome level of talent that I cannot compare’

– Maverick Magazine – 5 stars

‘Yvonne Lyon’s continually developing songwriting sets her right at the top of the tree‘

– R2 Magazine

‘Yvonne Lyon is a wonderful talent, and name I urge you, no make that command you, to jot down in your diary. Be sure to check her out because here is a lady with class.  

– Americana UK

Yvonne is about to support Eddi Reader on her UK tour, so is used to big venues- however, hearing this intimate delicate and poetic music close up is something else- in Dunoon of all places.

Here is Yvonne and her husband David, as a taster, singing a song that has reduced me to tears;

The (dis)armed man…

Michaela and I went to see The Armed Man last night- a mass for peace written by Karl Jenkins, performed by the Cowal Choral Society, along with the Glasgow Concert Orchestra, with powerful moving images of war and suffering projected throughout. It made me think deeply about violence- something that spreads like bird flu- received then given, and just as you think it is over, it breaks out again.

It was a deeply moving end to a lovely weekend.

We had some guests in our annex, and ended up playing instruments and singing into the small hours on Saturday, as they were a musical bunch- Yvonne, and her lovely friends Alison and Raine.

My fingers get very sore after playing guitar these days as they have softened with lack of use- it reminded me that I should play more often, or lose something that is precious to me.

Which will unfortunately have to wait- I was playing cricket yesterday and was hit by a ball on the tip of finger, which despite my batting gloves is now swollen to slightly resemble that of ET. It was a great game though- we lost again, but both Will and I made contributions to a decent effort (15no and 20 respectively with a wicket apiece.) Our star batsman of the day had to retire when his hamstring twanged as he smashed 50 odd then tried a quick single.

All weekends should be like this. Here is a bit of Yvonne’s music to point us to the week ahead;

Solas festival…

We had a lovely day at Solas festival yesterday. Well- mostly lovely anyway.

Solas is a brand new festival held at Wiston Lodge, near Biggar. It is inspired by Greenbelt festival. A few of us from Aoradh went down, and we did ’40’ again, and set a few worship/poetry things. The festival was fairly small- a few hundred attendees. It felt a bit like it was looking for itself a little- not quite sure where it was coming from, but definitely heading somewhere…

’40’ was a bit of a disaster. The organisers had allowed no set up time, and inevitably we had technical problems, which meant that the soundscapes did not work. Also the room was really noisy as the rock band playing outside the window drowned us out. The end result was that we got all hot and sweaty and nervous- with me running around trying to get the sound to work whilst also reading one of the parts!

I have since been in to hospital to have my buttocks surgically unclenched because of the severity of the embarrassment.

But the festival was good. Lots of great music, and interesting discussion. And it was really lovely to be with my friends in a new context- meeting some folk that we new, but also lots of others for the first time. This is the real value of festivals for me- the chance to meet people and allow new things to grow.

I enjoyed Yvonne Lyon as ever- and loved Juliet Turner too.

As for the talking- I enjoyed listening to Richard Holloway, retired bishop and author. He spoke really well about his appreciation of the wide wobbly spectrum of faith- from hard religion, through softer forms right through to militant atheism. Holloway himself appears to be wavering around a faith that does not require God- but remains grateful for the inherited traditions.

He also told a story about his early love of Mysticism, particularly the work of Thomas Merton. This love took him on a retreat where he sought to deepen his understanding of the search for God through contemplation and mystical experience. However it seems that things did not go well- and Richard Holloway remembers the Roman Catholic priest who was his spiritual director saying something like this- “Don’t be bloody stupid, you are never going to be a mystic- you are a writer. You need to worship with a pencil in your hand.” That made me smile ruefully!

I also listened to Labour MP Douglas Alexander, former Secretary of State for International Development. He was slick, but impressive- a future leader of the Party perhaps? Another son of the Manse who is destined for great things.

Michaela was impressed by Alistair McIntosh– unfortunately I missed most of his talk.

Here’s hoping that the festival survives in these rather challenging economic times. Lord knows, Scotland needs the opportunity to celebrate a different kind of religion…

One of the Aoradh crew uses crutches- she has Lupus, and like most people of faith who have long term illnesses, she has had a long journey in dealing with the God who heals, but has not healed her. Helen is a lovely optimistic person, who now sees each day as a gift from God, and does many things despite the pain that she gets when she moves, and the potential long recovery time afterwards. She arrived at the festival field, and within minutes a man came up to her and asked to ‘pray with her for healing’. She politely refused, explaining that this was something that she had kind of thought to do for herself over the years. We later laughed- but it was not funny really.

It was an insensitive thing to do, but what surprised me was that this kind of way of faith is present within a festival like Solas. It is a kind of faith that many of us have experienced in the past, but have been grateful to leave behind.

It is not fair to sum up a whole festival by this one encounter- after all, we are all capable of doing some daft stuff in the name of Jesus- and this man is probably a nice and well meaning bloke. However, I do think that is kind of sums up where we are in terms of developing new kinds of church in Scotland. New developments like Solas are small, fragile, and tend to be an amalgam of people with quite disparate views- who are forced together by expediency because ANY new Christian thing is worth being part of.

There is a danger that the ticking time bomb of doctrinal warfare is always about to explode.

I am sure that the organisers of Solas this year have had a rocky road.

Pray for them- and it.

Yvonne sings about tiny things

I saw this clip recently, from Yvonne Lyon– who is a wonderful singer and a lovely person who comes from just over the water from us. Thought it was time to give her a shout…

She and her husband David will be at Solas if you want to hear more…

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