Scott MacLeod’s Saga

G. Scott MacLeod might be the busiest man north of the border.

The Montreal-based painter, photographer and musician has a myriad of creative projects on the go at any given time; exhibits, sessions, salons and studios colour his landscape with creative commitments.

In 2009, the 40-something artist added filmmaker to his list of credits with the release of After the War with Hannelore- A Berliner War Child’s Testimony from 1945 to 1989 – a series of visual vignettes recounting the life of one woman in the years following World War II.

The success of that first film inspired MacLeod to undertake The Saga of Murdo MacLeod, an animated exploration of early Scottish settlement in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec.

The new work, a partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, is scheduled for release in 2012, and is the first of four planned collaborations on Canadian history with celebrated Montreal storyteller Mike Burns.

“Mike is a traditional Irish Seanachie,” share MacLeod. “He has maintained the storytelling tradition by cultivating his craft and committing hundreds of stories to memory over the years.”

His experiences with Burns pushed MacLeod to explore the oral and narrative traditions in film and animation.

“I have studied feature works from countries like Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. I’ve also studied animated films from Israel, and similar efforts from Canada including The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) by Frédéric Back, The Danish Poet (2006) by Toril Kove and Felix in Exile (2007) by South African artist William Kentridge.”

With their cross-cultural references and allegorical themes, those cinematic gems had a profound influence on The Saga of Murdo MacLeod.

“It was my hope to experiment with the fusing of these two cultural groups – the Abenaki and the Scots – to illustrate their differences, as well as the strong symbolic similarities in their lore, history, language and music.

“The Saga of Murdo MacLeod is also one of the many untold European-First Nations first contact stories in Quebec,” he adds.

“There is still more room for Canadian animators and filmmakers to explore this area of history, as these stories are unknown to many Canadians and the world at large. I am interested in these cross-cultural stories from our history as a result of growing up in the culturally diverse city of Montreal, coming from Scottish lineage, and working with Mohawk, Squamish and Cree Nations over my three-decade career in music and art.”

The project afforded the artist the opportunity to further examine his own lineage.

“My Celtic family names are MacLeod, MacIver, Gillespie and Watson.

“My father’s lineage is from the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides of Scotland,” he continues. “The MacLeod’s and the MacIver’s came to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and settled in Baddeck in the 1830s.  My paternal ancestor, Annie MacIver, ran an inn called Mother Gaelic’s, which my grandfather Bert MacLeod bought back into our family line. For years it was a family cottage, and now my Aunt Joan MacLeod currently runs it as a B&B under the same name.

“The Gillespie’s came to the United States and Canada during the late 1800s early 1900s.  My Great Grandfather James Gillespie was a Scottish engineer from Motherwell and worked in Scotland, India, and the United States before settling in the steel town of Sydney, Cape Breton. My mother’s people, the Watson’s, were originally from Fife and crossed the Atlantic on a steamer in the mid 1800s. They landed in New York, traveled to the mid west, and then crossed the Great Plains with handcarts and cover wagons for their promised land in Provo City, Utah. They were Mormons and wrote down their life histories, as was the tradition. Incredibly, I have these very vividly written testimonies of their Exodus to America. They were very religious people and set up missions in the most difficult of circumstances. Life was difficult for these early Scottish settlers, much like the characters in The Saga of Murdo MacLeod.”

That heritage is at the heart of MacLeod’s life-long fascination with, and passion for, Celtic culture.

“Any of us who are not First Nation share the immigrant story,” he explains. “Coming to this new/old land is embedded in our families’ records and consciousness to varying degrees. I have perhaps been more interested in my roots than some, and I have explored these themes in the Celtic stories, songs and myths.”

“That being said, I am not a nationalist. However, I see the value of holding onto the positive attributes of my Scottish roots. I am comfortable with maintaining that identity as long as I feel it is apart of the collective whole, amongst those who are willing to share and enjoy our differences.”

In that regard, Canada is a good fit for MacLeod.

“We are a fusion or ‘métissage’ of many cultures,” he notes, “and because of that our Celtic consciousness as our ancestors knew it has changed. I believe that this is a good thing, however, as many Celts left their homelands because of religious, linguistic and social divides. While Canada is certainly not perfect – and we have a difficult colonial past to reconcile – our new construct is a positive attempt at something that we have never seen before.”

Still, despite the distillation, MacLeod says that Celtic culture is alive and well, both here at home and abroad, thanks to a strong storytelling tradition.

“Like many cultures, our Celtic histories were maintained through the oral tradition, long before the written word, and it was customary for the bards to commit our stories to memory. Today, we are lucky to still have people such as Mike Burns in our communities and cultures, committing part of their lives to being master storytellers and relating our cultural Celtic wealth. Our western cultures should take more time to appreciate and honour our elders and artists, as history has proven this to be a worthwhile exercise. Wisdom, knowledge and experience are among us, but it up to us to cultivate, celebrate and share this wealth.”

Celtic Life International has copies of The Saga of Murdo MacLeod to give away. Send us an email at with the word Saga in the subject line to qualify!

Story reprinted from the Spring 2012 edition of Celtic Life International Magazine.