This Monday, a one-hour documentary on the making of Voices Over the Water – an exploration of the Scottish-American identity – will take the airwaves on Maryland Public Television, with a broader reach scheduled for later in the year. Recently we spoke with Co-Producers/Co-Directors/Co-Writers Guy Perrotta and Jane Ferguson about the film.

What are your own roots?

Jane: My grandfather was from Glasgow, Scotland and going further back, our branch of Fergusons are from Argyll. He passed on to me the family seal with the Bee & Thistle crest of the Fergusons – a very treasured family possession. I also have Scots Irish roots – Agar relatives from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and from Lowland Scotland going way back to the Ulster Plantation. Like many Scots, they settled all over the globe, particularly in Argentina. My other lines are English.
Guy: My mother – a long line of Scottish immigrants settling with Indigenous and Norwegian partners.

Where do you currently reside?

Jane: We currently live in New York City – the ultimate melting pot!

How long have you been involved with Voices Over the Water?

Guy: From inception, developing an advisory board for it in 2011 and researching extensively around the topics.
Jane: And later creating what became the full-length feature.

What are your roles & responsibilities with the project?

Jane: We produce, write, and direct. We are both members of the Director’s Guild of America (DGA).
Guy: We are also actively positioning the documentary with broadcast, download, and streaming platforms, and presenting with cultural heritage organizations and universities.

What is the film’s core mandate?

Jane: We were curious about the appeal of the image of modern Scottish identity in America. We discovered that there are many people who are captivated at Scottish-themed events who may be partially Scottish and sometimes have no Scottish roots at all. You might say they are “Scots curious!”
Guy: We also wanted to look beyond any stereotypes and clichés and shed more light on the oft-unspoken histories in America such as the slave trade, tensions between immigrants and indigenous populations, the Highland clearances, the importance of understanding Gaelic culture, and the role of the Gaels in history and today. We were also intrigued to encounter some people who aren’t of Scottish descent at all but felt comfortable to put blue make up on their face and espouse freedom, and in one case wearing Irish National Tartan.

What were the challenges involved?

Guy: To give voice to the acclaimed scholars and to the marginalized…to be as balanced as possible. It was important to have a broadly-based advisory board with a balanced perspective with diverse viewpoints. One of our themes to explore was, what have the experiences been for those who are only of part Scottish descent – how do they identify? And what are the limits to being part of celebrations of the culture while in some cases participants may not be Scottish descent at all. One way to help flesh this out was to utilize the talents of acclaimed actor Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman) who is of part Scottish lineage, as well as actor Simon Prebble, film, stage, and television actor and former voice of BBC (he is also the son of John Prebble, author of The Highland Clearances.)
Jane: Another challenge was finding good authentic images, and we were very fortunate to have the assistance of Jamie Gaugroger at HighLife Highland/Am Baile which is an archive of Highland material of all kinds. Plus, we found material in many other archives wherever the diaspora settled, e.g. United States, Canada, Australia.
Guy: Women’s perspective was important throughout history as well as today. Also crucial were the Gaelic language and culture in the telling of these stories.
Jane: It was a challenge and desire to show, of course, that Scotland is not all Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Harry Lauder, so we strived to be inclusive.
Guy: A labour of love was putting together the soundtrack and meeting so many diverse and talented musicians, helping to tell the story through music.  We are proud to say that our extended 2-hour version has a killer soundtrack with music by: Catherine-Ann  MacPhee from Canada, James Taylor & Kate Taylor’s version of Auld Lang Syne, Pulitzer Prize-winning musician and poet Rhiannon Giddens, Runrig, Skipinnish from the Isle of Tyree in the Hebrides, The Highland Divas, Alasdair Fraser, Shooglenifty, Fiddler’s Bid, Calum Pasqua (Calum Michael), Wendy Stewart, Peatbog Faeries, Michael Longrider, Matthew Tooni, Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, Daimh, Gordon Duncan, Mac Umba, Scocha, Carrie Forbes, Badenoch Waulking Group, Hammertowne, and Emmy-winning composer Charles David Denler.
Jane: One hurdle was to overcome some potential obstacle of identity for ourselves. For example, to show that we, as well as anyone, can have empathy towards these histories, whether you are Scottish in lineage, or partially Scottish, or simply a human.

What were the rewards?

Jane: Meeting and hearing all the voices and celebrating with so many of them at the premiere of Voices Over the Water at the Director’s Guild Theater, New York. We are also hopeful that our themes and messages will be available for the next generation.

What did you learn during the process?

Jane: That immigration, forced or voluntary, is a contested subject, not only for the Scottish and Gaelic people, but for all who leave their homeland.
Guy: These histories are very much with us today. Stereotypes need to be challenged.  Over-romanticized narratives need to be examined, the importance of having discourse about difficult subject matters.

Why is it an important film for both Scots & non-Scots?

Guy: Voices Over the Water seeks to tell a more complete history of the plight of the Highland people, the Gaelic culture and those they encountered in the New World. It shows the real history of the Gaels and the Clearances – a story of what happens when you put economy and profit before community.
Jane: This is something that resonates today for many people all over the world from many different cultures. As Brian Cox said during an interview with us “Tradition should serve the now, it should be new minted.”

Will there be a sequel?

Jane: There is a one-hour introduction on PBS stations distributed by American Public Television. In addition, there is a full two-hour version of Voices Over the Water that will be made available on Amazon and iTunes Store.
Guy: We will also be making available hours of additional material that the public has yet to see.

What is on your agenda for the rest of 2024?

Jane: Spreading the word about our broadcasts on PBS and attending screenings for interested groups.
Guy: After all the hard work, for my next project I will be researching the history of the tropical drink on a paradise island for 5 years.