Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Miss Lindsay’s Secret, Scottish Storytelling Centre (venue 30), Review

**** (4 stars)

“moving and engrossing”

Is it right to expose someone’s secret after they are dead? To reveal the content of letters written to one person and never intended to be made public?

The curator’s dilemma: she has discovered a box hidden away at the back of a press. It’s crammed with letters sent in the early years of the twentieth century to Whilemina (Minnie) Lindsay in Glenesk in the Angus glens by Alexander Middleton, who is in the Yukon.  The correspondence is one-sided – Minnie’s letters aren’t in the box – but it’s easy to deduce much of what she’s written because Alexander’s letters are so full of comments and questions about what she has written to him.

Both lived in Glenesk and were obviously good friends who enjoyed each other’s company.   Minnie was a seamstress: Alexander and two of his brothers joined the Yukon gold rush, and his letters paint a graphic picture of the hardships of life in a wild country with an inhospitable climate.  It’s obvious Alexander has very fond memories of the country he’s left and the times he spent with Minnie: he’s also very keen to have all the details of what’s going on in the lives of all the people he’s left behind, and to know how Minnie is faring with both her work and the things she does in her spare time.

Alexander’s letters are absorbing.  He has a lively turn of phrase and much Scottish dry wit: he’s obviously thinking deeply about the life he has left, but at the same time is convinced that, despite the hardships of his life, he could at any time make his fortune.  At times his language becomes very suggestive as he recalls walks he and Minnie took together: he talks longingly of wanting to come home, but year after year is still chasing his dream of gold.

Interspersed with his letters we learn about the gold rush – how the gold gets there, how the first finds are made; how the claim of the First Nations to the land in which they have been living for centuries is completely ignored; and how the increasing use of machinery, the industrialisation of the processes, and the large company land takeovers are already wiping out the possibility of individuals making a fortune before Alexander arrives in the Yukon.  We also hear how life in the glens changes with the passage of time, and how that affects the lives of those who still live there.

At times Alexander’s letters become shorter and less newsy.  There is a constant refrain of ‘but you may be married by now, and if you are I shouldn’t be writing to you’.  Minnie obviously never answers that implied question, and the letters continue to be written and sent.  I marvel at the fact that they arrived at all, and that Minnie’s letters and parcels – even a pair of embroidered braces in a packet which somehow survived the capsizing of the mail coach with the loss of virtually all its load – made it to the Yukon.  Equally I marvel that Alexander sent Minnie a brooch made of Klondike gold – and am appalled to learn that it was stolen from the Glenesk Folk Museum’s display in 1985.

And then suddenly the letters stop.  At some point they are crammed into a small wooden box and hidden away – but Miss Lindsay’s secret is later uncovered.  A visitor to the museum was able to fill in a gap in the story: Alexander Middleton died in Vancouver in 1959 – but that doesn’t explain why the last letter is dated 1914.  Minnie died in 1964 at the age of 85, still single, respected in the area but known to be very private, keeping her secret to the last.

Miss Lindsay’s Secret is a moving and engrossing show, told using Alexander Middleton’s own words.  Maria MacDonell is an excellent Curator who brings this fascinating story to life with the assistance of Alan Finlayson, who reads from Alexander’s letters, and Molly MacDonell Finlayson who provides an evocative soundtrack with her fiddle and other curious instruments. 

It’s sad to think of Minnie receiving these letters which so obviously speak of Alexander’s love for her.  Did she wait in hope all her life, or did she at some point give up and hide the letters, unable to destroy them but unwilling to keep reading them?  It’s frustrating to hear Alexander’s words so clearly speaking of his love for her while at the same time he was obviously unable to let go of his dream of making his fortune with a lucky strike of gold.

But I’m glad to think that, for however brief a time, Miss Lindsay’s Secret has been shared with us and Minnie Lindsay and Alexander Middleton have been brought to life again.

Miss Lindsay’s Secret, Scottish Storytelling Centre (venue 30), For tickets go to: Miss Lindsay’s Secret | Theatre | Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com)

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