Day 5, Harris Tweed and North Harris Estate community ownership

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18th June 2013

I re-travel the route to Harris today, this time heading for West Harris and Luskentyre to meet Donald John Mackay. South of Tarbert the rocks seem to have burst free of the green that bulges in telltale lumps elsewhere, and the landscape is strewn with boulders. The road narrows to a single track and, in its ageing worn and grey surface, is almost swallowed up by the hills.

I dip and climb, with hardly a car on the road, skirting into the half-moon passing places if another does happen along until, on pulling over a summit, suddenly the sweeping bay of Luskentyre opens up before me. White sands spill like a carpet of pearls reaching far out into the bay, the shallow waters of low tide a glistening azure, and the purple-black hills tumble around the edges. A few small islands hover on the horizon at the far side of a white sandbar that stretches across the bay. The frustration of driving is that at every turn I want to stop and capture the moment in a photograph, but there is nowhere to pull off the road, just the peaty grass verge that extends to mountain.

Donald John lives in a house on the edge of the bay, down a road just the width of my small car, a minor road to the single-track road from Tarbert. Donald weaves tweed in the green shed beside his home and the clatter of the old treadle loom spills through the air as I approach. A soft subtle smell of sheep and soil permeates the little shed and I am struck by a sense of how the very earth seems to be in this room, through some unbroken chain to the past. Dimly lit and stacked high; I position myself carefully with my camera and recorders, tight between the wooden door and the heavy dark loom, careful not to knock any of the many obscure items filling the space.

Donald has used this same loom for over 30 years and he tells me they get on very well indeed. Each loom has its own peculiarities, he says, and is unique to the weaver. Weaver and loom can be in harmony. Donald started by helping his father from a very early age. It’s not a job, he tells me, it’s a way of life that has been carefully protected and handed down.

The Harris Tweed weavers are some of the last weavers working pedal powered looms. They are the custodians of that heritage and Donald feels a great responsibility to his role. Though the weaving was not popular for a period, more young people are now weaving again, supported by the local council and weaver training classes.

To be called Harris Tweed the tweed must be woven in the home and by manual foot-pedal power, the colours of the tweed reflecting the seas and the landscape of the islands. The definition of Harris Tweed is now protected by an Act of Parliament.

Everyone on the islands used to have a loom in the home for the making of their own clothes or use around the croft. But in 1846 Lady Dunmore of Abhainn Suidhe (Amhuinnsuidhe Castle), widow of the landowner of Harris, had their clan tartan replicated in tweed, introducing it to people she knew and wearing it for hunting and countryside pursuits. This was the start of commercial trading for weavers on the island.

Donald has become known across the world as a master of Harris Tweed weavers. His cloth is sought out by tailors from Savile Row, who travel from London to his remote bay to choose their tweed. Tomorrow it is Austrian TV that is coming to visit.

After a lovely morning, capped with tea and biscuits, I head back along the winding road to Tarbert to meet with Calum Mackay, Chair of North Harris Estate and Deputy Head at Sir E Scott School. I pass a pleasant couple of hours meeting some of the children at the school and learning about the estate.

From about 1860 North Harris Estate was a sporting estate centred around Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, and used by the owners and their friends for its salmon fishing and red deer. A number of houses were also built to house the workers at the castle: the gate keeper’s cottage, the blacksmith’s cottage, the gamekeeper’s cottage, the gardener’s cottage, the ghillie’s cottage…

Today the 62,500 acre (253 km2)land (but not the castle building itself) of North Harris Estate is celebrating its tenth anniversary of community ownership. In Scotland, the Community Right to Buy allows communities with a population of less than 10,000 the opportunity to buy land from landowners when it comes up for sale, with financial help available from a community land fund.Communities not only take control of environmental wellbeing and preserving natural heritage, but also develop social and economic benefits for the community.

North Harris Estate has a population of around 700, including 116 crofts and 22 townships, with most people living in the town of Tarbert. Owning the land involves, amongst other things, responsibility for the deer herd, protecting the environment, clearing invasive plants and maintaining paths. Estate projects have involved a new social housing development and a recycle centre. Other income generation comes from tourism and renewable energy.

The sun is still high in the sky but the afternoon is drawing to a close and it is time to for me move on. Rather than head directly back to Lewis, I make the most of my time in Harris and turn back towards South Harris, taking the turn off to the Golden Road, that runs along the inlets of the eastern coastline. A long slither of pale grey road meandering up and around and down again, through small villages of a few scattered houses, past fishing boats and small rocky islands to the left, and the boulder-strewn moonscape of the hills and lochans to the right.

It is late by the time of my return up the spine road to Lewis.

(For more information on the North Harris Estate and on Harris Tweed visit the Digital Resources page)

Day 4, A Journey to the Isle of Harris

It is early morning when I pile myself, the cameras and lenses, the waterproof cover for the camera, the sound recorder and wind shields and microphones, the spare batteries and memory cards, and the little GoPro video recorder, the rainproofs and sunhat and sunglasses, the flask and sandwiches, the suncream and the Avon Skin So Soft, otherwise known as the best midge repellent around…. into my hire car. I am starting to love my little car, bundling it full and steering a course across the islands to the next anticipated destination.

Today it carries me under a still blue sky. The sun is steadily warming the day; no breath of wind, just the humming of the bees and the crystal call of the skylarks. I turn left off the road out of Stornoway, heading the thirty-odd miles south for the Isle of Harris, about an hour’s drive.

A sign welcomes me to Harris and I cross out of Lewis along the road that runs the length of the islands. With the journey south the flat peatlands of the north fold into ever-more lumpy and undulating hills, finally bursting into an infinite pattern of dramatic mountains, black and rugged, bare to the wild weather that whips around their craggy tops. But today they are glowing in the sunshine, the grass emerald green, sheep wandering at will across the road. To left and right lochs are nestled in the peats, and round every bend in the road another dark peak cuts into the sky.

I am meeting with Matt, ranger for the North Harris Estate. North Harris, once under the lairdship of the castle, is now fully owned by the community. A trust, working alongside the crofters, manages the land on behalf of the community.

I arrive in Tarbert where the Estate offices are, and I bundle myself and my gear into Matt’s vehicle, to head along a track originally built for the stalkers from Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, and into the hills. We are in the territory of the Golden Eagle, with one of the highest densities of breeding Golden Eagle populations in the whole of Europe; an abundance of open moorland habitat and nesting crags in the hills make a perfect home.

After walking up the glen and into the hills for some way, recording the streams and the birds, listening to Matt’s stories of the estate, we turn and head back towards Huisinis beach.

The twelve-mile single-track road tumbles and twists over the landscape, but there is no greater surprise than to suddenly travel right through the huge gates and past the large front door of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. Amhuinnsuidhe means, “sitting by the river” which the castle does, taking advantage of the salmon that return every year from the sea to spawn.

It is only a couple more miles past the castle to the shell sand of Huisinis, which sparkles white in the dazzling day; the water is a silent Caribbean blue. Beyond north Huisinis lies Scarp Island, now immortalised in the Scottish film The Rocket Post, which tells the heart-warming story of attempts in 1934 to fire rockets from Harris to carry the mail across.

Harris is a place of Atlantic salmon and red deer, otters and seals, eagles and skylarks. In Celtic mythology the Eagle is revered– symbolising the soul, wisdom and age. It seems no wonder to me that so many eagles make Harris their home.

In the afternoon I leave Matt and head alone onto the tiny village of Rèinigeadal, along another single track road that dips and turns with every contour of the land, to the end of a sea loch on the east side of Harris. A road and electricity only arrived at Rèinigeadal in the 1980’s and a two-hour walking track, across the hills to Tarbert, was used every week by the children going to school.

At the end of a day of recordings and photographs, I finally drag myself back onto the road north, to what already feels like home in Stornoway.

(Some more information on Harris can be found on the digital resources page of the blog)

Day 3, Sunday on the Isle of Lewis

16th June 2013

It is Sunday today. Here on the Isle of Lewis this is a special day.

Alongside the old Celtic beliefs, which still affect the workings of day to day life in the Hebrides, the islands also have strongly Christian communities; in the north predominantly the Free Church of Scotland, and in the south predominantly Catholic.

In Stornoway, the people of the Free Church still hold strong to the principals of rest on a Sunday; time spent with family and at church. All shops are closed, there is no public transport, and it is only recently that the ferry to the mainland has started to run on a Sunday. The streets of town are deserted until suddenly in the middle of the day or the late afternoon they swell with people; church-goers, relaxed and smart in dark suits and colourful hats, gathering to chatter and laugh on the stone steps of the church.

I am heading slightly out of town, along the northwards road from Stornoway, where a smattering of whitewashed houses spread out along the hillside, inboard from the sea.

I have the generous permission of Reverend MacLeod, of Back Free Church, to record the Gaelic psalms sung in his church. As the congregation shuffle and settle into their pews, I ready my recorder in the high, wooden balcony at the back of the church.

The first solo notes of the presenter lift into the air and the congregation lilts and turns in response, coming in at different times, inserting their own grace notes, which float to meet in the high church ceiling and blend in its void to a harmonious, other-worldly Sunday praise. It is said there’s a movement like the movement of the sea, in the singing of Gaelic psalms.

I am told that on a Sunday a thousand people would come together to sing in Gaelic. Today numbers have declined to perhaps a hundred at a Gaelic service, and with the younger generations, the psalms are more commonly sung at an English service.

When historically the education system discouraged the use of Gaelic, it was banned in the schools. However Gaelic remained the language spoken in the playground and at home in the Outer Hebrides. Today the situation has swung around. The use of Gaelic is encouraged by the system, but, suffering from these earlier policies, the language spoken in the playgrounds of the schools has become more commonly English.

It is still hoped that this can turn around. The 2011 census showed a slowing in the decline of the number of Gaelic speakers, with a small increase in the number of Gaelic speakers under the age of 20.

In the 2001 census, it was found around 60,000 (1.2%) of the 5 million inhabitants of Scotland spoke Gaelic as a first language. In the Outer Hebrides it was 15,723 inhabitants, (61.1% of the islands’ population).

These are my understandings but I am open to correction on my facts!

But back at the church … After cups of tea and cake, I take a drive over to Barvas beach, to walk across the Machair bobbing with buttercups and daisies in the breeze, brilliant with colour and the heady scent of pollen; to lie for a while in amongst the flowers and listen to the insects humming by my ears.

Machair is a rare habitat and is found only in the northwest of Scotland and in Ireland, with about half of the Machair found in Scotland being in the Outer Hebrides. Up to 90% of the content of Machair sand is seashell.

Traditionally, machair is used for grazing and rotational cropping and the traditional methods used sustain a profusion of wild flowers, which fill the air with their blossom. Up to 45 plant species can be found within one square metre. The machair is particularly important for the wildlife, birds and insects, which are abundant in the area.

(More information on the history of the Church. Machair and some Outer Hebrides facts can be found in links in the Scotland Digital Resources page)

Day 2; A Visit to Aird Dell

15 June 2013

It is my first day on the road. I pick up my friendly little hire car from the local garage, piling in camera, lenses, sound recorder and GoPro video camera; notebook and pens; maps and walking boots, warm clothes and rain gear; food and water. There is a spot for everything on the back seat.

I am driving across the Isle of Lewis, from east to northwest, over black and russet peat bogs, rich with age. I want to stop and feel the soft cushion of the peats under my feet, but I file the thought for another day as today I have an appointment in Aird Dell, twenty-four miles and almost an hour’s drive away.

Aird Dell is a windswept place. Beyond the houses, dotted on the landscape, washing twists around stretched lines, starched in the salt-laden air, flapping and pulling as the wind roars in from the sea. No shelter from trees or shrubs, just the full might of Atlantic air, sweeping over Machair and peat with only the washing in its path. I can sense the sweet, clean smell that will already consume the sheets and towels when someone comes to bring them inside.

Ceitlin welcomes me into her home. We push the door to against the roar of wind, and a stillness surrounds us as we settle at the wooden table of the kitchen. The kettle is on.

Ceitlin is a singer and it is with a natural ease that she slips into song for me. Her voice is as clear as the landscape around us, sharp and pure as the biting winds, freely filling the kitchen space with warmth.

Amongst other songs, Ceiltin sings Cumha do dh’Aonghas ‘Ic Ailein, written by Dòmhnall Mac a’ Ghobhainn, her great, great, great grandfather. It tells the sad story of his brother Angus’s departure for Canada during the Highland Clearances. Neither could read nor write and would never see nor hear from each other again. It is a true Gaelic story of loss and longing.

Ceitlin tells me how, as a child, her father would walk with her along the shore recounting the myths and legends of the area. These stories now form the basis of her budding song-writing career; a career that serves to carry on the oral traditions of the Hebrides

As she talks she heads for the phone. “I’ll call dad”, she says. “He will come and tell you some stories” – and Donald Ruadh quickly joins us.

Here are the bare bones of one of the stories he tells:

When the Vikings finally returned to Norway, so great was their love of Na h-Eileanan Siar, they took from the local maidens trusses of their hair, and from this, formed a rope strong enough to pull the islands back home with them. Today we can still see the hole in the rock – the Eye of the Butt of Lewis, through which they looped their rope, attaching the other end to their longships. But under the great strain of the pull, the islands began to split apart: The Uists, Barra, Eriskay… When Harris threatened to split away, with great sadness, they gave up their quest.

“Let’s go there”, says Donald Ruadh. We tumble into the wind and pull the car out along the narrow coast road. It is not long before we are again jumping out of the car to gaze across dancing clover and buttercups, beyond sweeping white sands and ice-green sea, to the scattered white houses and rocky outcrops which fill our view across to the Eye of the Butt of Lewis.

(The Scotland Digital Resources page has links to information about Machair and Ceitlin’s music)


Arriving in Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway)

21B water 10096 600p14 June 2013

The train rumbles north. Layers of questions that tugged at me in the build up to my journey, peel away like snake skins, left to flutter in the breeze. With every familiar station name: Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, the air is changing to Highland air; startling yellow Whin is streaking past, and my body relaxes into the rhythm of the train and the dark murky purple of rocks and bracken, carved into the hillsides.

I have changed train at Perth, and again at Inverness. I have caught a bus west to Ullapool, and now, at the end of a long day’s journey from the Isle of Bute, I sit nestled into the ferry, gliding across a silent sea to Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway) on the Isle of Lewis.

Steòrnabhagh settles prettily around the sheltered harbour, with her castle keeping watch across the bay. Though the fishing fleet is not what it was in its heyday, boats still clank and thud against each other, and the soft plop, plop of water at their sides mixes with a rich, salty sea smell which emanates from wood and decks, and from rope and creels piled high on the wharf.

It is, I believe, a 9th Century town, founded by Vikings under the name of Stjórnavágr. But I welcome correction from those who know more about this than me. It is the largest town in Na h-Eileanan Siar (The Western Isles), with a population of just over 6,000 – about a third of the Isle of Lewis’ population.

The population of the Western Isles is around 27,500 and Gaelic is the first language spoken by most of the islands’ population. This is one reason for my journey here, to Na h-Eileanan Siar, on the first stage of my two artist residencies. Following this, the residencies take me in a sweeping arc across the world to the desert regions of Central Australia.

I hope you can join me on these journeys.