Day 19, Ceòlas music, language and dance school

contract_11320crop

8 July 2013

It is the first day of Ceòlas classes and I feel slightly overwhelmed. I am here to record, absorb and enjoy. So much is happening all around; people re-uniting, a kitchen in full swing with home made baking and giant kettles of tea, classes beginning in piping, fiddle, clarsach, song, reels and quadrilles, step dance, Gaelic language … A hum of anticipation and excitement from those who return each year and know the ropes.

I am surrounded by Gaelic speakers, – of course! But the fascinating thing is that people are also here from many countries of the world – Japan, Romania, Germany, Canada, America, Austria, Switzerland – and they are speaking Gaelic too. My Gaelic consists of what I have learnt from the BBC online class, Beag air Bheag. This has been a great help, and a beautiful language to learn, though I am still in the ranks of beginners. But there is a place for everyone here and I am gradually finding my way to that place.

We have all signed up for two classes, a first choice class, which we do in the mornings and afternoons, and a secondary one, which we do between morning tea and lunchtime. I have signed up for Gaelic song and step dance, but I will try and go to all the classes, as I am here to record too. There are also Gaelic language classes between morning tea and lunch.

At the end of the day there is a crossover class, where classes merge – musicians with singers and dancers, to pull the work together for a final event.

It doesn’t stop there, and each evening there is a ceilidh or a concert – tonight a piping concert, and of course the music continues on in the hotels and the bars well into the night.

I am in the swing of staying up late here but the pace has just cranked up another notch!!

(Links to some Gaelic language lessons, some songs and the Ceòlas site are on the blog Scotland Digital Resources page)

Advertisements

Day 18, Ceòlas music and dance school and festival

9B Dance_11244

7 July 2013

The sun is shining, the air is still and breathless. It is the beginning of Ceòlas, a week of Gaelic language, music and dance events held locally in Daliburgh, South Uist, so I have returned my hire car to be on foot again.

I can’t but help feel pleased; my feet pat-patting on the ground as I walk the couple of miles to Gaelic Mass and Ceòlas registration, past the red clover and deep yellow Iris at the roadside, the hills rolling along the horizon. I could not have managed without the car for all the miles I have driven, the length and breadth of the Hebrides to meet people. But now, without it, I feel instantly more connected, and an air of anticipation creeps through the soles of my feet from the ground on which I walk.

Gaelic Mass – the start of Ceòlas .The church is full, the singing translucently clear. In the church I am captivated by measured movements, children in white passing back and forth in ritual altar duties; and at communion by the solemn procession of the congregation, young and old and everything between. There is a very three-dimensional feel to the ceremony, a community revolving around the central pillar of its faith. I am generously allowed to record this service.

At the end of the service a piper pipes the congregation to the hall across the road. A table inside is laid deep with cakes and scones; pancakes and sandwiches. Large pots of tea are steaming ready. We collect our information folders for the upcoming school. I start to meet some of the participants and I have a feeling of being on the edge of something wonderful – a whole week dedicated to music and dance and language; a celebration of what it is to be a Gael.

After registration I walk the few miles along the country roads to Rona’s family home. I was introduced to Rona in Glasgow as the Gaelic Arts Producer for Glasgow City Council. Without Rona, I wouldn’t be here; and without the support of Ceòlas, I wouldn’t be here.

Rona can trace her family on Uist back to around 904AD, as a direct descendent of the Clanranald section of the MacDonald clan, and we go to chat and sit in Cladh Hallan graveyard where many of her family are buried. It is one of her favourite places to visit. Rona’s lineage connects her to the Lordship of the Isles, and Flora Macdonald is Rona’s great aunty, ten times removed.

Rona left the islands to study in Glasgow and had stopped speaking Gaelic for about 15 years. But with the birth of her first child, she realised she wanted her children to speak Gaelic and started to make the reconnection with her heritage.

I am invited home for dinner with the family and after dinner we head out to the Ceòlas welcome ceilidh, the first song and dance event of many in the week to come. It is a beautiful introduction to the week ahead.

(There is more information on Ceòlas and the Lordship of the Isles on the blog Digital Resources page)

Day 17, A Day at Sea

david sRGB

5 July 2013

I have had the idea in my mind that I want to peer under that sometimes flat, sometimes billowing table of the sea with my little camera. It is so ever-present, so huge. And we only see that coloured, shifting plate of water, most-times never sparing a thought for the entire universe that carries on below.

Morag, my house-mum, asks Catriana, who says her husband could take me out on his boat for a whole day, but I only have time for a shorter outing. Catriana asks Iain who will, but our free days don’t coincide. Iain asks Roddy and we make an arrangement. Such is the helpfulness of everyone here.

I meet Roddy and his brother David this morning at Lochboisdale. The wind has thankfully dropped and the sun is breaking its way through. Roddy and his brother-in-law recently lost David’s boat at sea – casting them off into cold water for a full half hour before they were finally found and rescued. I was invited to go along on Sunday with them when they are diving to recover the wreck, but Sunday being the first day of Ceòlas, I am not able to, so David is taking me out today. We are going in Iain’s boat. Perhaps the whole community has been involved in this venture!

I drive the short distance to Lochboisdale where I am meeting David. Work is progressing here on the Stòras Uibhist £10m pier development project.

The community in South Uist are another who have bought their own land. £4.5m to form Stòras Uibhist, (South Uist Estate) was raised from a worldwide appeal reaching £50,000, and funds coming from Scottish Natural Heritage, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Western Isles Council and the Big Lottery fund. It was the biggest community land purchase in Scottish history with 2700 islanders on South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula taking control of the 92,000-acre South Uist Estate.Their pier development project, says David, will be good for the fishermen.

David clearly loves to be at sea. A car accident when he was sixteen has left him unable to work as a fisherman but this, he says, is all he wants to do. He is from a family of fishermen – his father and his father’s six brothers all work at sea. He has tried working in Glasgow in an attempt to do something else, but it is not for him and he has returned to South Uist where his heart seems to truly belong, amidst the wild green hills and the changing moods of the sea.

Roddy and David wrap some green twine around my tripod where I have perched my little GoPro camera. This twine is my extension line enabling us to lower camera and tripod into the sea.

David measures out in fathoms, on a weighted rope and using his arm’s length as his guide, the distance to the seabed. We know then how low I can drop my camera before it hits mud, and we release the estimated amount of twine, casting my precious little device into the deep unknown. It is not without some qualms that I let the twine slip out through my fingers, and the hint of silver is all I can see now as the tripod slips lower into the water until there is nothing, just the twine disappearing and a slight tug from below. It is a thrill to not know what I am capturing on the camera. Whether anything is swimming by or not, I will have at least an image of the deep.

It is fun thinking of other places we can try. We head on to rocky shores and lobster creels, then onto the salmon fish farm where we climb out of our boat and onto the floating walkway around the farm, with the help of the workers there, to lower my camera into the big round nets where the salmon are reared.

We return to shore in the early afternoon as a soft misty rain starts to fall, salty and hungry, skin tingling, fresh air in our lungs, the wind settled in my hair, our eyes bright with enthusiasm and laughter.

I head to the little Lochboisdale Post office where I can get a pot of tea and home-made cake and, with the sea still on my skin, I understand why David wants this life on the sea, and struggles to come to terms with the loss of his preferred career.

Feb 2014:

I have a wonderful footnote to add to this. Since I wrote this diary, David has started up his own business, offering boat trips with overnight camping, walking or fishing adventures, wildlife cruises and boat trips to the remote islands. He will be a fabulous guide for anyone who goes. Find him at: Uist Sea Tours

To relax in the evening, Mary, one of the Ceòlas organisers, and another generous sponsor of this residency, has invited me round for a lovely dinner. Here I meet Janice and Rosie, a couple of dancers and am invited to their dance performance at Stoneybridge community hall.

The piece they have choreographed is inspired by watching the birds on the machair. As they dance the birds come to life in the hall, sweeping low on the waves or soaring with the wind; Or battling against the wind until they give in and glide suddenly backwards at speed.

Day 16, Gaelic history, language & cultural devastation; keeping culture alive – spinning and natural dyes

1B bobbins_10324

4 July 2013

The road from South Uist north to Benbecula and North Uist crosses a series of causeways, some short and others long fingers edged with giant rocks, uncurling across the water. The wind is howling across the country, and here on the Western Isles there is nothing to slow its terrible rush to land from the Atlantic. My little car judders and swerves and the rain, when it comes, slashes sideways across the windscreen. But no sooner does it start than it is blown away and the sun appears, dancing on the wet bog cotton that pulls taught against its thin green stem.

I am on my way to visit Flora MacDonald in North Uist. But before I reach Flora, I drop in to visit Tommy, at his bicycle hire and repair outlet in Howmore.

Tommy brings me up to date on much of the history of the area. He says there is a lot they weren’t taught in school. The Lordship of the Isles which lasted 300 -400 years was just ignored at school, he says. I, myself, remember hearing nothing of the Lordship of the Isles when I was at school.

Here is some of Tommy’s conversation:

‘During the era of the Lordship of the Isles the MacDonald dynasty controlled the west coast and islands; the clans were united and lived in harmony. There was a council that made decisions and it was by no means a dictatorship. The people enjoyed peace and prosperity. But this came to an end in the 1400s.

The Lordship was not part of the feudal system. They probably considered themselves kings in their own right. So the Scottish government dissolved this system in the 1400’s, and inter-clan feuds came about as a result of the loss of the strong leadership.

The clans became a thorn in the flesh of the Scottish Government and The Statutes of Iona were introduced, aimed at reducing the power of the clan chiefs. Under the Statutes, the chiefs’ children had to be educated on the lowlands and were distanced from their clan members.

So, says Tommy, the early 1600’s, was the start of the downfall of the Gaelic culture.

The next blow came after the Acts of Union, the defeat at Culloden and the measures taken against the highlanders by the British troops, with the banning of the tartan, their disarming, the massacre of the wounded and the burning of highlander homes, with their cattle driven away.

The British government wanted to destroy the basis of Highland life, and they made it possible, for the first time, for the money economy to enter Highland society. The Anglicisation of the ruling Highland class led to the drop in the numbers of Gaelic speaking lairds. The chief became a feudal landlord for the first time and began to spend more and more time in the manner of London and the south.

So came about the continued devastation of the Gaelic culture, and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Highland estates with large tenant populations were changed to more profitable sheep farming, and the surplus tenants were cleared. There were mass migrations to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America as a result.

The Education Act of 1872 also led to generations of Gaels being forbidden to speak their native language in the classroom.

Tommy mentions The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. The Gaelic language was seen as the cause of the barbarism of the people. It was believed that if they could root out the language they could make the people more civilised and children were punished for speaking Gaelic in the schools.

Consequently a couple of generations were not taught to read and write Gaelic and could not help their children with the language.

This continued up until the Gaelic medium schools were introduced to remedy the situation in the last 25 or 30 years.

By 2008, Highland councillors were being presented with a report outlining the high demand for Gaelic medium schools. In 2013 the Scottish Government outlined a plan for Gaelic to be taught in every primary school in Scotland.

The children I have talked to on the islands are very proud of their cultural heritage and those I met who have not been brought up speaking Gaelic in the home wish that they had. They learn Gaelic at school and say they will bring their children up to speak Gaelic at home.

70% of the population of the Outer Hebrides have Gaelic as their first language. Perhaps in generations to come this number will be even greater.

As I leave Tommy and continue the drive north to Flora, I ponder the history, the influences of the English on the Scots, and the importance of the reversal of the cultural devastation. I remember my own experiences when, not with Gaelic but with a Scottish accent, I went for a job interview in the 1980’s to Pilkington Glass, in the south of England. I was told straight away I would not get the job because of my Scottish accent. I left without objecting. But I never forgot. Is telling the internet some form of redress?!

Aged seventy-six, Flora lives in a stone and thatch, one-roomed cottage in North Uist. Her bed in one corner is pulled over with a woollen blanket, a peat fire burns and her old spinning wheel sits beside the fire. Under a small window, set deep in the stone wall, she has a small table covered in a white cloth for her kitchen, and a little portable gas stove to supplement the griddle on top of her fire.

Flora dyes her wools with the plants around her sheiling. She explains to me about black crotal, used by the Harris Tweed people for distinctive orange/browns in many shades; and trefoil, used for the greens and yellows of the tartans. The green, she tells me, can be made using the water in the ditch, in which the trefoil grows, as it is high in iron. Another favourite of Flora’s is the Iris, which she uses with peaty water for the greens. The roots are pink and the seedpods also give an aubergine colour.

Flora spins at her wheel, sketches and writes poetry. She grew up, she tells me, in a remote and inaccessible part of the east coast of North Uist, And after living in Glasgow, as so many Gaels do, she returned here to the simple life. But it is hard she concedes. The wind is incessant and everything is a battle against the wind.

She serves me pancakes cooked on her griddle on the fire, and tea from the big kettle, and she sings me a spinning song; one of the thousands of songs that went with any activity of the day.

On my way back to Daliburgh, I stop off at Kildonan Museum where a wonderful display shows more on the plants and their uses.

I learn, amongst other things, that the name of the old Black House, taigh dubh, which I had thought originated from the open peat fire on an earth floor, tarring the walls black, in fact perhaps originates from the Gaelic taigh tughaidh, meaning house of turf and stone, but has simply been misunderstood as taigh dubh (black house).

There is so much to learn here and so little time.

Day 15, Warmth under a wild grey sky

5B Canon MacQueen

2 July 2013

The rain is scouring the Uists with horizontal needles, blasted in one raging gust after another from across a swollen Atlantic. One icy exhalation sweeps in, then a brief pause as the lungs of the sky are filled again, in readiness for the next wave of sharper, faster needles of rain than the last.

I am journeying to Barra today – across the causeway from South Uist to Eriskay, traveling the single track road that dips and swells around Eriskay’s coast, to the pier where we catch the ferry for forty minutes over a heaving sea to Barra.

I am going with Neil in his parcels van. He has 80 parcels to deliver to Barra. Deliveries there are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Some days I deliver the dresses from the catalogues for the ladies, he says, if there is a dance on that night. And the next day I take them back again – wrong size. It keeps you in business, I laugh.

We drive onto the little ferry, and I am buried in parcels on the passenger’s seat, around my feet and balanced on my lap and between us, and all around. The ferry heaves her way into the wind, over a steely grey swell and into a thick veil of dripping cloud. But even so, when we pull into Barra harbour I can see how beautiful she is. The Jewel of the Hebrides, they call it. And despite the heavy lead skies the water is still a cool clear green on white sand beaches, the worn hills lumping and bumping to the shore.

We deliver a few parcels, ducking in and out of the rain, pulling open doors and dropping each parcel inside, before I am delivered to my first port of call with Calum McNeil, and welcomed with warming tea.

Calum is an encyclopaedia of knowledge and history, as are so many here that have lived the stories that they tell. He is also a fisherman and meets my idea of a photo at his fishing boat with an easy smile. We head out once more into the weather, down the garden path to his little boat bobbing at the shore. I am pleased that before I left for the Hebrides I bought an Elements Cover for my camera, and this is my first opportunity to put it well and truly to the test. We slip over wet rocks and make the small jump onto the boat’s deck. I ask Calum to stand in the doorway of the tiny wheelhouse and I scramble amongst the ropes and the slippery wooden planks to position my tripod and my camera in the clear plastic covering, pulling its sleeves over my wrists to operate the camera in the dry security of the cover. All the time I am battered by wind and driving rain and in the back of my mind I am registering what an exhilarating style of photography this actually is. But we don’t waste too much time out here, as the rain gathers and pools around us, dripping off our noses and sliding down our necks, and soon we are back over the edge of the boat and making our way up the path to the house once more.

Back at the house, Calum talks of his childhood and sketches a beautiful picture on my mind’s eye:

“ I was brought up beside the sea and the shore, that was our playground. Even the girls would play at the shore. They would have a make-believe house made up of jam jars and broken crockery. We used to sail small model boats that were made out of dried milk tins, opened and flattened and turned into boats by the older boys. We would sail them along the shore on a piece of string, especially when the tide was in because you didn’t have to slip and fall on the seaweed. We looked forward to the high tide every day”.

His imagery reminds me of a small moss-green wooden boat with a cream sail that my sister and I used to pull along the pebbly shore line of Broughty Ferry, by a piece of worn old string. The taste of salt and seaweed and the stickiness on my skin are instantly back with me; the blue and white cotton frock that my mother sewed for the soft Scottish summers.

It is early afternoon when Neil comes back in his van to collect me and deliver me to my next port of call, Canon McQueen.

At ninety-two, Canon McQueen is spritely and agile, and full of twinkle and life. It is clear that he loves life; and his snowy cat, Mizzy, that purrs around him as we speak. His other cat, Fionn, is named after one of the great Celtic Heroes and guardians of the Celtic people.

Canon McQueen is full of the Gaelic ways, recounting the freedom of life at the shielings as a child, never needing to come home for a meal as he knew which grass he could chew, which berries to pick, which birds he could catch at the shore; never wanting for food as he roamed the hills and the moors. Gaelic is the language of the hills and the birds and the sea, he says. You just have to sit on a hillside and you can hear the language formed in the breeze. “I was taught as a little boy that the ocean speaks, and the Hebridean ocean has much to tell”.

It seems no time until Neil is back again to collect me in his van, but the day is nearly passed and we have a ferry to catch. It has been a day of such warmth under a sky that tried in vain to make it otherwise.

(The story of Fionn and some more information on Barra can be found on the Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 14, the Grimsay boat builders and Kallin shellfish

Grimsay boat

1 July 2013

I am heading north today, back across Benbecula to Griomasaigh (Grimsay), which was connected to both North Uist and Benbecula in 1960 with the opening of the North Ford Causeway, a five mile sweep of single track road across the water.

Roads are commonly single track and at each passing place, as one person waits for the other to pass, a wave and a smile make the driving more sociable and connected than is the norm in a car.

At Grimsay I am heading for the Kallin Shellfish Factory, to meet with Hector. The boats leave from here every Monday morning to collect scallops from the Eastern Minch. Lobster for the Christmas market, and crab, is collected from the Atlantic. Most is exported, Hector tells me, to the mainland and the big cities down south.

Around the factory is a mountain of scallop shells, tumbling to the water’s edge, and I clamber and scramble through the shells for photos and sounds, never quite certain if the shells will slip from under me and I’ll end up in the sea. A pungent smell of fish hangs in the air and gulls lift in one mass, necks outstretched, legs pushed taught, to squawk in indignation as I approach.

By the time I leave water is creeping upwards through the bottoms of my jeans and I fear I am smelling strongly of fish scraps.

Heading back around the island’s circular road I happen upon the Grimsay Boat Shed where historic boats are restored and new wooden boats are built. The door is open and I can let myself in to this small work shed, which doubles as a museum. A large wooden hull dominates the space, and behind it a small, square window set into the wall frames the reeds and the water and the hills outside.

The Grimsay boats have been built by the Stewart family since the mid-800’s. Today Ronald MacLean is heir to the Stewart methods. The boats show Norse and Argyll/Irish influences and are one of the few traditional wooden workboats that have survived.

Until electricity was put into the shed in the 1970’s, the boats were built entirely with hand tools. Nearly 1,000 boats have been built and dozens are still working today.

Pottering home, I pull over to ask a young woman returning from hanging out her washing if I can photograph the scene. Sheets trapped in passing sunshine billow and flap beside a steely lochan, peppered with black, rocky islands. A white-washed house sits alone on the far side.

That photo was used in Day 8, so it’s one of those lovely old boats here. And, of course, take a look at the Scotland Digital Resources page of the blog for some more on the boats and a link to the shellfish factory.

Day 13, The Uists and Eriskay

10395lilly 600 pix

30 June 2013

The lochs of the Uists are often not large expanses of water, but rather one small pool after another, stretched out indefinitely across the moors – giving the impression of as much water in the landscape as there is land. These lochs are covered in water lilies, great spread out carpets of them with giant white flowers and a golden heart.

Then there is the bog cotton, with a creamy bobbin like torn cotton wool that flits and waves on the end of its thin, dark green stalk. The cotton, split at its ends, points determinedly in the direction of the wind, and these soft creamy balls cover the marshes like sheep’s wool caught in the grass.

Today I am exploring Eriskay, another island connected by a long causeway, and with a sign, “Beware otters crossing”. The weather is wild as I drive, changing from blue to grey in seconds and back again, clouds skitting overhead. Horizontal rain strips the sky, then sunshine breaks through and lights up the yellow of the machair, and splashes white where houses scatter on the hillside.

It is a relaxing day of just looking and recording the wind and the sea, exploring churches and graveyards. At St Michaels’, perched on the hill above the village of Am Baile, the altar celebrates the island’s fishing heritage. Designed by Father Calum MacNeill, the altar is shaped to resemble the prow of a wooden boat.

(The blog Digital Resources page has a bit of information on Eriskay, its role in the film “Whisky Galore” and Eriskay’s relationship to Bonnie Prince Charlie)