21 June 2013
I am driving the road to Ness again today to meet with Donald MacSween. Sweeny, as Donald is known, has a croft and is showing me round, introducing me to the sheep and the chickens, and taking me to the family peat bank and the moorland common grazing.
The peat bank is not beside the house but out on the moor. Sweeny machine cuts the family peats but many still use a tairsgear, a long wooden handle with an angled blade at the end. There is renewed popularity in the use of the peats for fuel, and the cruach (peat stacks), traditionally curved and tapered to a point, can be seen across the islands, black and rich-smelling; rough with aged and partially decomposed moss and vegetation.
Leaving the open moor, we retrace our drive to Del Beach to listen to the rhythmic rumble of the sea, splashing and sighing on the pebbles; a sound continuously split by the high pitch calls of oystercatchers, terns and gulls. Their chicks are nested on the ground, amongst the pebbles, and we look on as one eggshell shuffles and cracks and a small beak appears. The whole place is alive with nests and chicks and calls from above and below. There’s trout in the river and sea trout in the sea and all the while that magnificent mass of water shifts and sighs against the shore.
Ness is the furthest north of all the communities in the isles, and people have a strong sense of being not just from the Isle of Lewis, but from Ness. More than one person has mentioned this special identity as being partly attributable to the distance put between themselves and the main town of Stornoway across the moorland road. The journey is about 30 minutes by car and this is discussed in terms of a long distance that helps the people of Ness retain their identity as Niseachs. They are very proud of where they are from. There is a population of around 1000 and approximately 16 villages in the community of Ness. Gaelic is spoken by the majority of people.
Ness is part of the Galson estate, which is now in community hands after money was raised to buy the estate. It is a crofting estate of just over 600 crofts. Over the years, the community has since raised money for a £2m sports centre, a local charity shop, a launderette, a social club, and a play-park. The churches are also a big part of the community. “It is a way of life that we look after ourselves”, says Sweeny. “There’s always a big project on the go. The projects are not just good for the sense of community wellbeing, but also provide work, keeping the young people here and strengthening the Gaelic language”.
After leaving Sweeny, I stay on the west side of the island, waiting for Midsummer’s Eve, pottering south along the shore in my car and stopping for a picnic tea. Clachan Chalanais (TheCallanish Stones) is about to come alive for the summer solstice.
Chalanais is a ring of 13 large Lewisian gneiss stones, about 13m in diameter, with a huge monolith at its centre, and the remains of a chambered cairn. Running from the circle is an avenue to the north, formed by two parallel lines of 19 stones. Single lines of stones also run to south, east and west, making the shape of a Celtic Cross when viewed from the air. Much research has been done on the astronomical orientations of the stones, which are believed to have been there since 2900 BC. Local tradition says that giants who lived on the islands refused to convert to Christianity and were turned to stone as punishment.
Under a leaking sky a couple of drummers, a didgeridoo player and a piper with some home-made bagpipes hammer out their tunes, and a man and woman dressed in long flowing cloaks, and witch and a wizard-like hats, stand with their backs erect against the stones. Most people mill about waiting for the sun to drop beyond the horizon, but the sky drips down and, though light gradually fades, we have no idea of the position of the sun.
What does it matter? We are there to mark a day, a time passing and some unknown ancient era, and I still leave with a smile.
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