Day 12, Heading for the Uists


29 June 2013

Today I am leaving Lewis and Harris to catch the ferry across to Berneray, on my way to South Uist.

I drop off my hire car at the local Stornoway garage, and Linda kindly takes me, my bags, and all my equipment to the bus station for the journey south to Leverburgh.

From South Harris, I catch the small ship to Bernaray. It is an hour’s journey across the Sound of Harris, passing little islands and looking back at the black hills of Harris before reaching more open sea.

The ferry, when she pulls into shore, seems to drop me in the middle of nowhere. There is not a soul around and I stand outside the little shelter at the pier not knowing if a bus will actually turn up. I try not to look too longingly down the narrow road that winds off into a flat deserted landscape. The rain is pattering down.

It is early afternoon and I am feeling rather hungry after an early breakfast. In my pocket lie waiting two bars of chocolate that could be bought from the sweetie dispensing machine in the small passenger cabin of the ferry. I eat one bar and resist the other.

The bus does eventually arrive and, relaxing a little, I climb in. We slowly rumble our way around Berneray, across the causeway to North Uist, then the causeway to Benbecula, and finally on to my destination of South Uist.

Here, in the early evening, I pick up my hire car and drive the last few miles to Daliburgh where I let myself into the B&B to make a much-needed cup of tea, and hoping to goodness I am in the right house!

I am staying with Morag and Neil, who do the post bus and the parcel deliveries. When they get home from their long days of deliveries, they are as warm and as welcoming as anyone could ever wish for, and I settle in for the next stage of the residency.


Day 11, A journey to Ness and the rare machair habitat

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26 June 2013

My journey takes me north again today, to the Butt of Lewis and Ness, to meet with Jayne, a local dancer, who has been dancing for most of her life. Step dance was always done in the Western Isles but the tradition had almost died out when Jayne was introduced to it at the age of 18. She talks of the strong connection she felt to the dance on that first meeting, and of the older generations who can remember their parents tapping out the tunes, reminiscent of the existence of Step Dance on the island in days gone by. Step dance is traditionally danced “Close to the Floor”. It is an energy that is taken from the earth.

We talk of the special culture and traditions of Ness, the dialects that change from village to village, and things specifically Niseach. Jayne is another that points out to me that Ness loyalty to traditions, language and a vibrant culture might be put down to the 27 miles of distance that separates them from the main town of Stornoway. “We’re so far away from the main town”, she says “and we’re all very proud of our heritage and our culture and our language”

We go for a walk along the cliffs, where the sturdy pink sea thrift tumbles from cliff top to rock ledges, trembling in winds whipped up from a crashing sea; and we visit the historical society where Jayne’s ancestors, and others from the villages, tell their stories from the walls and the books and the folders that fill the rooms.

When I leave Jayne and head back down the western coast road, I detour to the coastal machair and spend what is left of the day walking there. The machair is a delicate bobbing mass of pink and white, purple and yellow, heavy with scent, and humming with insect life, crowned by skylarks, oystercatchers, plovers … In the approach to the sea colours stretch into the distance, blurring into a mass of predominant yellow buttercup where it meets white sands, and then the turquoise of the sea. On my right, cottages straddle a distant green slope. As I sit amongst the flowers, bees buzz in and out of hearing against a constant ocean roar. The place is heady with life.

Some machair facts are available on the blog Digital Resources page, but here are a few:

Machair soil is sandy and full of ground up shell from the sea. It has been traditionally crofted over the years and fertilised with seaweed; rotational crops allow for the seeding and profusion of the wild flowers.

Machair is one of the rarest habitats in Europe and half the Scottish Machair occurs in the Outer Hebrides. There can be up to 45 species of wild flower in a one square metre area and 17,000 wader pairs were counted nesting in Uist. There is a rare bee that is found here which is no longer found on the mainland.

Day 10, How people’s connection to a place can help it survive

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

24 June 2013

It’s Monday. I drive west again, today to Bragar where Anne Campbell works as an artist, painting the beautiful colours of the moors; the russet browns and mossy greens, bright yellows and the dancing creamy whites of the bog cotton.

Anne is another who grew up spending time at her family sheiling, out on the moorlands with her father.

She explains how each pool of water or variation in the ground is identifiable and finely mapped in Gaelic names, to those who know the moors. The sheiling culture that facilitated this knowledge, continued into the 1950’s, and now, alongside the decline of people moving to the moor with their cattle for the summer, these Gaelic names are dying out. The names are largely remembered through song and stories.

The significance of this is important, Anne tells me. For a place to slip into anonymity poses a threat to its wellbeing. If we are all like strangers on the road seeing only vast, empty landscapes, that to many may appear difficult and forbidding, what is there to prevent the destruction of that landscape, she asks.

In the words of a “geographically removed” proponent of large-scale moorland wind farms, she tells me the moorlands were described as “miles and miles of nothing”.

Large, foreign-owned companies have proposed massive wind farms on the Lewis Peatlands that, to date, have not been approved due to the environmental significance of moorland and its function as a carbon sink. Anne wonders, if the names and the landscapes were still known by all, if people remained more connected, would this threat exist? As crofters are offered money, perhaps a delicate balance might be tipped. But why do we want money, says Anne, and many like her. We have what we want.

There is, as in any community, a range of views. Some think a few windmills on a smaller scale might be beneficial to the community. Others do not want any disturbance to the moors, its cultural significance, and the important ecosystem it supports. I did not meet any locals who were in favour of a large-scale development, though I make no claims of having spoken to everyone.

Anne points to a hill in her painting and then through her window. That is Beinn A’ Bhoghalan, the name from the west side of the hill. The map says Beinn Mholach, the name as viewed from the east side of the hill. The name from the west is disappearing.

Moorlands are full of stories of faeries and the supernatural; they were places of edgy excitement for the children who played at the wild freedom of the sheiling, and the songs and the poetry of activities on the moors live vividly on in the consciousness of local people today.

It is late afternoon and from Bragar I am driving south again towards Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.

I stop on my way at the Iron Age Norse mill and kiln in Shawbost, that I see marked on the map. The small building is hunkered down under thick thatch, roped in place with the weight of boulders, which hang to secure the thatch. Powered by the stream that runs from Loch Roinavat, the corn mill and kiln were in use up until the 1930’s.

Back in the car and following the road south through Càrlabhagh (Carloway), I can’t resist taking another stop at Callanish, revisiting the site of the stones in the daylight. But my destination is Tarbert and a Gaelic drama production run by Pròiseact nan Ealan, in conjunction with the schools. Pròiseact nan Ealan works nationally and internationally to promote Gaelic language and culture through the arts. They are also a supporter of this residency. Thank you Pròiseact nan Ealan!

It is hard to find the time to write a little each day – I am on the go from dawn to dusk, and dusk is 11.30pm. But that is good.

(I am adding some more information to the Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 9, Sweeties and the washing

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23 June 2013

It’s Sunday today and the winds are stretching and hammering the washing horizontal on the solitary clotheslines, secured at rocky cliff edges and grassy beach-sides, and the rain is streaking across the landscape in gusty sheets of grey. As clothes battle with the wind and the rain, they can safely be left in the knowledge that the sun will soon fly out from behind a cloud, and at some unknown point in the day it can be brought home fresh and cool and dry.

But Sunday is a day when people take a day of rest on Lewis; everything is closed. Locals like it this way. There is time to be together and time to refresh for the week ahead.

I have an easy start to the day, chatting and drinking coffee and lingering over a long lunch with the family. In the afternoon I spend some time on the cliffs a few minutes up the road from Garrabost where I am staying, enjoying the damp salty air and spongy heather underfoot.

Erica, Alisdair, Katie and Domhnall Ailig invite me to church with them for the evening service and we set out into the blustery evening, holding firmly to hats and skirts as we scurry, heads down, into the church.

I had noticed last week at Back church, a rustling of sweetie papers but thought little more of it. Today again though, as we left the house, Erica thrust a handful of butterscotch into my hand and the family dived for the sweetie bag as we hurried out of the kitchen door.

As the sermon commences, Erica indicates the sweeties, and I look around to see a general dipping of hands into bags, and hear a rustling of papers around the pews. Everyone is in a state of contemplative chewing, and I am amused at this unspoken custom of the churches. How very Scottish it seems.

Day 8, The Moor and The Pentland Road

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It is Saturday and I don’t wake until 9.30am. It has been another late night enjoyed over a glass of wine with Erica and Alasdair in their cosy sitting room by the fire, after getting home in the very early morning from the solstice activities at Callanish.

So it is a slow start to Saturday and I do not wander out until afternoon. The rain is falling in soft sheets as I head for the Pentland Road, a moor road that crosses the peats to Carloway. The road is narrow single track, rutted and less used, and fits prettily into the moor. I am going here to see some moorland shielings.

The shielings are brightly painted But ‘n Bens, traditionally used by families when they transferred themselves and their herds to graze the moors for summer, and left the coastal pastures for growing their crops. Everyone talks of summers at the shielings with a wistful look in their eye and a smile that flickers with memories recounted. The shielings are not an entrenched part of life as they used to be, though people will still visit their shieling on the moor. But the stories from the past are full of freedom and playfulness as the women and children and old people stayed with the livestock, while the men were at sea. Much mythology and song springs from this time, stories rising from the mists and the peat fires, songs for the milking and the activities of the day.

I spend the whole afternoon wandering the moor, sinking my feet deep into the heather and moss and the peat, soaking my shoes and my jeans in the rivers as I clamber deeper to film swirling weed under clear amber water. Not a sound, just the sky larks trilling and dipping through the air, water tumbling by and heather heavy with insect life.

(There is some more information on the Pentland Road on the blog Digital Resources page)

Day7, A Summer Solstice at Callanish Standing Stones and the Community of Ness


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.

(Some resources are available from the Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 6, Music, storytelling, the peats and some seaweed harvesting

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19th June 2013

I have fallen into a slightly different rhythm here, staying up later than I usually would and not seeming to get to bed until after midnight, waking after 8am, unless I have an earlier start. It isn’t dark until midnight and there is much to do. Before I go to bed I upload files, recharge batteries, empty memory cards and back up material. I write these diaries if I still have the time and the energy.

Last night I fell asleep with the sound of melodeons, fiddles and guitars still dancing in my ears, and the clear Hebridean voices of Faram, a group of around twenty young traditional musicians who practice together on a Wednesday evening. When I asked the young people at the end of their session which of their cultural activities are most important to them, of course there is music, but in unison to my surprise, they all called out, “Cutting the peat!” It is fun and it is cool. It is communal, and it is hard work.

Families in a village are allocated a peat bank (each with its own Gaelic name) and traditionally the cutting of the peats for the winter fire is a communal activity. Not everyone still uses the peats but I found it still to be common across the Hebrides. The peat forms over thousands of years in wet areas where the waterlogged bog slows decomposition of the vegetation. Once cut it is dried and stacked, the stacking being a highly regarded art form.


This morning is wild and wet. Clouds are a drooping, grey blanket outside my bedroom window, dripping steadily on the sea. I am driving 30 minutes south to meet Lewis who works for the Hebridean Seaweed Company. He still prefers to use manual methods of harvesting, though much of the company uses more modern plant and machinery. As I drive I am thanking my foresight for the elements cover I bought in preparation for my camera. My little GoPro video will also come into its own with its waterproof casing. It has already been in the sea and in the lochs. Today it will simply be in the rain.

I turn left to Loch Erisort, a sea loch that carves a long thin arm inland. The Kestrel sits upturned at the head of the bay, elegantly resting in the grass. Her old mahogany hull is studded in neat rhythmic lines with copper nails. She was used by one of the last original seaweed cutters, towing in the seaweed on baited ropes from the stern.

Lewis harvests seaweed with a sickle, cutting above the root so that it grows again. Today the tide is low but some days he wades out up to his waist to pull it in. When I ask him why he cuts this way he tells me it is about keeping a traditional industry and heritage going. He likes the manual labour, the peace of sea and the sky around him, the seasons that come and go. “I’m a relic of the past”, he says, bringing a traditional industry back to life using traditional methods”.

He tells me of the many uses for seaweed and shows me some different varieties: Bladder Wrack which lives for up to 60 years, Fucus, Pelvetia, Dulse, Sea Lettuce and Sugar Kelp, all growing here on the shore. He is full of interesting details about the plants and their contemporary uses as hair loss treatments, cosmetics, food products and fertilisers.

The truck is arriving at Loch Erisort and it is time to head back to Point where I am meeting with Chrisella, a storyteller by profession.

When I arrive she is outside, bucketing some peats from her stack for the fire. It is a warm welcome, sitting in the window seats around a wooden table by the kitchen fire, with our cups of tea, and I settle in to hear some of the stories she has to tell.

Storytelling is another important part of the culture and its oral traditions, and Chrisella learnt many of her songs and stories on her father’s knee as a child. Most patiently she tells me the stories in both Gaelic and in English, and the music of the Gaelic language paints the pictures for me that the English words told.

Before I leave I am served some beautiful herring, bought fresh from the boats and fried in oatmeal. Any remainder, I am told, are salted in layers of salt to preserve them.

It is a full day today because this evening I am travelling to the far north tip of the island to meet the Ness Melodeon Band and share their practice session in the village hall. Jayne comes along too to dance some step dances as they play.

(For more information on seaweed, peats and some music you can visit the Digital Resources page of the blog)