The Gaelic Alphabet, and Belonging to a Place

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This last post from Scotland, before I move onto Australia, is here because I think it demonstrates how essentially connected to the landscape we are. This is the essence of Grounded; that because of this intrinsic connection, perhaps the world might better survive by embracing our environment, connection to place and the traditional cultures that uphold this.

The first morsel that I think demonstrates this is that the connection is even the essence of language: “Scottish Gaelic is written with just 18 letters each of which is named after a tree or shrub”. (Listed below. From Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages)

(You can learn also about the lore behind each tree in the alphabet at Mandy Haggith’s website)

A – Ailm(Elm)

B – Beith(Birch)

C – Coll(Hazel)

D- Dair(Oak)

E – Eadha(Aspen)

F – Fearn(Alder)

G – Gort(Ivy)

H – Uath(Hawthorn)

I – Iogh(Yew)

L – Luis(Rowan)

M – Muin(Vine)

N – Nuin(Ash)

O – Oir/Onn(Gorse)

P – Peithe(Guelder Rose)

R – Ruis(Elder)

S – Suil(Willow)

T – Teine(Furze)

U – Ur(Heather)

Secondly, from the Visit the Hebrides website:

“A Gael is identified by his or her sloinneadh, an enumeration of ancestors (usually patrilineal descent) and by a home village. The first two questions that any native Gael would traditionally ask a Gaelic-speaking stranger are Có leisthu? and Có ás a tha thu? ‘Who do you belong to’ and ‘Where do you come from’, meaning not where your current residence is, but where you were born and raised. Typical phrases about locale are very interesting, as statements of origin translate in English, for example, as ‘I belong to Glen Uig’. People are conceptualised as belonging to places, not the other way round.”

This concept that people belong to place and not the other way around is the same in Australian Aboriginal culture which I’ll start posting about next.


Day 23, A Fog of Weariness

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12 July 2013

The last day of Ceòlas is today. We walk around in a fog of weariness. I can barely think what to pack for the day. When I arrive at my class of reels and quadrilles the thought of spinning is enough to make me feel slightly ill. But when the music starts there is nothing to stop us. Our spirits lift to the beat and our feet move against our will. My favourite quadrille is a new one I have learnt, in six parts, a complexity of weaving and twirling and passing from one to the next. The best surprise in this dance is when each couple takes off at a fast skip around the hall, light of foot and hands joined, I feel like a child on a spring day.

I chat with Frank about the dancing and he talks of how even today at ceilidhs on the islands, women will sit on the row of red-cushioned chairs lined down one side of the hall, and await a man’s request to dance. It is tradition, he says.

He talks about how the forms of a dance can be influenced by place. On Eriskay they dance more in the homes, he says, and the lack of space has effected how the dances have evolved.

Dances can be influenced by patterns elsewhere too, he says. In England there is more handclapping than in Scotland, but in the last twelve years, three claps of the hands have materialized in the Dashing White Sergeant. First it arrived in Edinburgh, then Perth and Stirling. Now we are even doing this in the Western Isles.

The last event of Ceòlas, Crossover, is when all the classes combine to put on a small performance for the village and each other; fiddles and pipes with dancers, clarsach with singers, singers with dancers. It is a heartwarming testament to the living culture of Scotland.

Walking home in the dark along the single-track road, the grasses swishing at the roadside, silver shining on the loch. The gentle breeze blows a cool finger across my cheek, tickling my hair. Soft black velvet, no light, just one glowing in the distance that Morag leaves on to guide me home, and only once a glare of headlights that blind me, pushing me onto the verge. Then the return to silvery stillness. Always the sweet smell of salt and sand. 2am – the bewitching hour. It is always the time I arrive home on South Uist.

We have been at the final ceilidh mor, ablaze with fiddles and pipes and voice and step; strings and voices that could dazzle any world stage, rich and clear and powerful; fast and precise. We fill the Borrodale hotel for one last time after the ceilidh, and the pipes play on, the voices rock the roof. “Take my hand and lead me to the Uists”, the song I have heard most often here. See you next year everyone says. I hope so.

My next post will come from Australia, from the second part of the Grounded residencies. I hope you will join me there too.

Day 21, Tha mi sgìth!


11 July 2013

I take much pleasure in the shifting and rustling of the roadside as I walk my few miles to Ceòlas and home: the rich vanilla of bog cotton, sumptuous as cream and soft as cloud; great sunny Iris on tall slender stems; cushions of pink and purple clover; tall proud thistles; and the brilliant green of grasses; then the hum of bees, the fleeting blue of a dragonfly hatching by the lochs, the flashing colour of moths in the grass.

Each day I am glad I do not have the hire car any more – such a simple change but with such effect.

Last night was the dance at Eriskay village hall. After another hot sunny day a low fog rolled across the machair as the evening cooled. Angus, our Ceòlas minibus driver, patiently drove around to collect those of us without cars:

“We pile into the bus with fiddles and pipes and laughing voices, and the young lads we are collecting with their bottle of whiskey. Of course, singing starts up, not a drunken brawl but a tapestry of perfectly tuned male voices, confident and full of anticipation. We roll along country roads, rocking the little white bus with laughter and song, and a babble of Gaelic.

The dance is in full swing by the time we arrive, light feet flying, dancers weaving intricate patterns, young and old following an invisible thread that will hover in the air long after the people are gone. No young lad is too cool to dance; many asking someone old enough to be their mother to dance, and matching their lightness of step.

It is 2am and Angus is here to escort us home. There is still light in the sky, a silvery blue across the horizon where the sun is resting for a couple of hours, before it journeys skyward again at dawn.

Tha mi sgìth! (I am tired)”.

Day 20, Gaelic music and a house ceilidh

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9 July 2013

There is a fine mist throwing moisture over everything this morning as I walk into Daliburgh. And there are signs of Ceòlas on the road; a young boy walking with his fiddle case, the sounds of the pipes drifting towards me from Borrodale Hotel. It is 9am.

Today I am joining the step dance class, and reels and quadrilles. It is intense getting from one to the next and managing a cup of tea somewhere in there too. I don’t make it to the Gaelic class which runs between first and second choice classes. I am pacing myself for the day.

By 4 o’clock the mist has burnt off and the sun is intense. A bus is waiting for those who want to go for a walk on the island of Eriskay.

Dòmhnall Ruairidh takes us along the shoreline to Roisnish, telling us snippets from history as we go, and the island of Barra comes with us as we walk, a curve of shadowy hills on the horizon. Returning over the single-track road, we stop at a grassy verge with a view, for a dram and a plentiful supply of home baking. Home baking appears regularly throughout the day here; cakes and scones, pancakes, shortbread and dumpling. Peggy, I believe, is up until 3am each day baking behind the scenes.

It is scorching in the sun and I struggle to shade myself from this unaccustomed burning, sinking into the grass and closing my eyes. We are seated in a large group, and as is the norm, someone starts singing. The group sways to the music, joining in with the chorus. I swear there must be enough Gaelic songs to wrap the entire length and breadth of the islands and back again in a cocoon of stories from the crofts or the sea; of love and of loss, or describing some activity of the day.

In true South Uist style we are still on the hill at 7pm; sun floating high in a summery sky. I know transport is organised for the house ceilidhs tonight at 8pm. I am only just home and showered when my lift arrives to take me to Father Mackay’s of St Peters.

Ceilidh means a meeting of friends. The singing and dancing traditionally happened in the barns or homes of the village, and this tradition is continued in house ceilidhs today. During Ceòlas, these ceilidhs are spread over 6 or 7 homes around the village, but I am told we move between them as the night goes on.

The villages here are not clustered around a square as in other parts of Scotland, but spread widely across the landscape, houses seemingly randomly scattered. But after Father Mackay’s I don’t have to move far, just across the road to Mairi’s house. In both houses the living room is filled with song and fiddle, pipes and dance, the drinks passing round and a constant Gaelic banter.

When I finally leave, I walk the 2 miles home along the road, and once more the air is laden with moisture and mist, smelling of sweet, warm, dew-heavy grass. There is total silence in the dark, the loch a silver shimmer at the roadside and the hills a grey shadow against the stars.

2am – just home – and I am writing this. I know many are still roaming from one living room to another. Last night I hear they were still singing in the hotels and homes until 4am. This is late enough for me. I have work to do tomorrow.

(Check out the blog Scotland Digital Resources page for more on Ceòlas and Gaelic traditional music and language)

Day 18, Ceòlas music and dance school and festival

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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

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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

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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

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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 13, The Uists and Eriskay

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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)

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.