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.