15 June 2013
It is my first day on the road. I pick up my friendly little hire car from the local garage, piling in camera, lenses, sound recorder and GoPro video camera; notebook and pens; maps and walking boots, warm clothes and rain gear; food and water. There is a spot for everything on the back seat.
I am driving across the Isle of Lewis, from east to northwest, over black and russet peat bogs, rich with age. I want to stop and feel the soft cushion of the peats under my feet, but I file the thought for another day as today I have an appointment in Aird Dell, twenty-four miles and almost an hour’s drive away.
Aird Dell is a windswept place. Beyond the houses, dotted on the landscape, washing twists around stretched lines, starched in the salt-laden air, flapping and pulling as the wind roars in from the sea. No shelter from trees or shrubs, just the full might of Atlantic air, sweeping over Machair and peat with only the washing in its path. I can sense the sweet, clean smell that will already consume the sheets and towels when someone comes to bring them inside.
Ceitlin welcomes me into her home. We push the door to against the roar of wind, and a stillness surrounds us as we settle at the wooden table of the kitchen. The kettle is on.
Ceitlin is a singer and it is with a natural ease that she slips into song for me. Her voice is as clear as the landscape around us, sharp and pure as the biting winds, freely filling the kitchen space with warmth.
Amongst other songs, Ceiltin sings Cumha do dh’Aonghas ‘Ic Ailein, written by Dòmhnall Mac a’ Ghobhainn, her great, great, great grandfather. It tells the sad story of his brother Angus’s departure for Canada during the Highland Clearances. Neither could read nor write and would never see nor hear from each other again. It is a true Gaelic story of loss and longing.
Ceitlin tells me how, as a child, her father would walk with her along the shore recounting the myths and legends of the area. These stories now form the basis of her budding song-writing career; a career that serves to carry on the oral traditions of the Hebrides
As she talks she heads for the phone. “I’ll call dad”, she says. “He will come and tell you some stories” – and Donald Ruadh quickly joins us.
Here are the bare bones of one of the stories he tells:
When the Vikings finally returned to Norway, so great was their love of Na h-Eileanan Siar, they took from the local maidens trusses of their hair, and from this, formed a rope strong enough to pull the islands back home with them. Today we can still see the hole in the rock – the Eye of the Butt of Lewis, through which they looped their rope, attaching the other end to their longships. But under the great strain of the pull, the islands began to split apart: The Uists, Barra, Eriskay… When Harris threatened to split away, with great sadness, they gave up their quest.
“Let’s go there”, says Donald Ruadh. We tumble into the wind and pull the car out along the narrow coast road. It is not long before we are again jumping out of the car to gaze across dancing clover and buttercups, beyond sweeping white sands and ice-green sea, to the scattered white houses and rocky outcrops which fill our view across to the Eye of the Butt of Lewis.
(The Scotland Digital Resources page has links to information about Machair and Ceitlin’s music)