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

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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)

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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.

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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)

Day 3, Sunday on the Isle of Lewis

16th June 2013

It is Sunday today. Here on the Isle of Lewis this is a special day.

Alongside the old Celtic beliefs, which still affect the workings of day to day life in the Hebrides, the islands also have strongly Christian communities; in the north predominantly the Free Church of Scotland, and in the south predominantly Catholic.

In Stornoway, the people of the Free Church still hold strong to the principals of rest on a Sunday; time spent with family and at church. All shops are closed, there is no public transport, and it is only recently that the ferry to the mainland has started to run on a Sunday. The streets of town are deserted until suddenly in the middle of the day or the late afternoon they swell with people; church-goers, relaxed and smart in dark suits and colourful hats, gathering to chatter and laugh on the stone steps of the church.

I am heading slightly out of town, along the northwards road from Stornoway, where a smattering of whitewashed houses spread out along the hillside, inboard from the sea.

I have the generous permission of Reverend MacLeod, of Back Free Church, to record the Gaelic psalms sung in his church. As the congregation shuffle and settle into their pews, I ready my recorder in the high, wooden balcony at the back of the church.

The first solo notes of the presenter lift into the air and the congregation lilts and turns in response, coming in at different times, inserting their own grace notes, which float to meet in the high church ceiling and blend in its void to a harmonious, other-worldly Sunday praise. It is said there’s a movement like the movement of the sea, in the singing of Gaelic psalms.

I am told that on a Sunday a thousand people would come together to sing in Gaelic. Today numbers have declined to perhaps a hundred at a Gaelic service, and with the younger generations, the psalms are more commonly sung at an English service.

When historically the education system discouraged the use of Gaelic, it was banned in the schools. However Gaelic remained the language spoken in the playground and at home in the Outer Hebrides. Today the situation has swung around. The use of Gaelic is encouraged by the system, but, suffering from these earlier policies, the language spoken in the playgrounds of the schools has become more commonly English.

It is still hoped that this can turn around. The 2011 census showed a slowing in the decline of the number of Gaelic speakers, with a small increase in the number of Gaelic speakers under the age of 20.

In the 2001 census, it was found around 60,000 (1.2%) of the 5 million inhabitants of Scotland spoke Gaelic as a first language. In the Outer Hebrides it was 15,723 inhabitants, (61.1% of the islands’ population).

These are my understandings but I am open to correction on my facts!

But back at the church … After cups of tea and cake, I take a drive over to Barvas beach, to walk across the Machair bobbing with buttercups and daisies in the breeze, brilliant with colour and the heady scent of pollen; to lie for a while in amongst the flowers and listen to the insects humming by my ears.

Machair is a rare habitat and is found only in the northwest of Scotland and in Ireland, with about half of the Machair found in Scotland being in the Outer Hebrides. Up to 90% of the content of Machair sand is seashell.

Traditionally, machair is used for grazing and rotational cropping and the traditional methods used sustain a profusion of wild flowers, which fill the air with their blossom. Up to 45 plant species can be found within one square metre. The machair is particularly important for the wildlife, birds and insects, which are abundant in the area.

(More information on the history of the Church. Machair and some Outer Hebrides facts can be found in links in the Scotland Digital Resources page)

Day 2; A Visit to Aird Dell

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)

 

Arriving in Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway)

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The train rumbles north. Layers of questions that tugged at me in the build up to my journey, peel away like snake skins, left to flutter in the breeze. With every familiar station name: Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, the air is changing to Highland air; startling yellow Whin is streaking past, and my body relaxes into the rhythm of the train and the dark murky purple of rocks and bracken, carved into the hillsides.

I have changed train at Perth, and again at Inverness. I have caught a bus west to Ullapool, and now, at the end of a long day’s journey from the Isle of Bute, I sit nestled into the ferry, gliding across a silent sea to Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway) on the Isle of Lewis.

Steòrnabhagh settles prettily around the sheltered harbour, with her castle keeping watch across the bay. Though the fishing fleet is not what it was in its heyday, boats still clank and thud against each other, and the soft plop, plop of water at their sides mixes with a rich, salty sea smell which emanates from wood and decks, and from rope and creels piled high on the wharf.

It is, I believe, a 9th Century town, founded by Vikings under the name of Stjórnavágr. But I welcome correction from those who know more about this than me. It is the largest town in Na h-Eileanan Siar (The Western Isles), with a population of just over 6,000 – about a third of the Isle of Lewis’ population.

The population of the Western Isles is around 27,500 and Gaelic is the first language spoken by most of the islands’ population. This is one reason for my journey here, to Na h-Eileanan Siar, on the first stage of my two artist residencies. Following this, the residencies take me in a sweeping arc across the world to the desert regions of Central Australia.

I hope you can join me on these journeys.