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 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)