Day 15, Warmth under a wild grey sky

5B Canon MacQueen

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 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)