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.

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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)