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.

20-6-2013

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)