Day 6, Music, storytelling, the peats and some seaweed harvesting

12B Lewis9005 600p

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)

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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)