Day 10, How people’s connection to a place can help it survive

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

Heather is the 18th letter of the Gaelic alphabet. U, ur in old Gaelic, Fraoch in modern Gaelic.

24 June 2013

It’s Monday. I drive west again, today to Bragar where Anne Campbell works as an artist, painting the beautiful colours of the moors; the russet browns and mossy greens, bright yellows and the dancing creamy whites of the bog cotton.

Anne is another who grew up spending time at her family sheiling, out on the moorlands with her father.

She explains how each pool of water or variation in the ground is identifiable and finely mapped in Gaelic names, to those who know the moors. The sheiling culture that facilitated this knowledge, continued into the 1950’s, and now, alongside the decline of people moving to the moor with their cattle for the summer, these Gaelic names are dying out. The names are largely remembered through song and stories.

The significance of this is important, Anne tells me. For a place to slip into anonymity poses a threat to its wellbeing. If we are all like strangers on the road seeing only vast, empty landscapes, that to many may appear difficult and forbidding, what is there to prevent the destruction of that landscape, she asks.

In the words of a “geographically removed” proponent of large-scale moorland wind farms, she tells me the moorlands were described as “miles and miles of nothing”.

Large, foreign-owned companies have proposed massive wind farms on the Lewis Peatlands that, to date, have not been approved due to the environmental significance of moorland and its function as a carbon sink. Anne wonders, if the names and the landscapes were still known by all, if people remained more connected, would this threat exist? As crofters are offered money, perhaps a delicate balance might be tipped. But why do we want money, says Anne, and many like her. We have what we want.

There is, as in any community, a range of views. Some think a few windmills on a smaller scale might be beneficial to the community. Others do not want any disturbance to the moors, its cultural significance, and the important ecosystem it supports. I did not meet any locals who were in favour of a large-scale development, though I make no claims of having spoken to everyone.

Anne points to a hill in her painting and then through her window. That is Beinn A’ Bhoghalan, the name from the west side of the hill. The map says Beinn Mholach, the name as viewed from the east side of the hill. The name from the west is disappearing.

Moorlands are full of stories of faeries and the supernatural; they were places of edgy excitement for the children who played at the wild freedom of the sheiling, and the songs and the poetry of activities on the moors live vividly on in the consciousness of local people today.

It is late afternoon and from Bragar I am driving south again towards Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.

I stop on my way at the Iron Age Norse mill and kiln in Shawbost, that I see marked on the map. The small building is hunkered down under thick thatch, roped in place with the weight of boulders, which hang to secure the thatch. Powered by the stream that runs from Loch Roinavat, the corn mill and kiln were in use up until the 1930’s.

Back in the car and following the road south through Càrlabhagh (Carloway), I can’t resist taking another stop at Callanish, revisiting the site of the stones in the daylight. But my destination is Tarbert and a Gaelic drama production run by Pròiseact nan Ealan, in conjunction with the schools. Pròiseact nan Ealan works nationally and internationally to promote Gaelic language and culture through the arts. They are also a supporter of this residency. Thank you Pròiseact nan Ealan!

It is hard to find the time to write a little each day – I am on the go from dawn to dusk, and dusk is 11.30pm. But that is good.

(I am adding some more information to the Digital Resources page of the blog)

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Day 8, The Moor and The Pentland Road

20B shielling9458 60022 June 2013

It is Saturday and I don’t wake until 9.30am. It has been another late night enjoyed over a glass of wine with Erica and Alasdair in their cosy sitting room by the fire, after getting home in the very early morning from the solstice activities at Callanish.

So it is a slow start to Saturday and I do not wander out until afternoon. The rain is falling in soft sheets as I head for the Pentland Road, a moor road that crosses the peats to Carloway. The road is narrow single track, rutted and less used, and fits prettily into the moor. I am going here to see some moorland shielings.

The shielings are brightly painted But ‘n Bens, traditionally used by families when they transferred themselves and their herds to graze the moors for summer, and left the coastal pastures for growing their crops. Everyone talks of summers at the shielings with a wistful look in their eye and a smile that flickers with memories recounted. The shielings are not an entrenched part of life as they used to be, though people will still visit their shieling on the moor. But the stories from the past are full of freedom and playfulness as the women and children and old people stayed with the livestock, while the men were at sea. Much mythology and song springs from this time, stories rising from the mists and the peat fires, songs for the milking and the activities of the day.

I spend the whole afternoon wandering the moor, sinking my feet deep into the heather and moss and the peat, soaking my shoes and my jeans in the rivers as I clamber deeper to film swirling weed under clear amber water. Not a sound, just the sky larks trilling and dipping through the air, water tumbling by and heather heavy with insect life.

(There is some more information on the Pentland Road on the blog Digital Resources page)