Tunes for a Monday Morning

On the coast of South Iceland

On a snowy morning here on Dartmoor, my thoughts have turned northward to the beautiful "Island Songs" created by Icelandic musician and composer Ólafur Arnalds. Arnalds travelled for seven weeks to seven locations, creating seven new works in collaboration with a range of other musicians, each performance documented by Icelandic film director Bladvin Zophoníasson.

Island SongsAbove, Week One: Árbakkinn, a collaboration with poet Einar Georg, filmed in Hvammstangi.

"Colorful fishing vessels are often moored in the tiny harbour of Hvammstangi," says Arnalds, "a town that sits in the eastern shore of the Miðfjörður. The name is derived from hvammur, which means 'a green space in a mountain.' The town is home to Einar, a poet and professor of Icelandic language and literature."

Below, Week Two: 1995, a collaboration with organist Dagný Arnalds, filmed in Önundarfjörður.

"The shores of Önundarfjörður are surrounded by picturesque valleys and mountains -- but in winter this can be a harsh and treacherous landscape. In October 1995, a devastating avalanche struck the village of Flateyri, and now, next to the church, sits a memorial stone bearing the names of all the people whose lives were lost. Dagný is a music teacher who lives in this remote place and plays the organ and harmonium in the local churches of Flateyri and Holt."

Above, Week Three: Raddir, a collaboration with conductor Hilmar Örn Agnarsson and composer Georg Kári Hilmarsson in Selvogur.

"A small, wooden stave church, known as The Church of Sailors, sits in a solitary landscape, with views of the ocean from a lonely beach. Hilmar and Georg, father and son, gather here with a chamber choir made up of people from the local area."

Below, Week Six: Particles, a collaboration with vocalist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (Of Monsters & Men), filmed in Garður.

"Nanna is from the tiny, scattered community of Garður on the Reykjanes peninsula. Two lighthouses sit on the wind-battered seafront, and one of them is the setting for Particles."

Below, Week Seven: Doria, filmed in Reykjavik.

"Reykjavík is my home," says Arnalds. "For this final week I wanted to concentrate on the people around me, because ultimately it is people, even more than places, who inspire my music and art. Doria was filmed at Iðnó Concert Hall, where I gathered my closest friends, family and the Island Songs contributors for the project's final recording session."

Seals in Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, music from the members of Salt House, a Scottish folk trio consisting of Ewan MacPherson (from Shooglenifty), Lauren MacColl (from the all-women fiddle group Rant), and Jenny Sturgeon (whose project Northern Flyaway, about the music, folklore, and ecology of birds, we discussed a few weeks ago). They've just released a beautiful new album, Undersong, which I highly recommend. The album was recorded in an old Telford church (converted into an arts studio) on the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides.

Above: "Staring at Stars," written by Ewan MacPherson, with a video of the making of Undersong in the church by the sea on Bernaray.

Below: "Charmer," written by Jenny Sturgeon, inspired by Robert Burns' "Now Westlin' Winds."

West Beach, Isle of Berneray, by Ruth Fairbrother

Above: "Ruisgarry," composed by Lauren MacColl, named for a crofting township on Bernaray -- performed here with Ewan MacPherson in a cottage in the Trossachs in 2015.

Below: "Turn Ye to Me," a mournful song of the sea by Highland poet John Wilson (1785-1854), with music composed by Jenny Sturgeon -- performed here by the Salt House trio for the Cabin Sessions last November.

A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay

Above: "The Selkie Song" by Jenny Sturgeon, a gorgeous rendition of Scottish selkie lore -- performed here with Jonny Hardie (from Old Blind Dogs) on the Isle of May (a nature reserve in the Outer Firth of Forth) in 2014. Backing vocals are by the Isle of May staff. The song can be found on Sturgeon's second solo album, From the Skein.

Below, to end with: "Old Shoes," Sturgeon's lovely paean to walkers and wanderers -- beautifully performed by Salt House in Aberdeenshire two years ago.

Causeway to Bernaray by Nick Corbett

Photographs: West Beach on Bernaray by Ruth Fairbrother. A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay (from The National Trust for Scotland). The causeway to Bernaray from North Uist by Nick Corbett. All rights reserved by the photographers.


On a dark day in Devon

Oak 1

"This far north, the changes from winter to spring and from summer to autumn are rapid," wrote Sharon Blackie in 2012, when she was living on a croft in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. "In spring, a sudden clatter of light announces that winter is over; then one day around the beginning of September you wake up to find that summer slipped away while you weren't paying attention. There is none of the drawn out descent that characterizes the long sleepy slide into autumn in more southerly places.

"And so now here we are, entering that Long Darkness....In places like this, at this time of year, there are no distractions from being. And so we are now becoming engaged in our own responses to this lengthening darkness, to the more vivid reality of simply being. The process reminds me of the work I used to do as a narrative therapist, using personal storytelling and mythmaking with people undergoing life crisis or transitions. That descent into the underworld which underpins our most compelling myths and fairy stories is a real phenomenon for everyone -- whether or not we choose to heed the 'call to adventure.' For me, such descents have always been a time of deep excitement mixed with a little apprehension at whatever I might be allowing to enter next into my life. Though now, of course, I'm describing a different kind of descent, a seasonal -- annual --  descent into another mode of being as the year closes in and headspace opens up."

Oak 2

"This Outer Hebridean darkness is one of the inextricable links between place, weather and seasons which play a major role in our imaginative lives. Because weather and seasons are the foundations of our sense of belonging to a place. Curiously, perhaps, weather is rarely mentioned in writing about the sense of place. And yet, it is weather that largely shapes a place and its landscape.

"The islands of the Outer Hebrides, for example, are as they are precisely because of centuries of wind and driving rain. The land is boggy, treeless, hard, pared to the bones -- and possessed of a vivid, uncluttered clarity precisely for that reason. It's always surprising that so many people who come to live in these islands begin to long for periods of hot dry wind-free sunshine and to complain bitterly about the weather, as though the weather could somehow be extracted and then you'd be left with a place that was so much more reasonable to live in. But hot dry sunshine isn't the Outer Hebrides, it's Provence or Tenerif...or so many other places, but not this place."

Oak 3

"Weather is what you walk in, along with landscape, when you walk in a place. It isn't something accidental that happens to you as you walk on the surface of the earth: it's intrinsic. Anthropologist Tim Ingold writes about this in his book, Being Alive:

" 'To inhabit the open is not, then, to be stranded on a closed surface but to be immersed in the incessant movements of wind and weather, in a zone wherein substances and medium are brought together in the constitution of beings that, by way of their activity, participate in stitching the textures of the land....Sea and land are engulfed in a wider sphere of forces and relations comprise the weather-world. To perceive and to act in the weather-world is to align one's own conduct to the celestial movements of sun, moon and stars, to the rhythmic alterations of night and day and the seasons, to rain and shine, sunlight and shade.' "

Tree in rain

Village in rain

Mossy branches

"All over the world," wrote Gretel Erhlich in Orion Magazine in 2004, "the life of rocks, ice, mountains, snow, oceans, islands, albatross, sooty gulls, whales, crabs, limpets, and guanaco once flowed up into the bodies of the people who lived in small hunting groups and villages, and out came killer-whale prayers, condor chants, crab feasts, and guanaco songs. Life went where there was food. Food occurred in places of great beauty, and the act of living directly fueled people’s movements, thoughts, and lives.

"Everything spoke. Everything made a sound -- birds, ghosts, animals, oceans, bogs, rocks, humans, trees, flowers, and rivers -- and when they passed each other a third sound occurred. That’s why weather, mountains, and each passing season were so noisy. Song and dance, sex and gratitude, were the season-sensitive ceremonies linking the human psyche to the larger, wild, weather-ridden world....

"When did we begin thinking that weather was something to be rescued from?"

Oak dog

Books by Gretel Ehrlich

EarthLines Magazine  November 2012

 The passage by Sharon Blackie is from the Editorial page in EarthLines Magazine, November 2012. The passage by Gretel Ehrlich is from "Chronicles of Ice" in Orion Magazine, November 2004. The poem in the picture captions is from The Wrong Music by Olive Fraser (Canongate, 1989).  All rights reserved by the authors or their estates. 


Away with the Birds

Two years ago, in a Monday Tunes post, I recommended Away With the Birds by Hanna Tuulikki. This week, while we're on the subject of birds, I'd like to look closer at this powerful, unusual composition and performance project. Tuulikki, of English and Finnish heritage, studied environmental art at The Glasgow School of Art and is now based in Edinburgh, where she creates interdisciplinary works deeply rooted in myth, folk history, and the natural world.

In an interview by Sharon Blackie, Tuulikki explains:

"Away With the Birds/ Air falbh leis na h-eòin is a multi-artform project exploring the mimesis of birds in Scottish Gaelic song poetry, and at its heart is a vocal composition written for a ten-person female vocal ensemble. The score reinterprets archive recordings, texts, and living traditions, weaving together fragments of songs and poems that are imitative of birdsong into a textural tapestry of sound. Over five movements, the music journeys through communities of waders, seabirds, wildfowl and corvids, evoking sea, shoreline, cliffs, moor and woodland habitats. Within the composition, there is never a soloist -- rather, each vocal part contributes to the whole. The ensemble sing the sea, the winds, and the motion of birds -- wading on the shoreline, swooping before cliffs, and beating skeins, calling to mind the ecotones were species meet. 

"Two years ago, on the Isle of Canna, in the Hebrides, we performed the composition within the harbour -- along the shoreline, in the water, and on a skein-shaped platform -- with speakers set up, to amplify and drift the voices across the water to the audience, mingling and interacting with the sounds of the island. As the music ebbed and flowed, my intention was to create a space for listening and for becoming present, for tuning into a sonic continuum that reaches into the 'more-than-human' world.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"The idea for the work emerged from my interest in music from around the world, and noticing that in cultures where people have intimate connection with the land, they are also good mimics of the sounds around them -- their music seems to grow directly out of the sounds of the environment....

"Ethnomusicologist Ted Levin describes this tradition as 'sound mimesis' -- the use of sound to represent and interact with the natural environment and the living creatures that inhabit it, and more broadly the exploration of 'representational and narrative dimensions of sound-making.' He describes a spectrum of sound mimesis ranging from 'sound' to 'song,' from iconic imitation to stylized evocation, and symbolic metaphor or representation. It's my belief that our music, and perhaps even our language, have their origins in 'sound mimesis,' evolving from our listening to the sounds of the animate landscape. And so I began to seek out a musical tradition like this, closer to home.

"I decided to focus particularly on birds because of my childhood interest in them, but mostly because I am deeply affected by their sounds! The complex musical patterns of songbirds never fail to impress, the haunting calls of the waders across the water move me, and the chattering vocalizations of certain seabirds make me laugh! I listen in awe at this more-than-human music."

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

"When I began to investigate traditions in the English-speaking world, I found only two songs imitative of actual bird sounds -- 'The Cuckoo' and 'The Blackbird,' which are actually of Irish and Manx origin. There are plenty of songs about birds -- for example, 'The Birds in the Spring' or 'Polly Vaughn' -- but it appears that the only symbolic and representational aspect of mimesis remains here.

"As my search continued, I discovered a wellspring of Scottish Gaelic tradition, preserved mainly in the Western Isles, which seems to reach deeper into mimesis, perhaps because people's intimacy with the land was maintained for longer. The songs and poem imitate the sounds and evoke the movements of various species of birds -- mainly waterbirds -- which is indicative of the Western Isles landscape. There are songs of seabirds that nest on cliffs -- kittiwakes, guillemots, Manx shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels; waders such as oystercatchers and redshanks; wildfowl such as whooper swans and geese; and poems of corvids and cuckoo. The bird-sounds ghost through the melody of the songs, expressed in the words, vocables (non-lexical sounds) and rhythms and, collected together, reveal a spectrum of mimesis: some are directly imitative and others are more stylized. I think Gaelic lends itself to the mimesis of birds, because I believe the language has evolved through a close relationship with the land and its community of sounds.

Away With the Birds

Away With the Birds

Away With the Bird

"As well as imitating the birds, the songs carry symbolic and cultural meaning. One thing that I love about them, and it came as a surprise to me when I realized it, is that they are nearly all matrilineal -- either sung by women, from a woman's perspective, or about women. From work to leisure, birth to death, the songs have a social function rooted in women's activities and domains -- songs about the men out hunting the seabirds on the cliffs, and waulking songs about love; to magico-religious songs such as those about the redshank, a keening song to sing the departed safely over to the spirit world, and the oystercatcher, who does St. Bride's work of caring for children. As much as this project is about birds, and ancient traditional culture, it is also about women and, in the same way that Gaelic culture preserved sound mimesis, I often wonder about the significance of how women's songs appear to have also preserved those older traditions.

"These two aspects, the ecological mimesis and the matrilineal, became the conceptual and compositional framework for the piece, from the macro to the micro, from the wider shape of the project, to minute details. It is no coincidence that the piece is called Away With the Birds, with its double meaning! Contained within this musical portrait of the inter-relationship between bird and human is the recognition of a lineage 'outside' the written word, that stretches back to early hunter-gatherer cultures, for whom bird-calls and animal cries had magico-religious symbolism -- like the slay-toed fowlers who scaled the cliffs of St. Kilda, and the women who bore the song-poems."

Away With the Birds

Hannah Tuulikki

To learn more about Away With the Birds, visit the project's website and Tumblr journal. (The photos in this post are from the latter.) To follow Tuulikki's current projects, visit the artist's website.

To read Sharon Blackie's interview with Tuulikki in full, seek out the March 2017 issue of EarthLines Magazine. The magazine has stopped publication, but backlist issues are still available and I highly recommend them.

Videos above: "Away With the Birds, a taster" (2013), and "Red Bird Red Bird," another exploration of birdsong by Hannah Tuulikki (2014).

Words & pictures above: The quoted text is from "Voice and Gesture: Sharon Blackie Talks to Hannah Tuulikki" (Earthlines Magazine, Issue 17, March 20170); all rights reserved by Blackie & Tuulikki. The photographs are from the Away With the Birds Tumblr page; all rights reserved by Tuulikki.

Related posts: When Stories Take Flight (myths & folklore of birds) and The Speech of Animals.


Little gods of the field

The Haywain by Constable

In her essay "Crex-Crex," Scottish poet & essayist Kathleen Jamie reflects on a print of Constable's The Haywain hanging in her B&B on the island of Coll. When Constable packed up his easel after finishing the painting, she imagines:

"what he would have heard as he walked home through the fields  -- indeed, what we could hear if we could step into his painting -- would be the call of the corncrake. A corncrake is a brown bird, a kind of rail, not ten inches tall, which prefers to remain unseen in tall damp grass. It's call -- you'd hardly call it a song -- is two joined notes, like a rasping telephone. Crex Crex is the bird's Latin name, a perfect piece of onomatopoeia. Crex-crex, it goes, crex-crex.

"Perhaps, as he strolled home, Constable had a bit of fun trying to pinpoint the sound in the long grass. Perhaps he thought nothing of it, the corncrake being such a commonplace. 'Heard in every vale,' as John Clare said in his poem. The vales of Northamptonshire, the New Town of Edinburgh, in Robert Burn's Ayrshire, it was recorded in every county in the land from Cornwall to Shetland. In the last century, though, it has been utterly eliminated from the mainland, and if you'd like to hear or even see this skulking little bird of the meadow, you must set sail to the Hebrides."

Corncrake hidden in the meadow grasse

Ballyhaugh Coastline  Island of Coll; photograph by Allan McKechnie

Jamie does precisely this, traveling to Coll in the Inner Hebrides -- where she is met by Sarah Money, warden of the RSPB reserve on the island. One night, Money takes her to a distant field, which the two women quietly enter by torchlight:

"Hear them?" she whispers, and I nod.

What does is sound like? Like someone grating a nutmeg, perhaps. Or a prisoner working toward his escape with a nailfile. Crex-crex, crex-crex. We move forward a few paces at a time...it's almost impossible to tell where the sound is coming from. It's obviously on the ground -- you'd swear it was right under your feet, but it seems to jump and flit ahead. We walk on carefully, speaking in whispers until we've crossed the whole field, but the sound heard so clearly from the gate is still, somehow, ahead of us.

"It's unchancy. Fairy music is said to do this; to lead a man on in his confusion and drunkeness, to start, then stop, then begin again from another place, ever luring him on. This was not a beautiful music, it has to be said; hardly the art of the fairies. Mind you, it could be a goblin carpenter, sawing away at his little workbench, if you've had too many at the island disco and were of a fanciful mind."

Corncrake on the Isle of Coll

Explaining the corncrakes' demise, Jamie writes:

"The grim reaper came for the corncrake in the form of the mechanized mower. In the days of the scythe, when hay was long and cut later in the year, then heaped on slow-moving wains, the corncrake had long grasses to hide and breed in. The chicks would be fledged before the meadow was mown, and had plenty of time to escape the swinging blade. With mechanization, however, and a shift toward earlier cutting for silage, corncrakes, eggs, fledglings, and all have been slaughtered wholesale.

"The corncrake has long been in relationship with humans, its fortunes have waxed and waned as our own farm practices changed. When prehistoric people cleared woodland and developed agriculture, the bird's range extended: corncrake bones have been discovered in Stone Age middens. Indeed, Mrs. Beeton gives a recipe for roasted corncrake. You need four, and should serve them, if liked, with a nice bread sauce. But since Clare's 'mowers on the meadow lea' were likewise banished before the machine, the corncrakes' range has been reduced to a few boggy meadows on the islands. They are the same islands, ironically, whose human populations suffered such decline as ideas on farming changed. But old mowing practices lingered longer in the Hebrides, the fields being too small for machines, so this is where the bird is making it's last stand, and where conservation efforts are taking effect."

Corncrakes in the grass  RSPB photograph

The Isle of Coll

Jamie is determined to see, not merely hear, her bird, so she plants herself on an RSBP "corncrake viewing bench," with a view of two lush meadows, and waits.

"Corncrakes don't feature on Christmas cards, or sing after the rain. Their migration has none of the romance of swallows', though they cover the same distance. They arrive in spring, but we've forgotten that they are spring's heralds. They skulk in the grass like guilty things, hardly encouraging us to look to the skies. They offer us no metaphors about fidelity, or maternal dedication; they are just medium-sized brown birds. Nonetheless, I feel robbed -- denied one of the sounds of summer, which all our forebears would have known, that irksome little crex-crex. Why conserve them, other than it being our moral duty to another life form on this earth? If there is no 'clam'rin craik,' no 'noisy one of the rushes,' it betokens something out of kilter with the larger ecosystem on which ultimately, in as-yet-undiscovered ways, we all depend.

"That's what the ecologists and scientists will tell you. But there are things which cannot be said -- not by scientists, anyway. Another person arrives at the viewing bench...a man in young middle age, a holiday maker. We fall into conversation -- he obviously knows his stuff about birds. He has a young family with him on the island and, while they're on the beach, he has slunk off for an hour in the hope of spotting a corncrake. So here he is, an Englishman of higher education with a professional job, a family, a cagoule and good binoculars.

" 'Can I ask you why you like them? Corncrakes, I mean.'

" 'Well,' he said. 'They're like...little gods of the field, aren't they?'

"I could have punched the air. If corncrakes are rare, animism is rarer still. Anyone can clear his throat and talk about biodiversity, but 'Corncrakes...little gods of the field' will not get you published in ornithologists' journals. That's how I picture them now, however: standing chins up, open-beaked, like votive statues in the grass....

"There is talk of reintroducing corncrakes to England, so it might again crex through Constable's Dedham Vale. Till then the mainland's a diminished place; a thousand miles of country without one little god in the field."

Essays by Kathleen Jamie

Last photograph: Tilly snoozing on her fleece on the studio sofa, with Sightlines and Findings by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books/Peguin, 2012 & 2005). Both essay collections are highly recommended. The passages above are from Jamie's corncrake essay "Crex-Crex," from Findings. All rights reserved by the author.


The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist


The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

In her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag," Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place on the Lewis moor in the Outer Hebrides, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world:

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career," writes Starmore, "my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....

Thistle

"We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

Outdoor life on the summer pasture contributed "to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

The long road home

Highland cow

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape and Life on the Lewis Moor" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures:  These photographs are from my recent journey to the Isle of Skye, which is south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."

Related posts: "The Enclosure of Childhood" and "Finding the Way to the Green."


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

While thinking about the stories and language of place, I was reminded of the following passage from Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting. I read Bunting's book on my recent journey from Devon to the Isle of Skye, where it proved a fine introduction to a landscape steeped in Gaelic history, culture, and folklore.

"Every nation," she writes, "has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes that "Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: Sheep in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye. 


The Writer's God is Mercury

Skye 1

Skye 2

I was sad to learn that EarthLines magazine has come to an end after an excellent run of 17 issues -- although I understand the need of its editors (Sharon Blackie and David Knowles) to move on and make time for their own writing, as this is precisely what Midori Snyder and I did when we ended our Journal of Mythic Arts after a decade of publication.

I recently came across the very first issue Earthlines, published in March 2012 from a remote croft on the Isle of Lewis -- not far, as the crow flies, from where I was staying last week on the Isle of Skye. One of the issue's treasures is an interview with Jay Griffiths, whose brilliant work (Wild, Kith, Pip Pip, etc.) takes up a fair amount of space on the Favorite Books shelf in my studio. In an exchange that seems even more timely now (in our current political climate), Sharon asks the author:

"How can you bear to see what is happening to the wild places of the earth that you see so clearly and love so much? The places, the ways of life that you write about with such passion in Wild, and that are threatened -- do you feel powerless because of the nature of the threats; does it instead force you to action (and if so, what's the source of the energy needed in that action -- anger? Desperation? Love?) Put simply, how do you live with it?"

Skye 3

"It is an injured, limping world, yes," Griffith responds. "Its vitality is reduced, yes, as if the full spectrum of the rainbow is being painted out with grey. The extinctions of this era -- extinctions of culture and of species, extinctions of minds and philosophies and languages -- will haunt the future in bleached and muted reproach, yes. And yet, and yet, and yet -- I want to paint the rainbow, as far as I can, prismatically, through language. You cannot ultimately break a rainbow, you can only fail to see its myriad, shattered beauties. And I believe in beauty as I believe in goodness, that people are profoundly good in spite of it all, and that when people know about a situation they can care about it.

"That is where the role of the writer comes in. The writer's god is Mercury the messenger, speaking between worlds. We listen to the world we can hear and see, and we speak to the other side, to the world of the reader."

Skye 4

Trotternish Peninsula

"What do you make of the new growing interest in writing about nature, place, and the environment?" Sharon asks. "Do you see it as part of a process of change, a good thing, a vehicle for transformation -- or does it just refect a passive nostalgia for the things people have already given up on?"

Skye 5

Griffith answers: "When the tread is thinnest...when we sense the tragedy of endings...when life and grace is threatened by deafness and ugliness...when tenderness is bullied...when fences of enclosure overshadow the last scrap of commons...then, which is now, comes a ferocity on the side of life, to protect, to cherish and to envoice what cannot speak in human language."

It is my belief that this is a task that belongs to writers and other creators in the Mythic Arts field as well.

Skye 6

The first and last issues of EarthLines

Words: The passages above come from EarthLines: Nature, Place, and the Environment (Issue 1, May 2012); all rights reserved by Sharon Blackie and Jay Griffiths. Back issues of the magazine are available here, and well worth collecting. Pictures: The photographs were taken last week on the Isle of Skye. Descriptions can be found in the picture captions.


There and back again

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

Howard and I are back home in Chagford after a magical journey to Faerieland (also known as the Isle of Skye), where we celebrated various birthdays, anniversaries, book awards and other milestones in the lives of a group of good friends. 

I'm taking a couple of days to catch up on work, then Myth & Moor will resume regular posting on Wednesday.

Isle of Skye

Isle of Skye

"Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors."  - Terry Pratchett (A Hatful of Sky)

Isle of Skye

“Traveling -- it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”  - Ibn Battuta (Travels)

Isle of Skye

And now you'll be telling stories
of my coming back

and they won't be false, and they won't be true
but they'll be real...

- Mary Oliver (from A Thousand Mornings)

Isle of Skye