A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

From Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting:

"Every nation 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:

"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.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

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: The Fairy Glen near Uist, Isle of Skye. 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Western Duirinish coast  Isle of Skye

Since we were speaking of lives and literature from remote islands last week, I'd like to start the new week with music from some of those same islands. (I apologise for the lack of posts at the end of last week -- I've been down with health problems yet again.)

Above: "Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by singer/songwriter Julie Fowlis, from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appears on her beautiful and rather magical album Alterum (2017).

Below: Singer Ellen MacDonald discusses her maternal ties to North Uist and Scalpay during the recording of The Hebridean Sessions with the Gàidhealtachd band Dàimh. Though born and raised on the mainland (in Inverness), Macdonald studied at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic language college on the the Isle of Skye.

Above: "The Wren and the Salt Air," a song written by Jenny Sturgeon (of Salt House and Northern Flyway) while on St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. This haunting piece is one of four works commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland to celebrate the 30th anniversary of St Kilda's designation as a World Heritage Site for Nature.  Sturgeon trained as a biologist as well as a musician, and many of her exquisite songs evoke various aspects of the natural world. On this one, she's backed up by field recordings of St Kilda wrens, plus Pete MacCallum on guitar.

Below: "An Léimras/Harris Dance"  by Brighde Chaimbeul, a young pipe and whistle player who grew up in a musical family on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. The tune comes from Chaimbeul's debut album The Reeling (2019). The video was filmed by Dòmhnall Eòghainn MacKinnon over the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

Above: "Louise's Waltz" by Chris Stout and Catriona McKay, an award-winning folk duo from Shetland. The song appears on their album Bare Knuckle (2017).

Below: "Three Fishers" performed by Fara (Jennifer Austin, Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price, and Kristan Harvey), whose music is rooted in the distinctive fiddle style of Orkney. The song appears on their album Cross the Line (2017).

The Shetland and Orkney archipelagos lie off the northern coast of Scotland, and share musical influences from Scandinavia. 

And something a little different to end with: 

"Air Fàir an Là" by Niteworks (Ruairidh Graham, Allan MacDonald, Christopher Nicolson and Innes Strachan), a trad-electronica band from the Isle of Skye -- with vocals by Sian (Eilidh Cormack, Ellen MacDonald and Ceitlin Lilidh). The song is based on a 17th century poem by Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mary Macleod). It's from the band's strange but wonderful second album, also called Air Fàir an Là (2018).

Looking west from Skye to the Outer Hebrides

 For more music from the islands of Scotland, see previous posts on the lost songs of St. Kilda, Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thompson's Northern Flyway, the music of Salt House, the Songs of Separation project, and Hannah Tuulikki's Away with the Birds. Photographs above: The Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides.


Writers and islands

Barnhill

Having lost my heart to the Hebridean islands off Scotland's west coast, I'm fascinated by the archipelago's natural and cultural history. If you are too, I recommend David Brown's essay "Orwell's Last Neighborhood": a discussion of George Orwell's time on the remote island of Jura, where he wrote his most famous book. "The conventional wisdom," says Brown, "is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him, nearly robbing the world of 1984. None of his biographers or friends seemed to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it."

I also recommend "Island Mentality" by Madeleine Bunting, a short piece on Orwell and other writers drawn to the Hebrides -- along with her book-length survey of the islands: Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey.

And finally, I recommend three good novels set in the Hebrides: Anna Mazzola's darkly folkloric The Story Keeper, Sarah Moss' darkly comic Night Waking, and Andrew Miller's gripping early-19th-century saga Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

What are some of your favorite novels set on islands, real or imaginary? Mine include Margot Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (a selkie novel), Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, and the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Isle of Skyle

Hebridean fiction


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Tilly

This week, Appalachian ballads and American roots music played by musicians from both sides of the Atlantic....

Above: "I Must And Will Be Married," an American folk song from the Anglo-Scots tradition performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds -- from their forthcoming album Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin. The album was produced by Ben Walker here in the UK, with contributions from Justin Currie, Rory McLeod and Lisa Knapp, and the great Shirley Collins. It will launch at the Cecil Sharpe House in London in June, so if you're anywhere nearby, keep an eye out for tickets. This is a great project to support.

Below: "The Spider and the Wolf," written and performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds. It's from a previous album, A History Of Insolence (2015).

Above: "Gallows Pole" performed by American bluegrass musician Willie Watson, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, from his solo album Folksinger, Vol. II (2017). This Appalachian ballad is related to "The Maid from Freed from the Gallows" in the Anglo-Scots folk songbook.

Below: "I'm On My Way," peformed by the brilliant bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens, from North Carolina, with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi. The song will appear on their collaborative album There is No Other, due out next month.

Above: "Rain and Snow," an Appalachian ballad performed by American bluegrass musician Molly Tuttle and her band. This performance was recorded in Bristol, England, in 2016.

Below: "Jericho" by Mile Twelve, a five-piece bluegrass band from Boston (Evan Murphy, Catherine Bowness, Nate Sabat, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and David Benedict). The song is from their new album, City on a Hill (2019).

Above: "All in One" by Copper Viper (Robin Joel Sangster and Duncan Menzies), an American bluegrass & British folk duo based in London. The song is from their new album, Cut it Down, Count the Rings (2018).

And to end with something just a little different: "Pipeline Swallowtails" by Sarah Louise, a 12-string guitarist from North Carolina who is half of the Appalachian folk duo House and Land. The song is from her strange and magical solo album, Deeper Woods (2018).

Oakleaves