The landscape of story
The unwritten landscape

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. 

Comments

With Beauty may we walk. . .

Welcome back, Terri! This post is relevant to me because I am reading the Tain right now - which seems to be interwoven with the landscape of Ireland. It was when I was in France speaking French that I realized the aliveness of language - that language was a living thing, rather like a work of art that leaves its creator and obtains a life of its own. With language, it's a communal art - it changes as it's used on a daily basis. I'm glad that Gaelic hasn't been allowed to leave us - that it is studied so that it can give us another way to see the world.

Anyways, glad you're back and hope all is well in your world.

Beautiful language can be. And, like Gaelic the language of my mother's people is one that connects, weaves, enfolds Nature as she is ... Older Sister, Older Brother. There is a word in 'Olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian) Mauliauhonua which is my chosen path. It is in bare-bones English "a family intimate with the place they live." Of course in practice is it ... JUST THAT. An everyday crofting as you quoted above: "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."

Your post (like so many you share here) comforts me in spite of the other evidence to the contrary. Sweet sentiments your way across the waters, dear Terri and your family: Thank you!

"You win me," the Highlands said to me as I drove over one of the mountain passes on my way to stay with friends in the little townlet of Montgarrie (near Alford.) I so get the bits of that poem.

Jane

A breath of fresh air in a smog-laden world. I can breathe more easily now. Blessings to you, now and always, dear Terri!


Finding Ériu

...so the names of topographical features are often the same
as those for parts of the body.
Madeleine Bunting

These narrow woods
form the waist of the goddess
cinched on either side
by limestone walls.

She breathes in wet loam
and blossoms, loosens
the wind's drawstrings
dispelling ancient secrets and signs.

Some are green. Some belong
to wise women who walked
in her body before me. Yet now

I become this part
of her person untwisting
that sacred silence lost

days ago when light
could no longer reach unfiltered
or spark words from syllables
rubbed together like stones
to engender a spell or poem.


These narrow woods
form the waist of the goddess
cinched on either side
by limestone walls.

She breathes in wet loam
and blossoms, loosens
the wind's drawstrings
dispelling ancient secrets and signs.

Some are green. Some belong
to wise women who walked
in her body before me. Yet now

I become this part
of her person untwisting
that sacred silence lost

days ago when light
could no longer reach unfiltered
or spark words from syllables
rubbed together like stones
to engender a spell or poem.
_________________________
I learned thatat Ériu is derived from the old Irish meaning goddess of an abundant land. As the concept evolved, Ireland become associated with the body of the maternal deity. That idea fascinated me; and I thought of the landscape divided into regions that were attributed to various aspects of her form. The woods became her waist, the core, the latitude where physical and spiritual energy connect; as well as the inspirations for prayer, poem or spell

sorry for the double posting, it should simply read as this

Finding Ériu

...so the names of topographical features are often the same
as those for parts of the body.
Madeleine Bunting

These narrow woods
form the waist of the goddess
cinched on either side
by limestone walls.

She breathes in wet loam
and blossoms, loosens
the wind's drawstrings
dispelling ancient secrets and signs.

Some are green. Some belong
to wise women who walked
in her body before me. Yet now

I become this part
of her person untwisting
that sacred silence lost

days ago when light
could no longer reach unfiltered
or spark words from syllables
rubbed together like stones
to engender a spell or poem.

Always.

The Tain is simply wonderful -- thought I admit I've only read it in an English translation.

My husband says that one of the joys of speaking another language (he speaks French, Portuguese, and a bit of Spanish and German) is discovering who you are in that language, and seeing the world through the different mindset that the language engenders. I'm not fluent enough in to have experienced that...which is something I'm determined to change.

As I've been reading Hebridean history, I'm often struck by similarities to other indigenous traditions, particularly among North America's First Nations. Preserving these languages, these beliefs, these ways of life is vital if we're to craft modern ways of "walking in beauty" through our consumption-oriented culture.

Love to you and your family too.

I would love to be driving over those mountain passes with you. I'm so glad we had a wee bit of time together on Skye.

And to you, Ramona.

Oh, this is beautiful.

"...spark words from syllables
rubbed together like stones
to engender a spell or poem"


That image is going to haunt me all day.

Hi Terri

Thanks so much for reading and commenting on this poem! I am delighted you enjoyed and could relate. I first learned about the concept of Eriu
and its meaning from watching a special with John O'Donohue talking about the spiritual magic/history of the land on Cable. He was so incredibly brilliant and inspiring.

Take care
Wendy

Wendy, this is astonishing, thank you for your words!

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