The unwritten landscape
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
I'm still following the thread that began with a discussion of Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles (about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland), then continued on through selkie tales and otter brides and other stories of the Celtic fringe. Today we're up in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis (in the text) and the nearby Isle of Skye (in the pictures)....
In the following passage, Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world. It's from her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape, and Life on the Lewis Moor":
"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.
"Over my whole career, 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.
"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).
"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).
"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."
"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....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."
Outdoor life on the summer pasture, notes Starmore,
"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."
For those of us writers and illustrators drawn to pastoral works of fantasy, set in magical lands full of rolling fields and farms, great swathes of ancient woodland and fishing villages nestled by the sea (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Pyrdain, etc.), it is both inspiring and instructive to read about historical and contemporary life in the remote regions of the world we inhabit, and the ways that landscape, language, and folk tradition shape the people and the stories that emerge from them.
Many writers live far from such rural spaces themselves. Can we conjure pastoral landscapes and people convincingly from writing rooms in modern cities or the suburbs, out of lives mediated by computer screens, not wind and rain and the cycles of the wild earth? I believe we can. That is what imagination and the writing craft are for. We're not social realists, we're fantasists. We tell the truth, like poets, but we tell it slant -- we clothe it in symbol, archetype, and metaphor. But if we are to write or illustrate fantasy well we must do the work of understanding the classic tropes we use as best we can. Through reading. Through research. Through curiosity and sensitivity about lives and traditions far different than our own. Through building a relationship to the wild wherever we are. Know the place and the land on which you are rooted, and then move outward from there.
Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The Isle of Skye (2017), south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. The final photograph, of Howard and me, was taken Ellen Kushner. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."