The Outer Hebrides are a shape-shifting, fluid landscape of lochside, moor and causeway where natural and inhabited boundaries are continually blended. The Uists-Berneray-Harris-Lewis line of travel north that I am making is not a straight line of ink on a page but rather like the dabbing of a paint-soaked sponge, releasing blotches of blue on green and green on grey. These splurges of mottled colour are linked together by a cultural narrative where people think nothing of driving two hours to attend a music gig (the Leverburgh musicians off the boat on their way to Ness, Lewis) or to assemble a bag of Harris Tweed samples over days of weaving (a gift from Morag Duncan for me to take back to the Voluntary Arts Scotland office).
“People on the islands like to hang onto stuff”, remarked several of my hosts. Whether keeping safe prehistoric remains at the Uig Historical Society, filling all available floor space with bails of Harris Tweed straight off the loom in Stornoway, or the surreal collection of crystal witches and wizards ornaments (and, bizarrely, a falconry display) at the tearoom next to the Callanish Standing Stones, there has been a lot of stuff to see.
We drove on under a vast sky,
past straggling villages and gawky churches.
I was telling you of pranks
at fank and peat-bog thirty years ago
when I heard the looms’ clater
like the grating of shingle
and found myself flailing
in an outgoing tide
Meg Bateman, Return Visit to Lewis, in Reflections
“There is no community spirit in Leverburgh. It’s not like the Uists. Don’t be expecting a party,” Ruari, manager of the Leverburgh Bunkhouse, bluntly announced. He told me this as a musician with guitar strapped to his back, went past the Bunkhouse window on his way to Ness, at the far tip of Lewis.
This contrasted with the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, originally formed by voluntary organisations, in Lochmaddy, North Uist. During a tour of the impressive archives, exhibition and studio spaces, Manager of Taigh Chearsabhagh Norman MacLeod explained how the centre has developed over the past twenty years to become a centre of excellence for the visual arts, of its use by voluntary arts film and poetry groups, and of new plans to make local, school-aged children members of the Trust that operates the centre in order that the young people learn curating and marketing skills and sustain an investment and pride in their community space throughout life. I got to enhance my own community life by joining some of the local women at a yoga class the following morning at Lochmaddy Community Centre.
Ruari attributed a perception of lack of community spirit in South Harris to a small population (1300) spread out over a large geographical area and the high number of holiday homes on the island with absent owners. Later in Uig, Malcolm Maclean also suggested that the individual, solitary work-ethic of Protestantism in Harris and Lewis compared with the communitarian values of Catholicism in Barra and the Uists (see the individual Scottish diaspora contrasted with the clustered Irish) might account for some of the differences first observed by a visitor.
I can’t comment on whether or not this is unduly harsh but on the night I stayed, Leverburgh felt cold and disconnected. I missed the freedom of my tent and the connectivity of places like Lochmaddy. Ruari suggested that I take a short walk to see the medieval Church in Rodel over the headland. Two hours battling against a north east head wind and five hours since breakfast on the island of Berneray, staring down onto the dark fjords below, I thought it might be time to move on. Somewhere lost on the way to church, my brother called and updated me with news from home while settling his baby son. He told me that ‘life’s a journey’ etc.
In her acclaimed ‘Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit suggests that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” She goes on to note that the word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los meaning the disbanding of an army; soldiers falling out of a formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. Thinking of all the places that I could have spent a Saturday night in the Hebrides, such as back in Barra at a Vattersay Boys gig, or with friends in Howmore, or at a ceilidh in Ness; instead of an empty Leverburgh Bunkhouse, I wanted to know how I had wronged the wide world.
On the eve of the Sabbath (everything being shut), there was a long queue at the only supermarket in Leverburgh. And being the only upermarket, there wasn’t much change out of £20 for groceries to make a basic meal. I bought some comfort items that included plenty of carbohydrate. One of the wonderful things about dogs is their complete lack of judgement. Bonnie loves me the same, whether I eat an entire cheesecake straight from the packet or graze on emergency oatcakes and apples for several days.
What south Harris may first appear to lack in community spirit, it makes up for in nature. This is where faith was restored. I found my own talismans in the feathers, driftwood and stones that the stripped back tides revealed. In his book, The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane describes the sea roads criss-crossing the Minch sea between Harris and Skye, the astar mara, as being of “people, goods, gods, ideas and stories”. And the skipper of a tourist diving boat further told me about a pod of 16 Orca whales that he witnessed pushing their slick black dorsal fins through the Minch sea earlier in the week. The people that have chosen to make Harris and Lewis home, many new-comers to the islands, make sense of the natural world around them through their arts and culture. Simon Hook, an artist living next to my host in Uig, showed me his sculpture modeled on the 32nd vertebrae of a blue whale.
My final cultural immersion was at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic Arts College in Skye where I had the strange but valuable experience of not understanding the language in my own country. I was lucky enough to be a guest of Pròiseact Nan Ealan and The National Theatre of Scotland during a Gaelic playwriting course. I am not a playwright and I don’t speak Gaelic but I learnt more about Gaelic arts and culture from the students and skrivers than I could ever have hoped to have found at a formal conference or meeting. Over breakfast in the canteen and at the college bar, we discussed the politics of arts funding and the gap between developmental support and routes to production for new work. Some of the students were well-known actors from Gaelic TV soaps and many were new learners of the language, having grown up in non-Gaelic speaking families or parts of Scotland. Much like the need for crofters to adapt their planting and harvesting to changing environmental conditions and the neighbourly help available, the playwrights and other artists on the isles are responding to ,and themselves shaping, a constantly fluid cultural landscape.
Benbecula has an airport and a military base so it must be hooching with Alsatians. I didn’t linger to find out and went straight to North Uist.
Then donning my finest tweed dog coat, I declined the offer of joining the South Harris RSPB Ranger tagging sea eagle chicks as I did not much fancy becoming a black pudding delicacy for a feathered dinosaur.
Four-pawed visitors are not allowed over the door of Rodal medieval church and neighbouring hotel. I muttered that ‘God made all creatures great and small’ and growled. It was time to move on from Leverbreeuugghh….