Tuesday, October 9, 2018

As promised, Part 2! 

The ferry from Ullapool, on the mainland, to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis (the Outer Hebrides) takes 2-1/2 hours. Once we got out into the open water, away from the sheltering inner islands, The Minch, as it's called, transforms into big rolling waves with a good bit of wind. (There's a great tune called Crossing the Minch, and yes, it was an earworm that day!) We reached Stornoway without any trouble, but we didn't have a lot of time to explore the town that day. We had more surprises in store for us.

First stop: Ness, Isle of Lewis. We visited the Cultural Center there and heard about the projects they are involved in to preserve and encourage the use of Scots Gaelic (pronounced more like the word Gallic than the Irish Gaelic). Only about 18,000 people live on the Isle of Lewis, with another 2,000 on Harris, a very rocky peninsula in the southern part of the island. Everything must be brought in from the mainland. One has to think ahead for grocery shopping...

Our next stop prepared us for how we would be living for the next four days, although we didn't know it yet! The Arnol blackhouses are beautifully preserved and presented traditional cottages, the kind that would have been the main kind of houses in northern Scotland. Walls two feet thick; heavily thatched roof made of layers of wood, heather, and straw; peat fires in the tiny fireplaces; a few tiny windows--all combine to make a rather snug and cosy place to be when the wind and weather are threatening. The weather is always something to consider, and one just learns to dress for it. (Something about there being no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing...)

Our next stop was where we would be living for the next few days: Gearrannan, or Garenin, on the far western coast of Lewis. Perched just out of reach of the sea, surrounded by hills and rocks (and sheep), is a community of blackhouses that was lived in until 1974, when the last three residents were moved to more modern accommodations on the opposite end of the village. The sisters, Anne and Peggy Macleod, probably appreciated the convenience of their new home, but with very mixed feelings. They insisted on being able to have peat fires still. And they were allowed to do so!

We stayed in No. 5, where Peggy and Anne had lived. It had been renovated considerably (we had all the modern conveniences, and bunk beds as well, so we were not roughing it). This had to be a tough life. The sisters never married, and they were fisher folk; they traveled quite far to get work fishing. No grocery stores. Electricity only got there in the 60s; running water about the same time.  

We settled in and explored our new temporary home. The blackhouse across from No. 5 is the museum, and it retains the peat fireplace and much of the way a blackhouse would have been when the sisters lived there. 

The stack of peats was outside in back of the house. Not that different from having logs out back, but the aroma of a peat fire is unique and wonderful. (I wish I could include that peat fire aroma in this short video, but you'll have to imagine it...

On our last night there, the seven students in our programme teamed up to make cullen skink (the recipe is from Alison, who holds the administration of the Elphinstone Institute together!). Cullen skink is a really good hearty soup or stew made of smoked haddock, onions, potatoes, milk and cream.  Even the folks in our group who were hesitant about fish found that it was a pretty darned good stew!

After supper, we had a bit of a ceilidh in the museum blackhouse, gathered around the peat fire, using no lights or electricity. We told stories, sang a few songs, and shared an evening the way it might have been not all that long ago, and that had been that way for centuries.

In our few days at Gearrannan, we made trips to some astounding places.

The Calanais (Callanish) standing stones are awe-inspiring. Situated on a hilltop some 5000 years ago, surrounded by small lochs that reflect the changing clouds and weather, these stones could tell stories...and I wish I could hear all of them.

That night was the autumn equinox. We returned to Calanais through sheets of rain blowing sideways. The weather here is unpredictable and can shift in seconds. Mysteriously, as we drove up the track to the stones, the rain stopped, the wind abated, and a full moon appeared from behind the clouds. We walked silently among the guardian stones in the moonlight, feeling touched by more than a bit of magic. 

Right: Calanais
at night

I wish I had a picture of the next surprise in store for us: As we turned away from the stones to return to the van, a moonbow stretched across the sky in front of us. I had never seen one. A perfect half-circle of shades of grey, a rainbow without the colors!

When we were not at Gearrannan, we took field trips, one to nearby Dun Carloway, an ancient broch tower that was very likely used for shelter and protection from seafaring invaders. 


Beasties in the field around Dun Carloway


Climbing up the hill to Dun Carloway

Another night, we joined the Ness Melodeon Band in a delightful ceilidh at their community center. Much hilarity, dancing, and a bit of spilled beer--a great evening!

On our last full day in Lewis, we drove back across the island to Stornaway to attend a traditional Gaelic church service. Despite not having any Gaelic, I felt as if I were listening to poetry. The Gaelic singing of psalms is lovely, highly ornamented, and very individual.

After we left the church, we drove down along the coast of Lewis, and I was amazed to see wide stretches of pure white sand beaches in places! No wonder the Vikings liked this place. It does have a lot of rocks and a very stony landscape, especially in Harris, but it has a breathtaking beauty.

In Rodel, at the southern tip of Harris, we stopped at St. Clement's Church, a beautiful medieval church built about 1500 by Alexander MacLeod of Dunvegan and Harris. It is the burial spot of many MacLeods, and it houses some outstanding sculptures (on tombstones, and also embedded in the outside walls). The acoustics in this hall must be fabulous, too...

The beach at Rodel--not white sands, but a peaceful harbour.

Much as we would have liked to spend much more time on Lewis and Harris, after a week of traveling, it was time to head home. We left our comfortable blackhouse, returned to Stornoway, crossed the Minch once more, and drove back across the land of lochs and highland moor and heather. One more stop for us before we were to return to Aberdeen, though--at the Clootie Well of Munlochy, not far from Inverness. 

The Clootie Well is a strange place. It is a remnant of very old ritual and tradition--a holy place where people still come to leave an offering in the well, take a strip of cloth (clootie), and fasten it to a tree. The tradition goes back many centuries, when people did this in the hopes of healing from a disease or illness. As the clootie would gradually disintegrate, so would the disease, or so the belief goes. That doesn't quite explain a hillside of trees festooned not only with hundreds of clootie strips, but also with shoes, bathing suits, shirts, baby clothes, and even a wood plane. It is, however, an undeniably unsettling spot. It is still a powerful holy place--many people come there on Beltain (May 1), but folk come there to leave offerings throughout the year. 


Folklore abounds here.  

And so, we are now back in Aberdeen, once more studying and reading and writing about all these experiences, and learning how to see the world a little differently. Much work ahead, but it is enlightening and rather a lot of fun!

My classmates--the new MLitt students at Elphinstone Institute!

One more short video, taken from the top of the hill behind the Gearrannan blackhouses, overlooking the sea...next stop, somewhere north of Newfoundland! And yes, that is the sound of the wind (apologies!)--it's fierce up there.

More soon!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Field School - Part 1 of 2 (18-24 September, 2018)

Time is flying! The 1st of October already. Two weeks ago our class climbed into a minivan and went on a Field School expedition across northern Scotland, and out to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. We spent an extraordinary week seeing many well-known, and not so well-known places.
Where our travels took us 18-24 September, 2018

If I had to say what the overall thread of our travels was, it would be something quite vague like "different facets of Scottish history, culture, and tradition throughout time." What we saw ranged from 5000-year-old passage graves, cairns, and brochs (prehistoric stone towers), 9th-century Pictish carved stones, medieval churches and fortresses, an 18th-century manor house, 19th-century fisher towns and thatched houses (called blackhouses), to contemporary holy wells and musical groups playing for ceilidhs. We participated in a Gaelic church service in Stornoway on Sunday morning.

I won't go into too much detail about all of it, or you'd be here longer than you want to be. I'll just put in some pictures and captions that might capture some of the highlights. This will be part 1 of 2 about this trip--part 2 will follow in a few days. I don't want to lose my audience because they think I'm writing a book!

To begin with, we had "butteries" for breakfast in the van that first morning. These were new to me, but they're quite addictive. If I ate these every morning, I'd need the next size up in clothing. A little like a flattened croissant, they are indeed buttery and rich, and likely contain all the fat you'd need for the day. Quite good, actually...

Easter Aquhorthies (think something like "ak-khor-tees" for that second word) might mean "field of prayer." Ancient standing stones, with a recumbent stone that looks like an altar, have kept watch over this place for 5000 years. We were joined by another student from the Elphinstone Institute, who sang a beautiful old ballad as we stood silently listening, the only other sound being the patter of rain on our jackets.

Anne Greig singing "Andrew Lammie"

Closeup of one of the stones
Portsoy - an old seaport town near Banff - home of the Old Salmon Bothy, a lovely stone icehouse, and a new boat shed, where the old traditional ways of building boats are still being passed on to those who want to learn. You can build your own coracle (a tiny round boat whose design dates from at least the 9th century), or a skaffie boat, or just about anything--they have all the hand tools you'll ever need!
1834 ice house with boat in foreground
Closeup of carved date on ice house--a lovely fish!

                                                                               Right: Inside the ice house, looking up at the window (where the ice would be dumped into one of the three rooms like this--the window is actually at ground level). Note coracles stored on shelf under the window...there are more of these in the boat shed.

Left: view of a very peaceful harbor, and looking back toward the old town. Some of the stones in the harbor wall (which dates to late 1600s) are absolutely massive.

Right and below: Inside the new boat shed. The community passes along the boat-building techniques to school children, who can come and build their own projects here. 

Left: I don't think I'd want to be sailing out on the ocean in this coracle, but it was done...

Right: A wide array of tools hangs on the walls of the boat shed. Here is a very nice selection of new Japanese hand saws.

Below: Out in the harbor, a lovely dolphin sculpted of metal cables, overlooking the sea. 
He looks like he's about to jump back in.  

View from the top of the hill above Portsoy harbor

We visited a number of interesting towns and historic sites--Nairn, where the Nairn Fishertown was a busy fishing and boat-building port for centuries, until the industry faded out in the mid-20th century.
Something I thought was intriguing was that in the past, Fishertown was a close-knit community, with two family names dominating the list of residents: Main and Ralph. To distinguish one John Main from another (there were a lot), they used bye-names or tee-names--a nickname that got attached to the full name.

Sueno's Stone (at right) is an enormous (20 feet high) 9th-century Pictish stone that stays safely caged in a large glass box. I confess, though, that I enjoy the free-range stones somewhat more. This famous stone is actually in a small field surrounded by housing developments and traffic, just outside the town of Forres. It has many intricate carvings on both the front and back of it, and is sandstone, unlike the granite in most of the ring cairns and standing stones.

The carvings are of a Christian cross on one side, and a battle scene on the other. No one is quite sure what they signify, but some theorize that it might be the conquest of the Picts by Gaelic kings.

Balnuaran of Clava is a remarkably peaceful place, another sacred spot.

One of the passage cairns
(as if you are looking down the passage)
It is set in a wooded area on the fringe of several pastures, and it is obvious that a few of the standing stones must have been in the way of the road that was put in some 200 years ago, because they are conspicuously missing from the pattern of the circle! Three cairns with passage graves stand in a sort of triangle, with the central one surrounded by standing stones. The picture below shows an interesting set of twin stones that are part of a stone circle around a cairn.

Stones on the inside of one of the cairns

Castle Urquhart (above)- a large fortress with 1500 years of history keeping watch over Loch Ness. No, we did not get a glimpse of Nessie--but we did find out a great deal about what she might or might not be. So many theories...

Wait! I just remembered. We did get a glimpse of Nessie!

Okay, so...maybe she was just there to entertain the sheep.  Onward...

Balavil Estate - the home of the 18th-century Scottish poet James MacPherson, now being renovated anew. If you have ever watched the BBC series, Monarch of the Glen, you might recognize this place. There is some amazing woodwork and architecture here. The original house was built by MacPherson, who died in 1796; it was renovated in the late 19th century, and is now under new ownership. There is a ghost, named Sarah, although we did not get to meet her that evening. (Some of us were hoping to.)

Right: An elaborately carved wood arch surrounds some of the main floor windows. Below: Looking down the dizzying staircase from the third floor.

There's something poignant
about this photograph...
Strathfeffer - the home of a charming and very genuine-feeling museum of children's toys, books, games, customs, photographs, and clothing. The museum collects and displays only items from the Highlands. This is a wonderful place to find out about Highland customs and traditions around family life and children.

The Children's Museum is housed in the old train depot, which lends a charm of its own to the museum. As you walk into the building, be sure to look carefully at the pillar in front of you--it's a work of art carved by a local woodcarver, Allister Brebner. The carving, called The Ascent of the Scots, represents the history of the people of this region from its earliest times.

The Highland Folk Museum, in Newtonmore, is a living museum, and here you can see houses as they have been built in this region for the past 500 years or so. The blackhouses are typical stone, thatched-roof cottages--early ones had no chimney, only a peat fire in the center of the main room. No windows. It must have been smoky. They also had a dirt floor, often sloping down to a byre, where several animals might be kept.

A box-bed, commonly used in blackhouses for sleeping

Later houses, sometimes called whitehouses (perhaps because they used mortar when building them) had windows, one or two chimneys, and a leveled, flagstone floor. The animals more often stayed outside.

We made our way from Strathfeffer up to Ullapool to take the ferry across The Minch to the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. Surprise is an integral part of this Field School trip--we never knew where we were going to be next, and often that was a wonderful thing, because there were some great surprises. More to come!

 Part 2 -  On the ferry to the Isle of Lewis - to follow soon!

The MLitt class, plus a few friends--well-prepared for Field School!