Day, er – week, er, two? Three? – of the weavery investigation and my quest for autonomy and Celticness

Parked up in the same bay, with just a couple of gannets and a solid, friendly, unpretentious Portuguese couple braving the soaking gales in their tent. Dreach Celtic moment to play a little An Buachaillin Ban (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Tvgk2WjM_Y). Reading the local paper.

Which is nothing like reading the Western Morning News. Well, it is a little like reading the Western Morning News: there are typically rural concerns that very much remind me of home (wherever that is) – ‘Cattle and coping with extremely wet summers’; typically provincial pride (in an endearing way); lots of adverts; and showcases for local businesses and village fetes (‘galas’, here). But Lewis is forward thinking, outward looking, creative and critical. There is, understandably, a little anti-Westminster-railing (I love the  3D ‘Yes’ sign planted on an island in a lochen outside Stornoway), and this modest local rag offers intelligent, left-leaning critique of Cameron’s proposals to cut immigration (and thus, this author suggests, to once again compromise UK industry and increase unemployment). This modest local rag visits Cuba to learn about community and finds their people ‘financially poor, but culturally and socially […] millionaires’. This modest local rag ‘challenges private estate owners to create crofts’ for local people and documents the successes of community-owned townships. This modest local rag boasts of prestigious traditional music courses producing shit hot musicians in tiny places (my friend and I were mega impressed by young Cameron and Ross, students on Benbecula, in Glasgow in January (http://listenagain.canstream.co.uk/celticpodcast/index.php?id=299). This modest local rag talks of ‘Saving languages and crossing borders’ as Gaelic looks to Occitania and the ‘Poetry of troubadours’ for some lessons in survival. This modest local rag dedicates pages and pages to the only Scottish music festival to appear in Songlines’ Summer top 10 year on year, and the black artists get columns as long as the Celtic ones. This modest local rag features artists and craftspeople with as much pride as it features crofters, entrepreneurs, footballers, kebab shops and primary school activities. And with almost as much pride as it features Harris tweed. (Almost.)

Stornoway has the largest Co-op supermarket I have ever seen, easily rivalling the Tesco baddies on the other side of town. (The little Co-op forget to give me my £50 cash back and though I don’t want them to take my word for it when I go back – not least because I am utterly scatterbrained at present – they handle it generously, trustingly and responsibly, and like the friendly informality of the Post Office who offer me an ad hoc, no-charge, paperwork-free service, it leaves me feeling glad to have this as my local town.) As well as the long-lost favourite cheese in the whole world ever (Scamorza – smoked mozarella), Stornoway also has lemon and black pepper chocolate and a Gaelic-speaking Pakistani community.

Can you tell I’m impressed?

OK, I admit it’s not Utopia. There are no trees, thanks to the Barelegged viking king’s scorched-earth battle tactics. Even the very few hardy Canadian conifers are struggling. The bungalows are still ugly, grey and prolific, planning regulations presumably pretty lenient, and people still consume like normal Westerners. The only whistle echoing round the hills and into the sea fog is my poorly played one. I have not yet found the ‘hireath’ that my mum tells me is Welsh for a mythical Celtic concept of the yearned-for, probably metaphysical, home – but there are music classes, sessions and ceilidhs on every night of the week around the island, if I’ve the energy. (I *will* find the time and energy for Gaelic language and Gaelic singing classes, I swear.) And this rainy bay is a good place in which to feel hireath, anyhoo.

On a mission for hook-up to do me ironing (no, not my clothes, silly, I mean crabbing my woves – steam ironing to set the cloth) I pass many a weaver’s studio with a welcome sign. There will be enough to keep me busy exploring for months – or, since I also need quiet time, music time and, ahem, weaving time, perhaps years. I also pass signs for Norse mills and kilns and brochs, and a friend of a friend gives me a lesson via Facebook on Norns (‘The Norns are most powerful beings,
In Norse mythology the three most well known ones are Urd (past) Verdandi (present) and Skuld (future, or that which will be)
They weave the fate of men, Gods, and even worlds. The skein of our personal Wyrd is decided by them…’)
. I know next to nothing about Norse mythology, so this is welcome information.

Docking in civilisation the campsite is astroturfed and unromantic, but still a reasonable place to go to work, and well-run. The Leodasach lady owner, whose lilt sounds very Welsh, who asks me what nationality I am and who totally counts the Cornish among the Celts, lived in a photographed-but-now-disappeared blackhouse village just 65 years ago, with animals under the same thatched roof. Is her tidy modernity an improvement? No, she says. We agree we’d rather battle the elements than the technology providers as she hands me a leaflet with WiFi instructions. (As predicted, the dear Highland WiFi won’t talk to my computer, though rather than getting furious I enjoy a chat with a taciturn character on Skye. He does all he can, and though it is unsuccessful, there’s something nice about contacting someone in a spot I can picture on another of these isles. It makes me feel connected – who wants a WiFi connection anyhoo?) She tells me that Gaelic has only 16 letters (the sensible ones), hence some odd combinations to make some sounds, like mh or bh = v. She tells me about broad (open, I think) and slender (closed) vowels in Gaelic, and how each side of a consonant the vowels must both be broad or both be slender, so for example in ‘abhainn’ the second ‘a’ is a simple spelling convention and silent. The stress or accented syllable changes the meaning in this case: if pronounced /avee(g)n/, it means river, if /aavi(g)n/ it means oven. Our lesson is rudely interrupted by my smoke alarm the other side of the campsite as I left the grill on.

So the greens are crabbed, finished, packed up and sent back to the National Trust gallery on dear Dartmoor. I go to the arts centre, plug in my laptop, get online, order a weird combination of foodstuffs sort of by accident that doesn’t work at all, and have grave difficulty focussing (not helped by a worried policeman’s visit that turns a wee bit heavy as a well-spoken young lad makes an ill-received joke and then admirably defends his right not to give his personal details. There’s a man gone missing near some cliffs. Fingers crossed for him and his loved ones.). I get very little work done, but do order a couple of useful things from eBay and enjoy giving my post restante address at Stornoway Post Office. Make that Post Restante. It feels exotic. The Post Office building is old and a little grand. Ondaatje’s Royal Geographic Society’s members in the English Patient probably had Post Restante addresses in Cairo. I don’t know why that comes to mind, but logic is often a few steps behind instinct, I find (or a few miles, or a few hundred or even thousand years, come to that). Maybe I’m enjoying the ex-pat thing. I hate, as an outwardly Englishperson, to be a privileged incomer – always painful too when one is at least as poor materially but doesn’t look or sound it – but though I am keen to be among the real Leodasachs, feel like an islander, maybe even *be* a crofter one day, I am also enjoying being a visitor: polite, alien, transient and anonymous. (A whole lot better than being alien in one’s own community, whatever that is, or was!) Maybe also it’s because the handsome postmaster is Canadian. He asks me whether I’m planning to live here and, vacant and startled, I smile wrongfootedly and offer a vague ‘possibly’. I barely know who I am, let alone where I live. I forget what simple, practical question I have to ask him – gone. I’m feeling very spaced out and Piscean and loving it. Neptune is definitely working his magic on me here.

I park up on the inner harbour facing the woods in the castle grounds (where there are some great long walks for Murphy to enjoy, and some more oraches for me to forage) and ‘stealth camp’ undisturbed as I am not yet done in town. In the van-sized parking places I puzzle for quite a while over the sign that says ‘Parking limited to 8 hours between 8am and 6pm’ and struggle to get my head around what this libertarian rule means for me in a 24 hour stretch, and read the sign again a few times. I was clever once. 

The next day I spend some more focussed hours sitting in the reference section of Stornoway Library using their internet (I know some of you dear readers are concerned about how I manage the pragmatics of life in a bus). Surrounded by local history archives and dictionaries, I feel at home, and like an undergrad again – languages, linguistics, and area studies: very much a part of what I’m doing here in the Outer Isles.

Lichen on old Blackhouse

And on my return to the little bay, I’m assembling yarns for the next big weave: heathered rusts, browns, reds, teals, ochres and greens, subtly combined in a peatlands-and-seaweed-inspired Harris-style tweedy-but-irregular-and-organic run of coasters (which act as useful little samples to experiment with weft combinations and weave patterns), snugs and scarves. I have to concede that these smaller things have their place, as especially with this fine, pain-in-the-arse twisty, ‘sticky’ yarn, embarking on vast blanketry or ‘clo mhor’ (big cloth) whose colours and patterns I found I disliked once combined would leave me either wasting kilos and hours or committed to several weeks of laborious dissatisfaction. I have to be feeling bright and strong at this stage in the process, energised and inspired, with the patience to think thoroughly through design and loom set-up, and the confidence to begin. Not today, but tomorrow, I hope.

2 thoughts on “Hiraeth

  1. Oh this is so beautiful and leaves me smiling and further-informed. Dear lovely daughter.

    And remind me to tell you about Norse mythology and Wyrd one day – you might remember I did study it at degree level once, for two whole years… when not otherwise occupied with better things to do, or snotty at Norse stuff when what inspired me was the Celtic stuff.

    Lovely to picture your time there; not dissimilar to mine out here in Little Broceliande, or Ys, though different in tone.

    Love you. xxx


  2. Pingback: When you take off into the sunset: community and nomadry | These Isles

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