Over the past wee while, I’ve been working with Kate Davies and her team on their latest venture: Inspired by Islay. A quick scroll through old posts on this blog will show lots of content from Islay; I lived and worked there for a year in 2012-2013. My job involved Gaelic cultural-heritage with particular projects I initiated being about the connection between the landscape and language. It is on this topic that Kate asked me to contribute an essay to the book being produced as part of the project (sidenote: the book has gone to the printers!).
Kate’s work has long impressed me, and I’m chuffed that she has come to me to contribute small bits of work to other projects over the years, where she has wanted to use Gaelic. Gaelic aside, as a knitter and general culture/history-enthusiast I’m always impressed by the thought and consideration that goes into all she (and the wider KDD team) does and produces. Other folk contributing to Inspired by Islay include really astonishing artists, craftspeople, avian experts and photographers, so it is an honour to be included alongside them.
Anyway, the photos here are some snaps from my archive of pictures from Islay. My time on the island wasn’t always a song and a dance so it’s been really lovely revisiting parts of the island I fell for, and exploring further the rich Gàidhealach culture I am part of.
For all of Kate’s blog posts to date on the project see here.
In other news, I started a facebook page for my work. Like, share, comment, etc.
It’s getting into summer proper, so that means more time in the hills and more time staring at what’s beneath my feet. Last weekend I spent a good day walking in Argyll (more on that soon), taking great pleasure in the biastagan and flùraichean that popped out to say hello.
A cloudy and drizzly start to the day soon cleared up, leaving blue skies, few clouds and just enough of a breeze. Of the flùraichean that were about, I spotted moss campion and bog cotton with almost entirely dead heads – a sign of how dry things have been the past few weeks.Moss campion is called Coirean Coinnich in Gaelic, which if you pick apart, becomes a meeting (coinnich) in a little hollow (coire, like the anglicised ‘corrie’)
Of the biastagan spotted, my favourites was this daolag and many losgannan, in fact the place was positively losgannach – abounding in frogs. I know so little about beetles that I can’t even begin to know where to name this one – online ID guides have lost me. Can anyone help? That’s a 1:25,000 map it’s on, so a perfect scale. I’m quite taken by the colour; we all were. The less said about the poor thing scrabbling about on the plastic surface the better, though. We didn’t keep it for long.
Daolag – beetle
Duh-luck. The -ao here is not easily replicated, as it’s just not a sound that exists in English. It’s somewhere between the sounds duh and doo.
Losgannan – frogs
Coirean Coinnich – moss campion
Biastagan – beasties
Flùraichean – flowers
A long weekend spent in the trees, hills and sub-artic ‘tundra’ of the Cairngorms. Nearby the campsite there were exciting animals to be found, the likes of which we thought we might never see ‘in real life’. We both have a particular fondness for musk oxen, bison, elks and the like and lo, there they were just ahead of us!
Not to forget the vicuna, a smaller more dainty cousin of the llama and alpaca.
Above the campsite I witnessed a sundog for the first time one morning, and a red squirrel eating its breakfast just feet away the next.
We cycled around the lochans and through the trees – unintentionally going more off road than intended. There is so little of this remarkable native woodland left in the country that it’s easy to forget you’re in Scotland. If it wasn’t for the placenames and local accents around us, I could have thought I was in Canada or Scandinavia.
That feeling was emphasised further on the Monday morning when we did what most people do on a Monday – took some reindeer for a walk.
(Boris and his banana nose)
The reindeer have been in the Cairngorms for over 60 years, breeding and thriving in the sub-arctic environment. It was a magical experience getting to spend time in such close proximity to these placid, intelligent animals. They hardly make a noise save for occasional snuffling and the distinctive click of their heel tendons. While the nature of our visit was pre-determined, it’s a tantalising thought to be walking in the hills and come across a reindeer herd just grazing and going about their business in their natural environment. As I said, it’s easy to forget you’re in Scotland sometimes.
Every so often I’ll notice a Gaelic name or word and think ‘that looks a bit…odd’. While I’ve spoken the language for as long as I’ve spoken English, I am not a linguist. I’ve not seriously studied the minutiae of Gaelic- that is for the language specialists and I am not one. I have long been fascinated, however, by the relationship between Gaelic heritage and the impact of visitors and emigrants to the Highlands and Islands on the language.
This is a long and exhaustive topic – and not one I’m going to delve into in any great depth just now. It deserves more than that. I did think, however, that I’d share one example of the beautiful – in my opinion – manner in which languages and cultures can collide, and the result illustrating a wee bit of our shared heritages.
My example today is of a rather poorly thought of bird; oft the subject of disdain and victimisation. It is the black blacked gull. Now, asides from the fact that I am actually quite fond of these birds, in all their squaking, brash, bolshy way, their name tells an interesting story. While researching some work for the day-job and discussing linguistic anomalies with a colleague, it struck me how odd looking the word farspag is. This is the Gaelic name for a black backed gull (pron. far-spak). Its quite distinct from faoileag, the term for a general gull. A little digging confirmed my expectations – farspag is Norse in origin. Through this one word you can see the impact of Scandinavian visitors to the Highlands and Islands, that a thousand years later we’re not just carrying on placenames with Scandinavian suffixes, but even the name for this scorned bird. The following are some names used in (largely) contemporary languages for a black backed gull – you can see the connections yourselves.
I like to think that we are but one small part of a much larger heritage, and I particularly like that a bird as humble as a black backed gull can help demonstrate part of that. Please feel free to share any terms you know that tie in with this – I’d love to hear them.
Since arriving on Islay there have been a few places I’ve been desperate to get to. Being as I am sans vehicle, and with the buses not servicing much beyond Loch Indaal or Port Ellen, I’ve had to be patient. Happily, the milder weather is bringing with it both seasonal bird visitors to the island as well as large flocks of tourists and holidaymakers. Even more happily, some of these holidaymakers are here to see me. As a result I’ve had the chance to get out to corners of the island so far unknown to me, beyond pictures and notes of historical interest in books.
One of my top places to visit, which seems to be high on a number of ‘must-see’ lists, was Saligo Bay. No wonder people like it, it is wild, remote and bears the full brunt of the Atlantic on its shores. I visited on a day of exceptionally strong winds and saw waves bigger than I’ve ever seen before, with spindrift as high as the waves themselves. Beautiful light, stunning rocks, lambs cavorting around behind me in the dunes. It was spectacular.
What’s in the name? I’m not sure. Some indicate a Gaelic origin, others state simply ‘unknown’. For the military historian there’s plenty of interest in the area with significant remnants of wartime communication stations, now well embedded in the sand and providing shelter for newborn lambs. It’s a really spectacular wee corner of the island.
A lamb very adept to listening.
Sheep can’t tell whether I’m friend or foe. Or maybe just mistakenly think I have some food on me. I’m looking forward to visiting them again when their bellies have reduced in size. Can’t be long now. Come on lambs, I’m waiting!
I took a wee trip down to what is perhaps this islands most picturesque village, Portnahaven. A light snow fell all day, but there was no wind. It’s nice to spend a few hours just mooching about on the shoreline, watching the birds, the seals, the excitable local dogs and seeing what’s washed up in the tangle. I was lucky this time – a good number of egg cases (predominantly from skates, but also a single spotted dog shark case). Mermaids’ Purses; a rare treat to take home. Though the sun didn’t shine, there was plenty of colour to be found in the wings of this starling and in the paint peeling off a boat on shore. Beauty in the simple things on a cold wintery day.
Just a few quick links for a rainy, windy Wednesday evening.
The Storyville series on the BBC is rarely less than excellent and two episodes recently have been particularly good. The Queen of Versaille was remarkable – a rags-to-riches-to-rags story of wealth, greed, delusion, corruption and ultimately family life. The most recent Storyville on was Expedition to the End of the World – a group of scientists and artists travelling into areas of Greenland thought to be unexplored. It, too, was wonderful with interesting musings on the relationship between art and archaeology (a favourite topic of mine). The landscapes were like something from a dream, but shattered often by the reality of the dangers of the area, with polars never far away.
Last year I was pleased to contribute an arctic tern to the Bird Yarns project. I was lucky enough to see them exhibited at the Dovecot studios in Edinburgh (and, by a stroke of luck, actually found my own). Reading more about the project and the flock as it moves across the country I’ve come across Air Falbh Leis na h-Eòin; another fascinating multi-disciplinary arts project in English and Gaelic that I really hope I’ll get a chance to see in person. I love the combination of environment, language, and music. It encapsulates something that I find so important about Gaelic: that it, as a language, evolved as a result and reaction to its surrounding environment and landscape. It’s a topic I’ve been researching for my work recently and it just keeps demonstrating to me how important it is to reconnect language with environment. It’s a project worth a nosey, anyway.