Last time I was writing here here I was living in what seemed like a snowglobe. The small town in which I live was cut off from its neighbouring city for many days meaning there was no option but to switch off and enjoy the dramatic weather. Since then another two seasons have passed and I’m staring Autumn in the face. It has been a busy spring and summer with the pressure of working two jobs equating to a 40+ hour working week (in a good week) taking its toll. There has not been very much extra brain space to maintain this online space, far less write anything of use, interest or purpose.
But so it is that a few things have happened in a past little while that have had my mind turning to the niche subject I’ve spoken about here before: Gaelic language and the landscape, heritage, interpretation…
Firstly, I visited a site I hadn’t been to in 20 years and reminded myself of what it is that I love so much about archaeology. It isn’t the ‘strong personalities’ of people who have been in the sector almost twice as long as I’ve been alive, nor is it often incestuous working relationships between different organisations. It’s the sheer majesty of a place like Glenelg, the monumentality of a broch and the pure enigma of a place where we still, ultimately, don’t truly know what was going on. It’s the childlike sense of arriving somewhere, looking at something and thinking “woah, I wonder…”. That experience is missing in the daily grind of my working life and how to go about recapturing it more frequently is evading me at the moment.
Secondly, coming across and being involved in discussions of the use of Gaelic in relation to promoting heritage. I have a lot of thinking to do on this subject but I’ve seen a few instances recently of Gaelic-related resources being promoted in good faith but with a use of language (in English) which implies an othering which makes me really uncomfortable. I’m thinking out loud here as much as anything so, no, I’m not naming and shaming (at this point) though the promotional activity has always been from an organisation not an individual. Is it a matter of poor choice of words (likely), a lack of knowledge or understanding (also likely), ill feeling and/or lack of respect (hopefully not) ? Is it simply a case of Gaels being misrepresented (again) and therefore the language and culture, too? I’m not sure where these thoughts are going or, really, ultimately where the fault lies but I know I’ve been feeling deeply uncomfortable – both as a Gael and as a heritage professional.
To end on a happier note, the interpretation panels at Glenelg are great – and Gaelic-led! – fitting nicely into the site without distracting from the sheer awe-inducing nature of the site. They’re far from brand new but do everything you want a panel to do, and bilingually as well.
I’m fortunate enough to visit Skye on a fairly regular basis. Having family there means that in exchange for a spot of baby- and animal-sitting I’ve got free accommodation in one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations. So far, so smug. But in realist, family comes first and so it is that most visits to the island don’t involve much sightseeing outwith our own wee area. Even so, there are still places nearby which have eluded us on multiple visits. One of these was, the Forestry Commission Scotland visitor hide at Kylerhea, famed for expansive views, otters and being right next to the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland.
The surroundings are impressive, we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife. Even so, within the side there was a wealth of interpretation and information about what we *could* have been looking at. The slight sting of disappointment aside, I was taken aback by just now how good the interpretation panels were. The south of Skye, Sleat specifically, is home to a really strong community which has been at the heart of the Gaelic language and cultural renaissance over the past 40 years. Even so, it’s possible to go to many, many places across Skye and not see a word of it.
I think my cynicism was out in full force when we went to Kylerhea as I was so taken aback by the bilingual interpretation that I just stood going “look! look how good this is! Look! Are you looking?” rather than just letting my partner enjoy the views and read as he wished.
The interpretation uses Gaelic in a way that isn’t just accurate but really meaningful to the language and the inherent connection it has to the landscape. This isn’t just a translation of one piece of text to another but has Gaelic at its heart; it is the place itself that it speaks of. It helps the visitor understand what it is about Gaelic that is important to the surroundings. It’s all very well and good providing the English translation of a Gaelic place-name, but why should anyone care about the name in its original language? Here, such questions were answered, explaining the value of understanding even a little of the language. It’s precisely the kind of thing I’m forever wittering on about to anyone who’ll listen so it’s incredibly edifying to see a national organisation doing the same. I think my favourite aspect of it is that there is no song or dance made about it – it is simply the interpretation that works best for the subject matter, location and the wider landscape. That in itself seems too often a forgotten consideration at so many sites.
Top marks to the Forestry for taking this approach – it’s one that many other places would do well to follow.
– Apologies for the dodgy quality of photos in this post; they were taken on my mobile phone in a fit of excitement with little consideration given to their public usage.
In the twelve months since searching for the elusive perfect yarn to suit the tastes, needs and desires of my friend Claire (see my last post), as well as my own knitterly preferences, an abundance of producers have opened their doors selling yarns from the Highlands and Islands. This is fantastic news. The Highlands historically have suffered from an ageing population, poor infrastructure and resources unable to support small or start-up businesses and a brain-drain from population movement to the south and further beyond where there are greater job opportunities. So whenever a new business starts up that I’m able to support, in whatever capacity, I try my best to do so. In this case it’s local yarns, and as a result, local farmers, crofters, spinners, dyers and salespeople (and of course, the various people otherwise employed as a result of the process).
A few years back, when I lived in Uist, I attended a course on wool processing – we graded fleece by hand, learning the individual qualities, and what is/is not desirable depending on intended use. We spun by hand (or at least others did, I sat watching with envy unable to master even the basics) and had a thorough introduction to the heritage mill machinery they use. Since then, Uist Wool has launched their yarns to the world, as well as having built a new wool store and employed dedicated staff to take the whole enterprise forward. It is a wonderful organisation for so many reasons, and I would thoroughly recommend a look at their site and gorgeous Gaelic yarn names. They are going to be at EYF this year and I forsee not being able to resist buying it all. I’m particularly excited by the Geòla 5-ply yarn and would love to make a geansaidh (gansey) out of it – a long-term knitting goal of mine.
Closer to (my) home, Black Isle Yarns started very recently, having just launched their online store in December 2016. I grew up in the Black Isle, so to see this name pop up in my twitter and instagram feeds was really exciting – for an area so fertile and full of active farms there hasn’t been much in the way of local yarns. I’ve heard word of the Black Isle Brewery also producing jerseys from local sheep yarn but haven’t yet visited to find out more.
I can’t wait to get my paws on some of these yarns to knit with. The closest I have at the moment is the yarn pictured in the first photo at the top of the post – yarn I received from an old colleague in Uist who was also part of the mill’s training programme. She gave me it as a leaving present and I treasure it. It is a bouncy, squisky DK cheviot with which I’m making a simple jersey at the moment. I think it’ll be lovely. Here’s to people making yarns from and of their surroundings.
Before the turn-off to Ardalanish, this is the view on the road south through Mull.
When my friend, Claire, asked me to knit her a shawl for her wedding (or did I offer? I can’t remember, doesn’t matter) I thought it would be important to use a yarn with some meaning behind it. She did too, so I took the interweb to find something. Claire and I became friends at school in the Highlands. As we both now live in the deep south (read: the Central Belt) I thought it fitting to use a yarn from the Highlands, an extra reminder of a part of her life and an area important to her.
In my head, I had ideas of locality, provenance and sustainability. I live close to multiple yarn shops, attended a fantastic yarn event focused on British yarns, consulted the excellent KnitBritish site, asked on Ravelry… But in the end I still couldn’t find anything that fitted my particular needs: yarn from the Highlands (and/or Islands), made in the area from local sheep. There were plenty of ‘almost’ options (namely Buachaille, Ripples Crafts , Alice Starmore and Shilasdair) but none of the combined right weight, texture, colour or origin for the task. In the end, it was a yarn from a place well-known to me that won out: Ardalanish, Mull. Their aran weight blue-faced leicester yarn had already been discontinued by the time I tried to order it (having originally spotted a few stray balls of it in a Glasgow yarn shop) but after a frantic online and in-person search I was able to source a solitary remaining cone from a local yarn shop. It is a beautiful yarn, and I was delighted with the finished result of the shawl. So was Claire, which ultimately was more important than anything. Plus, it helped keep her warm which is handy for a winter wedding.
(P.s The photos here are of Claire’s shawl, in progress and finished, but before blocking. The photographers caught some snaps of her wearing her shawl on the big day, which you can see here.)
(P.p.s It was early 2016 that I started searching for the yarn, before a plethora of businesses opened producing precisely what I was after. Brill! More on them next post.)
Seat of All Seats, the latest episode of Mountain podcast, featuring yours truly, is now live. Head on over to the site to hear the host, Chris, and myself, discuss how Gaelic can helps walkers and climbers understand the landscape. It was a fun day out and I think that comes across in the episode.
It’s a pleasure to spend time in the hills with someone so knowledgeable and so passionate about what they do. Thank you, Chris, for the opportunity.
Obviously, I’m biased, but I think Mountain is a great podcast worthy of your listening time. You can hear older episodes here.