Beag + Mòr

ladies sexy peat

Patterning the land.

When setting out on my research trip to Lewis I didn’t have a definite plan of what I would do there and hardly looked at  a map or checked a weather forecast. I was interested in allowing the people I met direct my research and ideas.  Through conversation and observation, I  became very interested in the plant life on the moor and the small beautiful flowers  I came across.  This,combined with an interest in the social history,  has helped me develop ideas for the project.

I have been trying to find gaelic proverbs / sayings relating to  small things + big things .

Is moid rud a roinn   A thing is the bigger of being shared

Cha ‘n ‘eil ach moran eadar a bho ‘s a’ mheanbhchuileag   The cow is only a good deal bigger than the midge

Ge beag an t-ugh thig eun as   Though the egg be small, a bird will come out of it.

fabric black houses

I came across a postcard when visiting the black house in Lewis. The postcard is of three women all dressed in patterned pinnies. I then began to notice many different patterns in photos of women in Lewis in the 1940’s an 50s.  Many of the women who walked across the moor would have worn brightly patterned cloth and when looking at archive photos of women at the shielings, I noticed many were smartly dressed .

Shielings were also often papered with left over wallpaper  and curtains were made and brought to the shielings each year. It seems that pattern and colour was a big part of life on the Lewis moor .

The women were fond of brightly coloured garments, and for everyday use, would wear a polka, long sleeved blouse, with a cota, serge skirt, which hung a few inches below the knee. For special occasions, a hand knitted shawl might be worn over a best blouse ………

As early as 1833, cotton shirts and print gowns were beginning to supersede the home-made garments, especially in the town. Gay colours appealed to the Lewis women, and as brightly coloured garments increased in popularity , the early evangelical Island preachers became extremely concerned. The Rev. Alexander Macleod of Uig thought that it showed unduly frivolous minds, which endangered immortal souls as well as spending money unnecessarily

Lewis. A history of the island by Donald Macdonald

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Bàn

  Imagephoto by Anne Campbell

 

Artist Anne Campbell  has kindly donated a  fleece from her sheep Bàn which I hope to be able to spin and make a piece of work from.

I have been told that sheep have an innate sense of the moor so it seems only right to use materials with association with the bog and its social  history.  Fellow Tir mo Rùin artist Anne Campbell has been gathering a beautiful glossary of gaelic terms associated with the moor. I particularly like this one about sheep returning to the moor.

‘astar, sheep will always return to the area of moor in which they spent their first summer.  This is called their astar or innis.’

I managed to contact Barvas Spinning group  and Rhoda kindly did a mailout to members to see if anyone was up for spinning Bàn’s lovely coat.   Margaret from the  group was up for the challenge so watch this space for further news of Bàn home spun wool.

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While on Lewis, (with the help of Mary Smith)  I travelled to Ness to visit Callum MacLean at Butt of Lewis Textiles . It took us a while to find his house and anonymous weaving shed and we had to stop and ask crofters,who were in the process of shearing a sheep, for directions.    He was working in the mill but his wife kindly showed us around his weaving shed . I naively thought I may be able to commission a piece of tweed or collaborate with Callum but he is so busy with mill orders and working both at Carloway mill and at his weaving shed at home that it was not possible. However I did buy a beautiful piece of dark tweed which I hope to embroider for the project.  It is fantastic to hear that weavers on Lewis are busy and that their skills and wonderful tweeds are in demand.

Hand-made, home-made

The growth in demand has ensured there’s also a demand for more weavers. At present, there are about 150 self-employed islanders who weave at their homes. Most are in Lewis. There are a further 125 people working in the three Lewis mills and at the Harris Tweed Authority, set up by law to protect its status.  Most of the weavers supply the mills, while a few are independent, designing their own fabrics, often for the craft market.  Twenty-two young islanders have been put through a training course, and more are being sought.  One of the graduates is Heather MacLeod, 22, from Tarbert on Harris. She is the granddaughter of a weaver, and observes: “There’s a need for younger weavers to take up the trade. “There’s a lot of people going back to doing home industries – candle-making, soap-making. These are companies that are thriving just now and everybody is looking for things that are hand-made and home-made. It’s coming back, and there are plenty opportunities for people.  

Harris tweed weaving a brighter future   BBC news. 

 

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Butt of Lewis Textiles weaves Harris Tweed and designs and produces unique tweeds to bespoke design. All stages of tweed preparation and weaving is made by hand. The bobbins are used to warp the tweed first of all. The warp being handmade to ready a tweed for the loom. After the design of the tweed has been decided on, the warp is put on a beam then the threads (700 threads for the 75cm, 1400 for the 150cm) are knotted one by one by hand. This has to be double checked for perfection of the pattern of the tweed before the weaving of the cloth begins.

Once woven, the tweed has to be finished, washed, scoured, then dried in a special machine and given a blown finished if required. In the case of Harris Tweed the cloth will then be stamped with the world famous Orb mark to certify that it is genuine

The Red Wind

Anne prepares food in the Shieling

Anne prepares food in the Shieling

My experience of moorland has largely been limited to my own wanderings around the South West of Scotland, and the vastness of Rannoch Moor, one of the places claimed to be one of the last true wild places.

The chance then to walk accompanied over the Lewis Peatland with artist Anne Campbell and spend a night in the heart of the island really appealed to my curiosity.

Before I had even begun my journey I had enjoyed listening to the experiences of Deirdre Nelson whose own trip across the moor had been a quietly revelatory experience, shared with Anne, her sister, and Murray Robertson in fine Summer weather.

Less than a week later, conditions on Lewis had grown increasingly cloudier, and as weather and storm warnings became the main topic of conversation, we made the decision to cross the moor to her family shieling, located on the slopes of Beinn a’ Chanaich Mhoir and by the waters of Loch nan Leac.

Looking at an OS map, our final destination seemed only five or six miles away, however with the ground between us and the Shieling wet and marshy, every step seemed like it would be a torturous effort.  With a heavy Bergen laden with cameras and camping equipment, the prospect of terrible weather and harsh terrain, it looked like it was be shaping up to be a challenge.

The open Lewis moorland

Leaving the car at the end of the track, Anne, Bran the ever enthusiastic border-collie and myself made our way along the waterlogged peat road towards the moor. Our path would follow along the course of the Abhainn Arnol, a shallow river which runs the length of Glen Bragar. To our right Beinn Choinnich (the Hill of Kenneth) loomed over the landscape, while in the distance the distinctive pyramid form of Stacaiseal filled my horizon.

Passing men loading dry peat into the back of tractors, my eye caught something small, boxlike and metallic in the edge of the riverbank. On closer inspection Anne informed me that it was a trap for mink, which along with hedgehogs was introduced to the island in the 1950s and 60s, and caused widespread damage to the birds of the moorland. It is only now that many of them are beginning to return in number.

The peatland terrain requires constant attention.

Our next pause on the moor was signalled by an excited bark by Bran, who started digging furiously into the peat. Anne explained that we had arrived at her own peat field, and that Bran was simply imitating the actions of Anne and her sister who still dig peat for their homes.

It was on this site that Anne, whilst digging a peat bank found a wooden bowl, the earth giving it up after holding on to it for over a millennia. It is one of the undoubted many thousand objects that the moor has held onto, waiting for an archaeologist to uncover and tell of the story of those who once lived here.

Whatever lies beneath the many levels of sphagnum moss is no doubt well preserved from the elements, from a time when the island was warmer, and more populated. It is unfortunate that unlike the well excavated and fascinating Ceide Fields in the North West of the Republic of Ireland, little archaeological research has gone into the North of Lewis, an area obviously rich in potential finds.

It was this frustration which led Anne to return to University to study archaeology, and as part of her Masters dissertation she walked the land and recorded finds. What she uncovered added hugely to existing knowledge, yet there is still more work to be done.

The mounds of tulachan, early dwellings.

On a bend in the river Anne shows me the remains of Tulachan, five grass covered mounds which were once part of a settlement. Slowly as the river has changed course it has begun to erode the site, with one of the mounds collapsed, spilling its contents into the fast flowing water. Anne and I explore what is left, find some charred wood, and continue on our way, fording the brown, peat coloured water.

Examining the Tulachan for finds.

Examining the Tulachan for finds.

Once across, the landscape stretches out to the far hills, with every step across the peat made carefully. I am reminded by Anne that what appears as solid ground is in reality a treacherous terrain. At one point my walking pole slides effortlessly down into the bog, disappearing almost completely.

Not suitable for walking.

Not suitable for walking.

The fear of a misplaced step into earth which will swallow me whole helps focus the mind, and I follow Anne’s barefoot steps intently. Other dangers include hidden river courses, holes, and being exposed to the elements.

We had been walking and exploring now for the best part of an hour, but with the weather now closing in, and the wind and rain starting to move across the open moor, we took shelter and eat in the ruins of a shieling. With no roof, we sheltered against the high walls and waited for the rain to pass. Anne commented that this type of weather is known as a ‘Red Wind’ in Gaelic.  As we sat, I contended myself by exploring the walls, finding rusted pots and an old kettle amongst the long grass.

With a break in the rain we pushed on, at times following the footprints left by Deirdre and Anne from the week before, perfectly preserved in the peat.

Passing a picturesque loch ringed by sundews, we stop by the shieling once used by Anne’s father, before making our way onto the final hurdle, going over the top of Beinn Thulagabhal.

Exhausted we sit on the grassy top, and as the wind and clouds move quickly over the scene, I see the shieling for the first time. At this stage I can’t wait to get there and find some shelter from the elements.

The Shieling, where we hoped to spend the night.

The Shieling, where we hoped to spend the night.

It is not long before we have skirted the edges of Loch nan Leac and are sitting inside the shieling, the wind now howling relentlessly around us.

Having come this far we decide to erect an improvised roof over the shieling, something Anne has done many times before. Using nothing but plastic piping it is not long before she has created a rigid tent like frame which we move into position on the top of the shieling.

Standing a few metres above the ground, we teeter on the edge of the building as the wind blows us around, trying to anchor the frame using rocks and stones. After several failed efforts we finally secure it, something which proves much easier than attaching the roof covering.

Anne erects the frame

Catching the canvas roof like a sail, the material whips around violently as we try to anchor it to the structure below. We both dance around the edge trying to keep it down, the wind billowing up from the open doors of the shieling. After a long struggle, and collecting additional rocks, it is finally in place, threatening to blow off any time.

The rain is now driving hard, and the wind is getting stronger. Bran refuses to come inside the shieling, scared due to the horrendous noise made by the sheets, which flap and crack. It sounds as if a freight train is passing over ahead, as we shout our conversation with only a few feet between us.

the roof is finally on, but for how long?

The roof is finally on, but for how long? Bran guards the door.

A brief respite from the wind and rain. I'm soaked but happy.

A brief respite from the wind and rain. I’m soaked but happy.

Amidst the chaos, Anne lights a fire using dried peat, boiling water that she has collected from the loch. Two cups of warm Darjeeling are then enjoyed, and we reach the decision that in this weather staying out on the moor is not advisable.

Warm smoke fills the shieling.

Warm smoke fills the shieling.

As a pot of pasta cooks over the peat fire which has now filled the shieling with smoke, I explore the walls again, noticing the carvings on the wall. The oldest from 1821 marks the date that the Shieling was re-built from an earlier structure, and another from 1921 commemorates this date. Anne is hopeful that she too may add 2021 to the walls of the Shieling, which are otherwise bare, save for a carving of a deer and the initials of those who have come before, including the much loved Gaelic poet Peter Campbell. I enjoy the time I have in the Shieling, feel I am part of the landscape, and appreciate the view out onto the moor, while staying warm. Time seems to have stopped.

With our meal over, we know that there are only a few hours of light left on the moor, and that if we do not leave soon we will be forced to walk across the land in darkness.

This prospect is not one that we relish, and is potentially dangerous as well as foolhardy. We are however both exhausted from our exertions, but pack the materials away and make our long journey back. In our tired state we still manage to make good time over the landscape which is getting increasingly grey, wet and dark.

Making the journey back  through the storm in the falling light

Making the journey back through the storm in the falling light

In my tiredness I fall into a hidden hollow, my body sinking into a hidden river up to my waist. It is unexpected, and forces me to focus. I recover quickly and ford a succession of rivers, and we make our way towards the coastline and the village of Bragar beyond.  As we finally exit the moor I am forced to use a torch to see the path in front of me, but am thankful that I had Anne as a guide over the land. For days I’d be reminded of my journey, as the smell of peat smoke would rise off of all my belongings, but the memory of experiencing the moor in all weathers and conditions will last with me much longer.

Anne & Bran look to the shieling from Beinn Thulagabhal

An image from earlier in the day – Anne & Bran look to the shieling from Beinn Thulagabhal

A Blog by Anne Campbell: Tìr mo Rùin – Moorland diary

A pool where two streams emerge from beneath the peat  - Anne Campbell

 

March. NB 2976 3817. A pool where two streams emerge from beneath the peat – the source of the water which flows to Loch na Mòineach, which in turn feeds Feadan Loch na Mòineach, which joins Feadan Loch an Fhraoich and Feadan Loch nam Breac to form Gleann Thorradail, one of the tributaries of Gleann Bhradhagair.  Even here you can smell the river.  Sounds of the water, a single skylark singing, and the wind in the grass.  Skeins of geese are flying north, changing formation as they go.

Moorland shimmering in a heat haze - Anne Campbell

 

April.  Moorland shimmering in a heat haze.  Pipits singing, plover whistling.  An occasional little breeze running across the moor, which you can hear coming before it hits you.  My first time out here since six wind turbines were built on Beinn Mholach.  I’m shocked to see them towering over the beautiful line of the Barvas Hills, like a jagged scar on a previously flawless face.  The limitless moor of sphagnum and water and insects and bird-calls feels limited by concrete and steel, the vast calm horizon disrupted by constant restless movement. I walk home feeling sad.

Walking out the river  - Anne Campbell

May. Walking out the river on a hot morning to a loud chorus of pipits and skylarks, thinking of those I’ve walked this way with in the past, the people they walked with, and those who walked it a hundred, a thousand, six thousand, perhaps eight thousand years ago.  Bobbing sandpipers, calling twee-see-see.  The loud, exotic trilling of dunlin. The song of a thrush from a shieling. The bird sounds may have changed over the centuries but the sounds of the river itself remain the same.

Big footprints of swans and curled white feathers on a peaty beach - Anne Campbell

Big footprints of swans and curled white feathers on a peaty beach.  The first bees, dragonflies and damselflies, buzzing, whirring and flitting in and out of my field of consciousness. Spiders spinning everywhere: when you sit down, small spiders walk across you.  The evening breeze is sweet smelling after blowing over miles of sun-warmed moorland.

Four colours of milkwort growing in the centre of the peat track  - Anne Campbell

 

June. Four colours of milkwort growing in the centre of the peat track – deep blue, rich pink, pale pink and pale mauve.  Siabann nam Ban-sìth – ‘fary women’s soap’.  Harestail, orchids and eyebright by the side of the road, and pale mauve marsh violets with purple veining and saffron-coloured centres.   I make a new track in a day, barrowing peats. An eagle, a skua, some butterflies, a four-spotted chaser and a few bees pass by while I work.  Curlews and pipits display on and off through the day.  Wheatears flit ahead as I walk home, decoying me and the dog away from their nests.

Photo - Anne Campbell

July.  Birds heard through the evening, night and early morning from a tent on the moor: dunlin, golden plover, red grouse, snipe, meadow pipit, red-throated diver.  During the day I hear a greenshank call –  tyew-tyew-tyew.

A sunny, muggy, hot evening on the beach of a moorland loch - Anne Campbell

A sunny, muggy, hot evening on the beach of a moorland loch.  Silence but for the humming of insects and the eerie sound of a distant Diver.  Dragonflies hunting – Hawkers and Darters. The silence is broken by a deer wading, plunging and swimming across the loch.  It watches the dog, stamping its foot.  Big ears, small velvet-covered antlers, large eyes.  It scrutinises me for a minute or two before putting its head in the air and sauntering off.  I’m pleased to have come face to face with it here.  Fiadh – ‘deer’, fiadhaich – ‘wild, untamed’.

Photo - Anne Campbell

Deirdre Nelson, Murray Robertson, my sister Catriona and I walk through a thunderstorm, enveloped in cloud, with mist rising off the lochs after the heat of the day.  I’m glad to get to the shelter of the shieling.  In the morning we sit on stones in Loch an Òis chatting while Deirdre knits a sock.  The knitting makes me feel as though we’re re-enacting a scene from the past.

 

 

The Emerging Island

The Peat Road, on the way to the Shieling village of Cuidhsiadar.

The Peat Road, on the way to the Shieling village of Cuidhsiadar.

As the ferry made its slow and stately progress across the expanse of The Minch, and the great peaks of Skye’s mountains gradually settled towards the horizon, I couldn’t help but stand transfixed at the view which stretched before me.

The Outer Hebrides is somewhere which until this week I had never experienced, save through the eyes of photographers such as Werner Kissling, Gus Wylie and Paul Strand. It is a place which had always seemed to me curiously out of time,  and somewhere which has been visible from my current home on Skye, but far in the distance, brooding, and somewhat otherworldly.

Approaching the Outer Hebrides for the first time.

Approaching the Outer Hebrides for the first time.

That great sense of the unknown is further enhanced by the black clouds and crepuscular rays of light which wandered aimlessly before me, illuminating the Shiant islands to the north which rise from the depths as menacingly as the mythical phantom island of Rocabarraigh, said to appear at the end of days.

Arriving in Harris I experience scenery unlike anything I have seen in Scotland before, recalling the Karst landscapes of the Burren in the West Coast of Ireland.  As I drove, the rocky terrain gradually gave way to the wide moorland expanse of Lewis, and it is wasn’t long before I arrived in Stornoway in time to enjoy a glass of wine with the artists Deirdre Nelson and Anne Campbell, who will be my company for the next few days.

I discuss my early impressions of Lewis and Harris, how they are no doubt steeped in Victorian Romanticism, and the many misconceptions which arise from growning up in the Lowlands, far removed from the Gàidhealtachd.  I explain that it is my hope that the time spent on Lewis will help bring me closer to understanding the realities of life on the island, and to understand how the islanders view their own landscape, and its role in a wider context.

Bran obeying local signage.

Bran obeying local signage.

My first full day on Lewis begins with an early start.  Deirdre and I make our way to meet Anne in the North of the Island, before travelling on to Ness and my first experience of the open Peatland.

We are joined by Anne’s lovable border collie Bran, who runs ahead of us, stopping only to dig in the mud, and bark occasionally at his own reflection. Given the sheer amount of water on the moorland, and the amount of times Bran barks, I wonder if he perceives the moorland as being populated with packs of dogs, while we see only a few lonely figures gathering peat.

The road across the moors bends and winds, with the sky low and dark above us, constantly drizzling without the respite of wind. In these damp and humid conditions I have my first encounter with Lewis’s many insects who curiously fly around us, occasionally biting.

Peat drying by the roadside

Peat drying by the roadside

Lining the sides of the road we notice the many peat banks which stretch out towards the waters edge,  the marks of the shovels still apparent. Above them small stacks of peat await collection, laid out in herringbone patterns, or scattered around the landscape in rows. Further up the track we examine peat cut by machine which instead of having the pleasing briquette form, looks chaotic,  cracked and broken into cylinders due to being bored from the land. Anne remarks that such machines should be banned from the moor,  we both agree.

As we gain height we see the peat road dropping to reveal a small valley dotted with an eclectic range of buildings, the Shieling village of Cuidhsiadar, our destination.

From a 200 year old collapsed stone shieling we see a selection of much more modern structures such one constructed from tin, to more simple wooden dwellings.  On the horizon we see a much older turf covered structure on the moor, but it is the modern shieling in-front of us which draws the most attention.

Part of the shieling Village

Part of the shieling Village

From beneath wooden panels, the vague form of one of the tour buses which crossed the island can be discerned, now gutted and converted into a home on the moor. Open to the elements, we headed inside it for shelter, and between the upholstery we notice beds, and bags of peat still to be processed.

The Shieling Bus

The Shieling Bus

Inside the shieling bus

Inside the shieling bus

On exiting the bus we have our first encounter with the island’s most unpleasant resident, the Highland midgie. In an instant the landscape around me disappears again, hidden in the swirling mass of insects, as black as the clouds which enveloped the island in the days before.

In a panic we race across the moor, harried by our pursuers until we find shelter inside a sheiling with a partially collapsed wall. Inside we catch our breath, apply netting, masks, and any defense against the midgies we can muster, and decide that for today the moorlands of Lewis were not a suitable place for curious artists.

 

micro + macro

I have been finding it difficult to describe our amazing walk and overnight stay on the shieling but when reading Alice Starmores writing on the shieling I was really interested in her descriptions of ‘micro and macro’ on the moor.  This connects well with my interest  in the small things and the  ‘micro’ of the moor.

“We lived on the border between micro and macro – our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor”

Language, landscape and life on Lewis Moor.  Alice Starmore

I have been told that a local councillor described the moor as ‘a vast are of nothingness’.  I wonder if he has walked the moor and taken time to observe  the ‘micro’ .

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Cheo geal ri canach an t-sléibe ‘as white as the bogcotton’

“If our peatlands were about wildlife and wilderness in the twentieth century, the conservation and restoration of peatlands today is as much about us and our climate. Peat is a glutton for carbon, and the more that is sequestered in the sodden peats of our wetlands, the less that is released into the atmosphere to warm the planet (I think of the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere as akin to the tog rating on that duvet: all things being equal, the higher the concentrations or the rating, the warmer we get. The maths is as simple as that)”

A plea for peat; The beauty of the moorland plant cottongrass reminds us why our peat bogs desperately need saving.  Andy Byfield. Guardian . 25 July 2013

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Canach  Common cottongrass, Bog Cotton ( Eriophorum angustiflorioum)

When walking on the moor Anne told me of  a pair of gloves made from Bog Cotton which were made by a local lady in the past.  I can’t imagine how it was made with the short wispy fibres but would have loved to see them  to investigate.  On a guided moor walk,  Ruaraidh Maclean  gave  us more facinating information on bog cotton, gaelic language of the moor  and of many other plants and flowers of the bog.

Carmicheal says that a highland girl was not considered fit for marriage ,  an Dèanadh  i lein canaich dha leannan agus paidhir stocainnean dhi fhein ‘ until she made a shirt of the mountain down for her lover and a pair of stockings for herself ( Carmina Gadelica VI)

Garments were made from Bog cotton at the Great exhibition in 1851

Mr Mac Dougall has been attempting to get up new native dyes but new native material for cloths. He exhibited two stuffs which were great curiosities in their way. One cloth was made out of the down of bog cotton and the other cloth made of the fur of the white or alpine hare

The Great Exhibition of 1851

red moss

Coinneach Dhearg, Coinneach Liath, Mointeach Liath Mosses including Sphagnum Moss

Coinneach applies in general to mosses and also spagnum. Gathered and dried in the sun, coinneach is highly absorbent and mildly antiseptic.

“when they are in any fatigue by travel or otherwise, they fail not to bathe their feet in warm water wherein red moss has been boiled and rub them with it on going to bed”

Martin Martin, A description of the Western Islands of Scotland 1703 

IMG_1238Driuchd na Maidne  Round leaved sundew  (drosera rotundifolia)

The plant is sufficiently caustic to erode the skin; some ladies mix the juice with milk so as it make it an innocent and safe application to remover freckles and sunburns ( Mc Neill)