Sunset, looking (mostly) anywhere but west

Last night saw the most stunning sunset skies – to start with, very little to the west as a result of a bank of cloud but, looking firstly north-eastwards, catching a reflection of the set sun in delicate, faint pink; with the colours then deepening and spreading back around the sky to the north and then to the north-west.

Here’s a panoramic view of three separate photos looking broadly north-east – a view I always enjoy as I can see four, if not five, separate islands at one time:

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Secondly, another three-photo panorama more or less starting at the left-hand edge of the above and, now looking north, showing the hills of Harris (Rodal on the right, and then the An Cliseam range), ending up with North Uist on the left-hand side (only three islands visible here, though):

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It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that, according to Doogal, An Cliseam is 46 miles (or 74 kilometres) from here, as the crow flies. Like being able to see Brighton from London. Today, being a different sort of day, I can barely see the other side of the bay – this being the strip of land underneath the lit turbine in photo 1.

Thirdly, another three-set panorama now with a bit of west added in. Again, it follows on from the left-hand edge of the above pic, showing a bit of Harris, Cleitreabhal (and others) on North Uist and then with a bit of local land focus (back again to four islands in one pic again), as the colours increasingly brightened as we move westwards:

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And then finally to just local Ardivachar colour: sky crimson with a bit of orange thrown in, pink and blue. After this, we had a bit more vermilion added in, too, just for good measure. No panorama here – just a single pic. And still not (quite) around to north-west on the compass: the farm gate stands at about 330º on the compass.

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All pics taken between 2200 and 2215, in order from top to bottom (sunset last night at 2157).

Winter has come

After several days of persistently strong, and latterly northerly, winds which have seen birds flying backwards shortly after take-off, and havoc wrought amongst the early daffs, Ardivachar has a covering of snow this morning. Wet snow, and unlikely to hang around for too long even if the forecast is for more snow later, but enough to bank up on the windward side of rockery stones.

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Further afield, where they can be seen under the low cloud cover and poor (and again deteriorating) visibility, the hills are covered in the white stuff and, as a result, stand out a little more sharply against the greys and greens of the skies and the seas, the latter topped by white horses on top of waves still being driven into the bay despite a tide which is in retreat.

A day to hunker down around an early-lit stove, I think. Toasted crumpets. Hot chocolate. Gentle Cuban and west African sounds coming from Cerys’s Sunday morning radio show.

It’s took its time.

UPDATE 3pm: Better put, this is of course not the arrival of winter, but of that of summer ( (c) Daily Gael). Visibility continues to improve revealing Harris’s snow-covered hills, also aided by a cap of snow against grey skies. Here is a shot north-east from Ardivachar towards a snow-flecked Eabhal (347m) on North Uist, above and beyond Benbecula’s Dark Island turbine and Ruebhal (124m):

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And here, with a bit more landscape context, is Eabhal and the two Li hills which rise above Lochmaddy (Li A Deas – South Lee – at 281m slightly higher than Li A Tuath):

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Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.

Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

We’re in the middle of a mini-spell of dry, sunny and calm weather – which makes a change from an autumn which has so far been marked by a surfeit of rain and persistent gales and otherwise high winds. This morning saw barely enough wind to make the grasses lean and a clear sky which, in combination, made the bay free even of ripples of movement and which lent the water a milky sheen, a suggestion of and almost an absence of colour. It was a return to the best days of high summer.

Here, looking north-east from the kitchen door steps, and echoing this site’s new header pic (although this was taken to catch the reflections of late afternoon sun) we have Eabhal and Ruebhal in the centre of the frame (and the Dark Island turbine) but what is taking centre stage is the sea, streaked blue and translucent in the shallows of a retreated, but just off a neap, tide (with water levels low but a high tide line) and with a texture starting to be shaped by a growing breath of wind. The turbine, pointing south, and a sole oystercatcher at the bottom of the photo provide the only movement.

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Some three and a half hours later than the noon at which this photo was taken, and a short bike ride mostly finished, I stopped at Loch Bi just at the Aird A’Mhachair side of the Ard na Monadh road, with the sun due to set less than 40 minutes later and offering photographers full golden hour mode. A little cloud cover offered both a way of catching the sun’s rays as well as a means of allowing me to point the camera at the sun, with a stronger wind providing ripples across the water of the loch – mostly freshwater but with a component of salt water provided by very narrow channels funnelling through from Loch Sgioport – and lending it the creased look of silver cigarette packet paper.

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After so much rain and wind, days like these – and there a couple more yet to come – provide essential points of recharge, both for nature and for ourselves, anchoring us into a sustaining reassurance of calm amidst the headlong tilt at the senses presented by the hammeringly persistent rain and wind.

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

The Free Church roots of American gospel

‘Never read the comments’ is long-standing advice for people on the net (aside of this very blog, of course, where there is a very interesting discussion going on right now about Celtic linguistic references to ‘the English’). But, sometimes it does pay off – and one of the recent obituaries to the sadly-departed Aretha Franklin in The Guardian provides one such example where one fairly prolific commentator on the site – a ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ – argued in the comments that:

‘Franklin was the supreme representative of a tradition that brought together European (Scottish) call and response church worship with African tribal chant. As such, she was the legitimate voice of a United States that was founded on both of those diverse cultures.’

Well, that was news to this reader, for whom Aretha’s voice and stance represented probably the apotheosis of the spine-chilling call both to the church as well as to civil and women’s rights. Challenged to come up with some evidence for this, ‘Mrs. Vanderbilt’ produced two sources: a YouTube video introduced by Phil Cunningham, the well-known accordeon player, and Calum Martin (who also features in this slightly longer, separate video); and a piece in The Independent which identified that there is academic support for such a view from one Professor Ruff, a musician and professor at Yale University. Given the history also of the involvement in the slave trade of representatives of the Scottish wealth and land-owning classes, which is well documented and which also features in Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, for example, there may well be substantive merit in what Ruff says. We should ignore the more hyperbolic and less well-researched aspects of his reported comments, while observing the notion that maverick academics are not an entirely unknown quantity. I’m not at all well placed to comment on aspects of the black experience, and I can only imagine the reaction among the black community to the view that gospel singing stems, in part, from the singing and oral traditions of a section of their oppressors. (Interestingly, The Independent piece has no comments.) However, the video is well worth a look for those who haven’t yet come across the tradition of Gàidhlig psalm singing: it’s both emotional and quite beautiful; and also contributes to an understanding of some of the traditions of some contemporary singers and musicians from the Western Isles.

There are some clear similarities in the styles, at least at the superficial level, but I’m not sure that I’m particularly convinced that there is that much in the way of actual influence from one to the other. Clearly, even traditions which do share some commonalities in their roots are likely to diverge over the centuries and over the thousands of miles which separate modern day experiences from the ones which came to form them. With this in mind, we should perhaps not be troubled too much by the gap created by the incongruity between a white (and apparently largely older male) congregation, sitting down and singing from hymn books, and a black, mixed and substantially much more mobile and youthful one.

There is, however, at least one aspect of commonality which is worth considering. We know that working class highland communities have suffered much as a result of the Clearances (and then the potato famines) with large, but unknown numbers probably counting in the several tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women evicted from the Highlands, their homes and belongings burned in an act of ‘wreckless terrorism’, and forced into exile in Canada, in the Carolinas of the US and in Australia, with devastating impacts on those cleared as well as on the old and the very young who were left behind to fend for themselves. I should be clear that I’m not equating the destinies of those subject to the Clearances with those sold (also from substantially agrarian societies, by the way) into the slave trade, the conditions of the migration and the method of transportation being cruel, inhuman and deathly on the one hand but brutal, dehumanising and murderous on the other. Nevertheless, the pain and suffering caused by rupture, both on those forced to leave and also on those left behind, is perhaps one thing which might well be held in common between Free Chuch congregations and those of the US gospel south and which might well contribute some of any similiarities between the styles of singing.

Peter Alan Ross, in his beautiful elegy on the occasion of Runrig’s Last Dance, a band for whose songwriters, coming as they do from North Uist, Gàidhlig psalm singing was also a part of their traditions and upbringing, notes that Bruce Guthro, when he joined the band, was a Novia Scotian. His approach to singing reflected the themes of emigration and loss about which the MacDonalds were writing and that his joining the band, at least to some degree, represented a taking back of one of our own. If there are similarities between gospel traditions and the approach of Gàidhlig psalm singers, it must surely be in the pain and sorrow of communities ruptured by external forces and from economic systems that saw people either as a source of profit or otherwise as a barrier to it.