Sites of interest – a closer look

Saturday turned out to be a good opportunity to get in some Christmas shopping in Balivanich (bright lights, big city) – all still in the bags, BTW – but Sunday saw one of those days in which the sun shone all day alongside a remarkable absence of wind. It was also a day with a low tide – the lowest of the month, in fact – and in the middle of the day, too. So, too good an opportunity to miss to do two things – firstly, try and spot the remains of the submerged forest which, at least one source has it, can also be found at the headland; as well as test out the sites local to me on Rubha Aird na Mhachrach (Ardivachar Point).

About the submerged forest – well, nada. I did find a lot of heavily stressed rock usually buried by the tide and, of course, a fair bit of kelp, though. Local experts tell me that they’ve found nothing any time they’ve been here and it may be that sea action, and winds, have covered things up since 1985 (to when the source dates). But, also, the neapest of neap tides does go out a bit further than this, and so a future occasion might prove more rewarding.

I found both of the sites up on the Point pretty easily as a result of the accuracy of the SCAPE app when it comes to the sites’ GPS bearings. The first of these is a midden alongside some apparently structural stonework; and, secondly, there is a mound which ‘may be of archaeological potential’. As before, my comments below about this do need to be treated as those of an enthusiastic amateur and they may well be subject to a lesser or greater degree of revisionism at some future point.

When it comes to the first, I was looking only for a midden, having forgotten about the stonework (although the photos below – two different sides of the same thing – seem to capture (quite by mistake!) some of the latter). There is no evidence of shellfish or animal bones in the midden; but some interesting colours reflecting a solid bank of peat ash (the light brown colour at the bottom in the RHS photo) and what looks like some charcoal (in both) underneath the top soil (visible more again in the RHS photo).

Moving on further round the Point to the mound, this took me a little time to find because it is both quite small in terms of size as well as low to the ground. More of a molehill than a mound, really. Indeed, the GPS told me I was more or less on top of it (I wasn’t, quite) before I actually spotted anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an interesting story to be told here, though, and the more you look at the site, the more the details of the story that it is telling become apparent. As far as I was concerned, I found five interesting things about it:

1. the footprint of the site is larger than it first appears and by a simple assessment of its known dimensions. Partly, this is a reflection of…

2. … its shape, which is not round as might be suggested by the word ‘mound’, but elongated and which appears to have a ‘funnel’ at one end (see the next picture down). Think of a question mark with a mirror placed adjacent to the left hand edge. The elongated end might suggest the presence of some sort of entrance chamber. There is also a clear ‘ditch’ around the central heap. This gives the best clue to the overall shape as well as the potential presence of the ‘entrance chamber’ – and might also indicate walls, corbelling being a usual feature so as to minimise the need for roofing materials, structural timber being in short supply around at least the current coastline.

3. standing at the ‘entrance’ end, I spent some time debating the mound’s alignment on a compass. According to the app on my phone, it appears to lie on a bearing of 100-280 degrees (east-west being 90-270 degrees), so there is no clear compass-based alignment (it’s sort of north-east/south-west). My, very rough, assessment from a few years ago (which needs to be checked) is that the sun at the summer solstice sets at a bearing of about 320 degrees so there doesn’t appear to be any solstice-based clues as to the orientation.

However, looking from there directly along the mound, I then spotted what looked to me like some sort of marker, in the form of a grassy tussock now close to the cliff edge. The tussock was soft and yielding and it’s not obviously rocky but it did stand out. Sometimes a grassy tussock is just a grassy tussock, of course. Nevertheless, at one point in the year, I think the sun would set directly behind this marker and, perhaps, that was good enough for those who decided to located the mound at this point here.

It is, of course, at the ‘wrong’ end of the site, however – if sunset was the key then, from Maeshowe up on Orkney, where the sun shines through the entrance chamber to illuminate the back wall three weeks either side of the winter solstice, we would expect the mound to be the other way around. Thus, it is more likely that sunrise, not sunset, gives the key to the orientation; and also, given the earth’s tilt, a point towards the summer, rather than the midwinter, solstice. Checking that out of course means an early start. Hmmmm.

Is that some sort of marker I see before me? Note the low-lying nature of the mound.

4. Looking from that same position at the ‘entrance chamber’ end but in the other direction, i.e away from the site, there seemed to me to be a clear path (on what is now croft land), approaching the site at an angle of about 90 degrees (i.e. from the north-east; and, probably, in the direction the midsummer sun rises here). Interestingly, the ‘path’ appears to take a small turn more directly towards the ‘entrance chamber’.

Of course, the ‘path’ is at ground level now, whereas the site is clearly subterranean. It’s not so evident from the picture below, but it is also waterlogged – and it might thus be a sign of a drainage channel dug far more recently. However, water tends to lie in areas for a reason (of which drainage is only one); one of which might be the presence of a well-trodden path in times gone by or, indeed, a line of stones laid down to constitute some sort of approach ‘road’. Paths, once established, tend to persevere (‘reference required’). What may also be of interest is that the boggy area informed by the ‘path’ then turns along the line of the existing croft fence (upper centre right) before crossing the area occupied by the site of the mound to its west (to the right of the picture) – i.e. it skirts the actual site). We might also usefully wonder what would be the actual function of a more recent drainage channel laid at that angle, and at that point on the land.

And is that a path I see before me? The (rather strangely shaped) shadow cast by your photographer lies – deliberately – across what is more or less the centre of the mound)

5. To the north a few steps away lies a series of stones, stretching more than 1m in length, set at what is now ground level and ending at what is now eroded coastline. So, it’s reasonably significant in terms of size and might well be evidence of some sort of boundary wall, built either to emphasise the importance of the site in some way or, perhaps, to keep out animals. There is no such evidence of a wall on the other side of the site, however. It is all kinds of interesting that, if indeed this is a boundary wall in times gone by, it is mirrored by the presence of an existing, contemporary fence alongside; whereas there is neither wall nor fence on the other side.

On the whole, I think this is a more important site than is superficially evident from its size alone. Some parts of the above – quite a bit of it, in fact – are the product of imagination; and that has its place, too, in archaeology which, substantially, looks at the evidence available and seeks to use that to tell a story. Looking at the hard facts: the site remains fenced off to the most direct route of public access, so is not particularly accessible; the site appears not to be currently maintained as croft land (whereas access to the shoreline – for seaweed, salvage and fishing – would be an important part of crofting rights); and drainage seems to flow around the site, not through it: which might either be by accident or design but which, in either case, might also be the product of continued maintenance down the centuries.

There are also, I think, some features which make the site worthy of some note. Given that it is quite difficult to spot (other than to a trained eye), and given the nature of the development of SCAPE’s ‘sites of interest’ (which is of community origin rather than the product of miles upon miles of serendipitous tramping up and down the coasts of these islands), it’s selection as one such site is likely to reflect a level of community awareness of it as the location of something in some way sacred. That might be drawn from some kind of folk memory or it might be the product of actual routines and customs handed down from generation to generation. And about which, at this point in the life of Ardivachar, a decision might need to be taken in respect of future generations. When the current outbreak of Covid-19 permits, it would be well worth me catching up with my long-established neighbours in the township!

Sites of interest – a desk-based view

This week’s archaeology lecture was led by Tom Dawson and Jo Hambly, of the SCAPE Trust who introduced their work on coastal sites of interest around Scotland other than on the western isles, including on Shetland, Orkney, St. Andrews, Wemyss Caves, on the Fife coal coast, and Eyemouth; and also their app identifying sites of interest around Scotland. SCAPE – standing for Scottish Coastal Erosion and the Problem of Erosion although, like a lot of organisations, the acronym probably means more in terms of branding than the words which make it up – is based at St. Andrews and works with Historic Environment Scotland on issues arising from Scotland’s coastal heritage. As a result it takes a keen interest in issues connected with erosion, rising sea levels and climate change; and many of these projects can be picked up via the SCAPE website.

All of which of course means it has a lot to discuss when it comes to the western isles, not least around Baile Sear, where we are doing some fieldwork, and when it comes to the issue of the sinking of the land. While mainland Scotland is rebounding following the compression of the land during Ice Age, when Scotland was covered by glaciers up to a kilometre thick, there is no such ‘trampoline’ effect out here since the glaciers were not as thick; in contrast, the land is sinking – and it’s not under the weight of all those scheduled monuments either:

I spotted this map, which is focused on Harris and Lewis, our neighbours to the north, and which cuts off the bottom of South Uist completely, on the Twitter feed of Mark Rowe. Each dot represents a scheduled monument and the map – which is of uncertain origin, although it seems to have been compiled by the County Archaeologist for the Western Isles Historic Environment Record – shows a quite remarkable amount of known history (even if it’s of the ‘known unknown’ type). Mark Rowe writes the Outer Hebrides guidebook for Bradt Guides, and he notes that between the first and second editions of the guide, between 2017 and 2020, the number of identified sites across the western isles increased by 3.8%, to 13,348 (an increase in terms of number of nearly 500).

Part of this increase is likely to reflect an increase in interest in archaeology (read on…) – but it’s also likely to reflect the fact of coastal erosion – from wind and wave alike – which is making sites apparent where they were not before and which is, of course, also jeopardising them, too. There are slips and slides in sites of interest not only because of the natural sinking of the islands as a result of the sheer density of the gneiss supporting it but also because of tides and sea surges and of the action of the wind in shifting vast quantities of sand from one place to another, resulting in structures buried for centuries under deposits of topsoil and grass starting to become exposed but in danger of slipping out of our grasp in terms of comprehension as there simply isn’t enough time – or enough resource – to get to grips with what is there. This is very evident at Baile Sear – the rocks to the centre-right of the picture on the face of the dune, which I took on my last visit the weekend before last, seem to be structural and to have slipped down the fall line from further up: they’re not there by chance.

A phenomenal amount of work went into the development of SCAPE’s sites-at-risk app, both from the experts from SCAPE and from local expert archaeologists but, as importantly, from local communities who have knowledge – and sometimes folk memories – stemming from the practices and customs handed down from generation to generation in what was a largely static population (around, for instance, the sites of C19 and C20 middens no longer in use). But there are (at least) two problems: one is that coverage is likely to be patchy; and the second is that, where sites of interest and which are at risk have been recorded, that information quickly dates if it is not maintained while sites may be lost where a need for maintenance has not been spotted as a result of the site not being visited on a regular basis.

Which is where the community comes back in. Building on the interest which sees people turn up to archaeological events and digs out of curiosity, as well as out of a desire to contribute their own knowledge and awareness, information can be gleaned which means that apps stay relevant and useful – as long as the people using them know, at least in general, what they’re doing (and as long as the information submitted is moderated – which it is when it comes to SCAPE’s app).

There are, on the SCAPE map, around a dozen sites of interest within a half-hour walk of the front door of my bit of the north-west corner of South Uist (and including one right on my doorstep, which is likely to account for the large quantity of shells I dug up when digging the garden back when the days were a bit longer than they are now). There are likely to be more than these – including the remnants, on this side of what is now the bay, of the submerged forest on the southern shore of Benbecula that I noted in last week’s post. Some of these are mounds, some are middens, some are wheelhouse sites, some are where human remains have been discovered and some are where bodies have been buried in some rather interesting ways. None seem to be of a particularly high priority – or, at least, they were not when the app was first compiled. But now – who knows?

I had hoped to get out today to check out a few of these, test my own developing skillbase and make a contribution; but a morning spent getting boosted (yes: please do it, folks!) and an afternoon looking out at darkening skies and falling rain has meant a focus on some desk-based work instead making sure I kow what to do out there in the field. Maybe tomorrow is the time for action (to fuse my 1970s/1980s mod bands) – although #SaturdaysForThePast does have a bit less of a ring to it 😉

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Ancient monuments: protect and survive. Or not?

General warning: this post constitutes some unusually early thoughts and may be neither accurate, reasonable nor fair. But please read on. And let me know if I’m wrong!

This week’s archaeology course lecture – they’re on Fridays, hence #FridaysForThePast (sorry!) – was led by Dr. Rebecca Rennell and, around a series of interesting slides on understanding the erosion of heritage sites on Uist, there was a fascinating discussion within the group on the issue of the extent to which sites close to the coast and subject to erosion can, or should, be protected.

The discussion was with reference to Dun Mhulan (Dun Vulan), a broch site on South Uist of which more in a minute. Brochs were monumental structures erected on coastal locations on the west of Scotland and across the western and northern isles somewhere between 1BC (possibly earlier) and 3AD (possibly later). With a double skin wall, giving space for access to chambers and galleries and to the upper floor(s), they stood perhaps up to 20m tall and were used for – well, we don’t actually know. Smokehouses for preserving food, possibly; as stores, possibly; as defensive structures, unlikely; as symbols of the wealth and organisational ability of a community, quite probably; as waymarkers for those travelling on the highways of the sea – almost certainly although that’s equally very unlikely to have been their major purpose. Here’s a couple of snaps I took precisely ten years ago of probably the best remaining example of a broch, up on Mousa in Shetland, which has been preserved fairly intact. The one on the left shows the broad dimensions and the general setting – those smudged specks at the top are indeed people; the one on the right shows the double skin wall and stairway access (grilles and framing may not be original features):

Aside of a bit of care and maintenance over the centuries, this is not a reconstruction. The reasons why the broch here has survived in such good condition are likely to be several: Mousa is a small, now uninhabited, island located only a short way off the mainland of a small island archipelago (that is the Shetland mainland to the right centre); and, crucially, it’s sheltered by a small hill to the east (the left) and, though it is itself on the west side of Mousa, it is protected (at least from sea surges) by the mainland. Consequently, much of the force of erosion is not focused on the broch itself; and, equally importantly, there are not a lot of people around requiring its stones for their own structures. Both of these are, of course, mutually reinforcing factors.

Here, in comparison, is Dun Mhulan, in a photograph taken by Howard Fenton: and see also, for a bang up-to-date 3D model, that taken by Smilemaker (Simon Davies) just last weekend, following the lecture:

The site transparently doesn’t have Mousa’s advantages. That’s the Atlantic to the right (i.e. the west) and there’s no shelter from the winds, from whichever direction. Erosion hasn’t just knocked things down, it has also created a lot of infill – the stones on the ground at the entrance way (lying at just about twelve o’clock in the picture) actually form the lintel of the main doorway so a lot of the original action is below what is now ground level. The wall on the Atlantic side is a rebuild, buttressed by a concrete apron put in place in the mid-1990s at the same time to provide some support for the site but which, as can be seen from Simon’s 3D model, has already had to be supplemented by gabions not least since the concrete has been cracked – presented with an angled concrete barrier, the Atlantic has simply gone around the sides (illustrating the issue of measures taken with preservation in mind frequently leading to problems somewhere else). Furthermore, brochs were often built on islets – the left hand side of the picture shows what is actually a saltwater lagoon, but this was originally matched by one to the right which has now been lost to the Atlantic – while that is also the sea to the upper right, the site being on a small promontory (the broader location is well illustrated in this shot, which also highlights that the sea at the upper right in the above picture is held back from swamping the lagoon by a thin bar of shingle). Dun Mhulan is extremely open and thus it is extremely jeopardised.

It would thus be a mistake to say that the future for Dun Mhulan is uncertain because, actually, we can be fairly sure that, at some clearly unknowable point in the future, it will be inundated. And perhaps we’re only one major storm away from that eventuality: at Baile Sear, up the coast off North Uist (and the focal point for our field work), the significant hurricane of 2005 saw 50m of coastline lost in one night.

The dilemma facing archaeologists, and the local community, is therefore well encapsulated by Dun Mhulan: it’s one of striking a balance between preservation and excavation. Or, as the professionals say, ‘preservation by record’ since excavation, depending on its precise focus, is likely destroy a site completely but that, in the process, a clear picture will be drawn up of how the site was used and developed. In conjunction with modern technology, preservation by record becomes an issue of how sites can be presented, sometimes reimagined by informed guesswork but used to educate ourselves not only about the building techniques and the creeds of communities in the past, but also how they confronted climate change (much of what we don’t know about brochs centres on why they fell into disuse and were abandoned). Interestingly, key sites can indeed be relocated to places where they can be better preserved and presented – see the example in the previous link about the Meur Burnt Mound, on Sanday in Orkney (also referenced here) – and in support of community heritage (and, let’s be frank, tourism) initiatives.

So, if we cannot protect Dun Mhulan against coastal erosion, rising sea levels and all the rest of the impact that climate change is having, the question remains as to what can be done with it. Legally it is a scheduled monument, which complicates things a little – scheduled status, whose aim is to preserve sites as far as possible in the form in which they passed to us, is extremely important; but, equally, scheduling paradoxically means that action can’t be taken either so that we can learn from sites. Given the level of threat to Dun Mhulan and its general low-key nature (its level of exposure means that interpretation boards, which don’t currently exist, are likely to have extremely short lifespans anyway), as well as the availability of other broch sites, including in the western isles, offering a better representation of shape, form and structure, I do wonder whether our interests might be better served by re-excavating Dun Mhulan (some work was carried out in the 1990s, before the apron was installed), possibly in conjunction with a Meur-type relocation, so as to capture as much information as possible from it so we can learn. Perhaps the site’s major value could lie in telling us more about how these unique and enigmatic buildings were used, how and why they came into being and why they were abandoned. Or, with a nod to the tenets of academic research, at least about how this one particular site was used.

As ever, the availability of resources is likely to play a major role in determining whether this could happen (excavation is of course costly); or whether, by taking no action, we are playing instead a game of risk with our chances of learning. It seems to me that, in the face of coastal erosion our choice when it comes to such exposed sites is either to try and preserve by record; or else being faced with the reality that we haven’t preserved at all.

Corncrakes ahoy

One of the rites of spring is the arrival home of corncrakes, a migratory bird which, despite not looking as though it has the strength to fly from one side of the road to the other, and which seems to prefer running around to flying, actually spends its winters 2,500 miles away on African savannahs.

They’ve been back on the islands for a while, but none had made it out as far west as here until last week when I managed to photograph one seeking a bit of cover among the daffodils – mostly the remains, although some were still not out last Friday. I say ‘back’, but the migration takes a huge toll with only one in five thought to complete the return journey so the ones now here are more than likely to be the offspring of last year’s broods, obeying the mystical call of nature to return ‘home’. I tweeted this out at the time, remarking that a period of ten minutes from first hearing him to seeing him is some sort of record, but, for those who didn’t see it, here he is:

I say ‘he’ though it’s a bit hard to tell. Only the males make the tell-tale rasping noise – like a couple of sharp twists of a nylon pepper grinder which gives the bird its Latin name (‘crex crex’) – although females in captivity have been reported to make a similar sound. The female is, it seems, a bit less grey than the male although when you tend only to see one bird at a time – and that’s if you’re lucky, as they are notoriously secretive – that’s quite a tough call to make.

With the winter being long, and quite harsh, the nettle beds and the marsh iris which give appropriate amounts of cover to a bird that much prefers to skulk around than to show off publicly are very late, although an amount of sunshine and rain in the past week, as May’s daylight hours begin to stretch out noticeably, has improved the picture somewhat. Faced with little cover, the birds have had little chance to do much else than disport themselves in a most uncorncrake-like manner and it was amusing to watch two chase each other around the garden, from daffodil clump to daffodil clump, soon after arriving – whether two males indulging in a bit of territorial debate or an elaborate courtship ritual I can’t say. A neighbour has a wonderful picture of one actually sat on a window ledge looking in, with all the appearance of a bird more than ready to audition for a remake of Chicken Run.

Late this morning, however, I did catch two making their way furtively along the fence line and, by the time I managed to grab the camera, they’d made it to the corner of our stone byre, heading for a gap underneath the fence. The pictures aren’t great – they’re taken through a window, for a start, but they do look like a pair to me either heading off to an assignation or, perhaps, otherwise to a nest site. If the male is ‘a bit more grey’, and indeed a bit larger, then that looks like the male to the left (see pic 1) the browner (and better exposed), and slightly smaller female leading the way (see pic 2). The relatively unhurried, even stately, progress tells me that it’s not two males not quite yet sure about the rules of territorial defence.

To see one is rare but two together is highly unusual – so, not for the first time, I count myself to be very lucky about where I live. That spring 2021, with lockdowns only now starting to be lifted, is – as a result of the absence of cover which nature is now very quickly correcting – among the better ones to be able to see corncrakes is a great shame for the tourists who aren’t (yet) here.

A birthday poem (not by me)

Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.

After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:


There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
sand slips.
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.

No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.

The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:

On line 16, the machair is the GĂ idhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.

The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.

The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:

Happy Birthday, Peter!

NewMusicMondays – 14 December 2020

One of the things that’s been very different about 2020 is the greater use of virtual meetings, with face-to-face get-togethers being impossible as a result of various Covid-19 restrictions, not to say the closure of many arts venues. Many of us have become familiar with the different proprietary technologies in use, while the Oxford English Dictionary has noted that ‘mute’ and ‘unmute’ have seen ‘significant’ rises in usage this year.

It’s worthwhile noting at the outset that this sort of thing would not have been feasible had there not been significant investment in broadband networks in the past twenty years to put fibre deeper and deeper into the telecoms network.

As we get to the year’s end, Covid-19 has meant a very different approach to annual award ceremonies, with many such events simply being cancelled, a great shame for many awards winners, while others have been re-jigged to be broadcast over the internet. One such event which marks the end of the year for many music fans is the awards given out by Songlines magazine which champions traditional and innovative music from around the world. This year’s ceremony, hosted by broadcaster and musician Cerys Matthews, went out last night and you can catch up with the hour-long presentation via YouTube.

My first choice this week comes indeed from the Songlines ceremony and is by Blick Bassy, who won the ‘Africa’ award for album of the year for 1958 (it’s the first award in the ceremony, 75 seconds into the above link). This album – actually released in 2019 – commemorates the heroes of the liberation struggle in Cameroon and in particular Ruben Um Nyobè (a trade unionist, savagely killed by the French military in 1958). Bassy, who sports some of the most startling eyewear I’ve ever seen, has been making music for quite a while and now lives in rural France, with a smallholding in a village west of Bordeaux; 1958 was written as a means of teaching Cameroonians aspects of their own history that have not featured in history books and to dignify the memory of the leaders of the struggle long denied domestic recognition of their role as a result of generations of political leaders not wanting to upset France. Bassy featured on Cerys’s 6Music show yesterday morning (from 64 minutes, just after Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’); and here he is performing ‘Mpodol’ in front of a small studio audience, as broadcast at the Songlines ceremony although not recorded specially for it. Note Blick’s unique, heartrending voice as well as surprising prompts from trombone and trumpet:

Bassy has a number of tour dates lined up in France for 2021, alongside Les Amazones d’Afriques; 1958 is not on bandcamp, but there is a variety of ways in which you can pick it up via the artist’s own website – or, of course, from a record store near you.

My second pick is a bit of a repeat, as I’ve featured the voice of Kelly Finnigan previously in this series. 24 November saw the release of A Joyful Sound, his Christmas album featuring ten Christmas songs, all self-penned and recorded with a large number of major collaborators on the soul scene, including his own band, the Monophonics, as well as the Dap-Kings and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio – a tribute to Finnigan’s increasing presence as one of the scene’s key movers and shakers. Here he is (@8.46) with ‘Just One Kiss’, featuring the mighty Dap-Kings horn section, gentle piano, sleigh bells, 70s psychedelic soul sonics and Kelly’s wonderfully soulful voice:

The link is to a stream of the whole album that Colemine Records, Kelly’s label, have put out to promote the album – so Christmas online get-together parties can have a gorgeously soulful input – but if you prefer something to watch while being moved by the music, here’s a short animation in which the elves in Santa’s factory convert lumps of coal (nicely done!) into a range of Christmas gifts to the sound of another track on the album, ‘Santa’s Watching You’. The limited edition vinyl has already sold out but you can always pick up a properly paid-for streaming copy, or a download, via Finnigan’s bandcamp.

I’ve again got a bonus pick this week which came my way via one of those Twitter promoted ads for the Witherbys Arts Festival, for which 2020 is the debut year, featuring a range of Scottish musicians. Day Two of the event featured the Nevis Ensemble, the youthful and joyful guerilla orchestra bring orchestral and other tunes to the people wherever they are, and it makes it into my lockdown selection of music since their appearance at Eriskay community centre on their 2019 Hebrides tour was one of the last gigs I went to before lockdown. (The above link includes a clip from that actual gig, with the orchestra performing ‘Mairead nan Cuiread’, a waulking song (luadh, in the GĂ idhlig, where the rhythm was intended to assist the women as they worked the tweed and echoes of which you can hear in many songs by Runrig).

The clip by the Nevis Ensemble features the orchestra’s horn section – two trumpets, trombone, tuba and horn – in a socially-distanced setting on ‘The Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’); ‘Quintet’ by Michael Kamen (making a contribution to the debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas film); before closing with a medley of Abba tunes. After all, what is any sort of party, Christmas or otherwise, that doesn’t feature an Abba tune or two? And there is definitely no Christmas until the horn section has played.

The Witherbys Arts Festival takes place via YouTube until 18 December.

A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

* Not really. For a fuller explanation, see also the opening chapter of Simon Ingram’s Between the Sunset and the Sea.

Beinn Mhor (= ‘Big Mountain’) is the highest of the three major peaks on South Uist (and correctly called Gèideabhal) – it’s on the right-hand side of this picture I took looking south-east across the machair almost exactly a year ago last August:

South Uist Hills 2

While generally enjoying a bit of hill-walking, the stars are rarely aligned sufficiently to do very much of it; and so, when such an opportunity presented itself last Sunday ahead of a week-long trip down to Perth (where the schedule has been a little hectic), we jumped at the chance. Now, Walk Highlands describes the walk linking all three peaks as a ‘rough, tough but magnificent hillwalk… Beinn Mhor has a spectacular summit ridge…’; while Mike Townsend’s Walking on Uist and Barra describes the ascent of Beinn Mhor itself as requiring ‘the calorific output of many Munros’ (he has also described the journey from left to right, via the south-western slopes of Beinn Mhor, i.e. to Taobh a Tuath Loch Aineort, as ‘not one to replicate in reverse‘ although I think he was thinking more of ensuring that transport was available there rather than having to repeat the journey to the starting point.)

The route that most people take up Beinn Mhor is via Sniseabhal starting from the A865 main road, which essentially follows the broad shoulder seen below the summit in my first photo and then on up the ridge to the top. The view from Loch Aineort, which is the other side, shows it as a sizable wall of some impressive bulk (Loch nam Faoileann – Loch of the Seagulls – in the foreground):


Note the three landslips on the centre right, to the right of the main summit and the amount of scree and loose rock below the outcrops of the summit ridge. (Pic reproduced by kind permission!)

Beinn Mhor is only 620m above sea level (2,034′ in old money) – a bimble, in ordinary terms – but, secondly only in the Outer Hebrides in height to An Cliseam (799m) and dwarfing Eabhal on North Uist (347m) – which dominates the header pic at the top of this page – this is clearly not a walk to take lightly. Thus advised, we set off, assured by some decent equipment, including map and compass, proper provisions and warm clothing, as well as by a mutual pact of quitting without question should one of us no longer fancy it. Following a short section through a lovely, largely natural woodland out on to the open moor, our route, broadly, was to follow the obvious burn dominating the lower slopes (Allt Bholagair) and then strike a traverse right across the rocky section, hoping to find a grass path, towards the large outcrop on the centre left.

The lower sections are, even after warm, dry-ish weather, slightly marshy in places and, despite a few squishy bits, largely safe to cross. The absence of any sort of path, exacerbated by the lack of (m)any walkers over the five months of lockdown, made it difficult to pick a route and our initial approach to the lower slopes, characterised by knee-deep, tussocky grass, largely ungrazed by sheep, (dryish) peat bog and detours around streams and negotiating deer fences, was long and slow, and which actually meant we didn’t get close to the burn until much higher up. Hearing the call of eagles even in the woodland, no fewer than three appeared, circling above us as we took short breaks (and clearly eying up potential carrion).

But the really difficult bit was the final traverse – rocky, and so precipitously steep that hands and feet were both required to make any progress. While looking to exploit what we hoped were grassy paths, it quickly became clear that going up a grass slope is more difficult than a rocky incline, so we tended to rest on the grass sections, on our backs, rucksacks wedged into rock holds, trying not to contemplate either the drop visible below our feet, given the angle, or that we didn’t know what the top actually had in store for us, before crossing over to the rocky section for the next bit. Not for the faint-hearted, this was a climb – not a hillwalk – in which the higher we went, actually the more impossible it became to keep our promise to call it off if necessary, not because we were nearing the summit but because getting back down again the same way was even more potentially tricky than getting further up.

Eventually, more exhausted and relieved than exhilarated, we reached a grassy plateau just below the main summit, where the main views are pretty spectacular:

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Looking north and a bit west to Beinn Corradail (right of centre) and Thacla (left of centre)

IMG_5807 (2)South over Loch Aineort to Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (though a bit murky) and then down to Barra

Our route down again was intended to take us south along that summit ridge (which apparently presents ‘no difficulties’ according to Walk Highlands) before turning west back to the starting point but, to be honest, we were a little tired and, despite the fine, sunny weather, didn’t really like the look of it, especially the sharp drop to the east (to the left of the ridge):

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Perhaps it would have been different had we not had such a tough scramble over difficult terrain to get up this far. So, proper ‘top’ omitted, we still had the challenge of getting off the mountain safely, which we achieved by heading north-west towards the Sniseabhal route and then walking in a long arc curving south again to omit the worst of the top part of the climb before determinedly following Allt Bholagair’s delightful course (including waterfalls) as far as we could back to base. From a more comfortable vantage point for photographs, here’s the view north over Loch Bi and the machair up to Ardivachar:

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And south to the fish farm (‘caught in the cold waters around Scotland’) – noting the angle of the hill in the foreground, the angle reflecting the one we climbed:

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Ahead of us lay the remaining lengthy yomp downwards over peat bog, uneven ground where a twisted ankle in hollows made invisible by the long grass was a frequent threat (though not as much of a menace as the midges out celebrating a calm evening and, worse, ravenously hungry flies which, evidently, hadn’t had a thing to eat for weeks), before arriving back to the woodland and to the calmness of Loch Aineort (better view of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich in the background):

IMG_5860 (2)Overall, a grand day out – but a long and tiring one (from parking the car at 11.45 until returning to it at 8.15 – much longer than the 5-6 hours expected: it took us five hours to get up!) and one in which disaster could have happened at several points. No phone signal was one thing (though people knew where we were), but the other was that we saw absolutely no-one, and no signs of anyone, all day: eagles, sheep and – I think – a young dotterel were the only living things of note (no deer! no rabbits!).

From the perspective of these enthusiastic, but cautious, amateurs, general advice would be to stick to the Sniseabhal route – less direct it might be, but somewhat less challenging in terms of the final approach to the summit. Do go and visit the woodland, though – it’s ace and offers stunning views over the sea entrance to Loch Aineort from the woodland paths up the lower slopes of Beinn Bheag Dheas.

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 330Âş 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).

Brendan makes a repeat visit

Around 1,500 years after St. Brendan the Navigator made his visit to these islands, commemorated particularly on Barra with no less than a church and cemetery, a hospital and a care home, and even an MP, Met Éireann’s Storm Brendan – also coming from the south – brought this week a somewhat different sense of pastoral attention.

Here on South Uist yesterday the winds were officially higher than anywhere else in the country, while 87 mph was something of a record in our brief time here, being a little stronger than Storm Conor three years ago. Indeed, the Met Office’s station on South Uist – on the Range, adjacent to where we live, so a pretty good indicator of what we experienced locally – and from where this measure was taken, recorded gusts of over 80 mph for four hours in a row from noon yesterday, returning to that level on one more occasion during the evening. Unofficially, the winds a little further south both on South Uist and indeed also on Barra seem to have been higher, perhaps topping a ton in both places. It’s been a tough start to the year, with a succession of storms and rain and high winds characterising these first two weeks of 2020.

Not just high winds but a collapsing air pressure, on top of a spring tide, brings its own tragic recollections on Uist around January.

This time, that the winds came from the south kept the water off most of the local roads, although the coastal road on Benbecula was closed further up the coast and the causeway at the North Ford was shut for a while at high tide yesterday evening. At the house, our windproof netting is looking a little ragged, having been ripped at the bottom from the nails holding it to a whole line of fence posts, a few 4.8m lengths of 6″ x 1″ timber destined to constitute a new fence one day have been shifted around a bit, the house name sign was torn from the wall and dropped, insultingly face down, on to the ground and the meter cupboard lost its door (again), as did the wheelie bins lose their moorings (though that’s a pretty usual occurrence when the wind gets above 40mph). The storm has churned up the sea so much that the foreshore is a mass of brown algae, at least until calmer waters can gradually move it back out to sea (or, on the dryer and less rocky sands on the far side of the bay, until the crofters can gather it to spread as fertiliser). We also had the rare event (on these islands) of two shots of thunder and lightning, one of which appeared to be responsible for the last, and most significant (i.e. we had to get candles out), of the three power cuts during the day.

Today is relatively calmer, although winds gusting above 50 and into the 60s are the case pretty much until dawn on Thursday and ‘wintry showers’ are currently adding to the mix. Ferries out of Lochboisdale remain cancelled and the Eriskay causeway remains shut at the time of writing. At home, visibly moving window panes, creaking timbers and rattling roof tiles, as the house resettles after resisting yet another wind slam, will be the case for a while yet, alongside a few more nights of sleep that is too light and too short.

These small inconveniences apart, Brendan has let us off lightly; and we have been lucky.

Firefox, when I opened up this morning to write these words, quoted me rather appositely John Steinbeck from his Travels with Charley: In Search of America road trip:

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This seems to be clearly true, but I can’t help commenting that, if it is indeed so, then so must be the reverse.

In the meantime, and if it’s not too late, Bliadhn’ Ur Mhath.