’T was in a beautiful, soft late afternoon light that I left Lochinver for Ullapool last Wednesday – it had been a perfect, calm day. Cuineag and Canisp were wreathed in mistiness – in fact one could barely make out the triangular shape of Canisp, although Suilven stood out against the light, puffy white cloud cover in all his glory. Loch Assynt was that gorgeous pale azure blue and Beinn na Fhuarain (pronounced ben na Ooarain because the fh disappears in Gaelic pronunciation, and which means Hill of the Spring) glowed a superb burnt umber colour where the setting sun caught the winter brown of the heather. It was just a most superb day to be out and about in the countryside.
I left home here in Strathan at about 5.30 and arrived in Ullapool at about a quarter past six – in time to have a cup of the excellent coffee served in the Cèilidh Place café before going across the road to their bunk house, where the choir would be gathering at 6.30 for a warm-up practice. We were booked to sing as an introduction to Pàraig MacNeill who is a story-teller who was going to give us an hour or so of stories, poetry and a bit of song in Gaelic, English and Scots. It was an early evening start for the sake of the children who attended and, as I said, I was there in time to get a cuppa before getting started.
I had no sooner settled down in the Cèilidh Place before I realised that the chap sitting near me and clearing the last of his meal from his plate with some relish was the Man in Question. You couldn’t really miss him! There he was in his fèilidh mòr (or plaid in English) tartan waistcoat and jacket with a proper traditional saffron shirt under all – who else could he be!! So we got to chatting, and what an interesting man he turned out to be. I instantly warmed towards him when he expressed his love of the King James’ Bible reckoning it to be a fantastic work of English, a sentiment in which I wholeheartedly agree! I suddenly had to ask him what the time was so that I wasn’t late for the practice, and in fact it was 6.40 by then, but when we got across to the bunk house, the other members of the choir were just arriving – so that was fine.
We sung a couple of songs which were as always warmly and politely received, and then Susan, who had organised the evening, introduced Pàraig. Off he went and I think he would have happily gone on all night! What a natural raconteur he is. He has some wonderful stories, but also some teaching mechanisms through the medium of riddles – which were great for the children. His Gaelic accent, coming from further south as he does, is different from those we hear locally and in my book is quite beautiful – I could have listened to that all night for sure! I wish my accent could be as good and as lyrical his!
He made a rather interesting point in the course of his story-telling. We in Scotland celebrate the bagpipes as our national instrument, which nowadays it is although the clarsach (the small harp common to the Celtic cultures) was our first instrument of choice – but that wouldn’t be a lot of use on a battlefield! We also celebrate tartan as our national dress, which of course it also is nowadays. But in fact, bagpipes are played in cultures all over the world – and not just where the Scots have been! – and tartan too is common to more than one culture. Some of the earliest known fabrics are “tartan” and I am thinking especially of the scraps of cloth found in the pre-historic finds from the Hallstad salt mines in Austria, and from which a whole piece of cloth was re-created by Professor Elizabeth Wayland Barber (archaeologist and weaver) a few years ago – looks a lot like tartan to me
We celebrate these things which are common to not a few cultures while almost ignoring what Scotland has offered to history. Per head of population, we really don’t do at all badly when it comes to the great men of world history – engineers, explorers, inventors, one or two composers, soldiers, men of letters and thinkers – the list goes on. In fact, Chris and I were discussing this over the breakfast table this morning and we realised that the only field where there are no Scots to the forefront is art – Scotland has (in our opinion at least) not really produced any great artists… It was in the region of addressing this oversight that Pàraig had a wonderful line in riddles – something which the children in the audience really appreciated, and what a great way for them to learn about some of the great men of the world that Scotland has provided throughout history!
Pàraig was going into the schools to carry on with his story-telling on the next day, and Susan had to bring an end to the evening at soon after nine because the children needed to get home to bed – and anyway, the heating was not so good in the bunk house bar, and people were beginning to get a wee bit chilly!
Next day at a slightly earlier hour and in not such lovely weather conditions, I set off to meet Mandy at Achmelvic Bridge to stravaig up to Stoer for another Gaelic event – in fact, it could be said that the weather was pretty abysmal by then! We were gathering at the home of Ishbel MacAuley for an hour or two of song and Gaelic conversation.
During the course of the Gaelic learning weekend at Glencanisp Lodge on which I reported in my last post, we were lucky enough to have Katie Graham come along to speak to us in her mother tongue. Katie was born on Rona, a now uninhabited island next to Raasay just off the Isle of Skye, and in her 20s she came to work in Lochinver in the family of our now neighbour, Alistair MacAskill. Katie is now in her early 90s but is pretty hale and hearty – we all agreed that her secret probably has to do with the fact that she never married or had children Ishbel’s story is slightly different in that she was evacuated to live with relatives in Stoer during the second world war when she was five years old, and she learned her Gaelic then – which is certainly near enough to being a Native Speaker! The fact that Chris learned his English when he was five makes him no less of the Native Speaker of that language, which he certainly considers himself to be!
There were seven of us all told at Ishbel’s on that day, and we had a very pleasant couple of hours of singing with a wee bit of Gaelic (and English) conversation mixed in. Then it was off down the road to Lochinver in time to help prepare for the Field Club meeting which started at about 7.30. This time it was going to be a talk all about our Geopark – but that is a subject for a later post…
[Photos by Clarinda]