Well, finally things have quietened down sufficiently for me to get back to blogging about my visit to the Western Isles – the Outer Hebrides. I left you on Friday night, after Jennifer and I arrived in the dark at her house at Shawbost.
Jennifer’s house was probably built to replace the old thatched blackhouse, gable end to the roadside to the right of the shed. She has dreams of “doing it up” (the blackhouse, not the shed!) and making something of it……. one day!
Next day was Saturday. It dawned bright and sunny, though windy, but when we went out to visit Jennifer’s neighbour, it didn’t feel that cold. It is just a short walk to Ann’s house on the next croft, where we were greeted warmly. On went the kettle and out came pancakes, butter and jam! Drop scones, you might call them! I met Garraidh (Garry), the ginger cat and Ben the collie dog – who only understand Gaelic - and Jennifer caught up with the news of the last few weeks since she had been here last. We had a blether about the Mod and the choirs and the songs we are singing. – Jennifer is also a long-standing member of the Lothian choir – and enjoyed the homemade pancakes and tea.
Later she went off to her rehearsal with the Carloway choir while I took myself off on a bit of an exploration of South Shawbost (Siabost, a mixture of Gaelic and old Norse! These islands belonged to Norway once!). I walked along the village – oh if only you could get the smell of the peat they burn on their fires up there - turned right at the sign that said To the Shore, and passing ruins of the old village (old and probably deserted even in 1898 according to an old map Ann showed us in the morning), I came to the semi circular bay at the head of Loch Shawbost. Blue skies, blue sea - apart from the white foamy waves crashing on to the sand. The spray was blowing off the waves as they rolled in from the sea loch. It was magnificent! I spent quite some time here on the beach, sometimes down at the water’s edge sitting on a rock taking pictures of the sea and the seabirds – till the tide began to creep towards my toes – and then up at the top of the beach among the stones. Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in Britain dating back some 3000 million years! The stripes and colours are beautiful.
A very unusual feature of several of the bays here is that there is a great bar across each, probably of stones pushed up by the sea over centuries, and against which a sandy shore line has evolved. The wind is constantly blowing sand up onto the bar, and grasses and wild flowers have settled in to grow in the sand, and behind the bar is an almost landlocked loch! The bar is wide enough to have a path crossing it - in fact it would be possible to drive a 4x4 across, with plenty of room to spare! I could have spent the whole afternoon here. As it was, I certainly spent an hour or two, looking at the stones, and watching the waves on the sea and on the loch, before coming back to get the car and driving a little way south of Shawbost to see a restored Norse Mill and Kiln, a short walk from the road near tothe loch that you see from Jennifer’s kitchen window.
The picture here shows that a fire was lit at the entrance to a funnel that carried the smoke into the bowl of the kiln. Grain would be laid on slats of wood over the bowl, and the warmth from underneath would dry the grain over a period of about 48 hours.
The mill itself was typical of the Norse way of working. Here at least, wood was in short supply- there’s a notable absence of trees on the Outer Hebrides, and those there are, are stunted and windblasted – so there were no big wooden wheels turning the machinery. Instead the smallest of paddles were fixed to the sides of a vertical post. The water flowed in, under the floor turning the small horizontal wheel paddles which in turn got the mill stone turning to grind the grain, and flowed out of the building on the other side. Quite amazing that such a small “wheel” could work! Down to the power of the water, I guess!
In the evening there was the concert at Carloway where Jennifer introduced me to some of her friends and we listened to the choir and some of their solo singers, including Jennifer herself, above. A young lad who had won a gold medal that day at the Mod, played his melodeon for us, and tea, biscuits and cakes were brought round at the interval. The story of the Skyping choir made national news – at least in Scotland – and everyone was highly impressed at the result.
On Monday I went exploring a bit further but I think I will finish off here and take you on the next step next time.
Talk again soon.