Last stand of the Gaels

Jamie Lafferty is lost for words in the Western Isles, where a unique language and tradition thrive on the edge of Europe.

Seachad air na h-Eileanan an Iar, chan eil ri fhaicinn ach farsaingeachd ghorm a' Chuain Siair.

It might look as though I've suffered a sneezing fit while typing, but that sentence is in what should be my native tongue, Scottish Gaelic. It means: "Beyond the Western Isles there is nothing but the great blue of the Atlantic Ocean." At least I hope it does - the old Celtic tongue is more foreign to me than an average European language and I had to get the line translated. But, for many of the 26,000 souls across the 15 inhabited islands that make up the Western Isles, Gaelic is the mother tongue.

The Atlantic is a noisy neighbour that gives the islanders little peace. The angry weather goes some way to explaining why the islands are not more densely populated; however, when the sun shines, there are few bonnier places in Britain. Here on Europe's western edge are beaches that would rival anything in the Indian Ocean: brilliant white shores slide under pure, clear water to create an unmistakably tropical hue of turquoise. Offshore, minke whales, orcas and half a dozen species of dolphin are abundant. If you can ignore the wind and the chill (anything more than 16 degrees is to be celebrated), the islands are a kind of paradise.

Partly because of those picture-perfect coastlines, and moreover because the islands are a last true bastion of Scots Gaelic, the Outer Hebrides, as they are also known, feel somehow foreign to other Scots. It takes at least three hours to reach the islands by ferry from Oban on the mainland, but the distance alone isn't enough to explain the feeling that the islands, and their people, are distinct from modern Scotland.

Many islanders regard themselves as separate, too. "I'd say I'm a Gael first, then Scottish," says Anne Frater, a senior lecturer in the Gaelic section of Lews Castle College at Stornoway, the biggest town in the Outer Hebrides. "How about British?" I ask.

"No, not at all," she says, calmly and sincerely. There's no malice or anti-English bravado in her voice. Here, in the north-westerly extreme of Britain, the concerns of the people are more closely matched to Reykjavik than they are to London; they were subjected to Norse rule for centuries, agriculture still forms a huge part of the economy and the wind allows for few trees.

Despite her college role, Frater sees herself as part of a dying breed. "You have to be realistic about these things," she says. "The Gaelic language is in decline."

An Isle of Lewis native, Frater isn't hopeful that future generations will speak her 18-character language. It emigrated here from Ireland in the 4th century, but with just 50,000 speakers (all of whom are English bilingual) compared with more than 200,000 a century ago, the outlook is grim.

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Frater also worries that if language goes, something vital in the culture of the Hebrides will be lost forever. I speak with her after a week spent travelling through the Outer Hebrides, starting in Barra, one of the southernmost islands at the narrow end of the chain, reached by ferry from the picturesque town of Oban in Argyll, through the gorgeous Sound of Mull and across the Sea of the Hebrides. On the journey here we watch slack-jawed basking sharks feeding as kamikaze gannets perforated the ocean's surface off the starboard side.

The blocky, 1000-year-old Kisimul Castle sits proudly in the bay off Barra, giving the port its name. Castlebay has only about 2000 inhabitants, but it's comfortably the biggest settlement on the island. South of Barra there's not much else until you hit Northern Ireland, though 100 years ago the tiny island of Mingulay was bustling.

Just as the residents of the more-famous island of St Kilda did in 1930, those on Mingulay decided to leave their homes and retreat to a more populated area rather than continue to toil against the elements. Today huge populations of sea birds call the island home.

Heading north, a ferry carries me to the island of Eriskay. In 2001, a causeway linking it to the bigger Uist islands was opened, and though most people motor straight past, little Eriskay has its own rich history. In 1941, the SS Politician sank off the coast. The residents ended up well-oiled: the Politician was carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky when it went down, much of which was gathered by hitherto teetotal Eriskayans.

The Uists comprise three main islands: lanky South Uist, bleak Benbecula and plump North Uist. It's the heart of that northernmost triplet that Fergus Granville calls home. The 52-year-old proprietor of the Hebridean Smokehouse uses a technique to smoke fish that dates to the Iron Age. There's no getting away from how wet the Hebrides are, but with the damp comes fuel in the form of peat. Long used to heat houses, the smouldering black turf is also used in the flavouring of fine Scotch whiskies as well as salmon and other seafood.

"The peat we use is around 1000 years old, so going back to the Viking era on the islands," Granville says over coffee in the smokehouse. Tall with wild hair and a smile of mad teeth, he looks like a cartoon drawing of an islander and speaks passable Gaelic. However, though he doesn't mention it at the time, his title is Fergus Leveson-Gower, the 6th Earl of Granville. His godmother is Queen Elizabeth.

Yet the smokehouse is not a pet project. "We're the only people to use the Scottish salmon subspecies bred in Scottish waters," he says. "Everyone else imports the Norwegian breed to raise here because it takes longer to reach maturation so grows for longer."

As much as possible, his business does things by hand using locally sourced peat. The results are extraordinary, and new clients include Qantas.

The further north I travel, the more it feels as though I'm visiting the lands of a lost tribe locked in a traditional way of life. On the northernmost island of Lewis and Harris (often confusingly referred to as two separate isles), dozens of 18th- and 19th-century crofts litter the hillsides.

Many are abandoned; some have been revived and used as self-catering lodges and art galleries. From one or two, however, there emanates an incessant rattle.

Norman Mackenzie, a Hebridean native, worked as a dentist in Glasgow but retired and returned to Lewis a few years ago. Weaving is his lifelong passion. When the chance came to save an aged Hattersley loom from the scrap heap, he jumped.

As I edge into his croft, he's tending to a lump of peat burning on the fire. "It doesn't get much more traditional than this," Mackenzie says, with a smile. He uses the old, battered loom to weave authentic Harris Tweed. A bit like champagne, in order for Harris Tweed to carry the name it must meet stringent conditions relating to method and geography.

While most weavers use a more modern, double-width loom, Mackenzie chooses to battle on with the 70-year-old Hattersley. "This would've been mostly work for the men folk," he says, puffing away like he's trying to make the contraption airborne. Even his inflection belongs to a bygone era. He sells the tweed to passers-by, but mostly it's a hobby. "This whole village used to be filled with the clickety-clack of the looms and now's it's almost disappeared. I'm doing it to help keep the tradition of the Hattersley alive."

When Mackenzie went to school he didn't speak English, but he soon learnt. It's a problem most Hebridean children no longer face.

The annual Hebridean Celtic Festival at Stornoway, the biggest town on Lewis, does its best to make Gaelic culture as appealing as possible to youngsters. Bands from the mainland and Ireland entertain thousands of tourists, and while most of the headliners sing in English, many perform in Gaelic.

Some of the most memorable are laments to tragedies from the islands' past. Isobel Ann Martin is singing in her native tongue in a large tent on the festival's opening night. The atmosphere is reverent as she sings about the 1919 HMS Iolaire disaster in which 205 people died just off Stornoway. I don't understand a word she's saying and, looking around the crowd, I'm sure I'm not the only one. But, then, some things are beautiful in any language.

Jamie Lafferty travelled courtesy of Calmac Ferries.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

KLM has a fare to Glasgow from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1920 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 9hr with a partner airline), then to Amsterdam (13hr 10min) and then Glasgow (90min); klm.com. This fare allows you to fly via several Asian cities and back from another European city.

Car hire is available at Glasgow Airport. Trains to Oban leave from Glasgow's Queen Street Station (firstscotrail.com); buses from Glasgow's Buchanan Bus Station (www.citylink.co.uk). Caledonian MacBrayne sails daily from Oban to Barra (calmac.co.uk).

Getting around

CalMac has "Hopscotch" tickets that allow passengers to island-hop throughout the Hebrides. A Hopscotch 8 ticket takes travellers through the Outer Hebrides. It costs from £170.50 ($265) based on one car.

Staying there

There are relatively few hotels in the Western Isles. In the port of Tarbert (regular CalMac services to Skye), the best option is the Hotel Hebrides. With a lively bar and good restaurant, it's a fine introduction to island life. Double rooms from £85 a night in summer; hotel-hebrides.com.

Further north, towards Stornoway, the accommodation increases. Whitefalls Spa Lodges are popular self-catering properties with enormous bathrooms and spa facilities. A week's stay between April and October costs £1650; whitefalls.co.uk.

More information

See visithebrides.com.

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