This Month in Celtic History
by Greg Douglas

October 2004

CUAIRT GU A'GHAIDHEALTACHD - The Way to the Gaeltachd

In The Footsteps of Alasdair MacColla, Part Two

What is unique about the Scottish Gaeltachd is that it gives lie to the notion that the Gaelic experience is necessarily Catholic - for the majority of Scottish Gaels are Protestant. For that matter, if one considers Irish and Scots Gaelic as two dialects of the same language rather that two closely related languages, the overall majority of Fior Gael collectively are Protestant. This is because there are roughly twice as many Scottish Fior Gael as there are true Irish native speakers - and the overwhelming majority of Scottish Gaels are Protestant.

I like to say that my ethnicity is Protestant Scots men marrying Irish Catholic women. Having been reared in the Catholic Church, nonetheless much of the sensibility of my family was informed by Presbyterian values. Accommodation and a strong Celtic ethnic identity were planted in my psyche (particularly by my father) from an early age, without regard to religion. And here in the Scottish Gaeltachd, despite a history of religious strife, the people have come to a working accommodation.

In the last installment of In The Footsteps of Alasdair MacColla we proceeded to the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, which preserves the Catholic traditions of Gaelic Scotland. When one crosses the causeway from South Uist to Benbecula, one enters a transitional zone. The Isle of Benbecula, which is the main service center for the Uists, is mixed Protestant and Catholic. Here is the regional airport, medical center, community college and Laundromat. Flat and largely nondescript, this is the shopping center. Crossing the next causeway, one enters North Uist. These three Isles, divided by tidal strands, have always formed an integral unit. Before the causeways were built, natives crossed between the Islands along marked paths at low tide.

North Uist / Uibhist a'Tuath along with The Isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis make up the heartland of the Free Presbyterian Church, or Na h-Eaglais Shaor. This form of evangelical Presbyterianism split off from the Church of Scotland at about the time of the great tenant rebellions that put an end to the Highland Clearances. Often defamed as dour and puritanical, the "We Frees," though strictly Sabbatarian and theologically conservative, offer as hearty a Highland welcome as can be found anywhere. A particularly egregious venue for the defamation of the Free Church people was a movie that came out a few years ago called Breaking the Waves. Without a word of Gaelic in it, this movie made a caricature of a culture that was born in struggle.

North Uist is a lovely Island. More low lying than South Uist, it is full of fresh water and salt water lochs and lochans. Fishing as well as birdwatching draw people from around the world to this remote yet priceless gem. And it is from here that Julie Fowlis, the Gaelic singer in Dochas, comes from. While we were here the Royal Navy was at port in the diminutive anchorage of Lochmaddy - Loch nam Maddadh - the Loch of the dogs. It looked strange to see such huge warships in such a tiny and peaceful bay.

Religious alignment aside, all three of these islands in clan times were Clan Ranald territory and thus the people here are the decedent of Alasdair MacColla's allies. Yet the Gaelic heard here sounds more like the Gaelic of Skye and Harris. The lilt of Barra and South Uist sounds more akin to the Irish. Here the sound is more Scoto-Norse; hardier, thicker and more nasal - and this is the dialect I first studied in New York at the Caledonian Club with Bill Eagans a successful lawyer and fluent speaker of North Uist Gaelic.

The island of Berneray is now connected to North Uist via a causeway, now one can take a small car-ferry to Na Hearadh, the Isle of Harris. From North Uist, Harris looks like a huge grey rock plug thrusting from the sea. Harris is Zen-like in its austere beauty. Rock and sand framed in emerald green characterize this place. The sandy west coast against the background of grey and green mountains stand in contrast to the rough rocky east coast. On the east coast a single-track road built through here was so expensive to build that it is called the golden road. At one point the rock turns a ghostly white. On a sunny day it shines ethereally.

The houses that house the local Gaels look as if they were built on the moon. Stop to talk to the locals, either business or pleasure (yes they are friendly and gladly engage strangers) and one will experience the relaxed goodwill that many of us city slickers are starved for. The patience and tolerance of our fast-talking ways will prove flexible and strong as long as you obey the rules of Highland hospitality. If one betrays their trust, only God will help you - remember you are on an island.

When we are here we stay on Scalpay, a small island off the mouth of the harbor of the main town here, Tarbert. Heading east from Tarbert over a rolling single-track road one crosses a bridge to this lovely island. The MacLennons are a family who are in the hospitality business here. We stay with Effie MacLennon, whose niece and nephew run another bed and breakfast across the harbor. The enthusiastic hospitality here is second to none. The back door of Effie's house is yards from the sea - and nothing is lovelier than standing here and watching the boats in the harbor in the muted sunlight of an autumn day.

In 1994, on my first trip to the Western Isles, the single-track road connecting Harris to Lewis reached over the mountains and into the mist. On the other side lay Loch Seaforth, which separates the two sides of the land mass. Now a two-lane blacktop climbs the pass from Tarbert to Bowglas (Bogha Ghlas), the last village on Harris. However, straddling the road a rock quarry is now eating into the massive rock of north Harris. The rock here is valuable, but it is not gems or precious metal that this rock holds, but feldspar, essential to the concrete now being used to construct the infrastructure of southeastern England. Richmonds, the mining concern, also had the area around the Golden Road scheduled to be scooped out into a large pit that would become a potentially toxic sea loch. Additionally, the Swiss owner of the Amhainsuidhe Estate wanted to strip mine the majestic Seaforth Island. Environmentalists and some of the locals stopped these two projects, but the quarry on the road to Lewis is now apparently a permanent fixture. Dread settles in my stomach each time I make this trip and witness the ever-growing progress of the pit.

These two Islands that are one seem far from the battles of Alasdair MacColla. Two branches of the Clan MacLeod held sway here. The Siol a'Thormad and Siol a'Thorcal, the MacLeods of Lewis and the MacLeods of Harris or Dunvegan. Norse in origin, the MacLeods became integrated into the world of the Gael. They were granted these lands as reward for submission to the Lordship of the Isles. While the Dunvegan branch is alive and well and the clan chief remains resident at Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the MacLeods of Lewis, after the fall of the Lordship of the Isles, came under the sway of one of the Scottish monarch's favorites, the chief of Clan MacKenzie - from there on out referred to as Seaforth. It was the ever-vacillating Seaforth that was to play such an important role, eventually as a patron of the Covenanters in the Highlands. Seaforth eventually would be dealt a blow by Alasdair MacColla and Montrose much in the same way as Argyll was. Many of the locals here must have had ancestors who fought against Alasdair MacColla.

Beyond Loch Seaforth in the southwest of Lewis is one of the most outstanding archeological sights in all of Scotland, the Callanish Stones. Lewis is covered with standing stones and stone circles, but Callanish dwarfs these other sights in grandeur. Na Clachan Chalanais or Na Turusachan Chalanais is the second largest stone circle after Stonehendge. But unlike Stonehendge, these stones, due to their remoteness, are fully accessible. On top of a Tom or small hill, these stones overlook Loch Roag and the village of Callanish.

Every summer solstice hippies, new agers and pagans flock here to celebrate. It is said by many Celtic scholars that the ancient Celts picked places like this for the power projected by the confluence of various natural sources. As I approached the stones this past summer, my third visit to the stones, I certainly did not feel power emanating from them, but as I meditated on their presence, a more subtle sense of power seemed contained within. As I walked amongst them my mind drifted on where the Celts have come spiritually over the past couple of millennia. Mindful of how these stones survived the religious conflicts that were the background of Alasdair MacColla's struggle I thought of how they represent all the ways our spiritual authorities have lead and mislead the Celts. These stones have survived scavengers and Calvinist iconoclasts alike because they were 85% buried in peat, with only the tips poking out, until they were fully excavated in the late 19th century. Only a few of the original stones are not present.

The Callanish stones form a cross, similar in shape to a Celtic cross, surrounding a central circle with a chambered carn at the center. As my mind drifted to the many ways these stones have been interpreted and misinterpreted, I became aware that the female principle of deity was far more prominent in the ancient Celtic spirituality. Wells and springs as manifestations of the womb of the earth were often the holiest sights. As I was entertaining this idea I approached the bottom of the "cross" on the north side of the stone circle. As I looked down through the gallery of standing stones that lead to the inner circle I suddenly realized that this represented the birth canal and the inner circle was the womb. All that was missing was the water of life - and at that moment one of those fine yet saturating rains, that are almost more of a mist than a rain, that often manifest in the Highlands and Islands, descended in silence.

At this moment my mind concentrated in silence. On my flight over to Scotland I was rereading a book I had first read more than twenty years ago, The Snow Leopard - the story of the spiritual journey of naturalist author Peter Mattheisen from free-thinking Bohemian to Zen master. With this in mind I had a powerful impulse to sit in Zen meditation amongst the stones with the rain washing over me in silence. We were alone, it was evening and there were no locals around to misinterpret such a gesture. But my wife was not experiencing the rain with the same reverie I was experiencing - and soon there would be no restaurants open due to the hour.

As we pulled away from the stones my mind stayed concentrated and the wordless silent wisdom of the stones continued to abide in me. BBC Scotland was switched on and we heard the sad news that a roadside bomb in Iraq had killed a Scottish soldier. This was followed by a Rap number that resolved into a chant of "power to the people and the people want peace!" As we pulled into Stornoway, the capitol of these islands, The Beastie Boys came on the radio with a rap of unity about my home town, New York City. I am no Rap fan and usually it impresses me as narcissistic nihilism, but this rap was healing and generous. In one short car ride I had come from these inscrutable stones back to the twenty-first century.

Overlooking the peaceful harbor of Stornaway I enjoyed a wonderful meal of Scottish beefsteak and British style chips (not freedom fries). That evening we would return to our bed and breakfast on Scalpay and the next day the ferry to Skye and the road back to the mainland. From this, my fifth trip to the Scottish Gaeltachd, I would bring back more than cassette recordings of Radio nan Gael and the happy memories of the beauty and culture of one of the most unique places on Earth, but I would bring the Stones and my new understanding of them.

Griogair Dubhghlas, Am Fear Cathrach Albannach, Meur Ameireaga Gregory Douglas, Scottish Chair, American Branch

For more information on Scotland, see the Scotland Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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