This was a week of contrasts and balances, of new understandings and of fresh connections. Our existing knowledge about the land deepened along with an increased understanding and appreciation of each other over the week. It was a stimulating and fluid meeting of ideas and knowledge linked with place and people.
The weather is a physical presence in this landscape and we enjoyed the full range of Skye weather over the week from very wet and windy to balmy calm and sun.
Having planned the sequence of walks and subjects for the week, I enjoyed seeing how each day contrasted and balanced with the previous one. It was great experiencing the interaction of the different subjects and seeing how they built on one another. We moved from fixed scientific boundaries, through the experience of physical land use and then a poetic response to the surveying and the large scale planning of the land for economic use and then to a philosophical questioning of the actual land and air around us. One participant described it saying that ‘each day was like a pebble of knowledge’.
Monday’s walk was with James Merryweather, a Biologist, in not so merry weather, we wandered in the birch wood at Kilbride understanding the vast breadth of the mycorrhiza beneath our feet. We observed closely through the hand lenses the intertwining of plant root and algae, fungi….these were described as being ‘like whirling dervishes coming to get you’. The mossy world beneath the trees is a wondrous place, a rich mixture of mosses, liverworts and small plants. The rain slowly got the better of us and we headed back to Broadford for lunch and further discussions. We looked at the perception of what an artist is, examining the broad reach of an artist’s discipline.
Tuesday’s walk was with Maoilios Caimbeul a Gaelic poet and writer who took us to places near his family croft in North Skye. The day was not only dry but sunny and warm with just enough breeze to keep the midges away. We enjoyed time sitting and discussing following hearing (through Maoilios’s recordings) two local people, who are still alive, talking in Gaelic about working the land and the sea here in their younger days. The topics ranged from the influence of geology underpinning the land, it is the largest land slip in Britain, the rushes invading and altering the land, the dwindling riches of the sea to the pressures on the land from increased numbers of visitors, amongst others. Maoilios read two poems written about the places we were in.
from Dora’s Island by Maoilios Caimbeul –
‘ but Dòras was there once upon a time
and left his blessing for us in his name
left it like a prayer on sea and land’
Wednesday’s walk was with poet and writer Jen Hadfield. This was a day of immersion in the bog at Sligachan both literally and metaphorically. We focused close up; observing the detail and wonders which are then revealed, and sharing this with each other, our sense of the place was magnified. Jen read poems as we absorbed the rain our feet slowly sinking into the soft ground. Further into becoming bog Jen conducted our voicing of the bog habitat. Discussions ranged from the specific peat land habitats in different places, the ground moving beneath our feet, the land moving in different scales with the Cuillin being the magma core of an ancient volcano whose lava flows we had been talking about the previous day to the fauna living here, the diversity of sphagnum and the multitude of lichens clothing the rocks. We were able to continue the discussions and hear Jen read more poems in the bar at Sligachan.
from Lichen by Jen Hadfield
like lichen listens
assiduous millions of black
and golden years?….’
Thursday’s walk was with Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart course leader in material culture and Gàidhealtachd History. This day we started at the pier in Isle Ornsay, hearing the radical visions the Macdonald landlords had for this area in the early 1800’s. We then walked through the modern day crofting landscape of Camus Cross and on through to the common grazing areas. This area is now dominated by bracken but shows the pattern of past land use as shadows on the land. This was followed by viewing the 1776, 1820, and 1911 maps which clearly show the way the land was marked in such a strong way some 200 years ago. Discussions continued at Eileann Iarman around mapping, the conventions developed, control over and land as an economic unit, people as an economic unit and how crofting has developed and will develop.
Friday’s walk was with Tim Ingold, anthropologist and writer and we walked a section of the 1820 Thomas Telford road from Luib to Strollamus. We were able to sit in the sun to discuss the land, the air and the basic physical realities of our environment in relation to us. Tim posed questions such as – Is a cloud an object?, Are there lines in the landscape? and what is a surface?. We discussed these as well as the sloping seas, the relationship between horizontal and vertical, the vertical solid walls of air, folded landscapes, folded airscapes. We looked at local place names and what was and wasn’t marked on maps, for example the large cairidh or fish trap which gave the name to the Loch but doesn’t appear on the map itself.
It was a really stimulating week with lots of ideas to follow up, ideas about the landscape, land use, our personal response and our changing roles in managing land. I had intended to talk more about the plants and how our attitudes to the land are changing but we covered so many interlinked and intertwined subjects that it seemed too much and not necessary. The week was described as being ‘brain food for me’ by one participant.
Walk 1: Plant Line with biologist, Dr. James Merryweather
Walk 2: Lineage with Gaelic poet and writer, Maoilios Caimbeul
Walk 3: Heart Line with poet and writer, Jed Hadfield
Walk 4: Boundary Line with Àrd-Òraidiche /Stiùiriche Cùrsa MSc Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd Senior Lecturer /Course Leader MSc Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History, Dr. Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart
Walk 5: Contour Line with Chair of Social Anthropology University of Aberdeen, Dr. Tim Ingold