Caught by the River

Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn

2nd June 2012

by Alice Starmore.

Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn (Isabella Martin’s Crag) is a rocky outcrop of modest height not far from Stornoway, the main town of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The modesty of its stature contradicts the breadth of vista it commands, out to the minimalist zen lines of the Barvas Hills and the dreamy, Fuji-like pyramid of Stacaisal. On the summit of this little crag are the very barest làiraichean (traces or marks) of an àirigh (sheiling). The rocks are patterned with crotal, cudbear and various cladonia lichens; dog violets grow in the crevices along with grasses, sedges and ferns: it is an amazing panoply of colour and texture. In summer it whirs with life – moths, dragonflies and damselflies. Ravens and buzzards use it, and the occasional golden eagle passes overhead. Although too insignificant to be named on any printed map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn is a towering feature of the ‘unwritten landscape’ – a rich vocabulary of geographic co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag’s vicinity. Today I can count only half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten landscape is far shorter than its past; the accumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now devalued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Over my whole career, my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks in each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh on our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s. For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so that the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed. This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh. In my parents’ youth, the men, women, children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting). By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader’s Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest’s Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a’ Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crags) or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh an Dà Mhìle (Two-mile Sheiling) or Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling). Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. Almost every feature, from hill and loch to tiny burn and modest hummock, had a name which bore testimony to the intimate knowledge and regard that Lewis people had for their beloved moor. We children could tell our parents exactly where we were going or where we had been. A typical plan would be for us go to Cnoc Mòr a’ Choilich (Big Cockerel Hill) to collect tall rushes from the ancient àirigh ruins there, then to make plaited switches before going down to Bun nan Trì Allt (literally, the Head of Three Burns or the Junction Pool) to watch the salmon jumping. We might stop on the way back at Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn to marvel at the myriad fabulous lichens and little creatures living in the crevices of the long-gone Isabella’s Hanging Garden of Babylon.

Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs which were all ours to explore. A respect for the bogs was instilled in us with stories of how you could be sucked down to centre of the earth and never seen again. This was a horror to which I responded with fear and fascination in equal measure. I always found them terrifyingly beautiful and I spent many hours crawling as close as possible to the quaking edges in order to catch a glimpse of the exotic life within. This perilous activity always brought forth results which served to reinforce my fascination: perhaps it would be two ferocious dragonfly larvae fighting to the death, or the flash of gold on the side of a great diving beetle as it barrelled up out of the depths to grab an unwary water boatman, or a wayward ant struggling to extricate itself from the honeydrops of a sundew, or – best of all – a dragon or damsel larva emerging from the pool to climb up a bog bean or moorgrass stem and begin the mesmerising metamorphosis in which it burst out of its skin, all pale and fragile. I would be spellbound as it slowly pumped fluid into its intricate wings and colour into its body to become one of the most spectacular creatures on earth.

We lived on the border between micro and macro – our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imagination to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening. We had chores but they never seemed burdensome. Watching the cow, in case she was tempted by the alluring greenery in the bogs, was a task happily undertaken, as it could be combined with many activities such as rolling down a mossy hill or hunting for crowberries and white heather. The other main chore was fetching water from the loch. The loch was the heart and soul of our pasture community and we all met daily at that body of water. The children caught sticklebacks, made dams and sailed boats. Blankets were taken out to be washed and we rinsed them by laying them in the loch and stamping on them. The water was a mercurial weather vane, reflecting every mood and movement of the atmosphere. To this day, I find that my feelings for the pasture loch – out of all the hundreds of lochs I know and love – are especially deep and intense. No matter where I am, I can close my eyes and visit every tiny detail of it in my mind.

All of these activities contributed to an intimate knowledge of the place, its history and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or the last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all of our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was feeling extremely sad at the thought of ‘fàgail an geàrraidh na aonar’ (leaving the pasture in loneliness). To us it had a spirit, a heart and a soul, just as we had ourselves.

Alice Starmore is a Scottish artist, photographer, designer and author. She was born on the Hebridean island of Lewis into a family of Gaelic-speaking crofter-fishermen. She has established an international reputation as a leading expert on knitting design and technique. For more of her work see: (photography & the natural world); (gallery exhibitions)

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Earthlines, a brand new magazine from the Two Ravens Press. Find out more here.