It is my great misfortune that I do not speak Gaelic, a language that has a poetry to it and an ability to describe things in a way English cannot.
Professor Frank Rennie, Lews Castle UHI, reminded us of this as he opened his talk on Space, Grace and Place at Kings Street Halls, Kirkwall on Wednesday 25th of September. The talk was part of the LEADER funded Between The Islands Project.
Gaelic place names are descriptive. You can navigate your way through an unknown landscape said Prof. Frank Rennie by the Gaelic place names because they describe the ‘hill’, the ‘lochan’, the ‘settlement’ – the features you will see.
Frank Rennie was in Orkney to speak to us about the unique places which are special to us and why this is so. His special and unique place is Galston, Lewis which today is a community owned estate of 22 villages.
Organisers were unable to get the slide show to work but click on this link to access via slideshare: Space, Grace and Place
Being firstly a geologist Frank Rennie looks at time from a different perspective than most of us. Layers of time that take us well beyond human lifespans and our interaction with the landscape but which have created this place that is special to us.
Layers of Time and Layers of Meaning
Galston rests on Lewsian gneiss which in itself is special – the oldest rock in Britain.
‘We are formed from this in the village’ said Frank Rennie, ‘This has risen up – a slab of history.’
After the ice retreated and humans arrived they began to settle on the landscape building dwellings and have left the evidence of that in scattered artefacts and middens. The remains of pre-Iron Age and Iron Age structures on the raised beach and now being exposed by the changing coastline as it gradually erodes. Human skeletons, stone axes and pottery – lots of it with the imprints of the maker that you can reach out to and touch.
Beyond that, on the higher ground, brochs – several of them, perhaps not all built at the same time, but once dominating the landscape. Also evidence of Viking settlements, not yet excavated, and place names derived from Old Norse but with Gaelic spellings. Many of the Norse names are of what could be seen from the sea for this was the trading highway down the West coast. The Norse settlers were not only skilled seafarers but trade took them to Ireland, up to the Northern Isles across to Scandinavia – and to Newfoundland, Canada.
‘If you had a boat you could go anywhere’, said Frank Rennie
In Galston the Norse not only trade but are settlers. There are no fortifications. They are farming.
Time moves on and historical records show the area of Galston on the Blaue map of Scotland and Murdoch MacKenzie’s later maps. I was reminded very much of Revealed By Maps: Scotland’s Islands at The Orkney International Science Festival. Similar threads and themes wove their way through both these talks – on perception – how we view our islands and how others see them.
Landholding changed many times in Galston – villages growing, merging and disappearing. Clearances of various kinds and eventually in 1863 being cleared entirely to make way for the sheep, then the deer – as the people were removed, some able to go to other villages but most forcibly emigrating to Upper Canada. Scotland’s greatest export – her people.
The Lewis folk are feisty and they never ceased to campaign for land rights. This came to a peak in 1919 after the great slaughter of World War 1 when men returning to their homes with the promise of land were denied it. Land raids by the people broke down turf walls and harassed the landowners. Three gunboats were dispatched to the islands and armed troops patrolled the land.
Eventually the land raiders won and the land was broken up into crofts which people could apply for with preference given to men returning from the war. Young families resettled the land and new homes were built. Today the Galston Estate is owned by the community:
“On this day 12th January 2007 the people of Galson Estate took ownership of their land.”
“B’ ann air an là seo, 12 Fhaoilleach 2007, a ghabh muinntir Oighreachd Ghabhsainn sealbh air
The land, however, is also about the wildlife and the vegetation that lives there. Frank Rennie stressed the importance of islands for species – orchids and mosses which are only found in certain places. Birds, like the corncrake, which may have inhabited a place for generations, or those that migrate – using islands as important staging places in their life journeys.
‘When you engage with place,’ argued Frank Rennie, ‘it brings with it all of the levels,
‘Look behind the land’ to The Other Landscape [Neil Gunn] for the more you know the more you understand the depth of perspective. ‘I belong here.’
‘Think about your sense of place’. Change is natural said Frank Rennie but it is how we adapt to it that is important.
What makes a place special to you?
Reporter: Fiona Grahame