If Women Rose Rooted: The Power of the Celtic Woman
Sharon Blackie, September Publishing, 2016
If you have ever driven the road through the district of Uig to the farthest south-western corner of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, you’ll know Mangurstadh Beach. It sits almost out of sight, well below the road, just as you reach the top of that rise, three miles or so before you come to the crofting township of Breanish. You’ll recall the rise, where the road you have been confidently riding falls away from you like a breaking wave – I’d bet you’ll never forget it – the place where you suddenly fall forwards into the open jaw of the Atlantic, where the sea and the sky rise up to ambush you. Just there, when you think that you are going to pitch headlong into so much space and distance, Mangurstadh Beach is waiting to catch you. If you allow yourself to be ensnared by its curving white sands and the bright turquoise and emerald green of the shallows, you’ll forever be a haunter-of-edges. If you don’t watch yourself you’ll turn to stone down on that beach, a sea-smoothed rock-creature with eyes that are holes where the sky shines through.
Pass by it if you can. Drive another four miles and, as if losing heart, overwhelmed by so much wildness and beauty, the road gradually peters out into bare stone mountains on the border between Lewis and Harris. It ends just beyond another white-sanded beach in the abandoned village of Mealista, one of many casualties of the Clearances. On this far section of the coast the prevailing gales are so strong that every few winters an especially violent storm will blow all the sand off the beach. After a year or two it creeps back, slowly, as if hoping that the wind won’t notice.
I lived there for a while not so very long ago, just two miles up the coast from Mealista beach – and I can tell you that the heart gives out along with the road there on the edge of the world, overwhelmed by so much wildness and beauty. Some edges cut through you like a knife. If you are lucky, though the cut may be deep, it will also be clean.
We are all edge-dwellers, those of us who inhabit this long Atlantic fringe in the far west of the continent of Europe. I have always been drawn to the edges of things, the places where two things collide. Where bog borders riverbank, where meadow merges into forest. Where you stand in the margins of what is behind you and look out across the threshold of the future. The brink of possibilities – will you cross? Edges are transitional places; they are also the best places from which to create something new. Ecologists call it the ‘edge effect’: at the convergence, where contrasting ecological systems meet and mingle, life blooms – life, diverse and various, unexpected, abundant and unique.
The shore is the greatest edge of all. Sometimes it seems gentle, on a still summer’s day when the sun warms the shallows and the soft sand cradles you. But you must also be able to face the storm. I have stood on the rocky shoreline by my old island house, facing into the ocean, arms stretched wide; I have closed my eyes and fallen forwards into a wind so strong that it held me up, my face encrusted with salt and globs of sea-foam caught in my hair.
Whatever your cultural background may be, to stand on the dramatic shoreline of any of the Celtic nations looking westwards over the Atlantic is somehow to participate in the recognisable, powerful and curiously timeless experience of Celtic identity. Roiling seas, mist, constant shifts of light, ever-changing weather – all of our coastlines are edgelands, and for the most part we may come to them or retreat from them as we choose. On an island, though, edges are inescapable. As island-dwellers we are surrounded by them – bound by them or freed by them, according to inclination. Edges define an island … and yet an island’s edges are not strictly defined. They shift with the tides, in an ongoing, fluid, co-creative partnership between land and sea. They are in an unending state of becoming, and we are like them: we ebb and we flow; we soften sometimes, merge into the ecosystems of others, then retreat into the safety of our own sharply defined boundaries. We are gentle, and warm, and then we are storm. Perhaps this is why islands fascinate us so; perhaps this is why, at certain times in our lives, they draw us to them.
On Lewis, these apparent contradictions were both the geographical and the existential terrain I inhabited. On an island, nothing is fixed, and yet everything is fixed. Nothing is possible, and yet everything is possible, and both things are true at the same time. It creates an oddly vertiginous way of being. I came to Lewis – though I did not know it at the time – to test myself on the wildness of its edges, where the elements meet head-on. To stand and face a sea so capricious that one day it may shower you with fish and the next it may threaten death. Could I be equal to it? To stand steadfast under a thousand stormy skies and walk each day into incessant wind? Could I hold myself together in the face of it? To inhabit the remotest of places, to find its wildness reflected in myself. To find out what is left when those elements strip you down to the bone, and to let the rest fall away.
It was unboundedness which first drew me to this island in 2010, at a time in my life when all my stories seemed to have failed me. Did I have the energy for more? I didn’t honestly know. So I was biding my time on the edge. From the salt-smeared kitchen window of our old stone croft-house I looked directly out over the sea to the St Kilda archipelago, getting on for forty miles away. It was all that lay between me and the coast of Canada, 4,000 miles across a great and formidable ocean. The small isle of Hiort and the great bird-cathedral of Boreray would flicker in and out of view on the far western horizon as the light shifted from moment to moment, and legends of hidden, magical islands like Tír na nÓg and Hy-Brasil seemed suddenly far less fanciful. On a good day the world – all deep blue waters and vast blue skies – seemed infinite; but on a bad day those seas held me there, trapped me.
Over the four years that I lived there, I grew to know my three-kilometre section of the coastline intimately, and I grew to know its stories. Like all of the islands strung along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, Lewis and Harris – together known as the Long Island, the largest of a small cluster of islands collectively called the Outer Hebrides, or sometimes the Western Isles – are awash with myths and legends of the sea. On such a narrow island, deeply cut with sea lochs, it is impossible ever to be far from the sea; the village of Achmore is the only one on Lewis from which the sea cannot be seen. Throughout the past few centuries, almost all local families will have had at least one fisherman among them.
The sea dominated our crofting township: tiny Breanish, the last inhabited village at the end of the road which runs south-west through the district of Uig on the Isle of Lewis. None of its crofts is especially well sheltered from the full force of Atlantic storms and prevailing salt-ridden sea gales from the south and west. The soil is mainly peaty, and wet. Except for a tiny amount of low cover (mostly Rosa rugosa and scrub willow) in the more protected areas of one or two crofts, there are no trees or shrubs; the surrounding land is blanket bog. To the east is Mealasbhal, the highest of the ancient range of walnut-like mountains which run along the spine of Uig. To the north, and running along the border of what was then our land, is Loch Greibhat: a long, shallow loch which attracts large migrating flocks of whooper swans in spring and autumn. Humans are secondary inhabitants there: herds of thirty or more stags freely roam the village in winter; sea eagles dominate the skies.
On an island like this the sea is part of you, both outside of you and in you. Every day’s sea is different, and every new sea washes up new stories. You find them in the sheltered coves and the deep-cut geos. You find them in the rock-pools, hidden under red-fringed dulse. Turn over a stone on the sandy beach, and a story will escape, briny and encrusted with barnacles. So come out of the house; brace yourself against the wind which always is waiting to lift you off your feet. Turn right out of the big deer-proof gate and walk down the small track which runs down to the àird, the headland. Go through the gate, past the fencepost capped by a lone upturned weathered wellington boot, hoping someday for a mate. A little further and stop right there, just on the top of the small green rise where the path subsides.
Look at it. Look out at the world. It opens its arms and offers you only emptiness. The St Kilda archipelago may be seen ahead of you in the west; the isle of Scarp dominates the horizon to the south. If you should find yourself walking in the darker hours, you’ll see the light on the tiny island of Gasker pulsing to your left, just north of the Monachs, and the lighthouse on the Flannan islands will be flashing to your right. All of these islands are uninhabited. From time to time, you may see the light of a distant solitary voyager in the shipping lanes which run far out west. There is only you, the sea and the sky.
Dr Sharon Blackie is a writer and storyteller whose work sits at the interface of psychology, myth and ecology. She is the founder of EarthLines Magazine, described by Jay Griffiths as ‘a deeply intelligent publication’, by George Monbiot as ‘a rare combination and much needed’, and by Robert Macfarlane as ‘a real point of convergence for many thought-tributaries and philosophical paths’. She is the author of The Long Delirious Burning Blue, a novel which the Independent on Sunday called ‘hugely potent. A tribute to the art of storytelling that is itself an affecting and inspiring story’, and which The Scotsman called ‘powerful (reminiscent of The English Patient), filmic, and achieving the kind of symmetry that novels often aspire to, but rarely reach.’ Her most recent book is If Women Rose Rooted, a nonfiction work about Celtic women in myth and contemporary life, described by bestselling novelist Manda Scott as ‘mind-blowing in the most profound and exhilarating sense … an anthem for all we could be. It’s an essential book for this, the most critical of recent times.’ Sharon was formerly a crofter on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, but now lives in the hills of Donegal, in Ireland. Her experiences on the westernmost edges of the Celtic fringe give her a unique perspective on the psychology of belonging, and our relationship with place.