Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage, Part 3

7 Aug 2011 in Argyll & the Islands, Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Writing

IAN STEPHEN continues his log of a voyage

BACK in the kitchen.  A new group has joined Song of the Whale. There is an overlap of crew, Cape Farewell folk, and the artists and scientists who will sail together this coming week.

They are planning to sail to North Rona, the Shiants and the coasts of Skye. But I’ve left the ship though it’s berthed about 50 metres from where I live in the converted net loft building on Stornoway harbour.

Picture by Ian Stephen

Picture by Ian Stephen

This is how it went. We began with a ceilidh in Taigh Chearsabhagh and it became a real one – when Julie Fowlis and Mary Smith and Mary Jane Lamont offered songs and responses came from all around a packed room. One story also led to another, told more formally to the whole gathering or in a small galaxy of continuing satellite conversations. As a storyteller you have to trust an instinct for which story to tell. You don’t often decide in advance because it has to respond to what has already been heard in the room.

But the group had visited Balranald shore. We had seen how crofters have been encouraged to continue some of their older ways of working the machair and to modify a few to help a fragile community of birds – like the corn-buntings, which seemed to like the arrangement.

We’d seen a passionate scientist describe the layers of life on the beach as an expressive dance of a stick in the sand. The residue of rotted weed filters down to feed the ragworm which attract the dunlins. Every experience we gained seemed to stress the dependence of every part of a huge system on its neighbouring component.  And factors which occurred at a distance could also be enough to disturb the workings of something you observed close.

Picture by Ian Stephen

Picture by Ian Stephen

I know a North Uist version of the Selkie story but I’d never told it in public before. I thought of another conversation where a Uisteach told me they used to place a biroch (spurdog) in the heart of hay coil so it dried. And that connected with the moment when the latest hiding-place of the sealskin is found by one of the children born to a man and to a woman who can become a seal again now that her shed skin has been returned to her. We’d seen the arching seals sense sun on their backs and bellies that afternoon and I could see the contrasting nature of the skin shine from out the dry rye and bere stalks.

That night violent squalls went across Lochmaddy. I was up on deck to give a hand as we recovered the anchor and moved to re-set it. Richard the skipper must have seen it in my face, imagining squalls like that in Village Bay, Hirta, with a fair bit of east in them. He showed me the latest forecast. The enormous forces skimming lightly across this bay were localized. We’d have a strong favourable wind from leaving the Sound of Harris and then it should move conveniently to the west and fade away. So we should be blessed with a good sailing breeze out and shelter to look closely at the archipelago, rather than just  “bag” it as a location done.

Picture by Ian Stephen

Picture by Ian Stephen

There are a lot of resources and of course a certain amount of carbon released in assembling a group such as this. I had the feeling everyone aboard felt some responsibility as well as anticipation in contributing to this journey.

Song of the Whale is a superbly equipped practical expedition boat. She has a substantial sail area and proved a comfortable vessel, reefed down to harness a breeze that gusted close to 30 knots. So we were blessed with the conditions to be together at Village Bay and Glen Bay. Those who were sick recovered well.

You can never be certain of seagoing plans. The very similar ex-Challenge yacht Elinca turned back when only 11 miles from Hirta some weeks before. So Anthony Gormley and Will Self, who were aboard, had most of the journey but not the landing as their experience. That’s how it goes.

We were able to spend time ashore. We met the team who were crewing a classic Irish gaffer – a Galway Hooker – and paid our respects to the National Trust warden. But all the time the song workshops in the galley or cockpit could just start up and the boat’s crew were participants in everything. Conversations rose and fell on their own tidal curves.

We went on to land on two of the islands in the Monachs group and anchored at Taransay.  The boat would stop from time to time to allow Emily the oceanographer to record data that was immediately plumped into her laptop. And sketchbooks and notebooks and whirring digital recordings were noting and comparing.

For me, all these landings were return visits. So I was able to return to the tunnel that undermines the headland at Glen Bay so you see Boreray shine through it. The route down to the huge arch is safe in dry conditions but challenging to anyone not used to scrambling. But David Buckland, artist and director of Cape Farewell, and the  film-maker Matt Wainright, got their gear down to that place. And the brave Julie Fowlis – looking back to Uist for the connections, came all the way and sang the great and sad litany of place names that epitomizes the exiles’s song from any island anywhere – Fraoch A Ronaigh .

The echo of that experience in that place is going to haunt more than the four of us who shared in the making of it. For me it demonstrated a convincing method of working – where good organization met with goodwill and shared trust. There was also time to think. For me, wearing the storyteller’s cap, my own connection with Cape Farewell became clear.

I can’t alter the inevitable endings of all these island stories. More and more, I know I’m a Restricted Vessel, only able to navigate within laid down limits of navigation. So in all our geographies, there is another litany built from the language of fragility.

I believe that’s no different in London or Tokyo. The survival of these communities is as much on the edge of a precious knife as was the survival of the inhabitants of Hiort, Hysgeir or Tarasaigh. It’s just that narratives and histories are more apparent  when we study our smaller islands. Perhaps there is only one natural, social or economic factor which dips the balance beyond what we need to make a settlement viable.

Picture by Ian Stephen

Picture by Ian Stephen

Matt left the camera behind when we landed on Taransay. I took the wee Panasonic along to document another stage in a particular history. The terrain is invading the wreckage of a trimaran washed up here in the 1980s.  There is something hopeful in how harmonic it all seems now. And the sea-route is still open to allow our observations.

The teams overlap and extend into all our individual reachings for others. There is no need for tension or contradiction in this inevitable move from one intense family to another. While Song of the Whale slogged up a dreich Minch, I was entering a blazing Mediterranean in the intense expressionist poems of Jenan Selçuk. I took the print-outs of provisional English translations of the work of this Turkish Cypriot poet along on the voyage.  I will meet in a group of Island poets on Sunday and we retreat to a dry-land saloon to delve and study.

I’m also taking along echoes of last night’s dinner conversation with the poet Jo Shapcott, bound for North Rona as I write.  Her advice was to read Homer’s Odyssey in a prose translation.  So sorry guys, but I think I’m about to go and hunt out an old Penguin.

© Ian Stephen, 2011