I know that people sometimes find my apparent preoccupation with the supernatural world a little perplexing. Admittedly, I do ham it up a little for effect and make much of my residence in the witchcraft capital of Lewis. For that matter, I have been accused by one irate lady of being ‘flippant about the fey’, which is not advisable if you value your life. However, there IS – I flatter myself – a serious side to all of this, and it became very apparent to me this week.
As has been the norm every Halloween for some time now, I made my way across a stretch or two of moorland (by car) to speak to some fellow islanders about ghosts, witches, fairies, the second sight and the evil eye.
This time, my destination was Bragar on the Taobh Siar, which has become synonymous with the recent debate on the prognosis for Gaelic in the islands. As I drove, I thought about an event which took place fifteen years ago, at which I was not present. It was a conference, entitled ‘Eachdraidh a-màireach’, and brought together all the people who were active in the Comunn Eachdraidh movement at that time. The late James Shaw Grant was their keynote speaker, and he addressed a phenomenon of which we are all aware, usually when it’s too late: the need to capture memories and stories which our older folk carry around with them.
Yet, Grant pointed out, what is the point of preserving this lore if we go no further than preserving it?
And he had a point. I learned a lot from my late father –things that seemed interesting but of little wider consequence at the time. Yet I have learned that these small things are vital to the greater whole, to our conception of who we are and what we are, as individuals and as a people. It is my privilege to share them with the community to which they rightfully belong.
Fairies, ghosts and witches must take their place in the Gaelic revival because they were part of what we very nearly lost in the dismantling of our culture.
This is not exclusivism at work, nor a denial of the valid urban Gaelic experience. However, if the tiniest fragment of Gaelic’s soul may be found buried within the folklore so assiduously built up by our forefathers, then surely we must do our best to keep that alive. Stories were made for the telling. We owe a lot to the folklorists who collected and salvaged – and, ultimately, published – but it would be poor recompense for their labours if we let this rich heritage moulder on a library shelf.
Every time I talk about the Otherworld to groups like the one in Bragar, it stirs something that I am terribly tempted to call ‘folk memory’. All I had to do was drop the word ‘cnocan’ into my narrative, and the room was alive with murmurs of recognition. Old ladies became young again, remembering half-overheard conversations from their girlhood when this cailleach or that one was discussed by mothers and aunties who always clammed up when asked directly about the significance of the ball of wool. Youngsters listened, rapt, to their memories and – for a little while – the Gaelic community of which we have heard was restored.
Few topics so successfully bridge the generation gap.
As I made my way back home, keeping one eye open for fairy cattle (or ‘deer’ as you might know them), I thought about what it is in the supernatural world that we all seem to find so compelling. Some hard-line theologians argue that it points to spiritual poverty – that people are looking to fill a God-shaped hole in their lives with anything but God. However, I refute that entirely. We are not actively seeking to believe in these otherworldly beings, nor yet indulge in their macabre practices; we are simply trying to understand the place they had in the lives of those who went before.
We live in a place where, as Runrig put it, ‘the breathing of the vanished lies in acres round your feet’. It seems counter-intuitive in such a society for our ancestors to simply recede from the scene, and for us to allow their wisdom to go with them.
Gaelic is a living language, and some say we need to lose the whiff of the croft and the peat fire to ensure it remains that way. There are few plants which can thrive without roots, however, and it seems to me that we are at a crossroads in our history as a people. Either we value our heritage, and weave its threads back into the story of Gaelic, or we let it go and never look back.
James Shaw Grant compared the task to drying peats. If you do not stack them into a proper rùdhan, they won’t achieve their purpose, but will eventually sink back into the ground from whence they were carved.
Stacking our knowledge together, one supplementing and sheltering the other, that’s how we can carry the legacy of the past into a sustainable future for Gaelic.