I recently returned home from two-week long journey away from my cosy surroundings in the South of England. I had been spending some time in Cumbria, but a week-and-a-half before that on the Isle of Eriskay in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. From there, my fiancée and I saw the isles of North and South Uist, Benbecula, and all the while were following in the footsteps of such great creative figures and philosophers: Dr Samuel Johnson immortalised his journey to the same place in 1775 as A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, while of course Romantic composers such as Mendelssohn were moved to write works such as The Hebrides Overture, inspired by these islands. All of these men were brought to the isles partly thanks to James Macpherson’s immensely popular Ossian Cycle of poems, but partly because in both the land and the poems, they were seeking something: something different, something wild.
In the late 18th century, as today, the Western Isles were separated from the rest of the British Isles not only by the ocean, but by their way of life. Of course, back then there was no electricity, no free Wifi and a ferry service with a tendency to sink, but the native people spoke their native Celtic language of Gaelic, not English, something which remains alive to this day, along with a certain friendly disdain for anything from the dreaded Saxons, or as the locals might say, Sasannach. After all, these were the people who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie – the Stuart pretender to the British throne, the epitome of establishment dissent in these isles.
Life is fairly agrarian, with many people tending croft farms, or at least owning them, and even if little work is done in practice, the pride of heritage runs deep in their Celtic veins. In recent years, these isles have become the setting for the crime novels of Peter May, books you can find in almost any shop – something that screams perhaps of admiration? May writes honestly about life in islands, and out here, where the sea pounds endlessly into a land of rock and cold, honesty is about the only warming thing worth keeping next to peat for burning in the stove.
There is a melancholy which comes with life in the Hebrides. One needs only look to the culture of the local people. A song native to the isles, traditionally sung by the women working cloth, Gura mis’ tha fo mhulad, air an tulach ‘s mòr m’ èislean, translates to something like “I am sorrowful out here on a hillock, my grief is great”. The poetry is the lament of a young woman impregnated by a man who has now left her, and refuses to speak with her while she desperately seeks sustenance for her baby. It is hardly uplifting material to sing to, but coming to terms with the fact that a life in the isles can be one of the hardest anywhere in Europe is part of the culture, and a necessary part of living.
So, for a life so depressing, why might the Romantics, and indeed I, be so attracted to it? For those of a naturally melancholic disposition, there is some appeal in the frequent storms, grey clouds and stress that accompanies a life in the islands; indeed, for the Romantics of the past, this was the beginning and something towards the end of the appeal, but there is also something more. Because the islands are cut off, as locations go in today’s globalised world, there is no choice sometimes but to submit entirely to nature. If a hurricane engulfs the Outers, there is no escape, only endurance and respect for its unstoppable forces. Sometimes the shop will be depleted of supplies, and deliveries cannot arrive due to the adverse weather. Thus, the onus for survival is placed entirely upon the individual, but at the same time the community must come together in order to ensure that each individual does not starve. There is a natural obligation between neighbours out here – an obligation unwritten in law, but written in the minds of those who have lived here and know the true nature of tending the crofts.
When we are kept so closely together in our cities, the cities in which we are all strangers to one another, it is easy to look upon the Gaelic islander as more akin to an old-fashioned curmudgeon than to a member of modern society, but it is the irony of modernity that the islanders enjoy far more community than those in our cities. Here, everyone says ‘Hello’, and I must say hello to my neighbour, lest when I run out of food for my children my neighbour thinks me rude and does not help me. In the city, there is no reason why my neighbour should help whether he is my friend or not – I can just go down to the supermarket for food. Ironic then, that the place inhabited by those who we so often stereotype as being hostile to outsiders is perhaps more welcoming than the cosmopolitan metropoleis that so many of us today inhabit.
Life is not merely traditional for the sake of it – it is deeply in touch with its ancient roots, Celtic music, language and agrarian life are preserved not because they reject modernism, but because modernism has not yet reached them. The city-dweller has no care for the Gaelic crofter, and it is just as well, because that city-dweller’s insistent modernism would not provide the crofters with any meaningful community, no matter how multicultural he perceives himself to be.
For myself, visiting a place with a partner makes it so much more special. To walk through the islands with my fiancée beside me permits me to understand the extremity of the situation on yet another level. It is not only modernity and disrespect for nature which is absent here, it is the aversion to committed interpersonal relationships. If life is so melancholic, love must be present to sweeten the bitterness of the cold. It was the height of summer during my visit, and at times the wind still bit hard as thought it wore December’s frozen teeth. That then, is why the ancestors of the islanders wrote poems about lost love and hopeless mothers. It is when love fails, on top of all the other pains of island life, that real hope slips away. Here, all the islanders have for support is each other, and when the first port of call – one’s lover – is lost, all else seems all the more lost still.
The aesthetics of the Hebrides then are founded in its isolation, but also in its community spirit which is stronger than many of us would care to admit. There is a perfect driving pain of struggle against impossible forces: nature itself at its most wild; at the same time there is a friendly warmth which takes the edge off the wind’s chill, a warmth that I have never experienced in the cities of the South of England or Europe, supposedly so much warmer than the windswept Hebridean isles. Perhaps one day I may realise the ideal of living here. The beauty here is not sublime, there is no separation between the individual and the power of nature – you sink, or you swim. I am sure my own Scottish heritage stirred a little here in my heart, the remnants of the Clan Gray bloodline that remains in me. In fact, I felt such a connexion to the community here I might almost have called myself a Scottish nationalist. Almost.