The IslandsCategory: Land + People
By Freda M. Buchanan
Round the coasts of Scotland there are seven hundred and eighty-seven islands. Some are tiny, some are large, some lie close together, scattered over the sea, others lie alone, detached and self-sufficient. On some people live, on others sheep are the sole inhabitants, while still others are companiable only by sea, wind and weather, by birds and grey seals. But all are part of Scotland.
The very sight of these islands, the Orkneys and the Shetlands, where life goes on in a water-bound world, has its own enchantment. Over all is the far northern light, pure and clear. It has a translucent quality, and is quite different from the light of southern lands. The short winter days are forgotten when summer comes and the interval between the evening glory of a setting sun and the fresh promise of morning is barely perceptible. The sun does not go to bed. For a little perhaps it grows drowsy, turns over gently as he rests, and is there again for a new day. The Islanders call these magical charmed moments the “simmer dim”—the summer’s dim — a beautiful phrase, and a beautiful sight. It is one of the very special treasures of these northern islands.
They have others. Amid the grey houses of Kirkwall, Orkney’s chief town, rises the grand eight-hundred-year- old Cathedral of St. Magnus, warm red in colour, a landmark to sailors far out at sea. In the harbour of Lerwick, gaily painted boats of Norwegian design mix with the herring drifters. And in the same town every year comes a day in January when the streets are crowded with people clearly in holiday mood. The winter solstice is past; spring, with its promise of returning sunlight waits round the corner.
At the quayside a model of a Viking longship or galley is the centre of interest. It is thirty feet long, an enormous dragon figure-head in front and high tail behind, the raven banner of the Norsemen fluttering from the masthead, at its sides oars surmounted by shields. Later it is hauled to another site, for the chief excitement is in the evening, when the dark is pierced by the red glow of five hundred flaming torches, and the great procession starts. At the stern of the galley stands a figure in full Viking dress — round him his band of Norse warriors. The crowds too—the guisers — are in fancy dress. The music begins, the people sing, and the galley moves forward between two fiery rows. Where are they going? They are going to burn the ship. At the appointed place the guisers circle the ship, a song is sung; the “Yarl” steps down from the prow and joins them. A bugle sounds and all hurl their flaming torches into the hull; round the mighty bonfire they sing “The Norseman’s Home,” and the spectacular evening ends in dancing and merry-making.
This Norse Fire Festival is called Up-Helly-A, and has been celebrated in Shetland down the ages. These northern isles are Viking country, and it is to the heroic days of the northmen and to Norway rather than to Scotland that the Islanders look back when they think, as they often do, of the past history of their home-land.
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A journey by air is quick and easy. Scotland, strangely flattened, lies beneath. Islands dot the sea, gleaming sands catch the light. “The farthest Hebrides” seem ridiculously near after all! Nevertheless, as we land from boat or torch down from plane upon the firm sand we are already in another world.
The long blue cloud, from the mainland, appears as one continuous line and breaks up on a nearer view into fiords and innumerable channels separating the hosts of islands one from another. There to the north is the greatest of these, Lewis, of which the southern part is called Harries, while, an infinite variety of other smaller islands straggles to the south. In certain parts there are. impressive cliffs, notably in the extreme north of Lewis, where rises a great arch of rock. The story goes that it was formed by the devil, so that he could attach a chain to the island and drag it away with him to the sea.
In Harries there are bare and lovely mountains of a considerable height and in other islands, too, there are hills, but much of the landscape that lies before us is low and undulating, covered by moor and bog. Peat, like a muffling thick blanket, lies on the ground to a depth of many feet, stifling all growth.
This land of bog and moor is now uninhabitable. The Islanders live on a fringe by the sea, many on the exposed Atlantic shore, where miles and miles of bright cream-coloured shell sand have been through the ages thrown up by the sea and are being constantly renewed by the pounding waves. Above these beaches, between the sea and the peat, is the slope of gently undulating fertile land known as machair. On it lies sand from the shore, continually blown there by the prevailing south-west winds. It is enriched by the ocean tangle, or seaweed, which the busy Islanders, collecting it by pony and cart, spread over it. It is on the machair that the Islanders have their crofts, or small holdings of arable land. In July the wild flowers and millions of blue butterflies, seen against a background of blue sea and sky, white waves and pale yellow sand, make a brilliant picture contrasting with the duller tone of the interior.
Crofting life is a hard one. Unfortunately it is not always possible to achieve by farming alone even with modern aids, an adequate standard of living, and subsidiary or part-time occupations are necessary. Local fishing in the old days served this purpose, but now has decayed.
The native people of these islands belong to the ancient race of Celts, who at one time inhabited most of Scotland, and whose ancient speech they still preserve. Their mother tongue is Gaelic, very much alive and spoken in the home.
From Scotland and her People, London, 1961.