“This is the one place which I don’t yet know how to leave. Which I can’t quite believe that I can leave. My place.” I keep coming back to that sentence, it seems. The last time I used it was May last year, at the point when we were finally getting ready to leave our house and croft at the end of the world, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, for this little old cottage by the river in Donegal. I have written other posts about the place which I simply called the Rocky Place over the years; I hope regular readers of this blog will forgive me some repetition while I work my way up to a synthesis which is greater than the sum of these disparate threads, and to a new chapter in the story of that place.
This is a long story. I hope you will bear with me. There is no short way to tell it.
First, a little backstory. When we first moved to Lewis, back at the beginning of 2010, I fell in love with the land. We had bought a house and croft which was sandwiched between the sea and the mountains which form the border between Lewis and Harris, right at the end of ‘the longest cul-de-sac in Europe’, just before the road ran out at the abandoned village of Mealista. From our kitchen window, we could see St Kilda on a clear day. The beautiful district of Uig had once been properly inhabited, crofted, lived in. And then, little by little during the past few decades, it had been abandoned. The young people moved for work to the main island town of Stornoway, or emigrated. The old ones who stayed behind on the family crofts grew older, and eventually began to die. Incomers, drawn by the ‘scenery’, snapped up the empty houses, but few wanted to work on the land. By the time we moved to our part of Uig, it was barely inhabited.
At the time, this is what we wanted. We were jaded, tired of civilisation, deeply disenchanted with our species, out of ideas and all out of heart. We wanted wild. And so we moved to this beautiful, remote croft at the far end of the world. As well as working from home as publishers of books (at the time) and EarthLines Magazine, we worked the land more intensively than we had done before: over the four years that we lived there, we kept two small flocks of pedigree sheep, two breeding sows, a milk cow, geese, ducks and hens. And a fairly large polytunnel. We also had two boisterous working sheepdogs (and, until he died, a rather lunatic golden retriver) who needed lots of exercise. And so, as well as my chores around the croft and my role as sole keeper of the polytunnel, I walked the beautiful, wild land around us twice daily for four years. Every morning, before the rest of the world was awake, I would take the dogs out onto the rocky headland, in all weathers. Down to the hidden tidal sandy beach, or along to the small bay where the tiny Breanish river runs into the sea. I would walk the same paths and sometimes explore new ones. I knew that land as I have never known anywhere else. I came to know which wildflowers grew where and when they should appear and whether they were late this year; I watched every spring for the oystercatchers to return, and then the lapwings, and then the whooper swans. Sea eagles were a regular sight; herds of thirty stags freely roamed the common grazing land. I knew it intensely in every season; I walked it in storms so fierce that I could hardly stand up, and I danced barefooted on hot sunny summer rocks. There was no-one else out there to fall in love with the land as I was falling in love; there was only ever me, and the dogs, and the land.
More than just knowing the place, I knew its stories. (In fact, I couldn’t divide the two. To me, a place is its stories; this was the place in which I came to truly understand that lesson.) We had moved from a croft in Lochbroom, on the north-west coast of the Scottish mainland, where in the hills opposite the house could be seen the reclining figure of a woman. I now lived in a house where, in the mountains opposite it, could be seen … the reclining figure of a woman.
There are a number of such locations throughout the islands and mainland Scotland, in which the shapes of specific mountains or ranges represent the silhouette of the reclining goddess of the land; the best-known of them is the Isle of Lewis’ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ mountain, known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach – the old woman of the moors, which can be seen at a distance from the Callanish stone circle on Lewis. I looked out onto our own reclining figure every morning when I opened the bedroom curtains; she dominated the landscape when I walked or worked the land. She was always there, a reminder of the old goddess of the land, whose stories exist still both in Scottish and Irish mythology. In the islands, the stories tell of her two aspects: Brigid (or Bride in the Hebrides) and the hard, stony blue-faced Cailleach (the Gaelic word for old woman, crone or hag). One version of the story says that the old woman of winter, the Cailleach, dies and is reborn as Brigid the spring maiden on the old festival day of Imbolc (February 1). She is fragile at first, but grows stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, and turns scarcity into abundance. But as autumn approaches and the light begins to fade she weakens again, and her sister the Cailleach begins to awaken. And by the old festival of Samhain (November 1) it is the Cailleach who rules this season, and Brigid who sleeps quietly in the hills. There are many stories about this battle for the seasons which takes place between Brigid and the Cailleach, but they can clearly be seen as two aspects of life in balance, of the need for both darkness and light, summer and winter, the cyclical nature of the world.
Wherever I walked, then, the stories of the land were made visible in the permanent features of the land. The silhouette opposite our house was clearly that of a young woman rather than a hag; to me, she represented Brigid. I found her sister, the Cailleach, by accident. While haunting the shoreline, in a hidden fragment of coast well below the ground level of the rest of the headland, I stumbled on the place which afterwards I only ever called the Rocky Place. My place. I recognised it as such the first moment I saw it. Vast expanses of slabbed rock extending underfoot like a multicoloured, layered carpet which slopes gradually down to smaller rocks, coated with emerald green algae, onto which the sea continually crashes. This undulating rock carpet is founded on Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world; it slopes up to and is bounded by a long, curving, carved cliff face, perhaps the height of two average people.
There is a corner of the Rocky Place which is a shrine. Cliff walls provide a home to succulent plants and to a miniature version of Scots lovage; a pool at the base never dries up and is inhabited by a species of fairy shrimp, or maybe gammarus …
In the cliff face behind the pool, on a corner, is the silhouette of a hag, staring out to sea. The Cailleach. The old stories tell us that she stands in such places, looking out and waiting for her husband, the Bodach – identified in some of the old tales as Manannán Mac Lir, the Trickster god of the sea.
And then, around the corner from this Cailleach stone, I found a vast flat rock slab in an alcove up against the cliff face, which looked for all the world like a bed. You’ll see it in the image at the top of this post. I called it the Cailleach’s Bed, and one night I slept there under the late-August stars, with the Gasker light flashing way out to sea to the south of me, and the Flannan Isles lighthouse to the north. I was the Cailleach, and this was my stone bed.
And so, directly out of the land and the features of the landscape, I found those old stories … or maybe they found me. They became part of my life, and my life was part of the land as the stories were part of the land. Intrinsic, inseparable: me, the land, our stories. I hardly noticed how they were all beginning to entwine. Walking the land, I immersed myself especially in stories of the Cailleach. Here at the Rocky Place, I became Cailleach for a time. I sat there often by the shrine-pool, cross-legged. I stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted Cailleach and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. I shared her vigil and told her all of my stories; I wept by her side when, for a few months, life became unbearably hard. Leaving that place a year ago was one of the most difficult things I have ever done; turning my back on that solitary old Cailleach stone felt like a betrayal.
But I took her with me, in my heart, that old Cailleach; when we left Lewis I took her memory to the Beara peninsula in south-west Ireland, where I sat by the side of An Chailleach Bheara, another stony old hag looking out to sea, and I told her stories of her sister in the north. I took with me more than that, though: I took away with me something which I struggle to put into words. I want to call it land-whispering, in the way that you might think of horse-whispering. A merging with the land, becoming the land, not only knowing but living within its stories. It is the deepest connection of all, a facility that can only come from years of grounding in a place. I took with me the knowledge that when you live as I lived, when you are with the land as I was with it during those years, you fall into its story. You become part of the land’s story of itself, part of the land’s dreaming. And no, that isn’t just a pretty phrase. When you reach out to the land in the way that I reached out, there are consequences. It communicates with you. It reflects you back to yourself. It teaches you. Above all, it tests you.
Sounds crazy? Maybe; I am old enough and grounded enough and sceptical enough not to worry about whether I seem crazy. There were experiences I had there (and some that David had there) which taught me that lesson. The four years that we spent on Lewis were mythic years. The land spoke to us in shattered ideals and dead totem animals. We learned the lessons of our life, and each one of them arose directly from the land. They were hard lessons, but they changed us. They were lessons we needed to learn. The land taught us, and it tested us.
I had a dream, the night after I first stumbled across the Rocky Place. It was a Big Dream. You know the kind: the kind you have just a few times in your life. The kind of dream you know is telling you something, though often enough you have no idea what. A Big Mythic Dream. I dreamed that the Rocky Place was peopled with animals, and these animals were the rocks in the cliff face and in the ground. In the cliff face above the shrine-pool was an eagle with outstretched wings, and above the Cailleach Bed was a stalking wolf with holes for eyes where the sky shone through. In a shallow channel of sea-water which I would somehow have to cross if I carried on walking in my dream, was a huge whale for a stepping stone. I could sense something stirring in the air around me, and it was a sense of power and of danger. If you tread on that sleeping whale, the place seemed to be saying to me, if you waken the animals, the sleeping heart of the rock, if you waken the sleeping power of this abandoned land, you never quite know just what it is you are going to awaken. Will you wake them anyway, the old stories? Will you do it? Will you do it, without fear of the consequences?
I put the dream to one side; I didn’t know what it meant. Three years later the image of that wolf with holes for eyes where the sky shone through came back to me in a powerful wave of understanding of my own needs and nature … but that is another story. What I understand now is that in merging myself so deeply with the land, I woke it up.
And then I left it.
Last February, I came to this little house by the river in Donegal, and spent a week here. It had just become mine, and in a few short months we’d be leaving Lewis for ever and moving here. I remember that I wondered which animal I would connect with here, which animal would become the animal I most resonated with in this landscape. Because ever since I had moved to a croft on the shore of a sea-loch in Lochbroom back in 2003, the animal I lived with which most captured my imagination was a seal. In that place, in the years before I met and married David and right up until the time we left for Lewis, I would walk down to the sea-loch early each morning and almost always there would be a solitary seal, grey head bobbing up and down in the water, watching me. I sat with it, sang to it, and it became a character in the novel I wrote in those years, The Long Delirious Burning Blue. If there is such a thing as a totem story, the story of the Selkie, the seal-woman who lost her skin, became mine. And when we moved to Lewis, on those long early-morning walks with the dogs down by the shore, most mornings we would find a seal there too. A single, solitary seal. I returned to Lewis after that first week in this new house last February, and the seal was dead on the beach.
We left Lewis because it had become clear to us that for all the stunning beauty of the land and the depth of my connection to it, we needed to move away from the island. There were a number of reasons for that, and a year later it is equally clear that it was the right decision. The work I’m doing now couldn’t have been done there, though it was for sure conceived there, a product of my intense relationship to the place where we had lived and worked for four years. But because I had had a difficult couple of years, because some hard things happened there, when we moved to Ireland I turned my back on the island. It wasn’t that I didn’t look back on the land with love; it is a place to which I lost my heart. It was, and always will be, my heart-place. I was firmly assimilating the lessons from those four years, but I wanted to put it all behind me, to move on, to focus just on the joy of returning to Ireland, and the pleasure of trees again, and the river and the green. I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to go back to Lewis. Although in a slow island property market our house and croft at the end of the world remain unsold, and so it would be the easiest thing in the world to return, I have never done so.
Last week, David returned to Lewis for a few days, to carry out some maintenance on the house. I asked him while he was there to go to the Rocky Place, and he did. Here is what he found: the Cailleach’s Bed has gone.
Yes, there are big storms in the islands, and yes, big storms can move rocks. I once was trained as a scientist; I was trained to be a sceptic. I understand that water, under great pressure, forced into gaps and crevices, can do remarkable things.
Moving an enormous, thick slab of pure rock, bigger in both dimensions than a single bed. Lifting it completely out of the alcove which it so tightly fit, out of which it had formed, and casting it aside.
And yet … just this particular impossibly large and heavy rock? Which was so firmly wedged into its place?
You may wonder what I am trying to tell you here. Am I filled with delusions of grandeur? Do I imagine that because I left the land, the Rocky Place had no more need for a Cailleach’s Bed and spat it out? That the land is still speaking to me, still trying to tell me something, that there is still a lesson here to be learned? That the land is in some way communicating? I can’t possibly be trying to tell you such a thing – it would be ridiculous – and yet I suppose I am. I am astonished to find myself sharing this story at all. But there are important things about our relationship with the land that I have learned, and I believe it is important to pass them on. This intertwining of human, land, story is the foundation of my work. And so I am trying, clumsily, to say that both things are true: that a storm of course moved the Bed, but that it is no mere coincidence. Because when you become part of the land’s dreaming, such things happen.
Do you think that’s a silly idea? Do you think that the land isn’t alive, that I’m just making things up, seeing significance where it doesn’t exist, foolishly anthropomorphising?
Whatever else I may be trying to tell you, I can tell you this for sure: the land is alive. And everything is animate, in its own way.
In the beautiful Irish documentary film Silence, by director Pat Collins, sound engineer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride returns to Ireland for the first time in fifteen years. His intention is to record landscapes free from man-made sound. And he finds such things, in the dwindling of human culture in a west-coast landscape which once was filled with life. But as his journey progresses, voices begin to superimpose themselves on the apparent silence which he is recording: the ghosts of history and memory, the enduring hauntings of emigration and exile. The sounds of the old generations may now be lost, but they have left their traces in the landscape. They are part, still, of the land’s dreaming. The long intertwinings of humans with the land have consequences for both.
And so the Bed has gone. There was a lesson still to be learned from my time in Lewis, and I am learning it right now. The land is still teaching. The lesson, I think, is this: when you become part of the land’s dreaming, you can’t just turn your back on it. You can’t just walk away, even when you walk away. If you wake the sleeping rock-giants, you have a responsibility. And so, finally, with many old wounds healed, I am turning my face back to Lewis, looking at it again, thinking about visiting, thinking about how I will draw these two lands and their stories together, these two places, with their two Gaelic cultures, so long interlinked and intertwined … that new story is yet to emerge. But meanwhile, I bring my land-whispering to this new place, to this magical old country where the giants never went to sleep and the old gods never left.
There are those (if they read this far) who will no doubt accuse me of being unreasonably human-centric, as if in some way I’m saying that the land needs us, as if I’m just repeating the old paradigm, with humans as the centre of the universe. The land will go on without us, some people will say, and indeed it will. It doesn’t need us, and indeed it doesn’t. But when you actively forge a relationship with anyone or anything, there is power on both sides. Power, and responsibility. And the potential for grief when the relationship breaks up.
Because whatever else I might be trying to say, and whether or not I am crazy or sane, I am asking you this. We talk always about our grief at leaving the land, when we leave a place we have loved. The grief of the emigrant, the yearning for the land we once inhabited. But what if, when we leave it, the land grieves for us?
Oh, what do we do then?