Saturday, 10 January 2009

Archive: Seanchas Ìle - Donald Meek

Seanchas Ìle/Islay's Folklore Project
Foreword by Donald Meek

This book is part of a culture and heritage project run by the Columba Centre on the island, which started in 2005, and the majority of it is comprised of transcripts from Gaelic speaking islanders who talk about their experiences of growing up on the island, the tales they were brought up with, and a good portion of proverbs in the final chapter. Some of the transcripts of the tales and the interviews are available at the accompanying website, along with a few others that aren't in the book.

The book's aim is not just to present some of the lore that was collected, but to serve as a record of Islay Gaelic as well. Since I'm not a Gaelic speaker I can't fully appreciate the nuances in the colloquialisms peculiar to the island, but there's a glossary of some of the words in general that are used, as well as the names of particular birds and animals that are used on the island as well. It's refreshing to see a book on the subject giving such prominence to the language, with the Gaelic on the left-hand pages, and the English translation on the right-hand pages throughout, until the final chapter on proverbs and then the glossaries, where the Gaelic's given first and then the translation directly underneath or side-by-side.

In terms of the folklore, I was hoping for some good stuff on calendar customs in particular, but was a little disappointed on that front, aside from some interesting account of the Caileach Bhuain, the last sheaf of the harvest, and what they did with it (including a description of how it was made). More interesting, for me, was the chapter on Traditional Medicine and Food Ways. It wasn't as in-depth as I was hoping for - a criticism that could be aimed at the rest of the book, really - but it covered a lot of the basics like using dandelion milk to cure a wart, and how sphagnum moss was collected for the war effort, for use as a very porous sort of bandage. And cormorant, dulse, and limpet soup as tasty treats. You can download a few traditional recipes, if you want to have a go. So while it wasn't in depth, it gave a good general idea of how the islanders subsisted, before modern comforts changed a lot of that.

What really stood out was the personalities and humour of the people who were interviewed - most of whom seemed to be well into their eighties. One thing that made me laugh was:

"A crofter without much English is trying to explain to the Lowland vet what happened to his cow. In Gaelic he wanted to say:

'Chaidh i faotainn ann an sùil-chrith agus cha do chnàmh i a cìr fad trì làithean às a dhèidh' [She was in a deep bog and she never chewed the cud for three days]

The crofter translated the Gaelic literally which in English came out as:

'She was in the eye of the earth and she never boned her comb for three whole days.' "

There's no commentary, interpretation or in-depth analysis on the tales, anecdotes and interviews that are given, aside from a few notes explaining certain terms here and there, and a brief note on how the Gaelic has been transcribed at times to try and convey the slight differences in pronunciation for some words, so the transcripts are left to speak for themselves, a collection of firsthand accounts.

For the most part the bits where the interviewers have butted in during the course of the conversation have been left in, which sometimes helps give a sense of the rapport between interviewer and interviewee, and a sense of how the chat flowed, but other times it can be a little distracting as well. Overall, though, the sense it all gives is that it's the people that need to be remembered too, seeing as it's the people who make the island as much as the language and the culture. They speak with a warmth and a sadness of their childhoods, almost a frustration for all that's being lost as Gaelic diminishes and outsiders move in to live their dream of the Good Life - often at the expense of the islanders who can no longer afford to buy homes there. The tales and the fondness (or sometimes wryness) for the things that are talked about are quite evocative at times, and I found it hard not to empathise with their sense of plight. It's easy to get drawn in and start romantising the past.

There are some fantastic pictures throughout the book, and along with the rest of it, it makes a wonderful start at presenting what's been recorded - but really, that's what it is (as is made clear from the outset, to be fair) and that's what it feels like. It's a start. Hopefully at some point something more in-depth will be made available (or widely available, that is).

Short and sweet though it is, it comes with a reasonable price tag and a few gems that makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Maybe it's not essential reading, but I can't help but feel that this is the sort of thing I'd like to support, because funding is so hard to come by. It's all well and good looking at the Highlands and Islands as a whole, but it's books like this that help to serve as a reminder of the differences, as well as the similarities, that can be found across such varying geography, and it would be nice to see more being done, and more of the work that's already been done become available to a wider audience.