Steach gu Ciosamul an aighir,
Far a faighte cuirm ri gabhail
Ol fìon o oidhche gus an latha,
Pìobaireachd na feadan lagach,
‘s clàrsach bhinn ga gleusadh mar ris…
I was at Castlebay this past weekend, to play the harp at the Galley Castles Conference organised by the Islands Book Trust. I played three times for three different events during the conference, all of them fairly informal. Though I didn’t get a chance to formally present a paper on my research into the medieval Hebridean harp music and instrument tradition, I was pleased to be able to discuss my research and work with a number of interested academics working in this area on the history and archaeology of the castles and society of the medieval Western Isles and the Lordship of the Isles.
I took the harp across the bay to Kisimul Castle for the reception on Saturday late afternoon. It was an interesting experience carrying the harp in the small boat that took us the few hundred yards out to the castle, and landing on the slipway and scrambling up the rocky steps to the castle entrance. The contrast once I entered the castle was interesting as well – from the rugged, open Barra landscape and seascape, to a lovely enclosed grassy garden with homely building ranges reminding me of little cotswold cottages with their sash windows set into the stone walls. The reception was in the hall – a lovely open and well-lit space, with a grand fireplace surmounted by MacNeil’s coat of arms, and two large oaken tables. The castle is largely unfurnished though it was restored in the 20th century and is complete and roofed, with windows and doors.
I played Spadsaireachd Bharraigh (MacNeil of Barra’s March), though no-one was listening since everyone was deep in conversation and enjoying the whisky! Rory Macneil gave a speech from the steps at the other end of the hall and everyone had a great time.
Later that evening I performed two short sets in the Castlebay hotel after dinner. I played Cogaidh no Sith, as an example of how medieval harp variations worked, and to illustrate the kind of grand ceremonial music which I believe may have been typical of the medieval Gaelic harp music played for the Lords of the Isles. I also played Spadsaireachd Bharraigh again, for people to listen and enjoy.
On Sunday evening I was asked to play after dinner again, and a select few of the conference delegates listened and asked quite technical and challenging questions about the history of the harp in the Western Isles and about my work. I played a selection of shorter peices including Caoineadh Rioghaill, and Pìobaireachd Dhomnuill Dhuibh, and Maol Donn (which of course I learned from the archive recording of Castlebay man Calum Johnston).
I had hired a bicycle, and over the course of the weekend I cycled the length of the Island, from Vatersay in the south over the causeway, to Sgurabhal in the North. At Sgurabhal I saw fields of hand-stacked hay:
At Eoligarry I went into Killbarr chapel and looked at the three late medieval carved grave slabs there. I took stereo pairs of some of the decoration, though I have not yet had a chance to try and combine them into anaglyphs. One of the slabs had a panel at the top that was presumably for an inscription, though I could see no trace of lettering remaining on the panel. There was a very nice galley on the same slab. There was a fourth slab carved with 16th or 17th style momento mori motifs, but it was a much softer stone and was much abraded.
All in all it was a fascinating trip, the first time I had been out to the Western Isles and a real experience of the landscape and communities, with the weather going from clear skies and rich sunlight, to strong wind and driving rain with low visibility. I ate local produce from the hotel and from the community shop, and enjoyed talking to conference speakers and delegates as well as other visitors to the islands from Scotland and further afield. I am sure I will be back at some point! The lines at the top of this post are from the 17th century song, Latha dhom’s mi ‘m Beinn a’ Cheathaich: “In towards happy Kisimul, where feasts would always be provided, drinking of wine from night until day, piping from fine chanters, and a sweet harp tuned as well…” You can listen to Annie Johnston, recorded in Castlebay in 1954: SA1954/031/B4, and also on Scottish Tradition 13, CD1 track 13, CDTRAX9013D, where Virginia Blankenhorn’s CD liner notes include transcription and translation.