One of the projects that’s kept me busy recently, along with finishing the first draft of my next novel, is the publication by Twinlaw Publishing (www.twinlawpublishing.co.uk) of a new book – not mine, but one by Janice Ross. Janice has been a busy lady, juggling the demands of publication with putting together her doctoral thesis on the art of blethering.
After a six month supply teaching post in Benbecula Janice found her spiritual homeland in Barra where she ran a light entertainment programme for Siar FM called Barra Island Discs. Barra is one of the islands in the Outer Hebrides, bounded by the Atlantic on the west and the Minch on the east, a place of rocks, long sandy beaches, a machair glowing with wild flowers, and scattered communities.
Many years ago my husband and I visited Barra, spending a week there in glorious June sunshine, cycling round the island to visit beaches where we were the only people to leave footprints in the sand. In fascination we watched the small plane from Glasgow land on the beach that served, and still serves, as an airstrip. We smiled in amazement as cattle were moved away by a large yellow and brass fire engine to allow the plane to land and take off. The only airport runway washed twice a day by the tide, we were told.
Being so near midsummer the days were long, still light at eleven in the evening with only a few hours of half-darkness. A magical time of year.
As luck would have it, a few of the slides I recently scanned were taken on Barra, and on our trip on a fishing boat to Mingulay, located 12 miles to the south and known for its seabirds, especially puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and razorbills which nest on the sea-cliffs, amongst the highest in Britain.
One of our fellow visitors at the guesthouse where we stayed was a guy whose mother was one of the small clutch of inhabitants evacuated from Mingulay in 1912 due to its remoteness and the difficulty of getting supplies to it because of the lack of sheltered landing. Mingulay is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
A fishing boat took us, and we had to transfer from it to a dinghy to reach the almost white sand of a horseshoe-shaped bay. Around it could be seen the ruins of houses, piles of stones where people had once eked out a living, now silted up with sand. Sand also piled around gravestones of those who lived and died on the island. On higher ground stood a slate-roofed building (homes would presumably have been heather-thatched) that housed school and church, one on the ground floor the other on the first. On a calm sunny day with glittering sea and shimmering sand it was very beautiful, though extremely moving and heart-wrenchingly sad to view the few half-submerged remains of what had once been a community.
Author Christopher Brookmyre; poet Donald Murray; the late trade union leader, Bob Crow; Professor Sir William Stewart, Chief Scientific Officer to the UK Government 1990-1995; Alasdair Allan MSP, Iain McColl of the Screen Machine; and Donnie MacNeil, Drummer of The Vatersay Boys, are a few of those Janice interviewed on her programme. Though selection of the thirty stories in Voices Galore was not easy, Janice chose those that helped create her view of the island during the years the show has been running, reflecting Barra’s make up in terms of those who live there all year round, and those who visit.
Voices Galore presents the story of an island community at the beginning of the twenty first century as told by itself. With humour and a pinch of ‘derring-do’, Janice and her guests share life-stories, providing a glimpse of the rich cultural history of the remote island community. Themes such as identity, community, family, employment and education, common to all communities, can be found, along with a fierce defence of the Gaelic language.
In her interviews Janice strives to convey a sense of the uniqueness, the individuality of each person’s life and their contribution to the island community. They conjure up a way of life that is now receding into history. Janice believes channels of communication like community radio, sharing memories and experiences and recording voices for historical and cultural purposes, offer new ways of retaining knowledge of that life.
The launch of Janice’s book was to be on 28th of April but, due to the untimely and sudden death of one of the people whose interview forms part of Voices Galore, this was postponed.
However, is seems fitting to have this post on Janice’s book and on Barra to celebrate my first blog post, four years ago, on 8th May 2012.
So much has happened in the past four years, much of it commented upon in my blog.