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a traditional English song that I and often on cold winter evenings
love and treating it in a way that the aurora borealis would light
left me feeling uncomfortable up the skies. Upper Coll was the
and unconvinced. I imagine that centre of the universe and in many
the Gaelic songs that Margaret respects, though I’ve travelled
holds equally dear represent her far and wide, it still is.’ Winters
own history, her own peoples’ were bitter though; howling gales,
experiences in just the same way. driving rain, snow and blizzards.
She is clearly looking for absolute Is it my imagination, or was there
honesty and authenticity. much more snow then?’
I wanted to look back over Back is of course known as the
Margaret’s childhood years, to home of Back Free Church, setting
try and build a picture of how for the ‘Salm’ recordings at which
she became the woman she is Margaret was present. Was the
today. Her formative years were Presbyterian church a big part of
spent in the village of Upper Coll Margaret’s life? “The church was
on the Isle-of-Lewis, where her a big part of village/district/island
mother, now 76, still lives. Upper life in my youth, but seems not to
Coll sits on the sandy shores of be so much now. We attended
A’ Loch a Tuath - the North Loch, church and Sunday school
commonly referred to as Broad regularly as children, where we
Bay. Margaret’s brothers Norman, took exams - the Lyle Orr exams
Donald and George still live there in biblical knowledge, as well as
too, within a two mile radius of Psalmody Classes mid week.
their mother’s home. These classes ensured that we
all learnt the psalm tunes which
‘It was idyllic although a lot of are such a magnificent feature of
hard work. The village had 22 any Gaelic worship. In the home
crofts and as well as working hard we had evening worship, where
in school all week, we, like all my grandfather would ‘read The
children throughout the islands at Book’ – he would also ‘precent’ a
that time, were expected to help psalm at the beginning and end
out with planting and harvesting of worship; we were encouraged
of crops, digging peat and lifting to sing along to this free style of
them for drying, helping with singing, thus we were subjected,
the building of the peat-stack, on a daily basis, to the glorious
bringing in the hay and building ornamentation which was such
the haystacks. We also helped to an exceptional feature of Lewis
collect bait for my grandfather’s traditional singing. When my
fishing creels and helped to bait grandfather passed away at the
them, sheared my father’s many age of 92, my father took over the
sheep, shepherded the flocks praise singing. It was traditionally
back and forth from their various the role of the oldest male in the
grazing, and sometimes we were house, but I know this practice
sent out to the moors with the is now in decline throughout the
sheep-dog to look for the lost island.’
sheep - one of my favourite tasks,
as I took the opportunity to sing I wondered if Margaret could
my heart out. My first days at define, encapsulate the Lewis
school are a bit of a blur, but I character for me? Although she
vividly remember being immersed admitted that it was difficult to look
in a strange world the minute I at it from ‘the inside’ she managed
walked through the classroom to describe her own notion of
doors – none of the adults spoke her people in her own way.
the same language as me; at ‘Strong, kind, hard-working and
five years old the only language determined people; versatile and
I knew was ignored and not flexible - these were the people I
given any status. It was a bit of was brought up with; people who
a scary experience but at least had suffered greatly through the
everyone else in the class was losses of two World Wars, the
going through the same thing. tragedy of the Iolaire disaster in
Thankfully, once we were out of sight of Stornoway harbour, and
school we were free to return to the mass emigration of many of
our own tongue; amongst our the island’s finest in the 1920s
families and friends. Apart from and 1930s. Those who remained,
going to school in Back, we and who continue to wrestle with
rarely left the village and until the difficulties of remoteness and
I was around 12 years old few the first land-fall of the erratic
people had cars and fewer still Atlantic weather systems on a
had telephones, and nobody had daily basis, need to be pretty
television (there was no television hardy and determined. Although
mast on the island to receive it is perhaps not for me to say, I
signals at that time). would imagine that anyone visiting
We could see the hills of Harris the island would find the people
from our house and also the to be hospitable and welcoming.
mountains of mainland Scotland There’s been a huge social shift in
The Living Tradition - Page 21
Issue80.indd 21 14/7/08 14:48:58
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