Air falbh leis na h-eòin – Away with the Birds

Artist Diary: Geoff Sample

Photo by Olivia Uney / Canna Mouse Photography

See Olivia Uney’s Canna photographs:

http://www.cannamousephotography.co.uk 

8 June 2012

Listen to White-Tailed eagles, Canna. Recorded by Geoff Sample

The deep throb of the ferry’s engines provides an accompaniment to the journey and transports us from the known mainland to the unknown island. Leaving the harbour we leave man-made noise and a wide-open Atlantic insular horizon unfolds, the arena for calls and songs that enhance the mystery of being on the edge of civilisation … until you pass the answering deep throb of the generator that powers the human community on the island. 14 souls.

The Hebridean sun is intense; showers move like shifting screens to illuminate the space and drench the unwary. I listen. The three woods shelter small isolated communities of birds similar to home, but with hints of individual dialect. Whimbrels whistle seven, more or less, as they call in to feed, on their journey even further north, visitors like myself. Flocks of dunlin and ringed plovers scurry round the mud and kelp. Everywhere birds are busy. The abundance and variety is a surprise.

Here and there wheatears burst out in rapid warbles, too vibrant to be contained by form. Swallows flit and twitter. Various gulls wander, their calls mapping the space. Hoodies keep a beady eye on you and race out cackling every time a raven passes through. The pasture slopes are green-grazed, but stratified, as steps of horizontal basaltic outcrops rise, to fall away in hidden cliffs on the north side of the island, where eagles and vast colonies of ocean birds make their home, secluded from human activities.

I expected the ocean’s roar, but somehow it’s soft and distant, its force drained by the scattered skerries in the west and the harbour bay in the east, though I’m sure it would find its voice in a real Atlantic storm. They say Canna has the best natural harbour in the Hebrides: but it’s a haven in many other ways, with all the modern homes fringing this sheltered inlet of the sea. Common, though not so common, Seals basking and sporting in its calmer waters, the shoreline visited by birds too varied to list.

Both twite and linnet here; but twite (aka ‘the northern linnet’) are supposed to replace linnet in the uplands, to the north and west. Maybe there’s some significance in this sympatry: Canna has also been referred to as the ‘garden of the Hebrides’. Alec Finlay says it has a reputation for early tatties. And no doubt the high northern ridge, running east to west, takes the sting out of Arctic blasts.

Here and there we come across casual signs of the island’s long human settlement, going back way beyond the more self-conscious monuments of later christianity. But subsequently we find that both the deserted St.Edwards chapel and a nearby croft-evolved-to-byre provide intriguing acoustics for Hanna’s voice.

We have two days of benevolent weather, then a soft drizzle on a light breeze builds ever so gradually into forty hours of continuous rain driven on a stiff easterly. Listening interrupted: the gently-hypnotic patter of rain on tent fabric loses its thrall and becomes monotonously enclosing after 24 hours. Both tents succumb and let in the rain. Fortunately Magda invites us into the shelter of her house, the most westerly on the island. And entertains us with tales of visitors to the island in her early days here – Seton Gordon, Compton Mackenzie, Gavin Maxwell – authors I loved in my youth.

For our last day, the clouds part and we smile with the sun. The birds make music again and Hanna sings: I’m really happy just to be here and listening. And also on this last day, a cuckoo sings. That officially makes it Spring on Canna, though all the residents – humans, birds, rabbits, sheep and cattle – have no doubt felt it for a good while. Spring is a mood of no fixed abode in this Hebridean time-space continuum.

About the Project

Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds in Gaelic) is a vocal piece investigating the relationship between the Scottish Gaelic tradition and bird communities. It specifically focusses on the imitation of birdsong in Gaelic folk song. A work-in-progress performance will take place in September 2012, and the piece will be performed in Canna in 2013.
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