‘On Lismore Gaelic was once a guilty secret. But these proud islanders are finding their voices once more’ from The Herald Magazine. I’ve always loved island life. The specks of land which pepper the coasts of Scotland are also an invaluable source of stories. Often, they don’t have a hard news edge, but they involve issues which are nonetheless vital and pressing. The resurgence of Lismore is one such story.
THERE are places in the world where the people can hear the music of themselves. Exalted by an innate sense of self and geography, words and melodies forged centuries before flow down to them with the ease and clarity of a freshwater brook. It is a current so vital and all-consuming, it appears almost to control them. Without forethought, they breathe new life into lost harmonies. Simply by speaking, they breach the silence.
There has, though, been too many an occasion when darkness has shrouded articulacy. Margaret MacDonald remembers growing up on the Isle of Lismore in the 1930s, part of a generation that saw the language of its forebears deadened by the authorities. School lessons, she recalls, were conducted strictly in English. Teachers and parents, many familiar with the old Argyll idiom themselves, warned their offspring against emulating their fluency, lest their prospects be shattered. “Our language and where it came from was frowned upon, ” MacDonald says wistfully. “It was treated like a guilty secret we had to hide away.” The decree was unequivocal: to speak or write Gaelic was an act of shame.
“The old stigmas gave way to guilt on the part of the mainland monoglots, and so began a halting redress”
MacDonald, however, could not betray the voice within. She was on the verge of adulthood when her mother died and she was forced to look after her father and brother, while finding work in the isle’s solitary shop. In free moments, which were rare, she took to privately poring over long-neglected tomes penned by the Liosachs. Learning the intricacy of Gaelic’s written form and the beauty of its tenor, the words soon passed through her lips. Mournful and worldly, the sound they formed fluttered like an owl’s wings. As the years passed her mastery of the language grew, and change slowly lapped against Lismore’s shores. The old stigmas gave way to guilt on the part of the mainland monoglots, and so began a halting redress. These days, approaching her ninth decade, MacDonald is helping with the isle’s resuscitation of Gaelic. A petite yet hardy woman, a peppy spirit glows behind her cobalt-blue eyes. Almost daily, she makes the short canter down a single-track road from her home to Lismore Primary, where she passes on the experience of her 78 years to the school’s 14 students. It is natural now for MacDonald to speak her adopted language, and she arranges regular Gaelic weekends and ceilidhs. They are simple acts, celebrating simple liberties.
The journey travelled by MacDonald and her language reflects the experiences of Lismore itself down the years. It is a unique, proud heritage that has persisted in spite of many small deaths. Now its survival is to be recognised like never before. Next Saturday sees the official opening of a dedicated Gaelic heritage museum. Ionad Naomh Moluag (St Moluag’s Centre), situated at the heart of the isle, is the culmination of 13 years’ work by the islanders. Home to around 125 artefacts unearthed down the years, archaeological discoveries of international importance will be displayed alongside seminal Gaelic texts of prose, poetry and song.
Items donated by present-day residents will also be included. A rummage through basements and cupboards, attics and bedside drawers has yielded an assembly of photograph albums, yellowed newspaper cuttings and faded watercolours that will keep alive the stories of families past and present. Moreover, thanks to lots charting the charming detritus of the everyday – griddles, horseshoes, teapots, brooches and clay pipes – the museum’s true meaning becomes evident. Ionad Naomh Moluag is not to be a study in antiquarianism, rather a building celebrating an entire people’s evolving social history.
Lios Mor – “great garden” – is a slender finger of land in Loch Linnhe, one that has enjoyed a profile as modest as the transport links serving its 176 residents. The people know the museum project is grand, but exude the confidence to suggest they are more than capable of matching such ambition with care and graft. The history of the isle is reason enough for this swelling collective pride. Peppered with Bronze Age burial cairns and evidence of Pictish settlements, it is of significant archaeological importance. Economically, Lismore’s glory days came in the 19th century, when, according to the 1831 census, the population reached 1790, as its limestone and linen industries made it a vital centre of commerce. Parish records show the isle was home to cobblers, millers, masons, boat builders and lime workers, alongside the traditional crofters and farmers. Though just a mile wide, Lismore was once abuzz.
“Inside, an oak table sags under pots of sweet tea, fairy cakes and cheese sandwiches (on white, sliced into quarters, just like grandma used to make)”
On a stark Tuesday in February more than 175 years later, the isle takes on a rather more sedate appearance. On board the MV Eigg’s 50-minute bob across Loch Linnhe from Oban, there is time and space to take in the peaks of Appin and Mull. Besides myself and the photographer, the only passengers on board are two Lanarkshire haulage workers, their lorry loaded down with freshly cut rolls of turf that will later be rolled out across the roof of the eco-friendly heritage museum, designed by Shauna Cameron. Nearby, four crates contain a bundle of mail, newspapers and – there was time to count – 63 loaves of bread, one of two weekly deliveries to the island. We soon reach land and make our way into a cramped, disused schoolhouse overlooking the pier. Inside, an oak table sags under pots of sweet tea, fairy cakes and cheese sandwiches (on white, sliced into quarters, just like grandma used to make). The building is home to the volunteers of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor, the isle’s historical society which has spearheaded the museum project. Its narrow warrens are stacked high with storage boxes, ring binders and rolls of bubble wrap ready for the move northwards to the new premises.
As the tea is poured, Archie MacColl pops into the schoolhouse. MacColl is the owner of Ballimackillichan, one of around a dozen functioning farms on Lismore. It is an industry that has been in his family for generations and, judging by MacColl, such physical endeavour has duly influenced the family gene pool. Young for his 66 years, his face appears to have been sculpted by the wind. As he takes hold of a cup, I notice thick, deep lines marking his palms, like plough lines filled with soil. He could play marbles with planets. MacColl is one of eight founders of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor. Born and brought up on the isle, he left school at 15 and immediately set to toiling the soil of Ballimackillichan, then 160 acres of land under his father’s ownership. He has worked the same land all his life, and overseen a modest expansion of the farm. Mostly, he has produced potatoes and turnips, a haul he puts down to Lismore’s fertility, hence its Gaelic name. To this day, MacColl braves all elements, despite being of pensionable age. Retirement, he insists, is not a concept familiar to the Liosach. “There have been hard times but, looking back on my life, I’d say I’ve had a good deal, ” he says.
His three sons, David, George and Graeme, all helped out on Ballimackillichan once, but on reaching adulthood each left the isle to pursue his own future. It is a painful yet natural process to which most of Lismore’s older residents have grown accustomed. “We’re realistic enough to know we can’t keep young people on somewhere like Lismore, but we hope to encourage them back, ” MacColl explains. The museum, he believes, offers a way of bolstering the isle’s economy and providing the incentive of employment for younger residents. “Lismore’s had no investment all my lifetime, it’s been neglected, ” he says. “This is the first big thing to happen in generations. It shows a real care and commitment among everyone here, not just a loose sense of community. This is our home.”
The creation of Ionad Naomh Moluag, it seems, is a vindication. From the loss of its industries, through to the Clearances of the 1840s and 1850s which saw around 400 people removed from Lismore, with the loss of five indigenous surnames, the isle has not had it easy. The key to its continuance is people like MacColl, suggests Catherine Gillies, who, along with Jennifer Baker, is one of the museum’s two development officers. Without the islanders speaking, recording and sculpting their histories, she stresses, the museum – itself built on land donated by Duncan MacGregor, a farmer who wanted to “give something back” – could not exist. “You don’t need extensive papers and parish records when you’ve got the people’s oral accounts, ” she says. “There’s an innate scholarship to the people, which makes it very easy – but very scary – drawing together their material.”
Much of the museum’s material has come from group and one-to-one meetings with the Liosachs – around 40 of whom speak Gaelic – during which experiences have been related and artefacts passed on. There is, Gillies admits, a lot of information that has been lost down the years, “but everything will be preserved from now on”. In time, it is hoped a people map will be created in the museum, with recordings of the islanders’ voices charting the progress of their families. Genealogical research is of great interest to many descendants of the Liosachs, who are now living as far afield as Nova Scotia and Australia. Indeed, there is a story of one American woman who visited the isle keen to find out more about her great-greatgrandfather, knowing only that he had “strong ties” to the area. Her ancestor, it turned out, was the man who sanctioned the Clearances of the 19th century.
Heritage is a shifting entity on Lismore, constantly evolving. One of the many hundreds of photographs collated by the present-day residents shows Margaret MacDonald in 1970, marking the moment her home became the first on the isle to be connected to the national grid. An attractive, dignified figure slipping comfortably into middle age, she is turned out in her Sunday best, surrounded in a semi-circle by a coterie of locals. Nearly a century after Joseph Swan devised the light bulb, the black-and-white image shows the Liosachs gazing with delight at his invention. For days afterwards, MacDonald remembers, children came to her house and played with the light switch for hours at a time. The official opening of Ionad Naomh Moluag, which more than 200 people are expected to attend, will bring more change – it will contain a cafe, a staple of community life, but one denied the people of Lismore due to the small scale of their existence. For such simple reasons, it is inconceivable for most mainlanders to imagine the importance the museum will have.
When considered against its population, one suspects the majority of economists would froth at the mouth if asked to provide a rationale for Lismore’s museum. Set against its 176 residents, the £600,000 in charitable funding that has gone into its construction – donated by the Scottish Executive, Scottish Natural Heritage, Argyll and Bute Council, and others – puts a value on the cultural and historical wellbeing of each Liosach at more than £3,400. Such crude analysis, however, falls away upon witnessing first hand the energy and optimism the museum has fostered. In the grand scale of things, the Ionad Naomh Moluag is a humble resource. It is not awash with priceless artefacts, and in reality will drive forward a modest upturn in Lismore’s tourism numbers and its economy, its collection of interest to a select audience. Its real significance, however, lies in something fundamental.
“Within its freshly emulsioned walls lie traditions and stories long perched on the edge of oblivion. Now they are preserved, bestowed upon a people eager to right the cultural transgressions of their forebears”
The museum and the act of its creation represents a speech for those who will listen. Within its freshly emulsioned walls lie traditions and stories long perched on the edge of oblivion. Now they are preserved, bestowed upon a people eager to right the cultural transgressions of their forebears. “It’s so pleasing to see our island finally taking pride in its language and culture, ” says Donald Black, the 78-year-old chair of Comann Eachdraidh Lios Mor. “Gaelic has been attacked, and people tried to kill it off. That led to a sad situation where the communities that spoke out grew indifferent and embarrassed about it.” A crofter, Black has recently compiled an anthology of Lismore stories and tales. The museum, he smiles, is the icing on the cake. “My generation thought we’d die with the Gaelic traditions, but with this building they’ll live on, ” he says.
As we take our leave from Lismore, the Eigg easing from the simple slipway under the fading afternoon light, the waters of Loch Linnhe are at once clear and flowing, solid and wavering. Iain Crichton Smith, the author and poet, once coined a Gaelic saying: “Am fear a chailleas a chanain caillidh e a shaoghal, ” which translates as: “He who loses his language loses his world.” Once again, the voices of the isle will vibrate. The silence of the Liosachs has been breached.