Postcards from the Edge of the Hebrides
Professor Joe Goldblatt
Slowly pushing a Zimmer frame, a man in his early sixties entered the main library of Stornoway, the Outer Hebrides, to play his accordion for our community Ceildh. A Ceildh is a Scottish gaelic word that means a gathering or a party. We had gathered on Thursday at 6pm to learn about and celebrate the outcomes of a research study in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland that was conducted during the recent pandemic to better understand the social impacts of this extended time of great difficulty.
Researcher Lewis Hou introduced the accordion player and he performed several local traditional tunes. As he prepared to sing another song he asked Lewis to not record this particular piece as he promised the composer he would never record it in the future. The song plaintively shared the bravery, courage, nobility and pride of the residents of the Western Isles as they lived their daily lives in one of the most beautiful and difficult places in the world.
Lewis then described the Le Chelle / Together Pilot Project as a collaborative project with partners including his own organisation Science Ceildh, the Rural Health Unit of the University of the Highlands and Islands, the local library and the Culture and Wellbeing Community Scotland Network. Following an extensive consultation the partners decided to develop a post card project where users of the library would receive a post card that they could fill in with their thoughts about the pandemic and return to the library. The pilot project’s goals and objectives and opportunities were aspirationally described with the following invitation to participate.
Community Mapping: Help build a community map of past stories and memories with everybody. These will be built into a map in libraries and digital resources to be kept forever.
Ideas Chain: Pass ideas, quotes and kindness to your neighbours and build a chain of connection here and now, building on everyone’s else’s responses. The end results will be shared for all!
Social Dreaming: What would you like to see in your communities in the future? Get creative and share with everyone. All dreams will be compiled and shared together.
Following the performance by our local musician, Lewis introduced a researcher from the University of the Highlands and Islands who had recently analysed the comments received by local residents. She stated that the word most frequently written upon the post cards was ‘neighbours’.
I found this to be a further confirmation of the age old history of the Outer Hebrides values that have included helping one another with harvesting peat to keep one another warm throughout the winter. Although the pandemic has taken its toll upon many local communities, in the Outer Hebrides, according to this study, the bonds of friendship and togetherness have actually strengthened as a result of their being physically seperated. Therefore, the often used phrase of ‘social isolation’ was in fact only partially true in this neck of the woods because local folk continued to find new ways to help each other through this difficult period.
The famed 150 Harris Tweed Authority home weavers upon these isles know all to well how the diversity of many colours of threads when woven together may create something unique and indeed very valuable. Upon meeting these weavers we learned that as they pere peddling their looms they were in fact living the invocation of James Joyce in his book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” when he wrote “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
During our recent holiday in the Hebrides we discovered many examples of this neighbourliness through the many new Scots we met who were workers in the local hospitality industry. Many of these new Scots had immigrated from Eastern Europe to find temporary summer employment and then decided to stay and even convince their relatives to join them. They told me that although the winters are very difficult due to the dreich weather and limited sunlight, the genuine warmth and boundless friendship of their Hebridean neighbours was something they had never experienced before.
Following a visit to the over 5000 year old standing stones of Calanais we discovered that our bus was not due to collect us for two hours. Therefore, we decided to walk along the shore of the nerby loch where I met a local young fisherman washing his boat. I said hello and he asked how we would be travelling the twelve miles back to Stornoway. When I told him about the delayed bus journey he immediately offered to give us a lift on his small boat. Suddenly, I was experiencing the legendary Hebridean hospitality and neighbourliness the researchers had described following their analysis of the responses from local residents.
I wondered how the rest of Scotland and indeed the world could learn from and apply some of these principles of kindness, compassion and generosity to their local communities. I suppose the lesson I have learned from the many post cards from the edge of this world is that adversity and isolation often are the essential elements that when mixed in the petri dish of local community life may just produce the kind of warmth and transformation that draw folk even closer together.
Therefore, thanks to Lewis Hou and his collaborators, we now have further evidence that when confronted with difficulty, human beings may choose neighbourliness over non engagement. Through each and every post card the folk in the Hebrides have proven that although some appreciated the opportunity for a solitary walk along the shore, the majority warmly welcomed the strangers among them and the bonds of friendship upon these distant isles are now stronger than ever before.
For more information about the Le Chelle project visit https://welovestornoway.com/index.php/343-archive/17748-lewis-meets-lewis-in-postcard-challenge
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University and recently enjoyed a one week holiday in the Western Isles of Lewis and Harris. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot