Earmarkings – some thoughts on establishing sruth-mara


What does it mean to ‘belong’ somewhere? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with throughout my life, and it’s particularly difficult to avoid when I’m on Lewis. As Madeleine Bunting observes in Love of Country, a book about the Hebrides that has helped shape much of my thinking about sruth-mara, the way you greet somebody in Gaelic is to ask ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Who do you come from?’, in contrast to the English ‘How are you?’. In English, Madeleine points out, belonging is defined as a matter of property,  as in belongings, or status – ‘having the right personal and social qualities to be a member of a particular group’. But in Gaelic culture, ‘the identity of place and family matter more than personal wellbeing or health’. In a crofting culture where survival has long been reliant on co-operation and the sharing of skills and resources, identity is bound up with the land, the language, and your community.

Early on in his book Soil & Soul – another influence on this project – Alastair McIntosh refers to the Lewis phrase ‘What are his earmarkings?’ It refers to the practice of identifying sheep – which outnumber people on Lewis – by their clipped earmarks. Applied to people, it means ‘Where’s he coming from? What’s she about?’ It’s a question I’ve often been asked, in various forms, by people I meet on Lewis – usually out of lively curiosity rather than suspicion, although Hebridean people have no shortage of good reasons to be suspicious of the intentions of a visitor with an English accent.

So, like Alastair, one of the first things I should do is declare my own markings – they may help explain, at least in part, why I ended up on Lewis, and why I wanted to create sruth-mara.

I grew up in Houghton, a village near Carlisle in the north west of England (my dad was a deputy head teacher of a big comprehensive school, my mum ran the family home, I have two older sisters). I always wanted to make art – music, theatre, books, anything I could turn my hand to – and as a teenager I remember feeling, a little resentfully, that the place where I lived had no obvious cultural identity of its own. I remember, very clearly, that there didn’t seem to be any famous writers, artists, musicians or filmmakers from Carlisle – even now, the brief ‘culture’ section on the city’s Wikipedia page doesn’t name any. I also remember feeling that the cultural identity of ‘the north’, something I was drawn to in my search for a sense of identity and belonging, didn’t really relate to Carlisle. The northern English writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians to whom I related were from Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle. These cities, not Carlisle, were the ‘cultural north’ of England. (Tellingly, whenever I told people I was from Carlisle they would say ‘I went through there once’ – Carlisle felt like a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else) The result is that I grew up with little sense of belonging, which was partly why I wanted to leave.

I sometimes wonder whether I have been unfair in my rejection of Carlisle – that if I felt it lacked a cultural voice, I should have stayed and tried to help give it one. But instead I adopted Scotland as my home. This was an easy decision for various reasons. My mum was from Glasgow and I spent most of my summer holidays in Scotland (Arran in particular). Also, it was just a few miles away, and seemed much more interesting culturally than Carlisle.

In the years since, I have immersed myself in Scottish culture and, through my work as arts editor for the Scotsman, championed it as much as I could. While I have found some comfort and belonging in this, it has never quite felt like my own culture, and I am always very conscious that I didn’t spend my formative years here or have the same reference points as a lot of the people around me. For most of my adult life I have felt like an outsider, and I have learned to embrace that – modelling this aspect of my life on the Scottish writer Nick Currie (aka Momus), who has spent much of his life in Japan, precisely because its culture is so alien that he knows he will always feel like an outsider there, a feeling he says he enjoys.

This formative experience has made me very interested in the complex ways in which the culture of a place defines us, and in how much control we have over how we define ourselves within the dominant culture. One of the things that most interests me about Uig is the tension between the way it is regarded by many outsiders (exoticised as a remote, empty place, far from the centre of things, on the edge of the world etc) and the way it is regarded by people who live there. It reminds me a little of how differently the north of England is regarded by those who live there and by people from the south of England. Uig is only far from ‘the centre’ if you define the centre as London, or perhaps Glasgow or Edinburgh. In terms of shipping lanes, though, the Hebrides have long been a gateway to the world – on the cultural route between Scandinavia and Ireland, in particular. Love of Country is full of thoughtful observations on this subject, finding parallels, for example, between Lewis’s connection to the wider world – the international cultural legacy of the many crofters who have emigrated to the USA, Canada and other countries – and the formidable cultural influence of Iona, whose monks once travelled all across Europe. My neighbour Malcolm Maclean, interviewed by Madeleine for her book, likes to show visitors a map in which Lewis is shown as a gateway to the north Atlantic – with the ‘mainland’ (what a loaded term that is) on the periphery.

Like me, Madeleine Bunting is an outsider on Lewis, and while she is respectful of its history and culture, she is aware of the urge to romanticise it in a way that only outsiders do – the whole premise of the book, after all, is that it’s a personal ‘journey’ through the Hebrides, the final destination being her home back in London. Much of the book explores the various ways in which outsiders project their own views of the world – their own fantasies about it – onto islands whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history (it is particularly tempting to do this with islands, given how powerful they are as metaphors – see Malachy Tallack’s book The Un-discovered Islands for another good analysis of this subject).

A central theme of Love of Country is the role the Hebrides have been forced to play in British (or rather English) colonial identity in particular – the Hebrides, in her analysis, have long been thought of as an outpost of the British Empire rather than a place in itself, and sentimentalised, exoticised and patronised for centuries because of this. I thought of Madeleine’s book again recently when reading Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown, a provocation by Nicholas Boyle in the Irish times which argues that England has never, until quite recently, had to think of itself as a nation on equal terms with other nations. As Nicholas puts it:

The EU challenged England not to give up a national identity, but to acquire one – to give up the illusions embodied in a United Kingdom that never was a nation, but was always a device to conceal England’s colonial relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland. Instead the EU offered England the opportunity for equal partnership in a common endeavour, which is nowadays all that nationhood can mean. On June 23rd, 2016, the English rejected that offer and opted to continue living the fiction of splendid isolation that sustained the UK and the British empire before it, and to continue denying the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.

In hindsight, I wonder whether some of what I felt about Carlisle as a teenager was connected to my youthful unawareness of this aspect of English culture – a culture whose colonial history has left it with a tendency to think of itself as a ‘default culture’, like Grayson Perry’s ‘default men’, middle class, educated, white, heterosexual men who think of their own identity as the norm and everything else as ‘other’, and so are often blissfully unaware of their many cultural assumptions, their power and privilege, and their tendency to dominate, control and patronise. Default men are taking something of a battering at the moment, and about time too. The cultural assumptions of the most powerful people in our society should always be challenged.

I will probably always be an outsider on Lewis.  I am increasingly conscious that full immersion in – and understanding of – Lewis culture relies on a deep understanding of Gaelic, and the way in which the land has shaped the language and the language has reflected its people’s relationship with the land. While I am attempting to learn basic Gaelic (mainly to keep up with my children, who are at a Gaelic school), I will never speak it like a native, and I am ok with this; hopefully Lewis is also ok with me. My hope is that, while I doubt I’ll ever feel qualified to speak or advocate for the Hebrides, or for Gaelic culture, I can at least aspire to be a human ‘sea current’ of ideas, a kind of cultural go between, playing a part in bringing other people’s stories to Lewis and bringing stories of Lewis to the world, in a spirit of mutually respectful exchange – the kind of mutually respectful exchange we should all aspire to as human beings.

I am struck by how many people in Timsgarry in particular are also outsiders, in a sense – people who are not native to Lewis, or native Gaelic speakers, but who have made their home there and are contributing in important ways to the community. I hope I can do that too.

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