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Sylvia Law – Royal Scottish Academy: A week on the Isle of Shuibhne…

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My time on Eigg was absolutely incredible. From the minute I set foot off the boat, the Island welcomed a vast landscape of beauty that for a week would become my home.

Sweeney (Shuibhne) was said to have been an ancient king who lived in the wilderness alone, naked amongst the birds, insects and nature. It was believed that he had dwelled in a cave on the Isle of Eigg as a hermit, in peace and solitude. I can see why they call it Sweeney’s Bothy…

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I arrived to Eigg on Saturday 24th May. It was a beautiful sunny day. The Bothy stood on the hill, hidden, until the very last moment. I took all my wordly possessions to that place; a filled rucksack, food for the week and of course, my companion walking stick.

Nestled on the Island, the Bothy is located in almost complete isolation. Around it forms a mass body of water that creates a constant mirror.  Most of my time up there was spent reflecting on the world around me, echoing our relationship to nature and the land. Immersed in it all, like the great king himself, I existed mostly in solitude (apart from some spontaneous dancing on tables). It was just me and the landscape.

I spent the week visiting and exploring different sites on the island, some which I had previously planned to visit and others which found me. Before going up, I had done some initial research of all the places that I wished to explore. Through reading the book Soil and Soul, I discovered the Well of the Holy Women in Grulin. There were also the famous Caves, both Massacre Cave and Cathedral Cave. And also the tales of the Big Women from Loch nam Bam. Eigg revealed a curious history connecting water to female energy. Yet this is an association that has been voiced throughout many cultural and historic traditions. The element of water is anciently linked to female energy as the bearer of creation. It symbolises both the qualities of emotional depth and intuition.

I lived most of the week in silence, listening deeply to all the different sounds and sites spread around the island. Eigg has a very diverse collection of natural soundscapes; wherever you go the birds and bees travel freely, interweaving their songs as they travel through the air. I felt during my time they became part of my song, and I too became a part of theirs.

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One of the best things about the island was that you could walk anywhere. Everywhere was accessible by foot, so it was mostly a case of walking outside and seeing where your feet would take you. I find that this is the best way to venture new places. There was something so beautiful about the life on Eigg, the way everything was so vividly interconnected, each life was part of another. The houses, which had mostly been built by the locals, used the natural contours of the landscape in which to shape and place their homes. Even the sheep lived and grazed freely, taking shelter beside the old sites and chapels. We all occupied and shared the same space.This made the energy of the island feel very harmonious. Each was left on their own, to live within their own nature. This I found was very liberating as everyone had their own space. It was an unspoken understanding between the people and the land. It evoked a great silence and sense of peace, a great space to listen.

Music transports us to a place,

to a place in time,

to a distant memory,

to the space in between

reality and dreams.

 

One of the things that I discovered on Eigg was how much a space can open up to you. I felt so welcomed by it’s presence. The Finger of God, or  ‘The Big Man’ as I called him, watched over me during my stay. It became a symbol within the landscape that marked home. I had first of all seen him as a figure in the rocks, but when asking Eddie later he told me about the tale. The people’s storytelling about each mark in the landscape was wonderful. I really enjoyed listening to all of their insights into how nature had shaped herself within the island. I personally find it fascinating how we create marks in the land, almost subconsciously to find our placement within our environment. And also to connect with it. These too become internal markings, spaces that form a part of our everyday bearings. During my time up there, I too started to sculpt my own stories. I always looked out for him. He was one of them for me. The man in the mountains watching over us.

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I spent the entire week exploring, following the coloured trails to different sites. On the very first day I ventured out around the Bothy, and found myself sounding to all the rocks. I feel that sounding is in many ways like exchanging energy. Like the birds call to mark their presence, so did we. Animals call for a reason, they sing to show that they are alive. And to share their existence with the land. For it too also has many stories to tell. All Scottish folklore is linked to the story of our lands. When I sound a place I feel as though I am opening a world of resonance; all the voices that were once spoken there, the energy of the spirits that once occupied that space, that very time comes back to life again. For rocks are some of the oldest beings that live on this planet. Singing to them allows one to discover stored messages hidden inside them.

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Sound to me is a process of locating oneself within ones environment. It is a type of tuning one could say, to connect the internal and external presences of the world into one. That is the magic of sound; it is so invisible and yet so clear. When it speaks to you, it resonates within you. You become a part of it, and it becomes a part of you. For knowing our placement within this world is vital; it is at the base from which we exist. As a medium that flows whilst it is being formed, sound allows us to connect with the realms of both the invisible and visible at the same time, for enters places we see and places we cannot see.

I was meant to come here.

Places call us into being.

Silence reveals all…

Nature is our spirit.

Listen.

 

These words came to me whilst roaming the hills one afternoon.

Whilst up there, I was reading the book Soil & Soul, which speaks of the interconnected relationship between people and the land and forms a discourse around human ecology. It was a very inspiring read, especially within that placement as it spoke of so many energies that were rooted on Eigg. Author Alastair McIntosh helped in the bid to make the island self-substainable and owned by it’s own people. This was accomplished in 1997, making it one of the only places in the world that is recognised as being in community ownership. In the book, McIntosh also speaks about his experience growing up in the rural Hebrides of Scotland and about the ancient rituals of our ancestors that rooted us to the land. In the book he refers to the bards, the people’s poet who then played a very important part within the community. The bard would compose by entering a world beyond this one. They sought to enter the realm of the subconscious, the unseen and then share their visions with the people. This was done by doing rituals in which they lay on their backs in a darkened spaces, with a woven cloth wrapped over their heads, eyes covered, and with a stone on their bellies. Whilst I was at the Bothy, I felt drawn to try out these rituals and to also enter that state of being. To enter a temporal world, in between the seen and the invisible. To enter as McIntosh would call it the realm of ‘poesis’.

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Whilst there, I too tried to embody this existence. I felt that the Bothy in many ways, presented itself as a womb. A dark space in the middle of nowhere. It was wooden, bare and open. So warm. It formed a hollow in the world, a space of total silence. The stillness of the night there was magical. Everything slept. In some ways embracing the life of a hermit was strange and yet so blissful. At points I became so detached to the external world that that I forgot about all other wordly beings. There were moments I was so immersed in the moment of what I was experiencing, that when I heard the trails of other people, voices externally from my own, it was almost like being drawn out from a dream.

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The second day I ventured out to Grulin in search of the Well of the Holy Women. It was a landmark that most of the locals were not too sure about it’s exact whereabouts, but I eventually found a lovely lady who pointed me in the right direction. It was to be found passed two boulders and down a trail that led towards the sea. “Look for the watercress”, she said. “You’ll find it there.”

The pathway took me up towards the Sgurr, the great volcanic summit. I then walked past some wind turbines, a lot of sheep, and an abandoned village with some old stone ruins. It was a spectacular day, the sun was shining and the sea accompanied me on my way, bearing a wall of light onto the outer world to my left. Indeed, I found the two boulders standing next to each other as if in conversation with one another. They hunched over, both like two old men watching over the edge of the island. I walked down, now the land getting boggier and boggier to follow the trail down to the Well. There I found, secretly concealed within the heart of the earth, a beautiful spring of water formed by rocks. It was a truly magical place. It was completely silent there. There was no one who lived on that part of the island, only fairies could have existed there. I sat down, and contemplated in silence, but inside a song wished to be birthed. I felt it soar from me. The landscape called me to sing. Whatever came out of me in that moment, came from that place.

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The notes I sang sprang from a place I had never sounded before. They were high and strong, and almost trembling. When I sang to the Well, I noticed a sheep and her lamp came up close to watch me. They seemed bewildered by this sudden projection of sound, and yet they watched so intently, as if it called to them too. I found that during my time on the island, I had quite a lot of strange and wonderful encounters with animals. There was the buzzing of the bees, that sometimes came so close to me that they felt like they were a part of my body. One day a bird flew into and got stuck inside the Bothy. I had to help it find it’s way back into the wilderness. And on my last day, whilst wandering down the long road to the Pier, I stood for what seemed like a good long moment facing a lamb, we both stared into one another’s eyes standing in the middle of the road. In this land, animals really responded to your presence.

During the evening’s, after my adventures I would return home, put the fire on and stare into the horizon looking outwards over the body of water to the enchanting presence of Rum. Rum appears as this incredible surface in the distance, it is jagged and pointed and stands so magnetically. It at first looks smaller than Eigg, but it is in fact twice the size. You are only seeing the very top of something, of what exists as a much much bigger body.  It was quite incredible to face this other territory, which appeared to be so untouched. It stood so beautifully, with its points, and curves. So strong. So still. I think my favourite past time was watching the sunset over that tremendous ocean. The light of the sun would reflect and illuminate the body of water, creating tremendous spectacles. The light surfaced on the water like a moving oracle. It was as if witnessing pure magic.

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Another activity I really enjoyed was walking. Walking has such a solitary and yet an accompanied feeling. I took my walking stick everywhere I went and it became a great friend to me during my time there. We spent a lot of time together. He marked the paths as I walked them. Walking in the presence of nature was such a cleansing experience. The landscape allowed you to breath. I walked everywhere, and everywhere I went, I found a new sound, a new place, a new sense of self.

On my final day, I ventured to the Singing Sands to listen to Eigg’s sounding beaches. It was highly recommended by the locals, and being very close to the Bothy up on the northern side of the island, I followed the coast to reach it. The white quartz which is spread across the beach is what makes this space sound. It is called singing, but it is really more like squeaking. Walking on the sand creates these great tones, which are unique to Eigg. I went down with my sound recorder and captured the sounds. Whilst there I was found by Paloma, a young spanish lady staying on the island who asked me if I could record her dancing on the sand. I really love the spontaneity of events on the island, everything happened so naturally. She danced around me, using her feet to sound the space. The squeaks of her feet hitting the sand created a beautiful sequence of rhythms. She told me, you must experience it with your bare feet, so you can ‘feel the music’. She was right, to truly listen we must feel and embody the vibration of the sounds we are are creating through our bodies. I took my shoes off, and the minute my feet touched the sand something magic happened. I felt like a child again, dancing in nature.

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Sounding myself to the landscape created a wonderful connection between my body and the place that it stood in. It was the landscape of the island that inspired every song I sculpted. Each space vocalised something different in me. By the end of the week, I lost my voice. I had sang so much. And this was a wonderful feeling.

Here now, I share some of these moments with you. As a record of the exchanges and dialogues I made with the land during my time on the Island…