Away with the Birds

Starlings, Canna (c) Lukas Becker.
This has been the busiest month I've known on Rum, both of us engaged up to the hilt with little time to stop and reflect or keep pace with our own experiences.  Looking back much of it blurs into just random pictures, impressions of all the things we have seen and done and felt.  The Small Isles Games (no more pictures needed I think!).  Lovely visits from our friends and a perfect late summer day out at Kilmory, watching the deer on the beach and the white waves come rolling in to the shore.  The Quiz Night, which was great fun, but now overshadowed by poignancy, as the group lost their friend the following day.  Waiting to hear what had happened to him and the sadness when we did.  The same day, the amazing dolphins, an hour and a half of happiness as we sat at the end of the pier just watching them leap and play in the blue sea.  The swallow fledglings practising their flights, from our battlements.  And yesterday's trip to Canna to see the production of "Away with the Birds", an incredibly beautiful transformation of birdsong into human calls, outside in the harbour as the tide went out and the real birds swooped around us.
Canna is a strange island, joined by a bridge to Sanday, once an island in its own right.  It has far fewer inhabitants even than Rum, but is run by the National Trust, and many of the houses dotted into the landscape are actually holiday homes - making it seem in some ways completely foreign to us, even though it is the island closest to Rum.  Its fertile landscape, at least around the harbour, is very different too, and the driving force behind its community was, for a long time, the study of Scottish folklore and the Gaelic language by the owners of Canna House, John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw.  John left the house to the National Trust and since then it has been a museum. Canna is a place very conscious of its status, of its context within British and European culture; more self-consciously a place to be visited, a place representing the Highlands in a more sophisticated way than the other islands - a place seen very much from the outside as well as from the inside, which gives it a completely different atmosphere to Rum.  And with its little white houses, its low-lying hills and its churches and early Christian settlements (not to mention its rabbits, sheep, sparrows, starlings and cows) it feels more like Ireland than Scotland - somewhat to the dismay of our visitors who came with us, they having had a rather "difficult" Irish experience...But in the end, it all turned out well. 


When we booked the tickets we'd thought of "Away with the Birds" as perhaps a nice, low-key little event to give us locals something a bit different to do on the last August weekend.  Far from it! Elaine and Lukas arrived on Friday telling us of "hordes of people" filling the CalMac with their horn-rimmed glasses, man-bags, laptops, beanies and glamping equipment on their way to Canna. "It looked just like Glastonbury in the Highlands!" Filled with dread I now envisaged crowds of Brighton-dwellers covering the island with their pop-up tents, organic knitwear and children called Archie, Maisie and Jack, while we struggled to find a space to sit down in our muddy waterproof trousers...
Of course, in the end neither of these images turned out to be true (although there were some very dodgy outfits going on, e.g. the tiniest shorts I have ever seen combined with pristine Hunter wellington boots).  True, when we stood at the pier on Saturday morning and saw the CalMac arriving it did look scarily busy...but once we'd made our way up through the packed cafe (no chance of a veggie breakfast today!) on to the observation deck, we found we were among just a few people standing at the front of the ferry, gazing out to sea at the bright white gannets flashing in and out of the grey waves.  Arriving at Canna, people poured out of the boat onto the slipway; we were first and as locals, we knew what our priorities were: "Grab a table at the cafe, Elaine!" 
More cake! More cake!
So while everyone else was still stood wondering where to go first, we had headed down to the tiny village and ensconced ourselves on a bench where soon we were munching bacon sarnies and drinking lots and lots of tea, while looking out across the lovely bay.  It was strange to see Rum, dominating the skyline just as it had done at Muck; while the sun shone on us, dark clouds covered Bloodstone Hill and Fionchra was disappearing into the mists.  It is strange to live on the biggest of the Small Isles, to look up at those sheer cliffs where we had lain on our stomachs back in June to gaze down at Canna, which had looked tiny, rural and remote, seeming nothing like our dangerous island; and think of it being the place we call home.
Rum from Canna

                     The performance venue
After a while when the tea had all gone (and we'd also eaten most of the cake we'd brought with us), we made our slow way along the shore path, debating whether or not to have a proper walk. Fairly soon, though, we decided it was actually time for a proper was nearly midday after all.  So we sat in the lee of a hill and ate our sandwiches while, to our joy, a sea eagle flew backwards and forwards across the horizon; we speculated it was probably one of the pair that regularly fly back and forth between Rum and Canna.  Full of picnic we made our slow way back: "I'm not really in the mood for a big walk," we one and all confessed to each other.  By this time, I was so tired I could literally have fallen asleep on the cafe bench; instead I bought some coffee and cake, just for the pleasure of having someone else make me a lovely cup of coffee. After this I really did fall asleep.  We lay under the trees at Canna House and dozed until a couple of hours later, when tea was served in the marquee; then we sat there some more.  We wandered down to the shore where exciting things were starting to happen; girls in grey tunics and red tights wandered past and people were doing sound-system checks and setting things up, but we weren't supposed to be watching! "The idea is that everyone gathers at the marquee and then comes down to the shore TOGETHER," we were reprimanded by one of the ladies organising things.  So we wandered back up again.  After a considerable wait, where the lawn got fuller and fuller of people wondering whether anything was ever going to happen, it got rather quiet, and at that point, the director brought us all together and asked us to follow her in silence down to the shore. We made our way down, and found places on the little stools they had put out, looking out to where the girls were now stood in the ebbing tide...and after a while they began to sing.
Canna Harbour (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)
We weren't allowed to take photos, which was good, as it meant all we could do was sit and listen...and the hush between each piece was immense.  The little girl sat with her daddies near to us fell completely under the spell of the music, and we could see her mouthing the words, trying to do the same actions as the girls who were being the birds.  She was perhaps just three years old, and was as intensely involved, if not more so, as everyone else...completely rapt in the music, the birdsong and the experience of sitting with eighty other people, doing nothing but give ourselves up to the waves of music and sound that suddenly allowed us to see how human music - the Gaelic songs that the composer, Hanna Tuulikki had found - and bird music - the redshanks, shearwaters, crows, raven, cuckoos and gulls - come from the same place, or at least go to the same place when they enter our minds; the birds may be separate from us, but we are not totally separate from them, not in this way.
Our tiredness gone, we travelled back on the CalMac in the evening light, watching the sea where a minke whale appeared off our coastline, making its determined way to...somewhere.  The sunset turned Canna into a phantom island of mists, but turned Rum suddenly into a warm, solid place to call if they had swapped places in the course of the day.  We were glad to get back to the castle and spend the rest of the evening just absorbing our experience..after the fatigue of the past week, I had to say thank you to our day for giving us a perspective on life again.
Away from Canna

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.