Tracks close to Grinneabhat lead out into the Lewis peatlands, a vast expanse of lochs, streams, racing cloud shadows and blowing grass, one of Europe’s last wild places and an environment found in only a few parts of the world. This moorland is also unique as a cultural landscape, with a huge store of songs, stories, place-names and terminology connected with it surviving to the present day.
‘Bu shunndach bhitheadh mo cheum an uair, A’ ghabhainn cuairt air fraoch,
An canach geal air feadh a’ bhlàir,
Mar bhratach àlainn sgaoilt.’
Calum MacIlleathain, Nis.
A thaobh saidheans
The Lewis Peatlands moorland is special – a Special Protection Area (for breeding birds such as red and black-throated diver, golden eagle, merlin, dunlin, greenshank and golden plover) sitelink.nature.scot/site/8524, a Special Area of Conservation (for blanket bog and heathland habitat, otters, lochs and ponds) sitelink.nature.scot/site/8289, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. The Ramsar Sites Information Service rsis.ramsar.org/ris/1046 describes it thus:
Largely made up of a near-continuous mantle of blanket bog (a significant proportion of the total world resource), liberally dotted with small pools and lochans. In the southern part, the peatland is more broken with outcrops of rocks of Lewisian gneiss and lochans, forming a distinctive "knock and lochan" landscape and including the largest freshwater nutrient-poor lochs of south central Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles. The vast expanse of this relatively undisturbed peatland supports a diverse range of associated flora and fauna, including 31% of the world population of dunlin (Calidris alpina schinzii). The hyper-oceanic, extremely humid upper boreal bioclimatic zone predominates to an extent found nowhere else in Scotland. Ramsar site no. 1046.
A thaobh ar cultur
The moor is both a natural and a cultural landscape. People have used the interior of the island since the earliest times and the remains of their activities are preserved under, in, and on the bog, and also as a dense invisible network of place-names, songs and stories. The strong cultural continuity in Lewis means that a lot of the latter, largely oral, resource is still accessible. Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's best-selling book about language and landscape, was inspired by a glossary of Lewis moorland terminology compiled in Bragar, and published by Anne Campbell as Rathad an Isein. A Lewis moorland glossary.
‘rionnach-maoim’ – the shadows of cumulus clouds moving across the moorland on a sunny day.
A thaobh nan àiridhean
Transhumance continued in Lewis until the 1950s, with people and their cattle moving to moorland àiridhean, known in English as ‘shielings’, for several months each summer. Remains of hundreds of small stone and/or turf àiridh-huts lie scattered across the moor. The àiridh (pronounced aa - ri) was associated with hospitality and plenty, health and healing, courtship, freedom from authority, and with the supernatural. The time spent in the island's interior is invariably recalled as the happiest of people's lives.
‘The cold dark days of winter lay behind them and ahead were the lonely, lovely brown moors, with their rushing streams and sparkling lochs. Shieling days were days of joy.’ Donald Macdonald, Tolsta.
A thaobh nam bàrd
‘S e mhòinteach as fheàrr leam,
An riasg ud a’ gluasad fo mo chasan gu fàire,
Agus an aonranachd,
Oir ‘s e an aonranachd a tha an dàn dhuinn.
The moor is what I like best,
That peat-fibre moving under my feet to the skyline,
And the loneliness,
For loneliness is what is in store for us.
The moor and the àiridh are deeply embedded in the psyche of the people, and widely celebrated in poetry. The bàrd Ruairidh MacThòmais, or Derick Thomson, one of Lewis’s best known modern poets, wrote in A’ Mhòinteach/The Moor:
South Bragar man, Ruairidh Aonghais a’ Chaiptein, who went to Glasgow as a young man like many others to find work, wrote movingly of the local moor in his exile from it. His song, Tom an t-Searraich, is one of the most loved and popular Gaelic songs to this day. bbc.co.uk/alba/oran/orain/tom_an_t_searraich/