Tuesday’s ceilidh

This Tuesday, we were enjoying a local village magazine from Arnol/Bragar/Shawbost. It had some wonderful old small ads from the 1960s, which we spent a long time reading, while munching on barley and cherry scones.

‘Barley doesn’t have much flavour, I used to cook with it but the cherries are a good idea’, a lady from Bragar explained.

It was a wonderful insight into the economic landscape of the 1960s because the salaries were listed, and we had a feel for the kinds of jobs available at the time. A manager for the Daliburgh care home (called an ‘old people’s home’ in the ad) earned around £600 a year and had to spend around £200 of that on accommodation and board. There were ads for waitresses and housekeepers, a nanny (‘must be fond of children’ – really? You actually had to state that in advertising for a nanny?), bar, hotel and restaurant staff, a night sister on the hospital maternity ward.

There was a recipe for a very frugal version of a chocolate cake from the London ‘Ministry of Food’. Water instead of milk, cocoa instead of chocolate. Margarine instead of butter. I’m sure, in the Hebrides, butter would have been easier to come by.

11 of us gathered this time, including staff, people from the ward and visitors.

We met about a special NHS Western Isles memory box after the ceilidh.

Completing the peat project cycle with a walk

Sometimes, I think we all speak separate languages with our words. Even something as simple as ‘I love you’ can mean so many different things. Maternal love, sibling love, deep friendship, love for a parent or other relative, loving someone for who they are or being in love.

So, when the first woman from Shawbost that I met in a care centre as I moved to the island, (Granny Annie) told me ‘I carried the peats home in a creel made by the basket maker’ (Domhnall MacArthur), what did that mean? I had no experience of it.

I told my neighbour that I would do this and he said that he had grown up with Domhnall as his neighbour. He informed me that I couldn’t do the walk without knitting a sock. All local women were always knitting a sock. I had never knitted a sock. My first attempt was a hilarious, twisted affair, where I managed to join the rib upside down and knit to the end of the rib in an infinity loop. A sad day for knitting.

The peats we cut in May were dry enough to bring home, so, in exchange for baking (as is often the Shawbost way – although brothers with a tractor used to charge £6 a load to bring peats home in this village), a lovely neighbour brought ours and other neighbours’ peats back on his tractor trailer (pictured). He left me a creel full to walk back.

I started to build a cruach/peat stack. I managed to herringbone the first two layers but I quickly discovered that it is a skill that I do not possess, akin to building a dry stone wall. The peats dry a bit wobbly (probably because of our lack of skill at neat cutting and a little because the ground they are laid out on to dry is tufty with rough grass and not exactly flat). There is immense skill in building a neatly herringboned cruach because it is essential to have a good eye for the pieces to choose to interlock neatly. I did make a small stack on two pallets, about a fortnight’s worth, but it is back breaking work and I needed a rest half way through! That was just for two weeks. Imagine the size of a stack to last the winter!!

Dawn Susan made me a creel, which is a thing of beauty and which smells divine. She also wove me a gorgeous strap. I was ready to do the walk.

At the peat bank, we had had some rain and the ground was very boggy. I had to avoid filling the creel over-full, as was the way, because I was literally sinking deeper into the bog with each additional peat. I stopped filling it as it was just under the top. ‘There’s a skill to over filling a peat creel’, nodded a lady from Tolsta, recently, at a session with Dawn Susan. Yes there is. There’s more skill than I have to carry an over full creel, too!

And I set off walking. Up hill was easier than down hill, because leaning forward distributes the weight better. And then I reached the river. Wow. I find these wobbly stepping stones a challenge unladen. My centre of gravity was so altered that I was not confident in getting across dry, still in possession of the peats and with unbroken ankles. But somehow, with a lot of hesitation, I did it.

The other side of the river, I had realised exactly why I was advised to make a pad for my lower back to keep the creel off it. It is completely essential because the hard willow does dig in exactly where the creel touches at the base of your spine. I grabbed a jumper and tied it around my waist, tucking it up to double up. Perfect. ‘ I made a pad with old clothes’ a woman from Tolsta told me.

It’s a pretty steep uphill trek back to the road after the river. Breathlessly, I made it back to the road. It was a lot easier on the road. I wondered how long the road had been there. ‘I helped to build the road at Shawbost with my neighbours’, Granny Annie told me, ‘with buckets and shovels’. Wow. So all this hard labour without a road and to actually have to build the road?! Walking this load across the machair would have been so much harder, and I am told that a special kind of partial sock was often knitted, to protect the feet, while still giving the freedom to feel the earth under them. So almost barefoot, on boggy moorland, with a much heavier creel than I had, I was starting to understand how I wasn’t getting a true picture of the scale of effort and labour involved.

The walk along the road was fine. The strap was wonderful and very well designed to distribute the weight as comfortably as possible. Dawn told me of women who had been rope-burned, using a rope, bleeding and blistered by the end of it. Why would women do this? Perhaps because they were helping someone out, unprepared? Or because they hadn’t had opportunity to make a strap? Or was it about resilience? Do we get to a point of not caring enough to protect ourselves from discomfort?

I managed the rib section of a sock on my walk, untwisted this time!

On arriving home, the peats looked adequate for one day. One day. How many days in a winter?? How many loads needed to be brought back for about eight months??? Little wonder there are so many images of women carrying peats, they must have been doing it for weeks and weeks. And I also realised that a peat stove/fire needs a lot of tending, so these epic peat walks needed to be done between tending the fire. Stoke fire, be certain of it…Go! Walk fast to the peat bank and back as fast as possible, stoke fire again. While looking after a toddler or baby, in some cases!

So I think that although this experience was tiny in the grand scheme of peat carrying, and I did realise that as I fantasised about a hot shower half way across the moor, it did make me think about the issues that I hadn’t considered before. Walking the peats home doesn’t mean one walk. It means hundreds of walks. I do know how a creel and strap feels on a body now and what a difference a road makes.

Women of the Hebrides, I salute you!

Croft created yarn

Look at the beautiful colours of this home-grown (from a no kill flock), home spun and croft dyed from rose and dahlia root yarn by textile artist Chris Hammacott’s Croft in Back.

I am learning to knit a sock, as many women have told me they did all the time, out of necessity. One lady living in a Harris care centre, still knits socks daily. Beautiful socks with an extra ribbed heel for comfort. They might possibly be the best socks in the world.

I have also sent a parcel of it to Shetland, in exchange for Shetland wool for a lady in South Uist, originally from Shetland, to compare with local wool.

Barvas Ware


Have a little look at this blog by Helen Pickles as she leaves her year long project at the Highland Folk Museum.

Barvas Ware pottery and ourselves feature significantly 🙂

On Monday, we have the joy of sharing Museum Nan Eilean’s Barvas Ware handling collection with two care centres and a day centre. Then we will hold some remaking sessions.

Baskets in Tolsta

Dawn Susan brought a selection of different baskets along to Alzheimer Scotland’s Dementia Friendly Cafe at Tolsta on Tuesday.

We all chatted about different uses for baskets and which ones had been made through the project.

We talked about my upcoming epic walk with a creel and peats through Shawbost (epic for me but everyday for the women of Shawbost in years gone by). We talked about the strap and the back pad.

‘I made it with old clothes just stuffed together and tied it around my waist – firm but it kept the creel off my lower back. And it was full! Piled high! There is quite a skill in that, you know, stacking it high so it doesn’t fall.’ One lady keenly shared her first hand knowledge.

Dawn learned creel making from Donald, a basket maker in Shawbost, where I now live. I will be making a podcast about the peats with my neighbour, shortly. I wonder if he remembers him?

We spoke about the original chicken-in-a-basket where a basket was popular in the 1960s as a handbag. It was the right shape for a broody hen.

One basket Dawn brought along was a copy of one from the Highland Folk Museum and the shape would keep eggs separate, which was a very clever design.

Dawn shared the story of the Ciosan, through the Woven Communities Project.

She also spoke about her oak basket, great for herring sorting and her frame/hoop baskets and how they are made.

We decided to hold a basket making day in Tolsta in January, when the willow is ready.

We finished with making a silent wind chime and a snail, made with the same materials but divided in different ways. 7/2 and 4/5 for 9 lengths of willow.

The tea was lovely and I brought a peach cake and plum tart, plus some cherry almond scones.

13 if us enjoyed the session and Roddy John (from Ness) led grace.




Summer Newsletter

Spoken word version on Soundcloud – click here
Our facebook page – please like and follow us at Cianalas Facebook

The World Cup is well underway and the summer is gloriously back here in Lewis! How about a summer newsletter to keep the good feeling going?

First of all, all of the Spring news:

Cianalas begins

This two year body of work is called Cianalas, a Gaelic word relating to a deep seated sense of belonging to the Hebrides and encompassing all of the culture and the place.
The project is funded by Life Changes Trust and Big Lottery as a partnership and is a dementia friendly community project, which encompasses tackling loss, isolation and loneliness.
The work will not be quite the same as the last three years because our new remit is to root our work in research and academic partnerships. We will be working with academic partners to explore a handful of specific projects, for example Barvas Ware, Dance, Intelligent Textiles, Ceilidh Culture and the memory in song, Photography and Portraiture. We are also looking at digital connections between groups and individuals.

Sonic Flock
Lucy Robertson’s Internship through the Scottish Graduate Placement Scheme is over now but we do hope to continue working with her in the near future. We certainly remain part of her PhD research into how intelligent textiles, in particular sonic textiles, can support communication with dementia.
Lucy and I undertook a five-sites-and-two-islands-in-one-day (Solas, Harris House, Leverburgh Home, Blar Buidhe, Dun Eisdean) gifting tour of Lewis and Harris as part of our Dementia Awareness Week events
before she hopped on the ferry to meet Margaret Joan MacIsaac the other side to visit Taigh Chearsabhagh arts centre, a school and Sacred Heart Care Centre in South Uist to gift the remainder of the birds.
Other textile projects have involved collaborating with the Hospital Chaplaincy Team to create a memory tree piece of textile art with Chris Hammacott to support people with bereavement  and hope at the Sanctuary space, and a wall vinyl. This is now installed and we are completing the project with a door sticker and a hanging textile piece for behind the lectern area to give it a focus. Harris House residents have been working with us on three interactive wall hangings for the second lounge area walkway, which will have lights to switch on, illumnating fishing boats.

Mhairi Law_Cuimhne-130

Cuimhne Symposium
Our Cuimhne Symposium was a massive success with over a hundred people joining us in An Lanntair for the main two day event and a further 30 at Scalpay Community Centre for the Me Time Craft Fayre, including the Psalmboat Project meeting and the DEEP group. The Scarista Piper played for us there, which was such a treat!
You can see the blog post about it here
You can look at the Cuimhne film by Kate Macleod here

Life Changes Trust Human Rights, Citizenship & Dementia Conference
Lucy Robertson and I attended this event with some of our more recent films and textile pieces. It was an emotional one. We may have come a long way but this event served as a stark reminder of how much there is still to do. Human Rights, Citizenship and Dementia Conference 1st May 2018, Life Changes Trust

Scottish Ballet
We hosted three different sessions with Scottish Ballet and their dementia specific dance sessions on Friday 4th May. The team were wonderful and there was an opportunity for intergenerational working in Grianan/Solas in the morning, with two different groups sharing the fun.
Scottish Ballet three times in one day!

Me Time Project is over
The Me Time Project, funded by Wm Grant Foundation and administrated by Life Changes Trust is over now and I have just submitted a final report to Life Changes Trust for passing on to Wm Grant Foundation. The two Grand Finale events were particularly wonderful, with the Scalpay Craft Fayre and the Community Ceilidh at Horshader Shop, where the Me Time guitar group played to a crowd of 40! Here is a blog post about a planting session we did just before the end of the project, in Ness.

DEEP Dance is over
We eagerly await the completed Cultural Movement Film from Maggie but here is the film from the Uist Quadrilles, where we worked with the Uist Quadrilles group, Ceolas and Uist Film to create this intergenerational, community piece.

DEEP Hills of Home project is over
We are waiting for Lorraine at Hebridean Graphics to install the final vinyl at Benbecula Hospital but the images on Erisort Ward, Blar Buidhe and St Brendan’s Home in Castlebay are all in place and looking wonderful.

DEEP Digital Dining is underway!
We have undertaken a trial of digital dining and it looks like it has immense potential. The team is working on a guidance document to support this work going forward and we will be holding more trials this summer. The idea is to link groups to keep in touch with food as a common theme, although language lessons, growing, picnics and cooking are all going to feature.

Inverness Creativity in NHS/Social Care Symposium with Issie McPhail
John and Maggie attended this event in Inverness in June and we had a great deal of interest in the work we are doing, with some people from health and social care teams planning to visit us shortly.

Highlands event with Life Changes Trust
Life Changes Trust is looking to create a collaborative approach to longevity and a Dementia School of Leadership. Paula attended and showcased some of our recent films, while learning about the plans for a united, collaborative way forward.
Highland Collaborative Learning Event

The Material Culture of Basketry
We have been accepted for publication in a Bloomsbury book The Material Culture of Basketry, which is utterly thrilling, that our academic and community work is supporting a wider body of work across Scotland.

Birds flew back to roost on the ward
Our bird print panels, created by people on Clisham and Erisort wards at Western Isles Hospital with Gill Thompson, have been framed and donated to the ward. The gorgeous high resolution images taken by Alex Boyd are going to be printed up for the home where the gentleman now lives, who was heavily involved in creating the images but then went back home to the Uists.

Coming up this Summer

Saturday 30th June, we are holding a peat cutting picnic for anyone who misses getting out on the peats. We have been lucky enough to have my neighbour, Iain T, turf a bank right by the peat road in Shawbost for us, for easy access and we have booked some sunshine after two wet weekends for the occasion. See you there and I will broadcast some of the event through the facebook live event feature.

We are going to be re-making some Barvas Ware Pottery and this will lead to an exhibition and community workshops.

We are planning a Summer of Photography Adventures, so if you fancy a boat trip, a wildlife walk or have other ideas, please get in touch.

After all of the summer holidays, we are planning a ceilidh trail across all of the islands to celebrate and preserve village versions of local songs and dances. This will be a series of community, interactive performances and it may result in a song book or recordings/films as well.

Next year

We are undertaking a collaboration with the international photography project Eyes as big as Plates. It’s the first time it has come to the UK and we are very excited to support older people in our community to create art pieces and to enjoy their own photo shoot.


We are also looking at fishing terms, to build up our fishing memory box.

We will be continuing our ‘In Conversation’ series of podcasts and if you missed Jack & John, please click on the link and have a listen to the glorious conversation, split into bite sized chunks, where Jack Manchester shares thoughts on engineering and life with John Maher.

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 17.07.04

At the end of this two year body of work, there will be a showcase event.

That’s it for summer news and I will make another newsletter for you in the Autumn.


The Material Culture of Basketry

Bloomsbury Publishing will publish the book of the second Woven Communities’ symposium held at the University of St. Andrews in 2017, which we participated in as a project team.

The book will be titled ‘The Material Culture of Basketry’.

Our section of the book will be along these lines:

Collaborative essay: Memories in the land, the sea, animals and in people’s stories on Lewis, Jon Macleod, (Artist, An Lanntair, Lewis). Hand memories in basket-work and net-making among people with dementia in Uist and Lewis, told through life-moment stories and associated images, Paula Brown (Arora, An Lanntair, Lewis).

This is such an exciting development for the Woven Communities work we shared with the University of St Andrews and other partners and for our research development in this phase of the project.

Memory Tree & Vinyl in the Sanctuary

In collaboration with Western Isles Hospital Chaplaincy Team, the Cianalas Project team have been working with Chris Hammacott to create a unique piece of interactive textile art in the form of a memory tree. This is now available in the Sanctuary Space for people to use to celebrate the memory of loved ones.

There are rings on the bottom to use to leave personal mementos much like the ‘Clootie Well’ and specially created gifts of leaves and butterflies, dragonflies and flowers to pin to the tree. Public or private messages/names can be included on the items.

Alf Sludden from the NHS IT department donated a beach image from Uig, as part of the development of the Sanctuary space and our Cianalas/An Lanntair team shared skills to create a wall vinyl and install it, rather quickly, as you can see!

Thank you to everyone involved. We will now be working on a welcome sign and a hanging textile piece for behind the lectern area.

North Tolsta

Last week, we supported the North Tolsta dementia cafe run by Alzheimer Scotland to enjoy some fabric printing with Chris Hammacott.

I took along some home made scones, home made jam and crowdie and cream, fresh strawberries and some Palmiers for some summer eating.

Everyone created tea towels and bags with fabric paints and some block printing shapes, which were then ironed to seal them.

There were some very creative designs with bright colours and neat borders, symmetrical patterns and some freestyling.

It was wonderful to work in a new area with a new group of people and to extend our project reach into a location that we have not yet worked. 14 of us joined together and Lynne MacIver was there with her film camera.

The food went down well I didn’t have much to bring home! We have been enthusiastically invited back!




Highland Collaborative Learning Event

Earlier this week, I went to Inverness to attend the Highland Collaborative Learning Event as a project funded by Life Changes Trust.

Life Changes Trust is looking ahead to sustainability and longevity and aims to facilitate a collaborative effort moving forwards, creating a Dementia School of Leadership and Forum.

There will be many more events over the next year to offer opportunities for local stakeholders to gather and collaborate on sharing knowledge as a whole for dementia across Scotland.

There is also a tender opportunity through Life Changes Trust to apply to offer the infrastructure for these collaborative efforts and this skills/knowledge sharing.

I shared a couple of films of the dance and Cuimhne events that we have completed recently but the best part of the day was gathering around a table with such a broad spectrum of stakeholders including Community Safety, NHS, UHI, DFC Rural, DEEP, TiDE, Life Changes Trust, Alzheimer Scotland, the local authority and many more are keen to participate.