From crofting to crafting

With loss, isolation and loneliness being the focus of Cianalas, it made sense for the first event I coordinate for this project, to be in my home area of North Lochs, Isle of Lewis.

Research has indicated that loneliness and isolation at times hasten the onset of Dementia. In the Western Isles we have an aging population in a rural area, with little social interaction now a days, for a generation which grew up, in and out of one another houses. In a close knit crofting community where labour, troubles and sorrow were shared.

But in 2018, isolation could be a result of losing a long term partner, ill health, living with a younger generation who do not have the crofting lifetime and lifestyle experience, or those being removed from the familiarity of their first language. I often hear “Chan fhaic mi duine a bhruidhneas mo chànan fhìn rium”.

I could think of many people I knew who could benefit from a monthly social gathering, but how to reach them?

There are many community centres on the island which are not being used as a centre for the community. This is due to many reasons. The North Lochs Community Centre at Creagan Dubh, Leurbost is accessible and available.

How to reach out to people who are isolated? By definition they do not see many people in a week, or don’t do social media. Co dhiù. ’S e obair latha toiseachadh. Perhaps word of mouth will be the best way.

Having a gathering in a local centre mid-afternoon to reminisce, dabble with some hand crafts and have some entertainment goodness me…to a crofter … unthinkable!

But life has changed and thinking outside the box is what island life has to be about now. I realise it will take several monthly events, to formulate and define the monthly gathering, for those behind the just ajar doors.

At the first event we had yarns, a laugh or two, and lots of new information about people and things. Euan the museum officer brought some pottery, made in Barvas a long long time ago. One of the items looked like a flat. This brought back memories of the teapot with loose tea stewing on the stove all day and the cailleachs cooling the liquid and drinking out of a flat.

This prompted the story of a cailleach who was allocated a flat on Murray Place. The cailleach who lived in the top flat was very house-proud and hoovered all day and all night.

The first floor cailleach sent a letter to the Council, “Can you take Mrs MacRae off the top of me and put her on top off someone else”

The next event is planned for Wednesday 19th September at 2pm. Spread the word, all ages welcome to come and share new interesting things happening locally.

by Maggie Smith

Colourful image by Mairi M Martin Photography

Barvas Ware and Incomers

The theme of incomer was prominent this week, both because the ridiculously talented Alex Boyd published my portrait with my husband online as part of his series on the contribution of incomers to the islands but also because I was working with the amazing Jana on the Barvas Ware Project this week. Jana is originally from Germany (as is Alex, coincidentally) and one of the themes from documents Euan, Development Officer for Museum Nan Eilean, shared with us was about Barvas Ware latterly being made for anthropology tourists.

Purvai has also been a big feature with the Colin Mackenzie link with India, and the wonderful arts festival at An Lanntair. Much of the past fortnight has involved sharing Kathak dance from Kanchan and Tabla drumming with Dal across care and day centres.

Many of the older people we have been working with are not native to the islands, having moved here for work or family support at some point. None of us this week, not even those born here, had seen or experienced Barvas Ware before this project and we have all been able to explore and learn about it together.

Two people from the Barvas area attending the day centre, were able to give information to Euan about the pottery during handling sessions three weeks ago, which was very exciting.

Jana has a beautiful approach to language, learning Gaelic words as we go along from older first-language Gaelic speakers. We talk about techniques, first trying a pinch pot and then moving on to coiling. ‘You sausage it’, she explains.

‘I love the way you use sausage as a verb’, I smile.

Jana laughs, ‘sausageing, yes!’, as she demonstrates how to smooth the coils together. ‘You don’t press it, that compresses the clay, you just go up and down with your fingers.’

‘I’m not artistic at all’, confesses Bella, who is ninety and sculpting a plate with her bare hands in Raku clay.

‘I think that everyone is artistic and creative,’ says Jana, ‘maybe somebody at school, maybe one teacher, told them they aren’t creative, or not so good at this or that but we are all creative in different ways.’ I completely agree. We all decorate our homes and choose what to wear and how to have our hair. And being ‘good’ at something can, I think, mean eagerness to explore and learn about the medium.

Jana talked about Raku clay with us, how it features tiny pieces of fired clay, which strengthen the object when exposed to extreme temperatures and stress in open fire firing. She explains that the Japanese Raku technique also includes shocking the fired clay in cold water, and that Barvas Ware technique involved milk glazing, for the fat to seal the porous, fired surface.

Jana talks about her failures with exploding pieces in her fire but that it can be avoided if there is no air or gaps in the piece and if all of the areas on a piece are approximately the same depth. ‘But I was able  to use the broken pieces for my own Raku clay so it wasn’t wasted.’ she laughs.

We came up with some authentic Barvas type shapes and some experimental sculptures as part of three sessions in two care homes and a day centre. All three settings had enjoyed a visit from Euan with the Museum Barvas Ware handling collection recently, so we had all experienced the authentic pieces in advance.

We tried out the distinctive, decorative patterns with cutting at the edges and made plates, bowls, milk jugs, cups and teapots. ‘Did you know,’ asks Jana, ‘that Barvas Ware teapots had no useful spout?’ as she creates a beautiful, usable spout on her own, creating a flower of toothpick holes through the clay, where she attaches her spout. ‘A teapot is one of the hardest things to make, getting the proportions right to pour liquid out of the spout neatly. Our tea sets and mugs are mostly made with plaster moulds and slip clay, a wet clay mixture, now. Then you can reproduce a good design over and over again. This is too hard with hand building. A good ceramicist can do quite a good job but it will never be quite the same.’

Jana also talks about the tourism aspect of the pottery. ‘You can tell it was made for tourists if it wasn’t usable as a teapot.’ This corroborates Euan’s thoughts on the sugar bowl being unlikely to be in general, crofting use on tables in homes at that time, and that it was more copied from English designs for the tourist trade, a far removed piece from the original croggans, used as practical vessels for holding and transporting food, perhaps soup for lunch.

The rest of the Barvas Ware project will involve a community making day or two at the museum, a library 3D printing session, digging some authentic local clay and remaking Barvas Ware pieces with that and firing the completed, air dried pieces in a peat fire on a beach.

Rachael Thomas and Helen Pickles, current and former staff at the Highland Folk Museum have written informative blogs about Barvas Ware and the re-making of it on their High Life Highland blog and are generously supporting us with their knowledge as we navigate our re-making.

Donald Angus, staff at Solas Day Centre, followed what the clay wanted to do and folded it on to itself, creating a Barvas Pasty, much to the amusement of the group. ‘I’ve learned so much about clay today!’, he says, grinning.

We had some fantastic sculptural explorations of the clay, too.

New Lochs Social Group

I’ve been living on Lewis for four years now. It’s not an immense island but there are still tucked away villages that I haven’t yet discovered.

I thought that Leurbost was largely in the area (from Stornoway) turning right after the cottages past the garage opposite the school but no, there is a turning further up on the left, which offers some breathtaking views over the hills, even on a wet day, and hosts a lovely community centre hall.

Maggie Smith had booked the hall for the purposes of starting a new social group to help tackle loss, isolation and loneliness, one of the key themes of our BIG Lottery funder, and important for our work with Life Changes Trust, too.

Maggie welcomes us all with a warm greeting and an explanation of the project and funders ‘It’s really an excuse to get together’, she smiles, before introducing us all.

Chris Hammacott demonstrated block print work on to fabric, we heard all about the glorious yellow Austin Seven outside, Roddy talked about how he came by his 1920 melodeon and played and sang for us and Euan, Museum Development Officer, shared the wonderful Barvas Ware handling collection with us all.

Roddy told several hilarious stories about how Gaelic speakers struggled with English after moving to Stornoway and he sang local songs alongside adapted versions of more National/international songs. He played a beautiful medley of traditional songs too.

There was gorgeous home baking, which ten of us enjoyed along with the music, the artefacts, the print making and at the end, we had a closer look at the glorious, sunshine yellow car.

Mairi took photographs to record the event.

The next session is mid September Weds 19th. All are welcome, bring a friend or neighbour and it’s free. We will have Mhairi Law with us in September, print making cyanotypes and offering photography support for our walk.

Purvai is here!

Come and see our amazing South Asian festival celebration that is Purvai tonight at An Lanntair, beginning with a delicious Indian banquet! You can book at

On Tuesday, we took the wonderful Kanchan Maradan to the ward ceilidh at Western Isles Hospital to dance Kathak for everyone.

Kanchan talked for about ten minutes about the history of this dance art form and about how she got into dancing, following along to the dances in Bollywood films. It surprised us to learn that Mumbai born Kanchan actually learned Kathak in London!

She talked about how the dance is storytelling and showed us some movements, devotions to Krishna with a flute and Ganesh with the elephant trunk and ears.

I remember Dr Stephanie Bunn, of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, telling me during our Woven Communities project work together, ‘We are all Anthropologists.’ Indeed.

We passed around Kanchan’s heavy strings of bells before she tied them to her ankles, looping one end around her big toe to hold it firm as she wound the string up her strong ankles.

‘My brother says he wouldn’t like to get a kick from me’, she laughs, referring to the weight of the bells toning and strengthening her legs.

It struck me again, how insights into cultures from distant places connect people with storytelling, as we saw with Dal last week. ‘Kathak is a very beautiful dance, it is storytelling and you can see from the movements. We used to gather in courtyards and tell stories about gods, mostly. We have so many official languages in India. And so many gods. And they all have stories.’

I ask Kanchan about the make up and jewellery.

‘God is within us’, she explains, ‘I do feel pressure to get ready to go out but I quite like that. It’s a celebration of God within us.’

I quite like that too.

Purvai Preview

An Lanntair has the incredible Purvai festival coming shortly, with workshops, a banquet, a concert and artists/musicians from all over the world coming to perform for you in Stornoway.

As ever, we have been sharing this event across the community with people who might not be able to make it in to the An Lanntair venue.

Our first session was a multi generational event between the Grianan and Solas Day Centre groups on Tuesday 7th August and today, on Weds 8th August, we went to Dun Berisay home.

Next week, we will be at the Tuesday Ceilidh at Western Isles Hospital, for all of you who happen to be in hospital at the time and then we will visit two more centres before the big concert at An Lanntair on 17th August.

We took along Dal (Dalbir Singh Rattan, also known ad the Tabla Jedi) to our sessions.

Dal has been working in a very interactive way, following a very similar style to a ceilidh, with singing, storytelling and teaching songs and how to drum.

I have been very inspired by the responses and interaction of the people attending our sessions because I have seen so much research about language and learning new languages, drumming, movement and music patterns being so beneficial for the brain. To be able to see this play out in front of me during such fun sessions has been a real joy.

I can see people thinking through the patterns and following them accurately, and picking up Swahili in a song to be able to sing it back. And all of this in a ‘follow-me’ style, which is very common in the Hebrides to teach new skills.

I have felt very inspired, particularly by one lady, who was very apprehensive that she wouldn’t be able to play the drum, when she actually managed to accurately pick up a drum rhythm and sing in Swahili simultaneously by the end of the session! I told her that if she can do that, she can do anything!

During a Q&A moment, we asked Dal about his recent trip to Buckingham Palace, which we enjoyed hearing about enormously! Rubies and diamonds, gold caskets, tabla and the Queen’s residence. What an experience! The best part of this story, though, was about Dal’s Grandfather, who is 91. He taught Dal Tabla, took him to his lessons regularly and was so moved by Dal being invited to Buckingham Palace to perform, that he squeezed out a tear full of pride. I think a couple of us in the room welled up over that one too.

The lady next to me was a music teacher and she enjoyed the feel of the drum skin, the sound of it reverberating on her hand and conducting the music. She even had a little sing with us.

There was so much love in the room, one lady even shouted across to Dal “I love you!’.

I think he picked up some new band members. Some of those drums are heavy, though – I didn’t make a very good roadie!

I have uploaded a few videos of how to speak ‘tabla’ and how to sing the lullaby in Swahili. Also, some of the brilliant people picking up the rhythms and songs so fantastically.

We have yet to offer two more session in care centres, revisit Solas/Grianan and to go to the hospital ward ceilidh on Tuesday 14th August with Kanchan, the dancer.




Soundcloud link to the lullaby we all sang in Swahili at Solas/Grianan

And here are two more videos – the story of Buckingham Palace and how to speak ‘tabla’.