light years don fitzpatrick light years don fitzpatrick

isle of south uist

« The Isle of South Uist » (
Uibhist a Deas in Scots Gaelic) is at the southern end of the 130-mile long chain of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, The Outer Hebrides, also known as Na h-Innse Gall  – The Long Island. The Atlantic coast of the island is a twenty-five mile long beach of silver sand, with big skies and wide horizons bordered by marram grass, sand dunes and machair (a unique, fertile, low-lying grassy plain, one of the rarest in Europe.) To the east is a fragmented coastline of five, fjord-like sea lochs: Loch Boisdale, Loch Eynort, Loch Skipport, Loch Shielavaig and Loch Carnan, all leading to the Sea of The Hebrides, the ancient sea highway which separates the islands from the Inner Hebrides and the mainland. Sixty miles to the west is one of the remotest inhabited parts of the British Isles, St Kilda (Hiort), then more than two thousand miles of the North Atlantic until you reach Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.            The Outer Hebrides series features images from the island of Barra to Berneray. Begun when I was a teenager, they explore my sense of belonging to South Uist; a personal history of passing time, images inspired by an ancient Gaelic culture on the edge of Europe, sustained by a strong sense of community and a shared past dominated by climate and sea. Like the tides and the weight of ancestry, I'm always drawn back to the island.  
          In the early 1970s, I had been searching without success, for an out-of-print book of photographs of South Uist. On over-hearing a telephone conversation I was having with a London bookseller, a colleague asked about the book: 'I have a book about the Outer Hebrides at home...'  he said, 'I'll bring it in tomorrow, you can have it'. It was the book I had been searching for, Paul Strand and Basil Davidson's Tìr a'Mhurain : Outer Hebrides. (Tìr a'Muhrain, 'the Land of the Bent Grass', is a reference to the windswept marram grasses which border the Atlantic coast of the Uists.) 
          Disillusioned with the politics of the Cold War in the United States in the 1950s and in fear of the anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy against anyone suspected of Communist or 'un-American' activities, Strand, who had strong Marxist / Socialist views, and his wife Hazel Kingsbury, became exiles, living in France from 1950. In 1954 they spent three months on Uist and the neighbouring islands of Eriskay and Benbecula, one of many photographic journeys they made in search of places and communities holding fast to their cultures and traditional ways of life in the face of change.
          I was a boy on the island in the summer of 1954, my brother and I staying as usual with our maternal grandparents, Dòmhnall and Maighréad MacAonghais. (Donald and Margaret MacInnes.) Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother singing lullabies to me in Gaelic, the eerie call of a Great Northern Diver from over Loch Shielavaig; and the sound of an air played by a lone piper, the beautiful old Scottish song, The Parting Glass, as the old steamer, the SS Hebrides (always referred to as 'the Boat') left the harbour at Lochboisdale for the night-crossing to Oban at the end of our long summer on Uist. Whenever we return to the island one of the first things family and friends ask us is: 'Dè cho fada 's a the thu dhachaigh?' – 'How long are you home for?' Whatever the answer, the hope is always that we will stay longer. 
          The islands of the Hebrides are renowned for their Gaelic singers, pipers, bards and storytellers. There are many examples which eloquently express the thoughts of Gaels far from home, when the island, the community and the family croft (a small holding) are intensely present in memory and imagination — inner ways of seeing. However, it is another American who best put into words my attachment to the place that most endures, especially when I'm far from it: 'A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he makes it in his image'. 'In The Islands', The White Album, Joan Didion.
There is a beautiful version of The Parting Glass on YouTube by Karine Polwart and Dave Milligan. Dating back to the 1600s, it is a song of farewell, or tribute to friends and loved ones: 'So fill to me the parting glass, good night and joy be with you all'. It was the most popular song of farewell until Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne became a favourite in the late 18th Century.