My Time at Bragar
by Ruta Vitkauskaite
An Lanntair residency experience
My two week experience of Lewis started with cancelled ferry due a storm, which never truly settled down for my entire stay, locking me indoors for many days and nights in the row. Nevertheless, when leaving Stornoway two weeks later, after, again, a row of cancelled ferries, I felt deeply enriched with culture, music and wonders of the world, more than I could have ever expected.
Truly, my residency started months before my trip to Lewis – with our virtual conversations with Jon Macleod from An Lanntair. Being new to Scotland and not knowing much about, well, anything, I was gradually introduced to Gaelic culture, music, language, stories, symbolism, and ways of living and being. I developed interest in onomatopoeic words in music and language, and Modern Chants project was born, gathering a team of composers, musicians and a poet, supported by Creative Scotland, which included my residency in Lewis for further research.
When I finally arrived to Bragar in January 2022, I was met and greeted by Jon, and by Tina Macphail, a manager of Grinneabhat Community Centre, who took absolutely wonderful care of me – not only in practical sense, but also in leading me in my research and integration into community.
I had several sessions on song-sharing with James Mackenzie and Katie Mackenzie. Most interesting was for me was work with Puirt á Beul, bagpipe tunes, and flute music, which started with choosing melody, joining a few shorter tunes into a continuous piece, and working our way around that. We tried integrating some Lithuanian songs, and my original music with the local tunes, which worked in very surprising and unexpected ways.
One of the highlights of my residency was visiting a Gaelic service and hearing Hebridean psalm singing, at the Seminary in Stornoway. It is hard to describe the impression of the event. I knew about harmonic structure beforehand. Yet, that does not depict nor explain the actual impression of the psalms.
It was this melody waving its way up and down, stretching community voices to the highest registers as the service progressed, and therefore bringing more exposition, power and energy to the flow of the song. It was really very deep, very honest spiritual experience, created there and then by the whole community, impossible to copy – a true prayer through song.
I was accompanied to the service by Catriona Murray, a lecturer at Stornoway UHI with research in Supernatural in Gaelic culture, who then introduced me to Torquil Macleod, a Gaelic psalm presenter, artist and songwriter. A wonderful conversation with Torquil followed, about how songs and melodies are born, about inspiration, and the power of texts and lyrics, and about the importance of preserving the tradition. Wholly inspired by being head to toes ‘dipped’ into the Gaelic pslams, I created a piece of music – in order to depict and to remember my experience of it. I later integrated some of the local birdsong, naming my piece ‘Feadag’. The piece, along with tunes we worked on with James and Katie, were presented at the concert on Burns Night, at Grinneabhat.
The discovery of local birdsong, along with many many stories, tales, walks and insights into local culture, was all facilitated by Anne Campbell – a researcher in archeology, and a wonderful person with deep knowledge of local culture and traditions. In fact, Anne and her dog Ben were two of the very first people I’ve met when in Bragar. They led me on reading a book of fire charms, texts explaining various aspects of ritual and ceremonies, and music, many of them echoing with Lithuanian traditions, others completely unknown to me.
I was most impressed by the local stories of seeing future: the man of the future, the woman washing cloths in the sea, associated with the future… I remember standing with Anne at the ruins of the church by the sea, as storm and rain were increasingly getting stronger, and having an in-depth conversation about visions, ‘gut feeling’, instincts, and a stories of local unmarried girls who would have the ability to leave their bodies in dreams in search of the missing relatives, but at the high risk of going mad if they weren’t strong minded.
Many, many similar stories unfolded through my stay in Bragar, through conversations with Anne, Jon, Kristina (the story collector and Gaelic teacher) – and it is not the mysticism that was most impressive to me, but the strong presence of those other dimensions here and now, something integrated in the daily routines of local lives, something so usual that it does not get to be talked about too much.
Three mounts from Neolithic period near Bragar that Anne knew about, and which are not really in any touristic books, is another strong memory. A long and challenging hike through very wet bog lands with increasing storm was worth it, when we arrived at the place so sacral and untouched by modern life for thousands of years, that I won’t even attempt to describe it here.
Many, many more experiences I had in Bragar and in Lewis were so unique, enriching, and insightful, but it would take me many more pages to depict all of them.
It felt like, through music, stories, places and, most importantly, through people, I encountered things that are very deep, very real, incredibly fascinating, and so big that I wouldn’t be able to get my head round them in only two weeks. Time at the residency opened so many new research topics, inspirations. Probably, most importantly, I really know this experience made me a better musician.
I send my biggest gratitude for all the local people who spared their time to talk to me. Finally, one of the creative results – a soundwalk with the Bard of the Birds – which I partly created during my residency time, will be presented on February 27th, 2pm, online, and I warmly invite everyone to attend: https://sound-scotland.co.uk/event/bard-of-the-birds
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