Monday, April 30, 2012

music, history, and Heisgeir

Heisgeir is a group of small islands off the west coast of North Uist. North Uist is itself part of the Outer Hebrides, which lie about forty miles off the northwest coast of Scotland, so Heisgeir, also known as the Monach Isles, is a fairly remote place. julie fowlis celtic 12 copyright kerry dexterGales which sweep across the North Atlantic often strike Scotland first at Heisgeir.

The islands are uninhabited now, but archaeological evidence suggests that people lived there many centuries ago. Not just many centuries ago, either: up until the 1940s, fishermen and their families lived on the islands. which had the advantage of having a natural harbour into which they could pull their boats to avoid the brunt of the storms. For some time there were a hundred or so people living on the islands, but by the time the 1940s came, there were but two families left.heisgeir julie fowlis copyright kerry dexter

follow this link to see photographs of Heisgeir

Some of their houses and buildings still stand, and on occasion fisher people stop over there while working the area. A lighthouse on the outermost island of Sillay, built in the 1860s, was decommissioned in 1942, but has been shining again since 2008. It is run these days by automation: no light house keeper lives in the isle now.

Growing up on North Uist, musician Julie Fowlis knew about Heisgeir: some in her family had fished the waters there before she was born. As she was working on a project of songs, she thought to gather video footage and take photographs of the islands as they are today. She did that, but it turned into something more. Listening to the stories of people who had lived on the island or knew people who did, fisher people who’d traveled there, tales that had been passed down, she knew she had to let these voices speak, along with the landscape, along with the images, along with the music from Fowlis and her bandmates, along with the sea.

Fowlis has brought all these together in Heisgeir, a program that blends live music with film, film that includes the voices and the stories as well as images of the islands. It’s a beautifully told tale, one that invites reflection about history and change and what stories we remember and pass along, as well as about the nature of these remote islands themselves.

eamon doorley celtic 12 copyright kerry dexter













It could get you considering technology, too. Fowlis used contemporary technology to help in the passing along of these stories, but yet it is the stories themselves that last.

If the technology wasn’t there, would we know of them? If the lasting stories weren’t there, if the inspiration of the artist wasn’t there, would the technology matter? Heisgeir is one of the finest examples I’ve seen of technology so in service of older ways and artistic vision that you forget how the story is transmitted, you forget that the technology is there. It becomes a transparent tool.

At this writing there are two presentations of Heisgeir planned this summer in Scotland. You may keep up with those and other presentations in the future at Julie Fowlis’s web site. If you can go to see it, do so. If you are a presenter with any interest in heritage, your audiences will be well served by booking this program. If neither of those work for you, still, I invite you to give a few moments thought as to how we pass along our stories in ways that last, and what life may have been like on Heisgeir across the years.


I was fortunate to see the film and performance of Heisgeir at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, which is where these photographs were made. They were made with permission of the festival and the artists. They are copyrighted, and I thank you for respecting that.

You may also wish to see
Music Road: Julie Fowlis: Live at Perthsire Amber
Dual: Julie Fowlis & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
a short film about julie fowlis

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posted by Kerry Dexter at

12 Comments:

Anonymous Brette Sember said...

What a beautiful place. I love the idea of using new technology to preserve and bring alive an old place.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Alisa Bowman said...

I have to say that I am impressed with your gender neutral "fisher people." History is fascinating, especially for a small island like this.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Alexandra said...

I love stories like this one! Thanks for sharing. I bet Vikings visited Heisgeir, maybe even lived there.

1:44 PM  
Blogger kerry dexter said...

Alexandra,
Vikings did know these islands -- Heisgeir is a Norse word which has made its way into Gaelic.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi said...

Sounds like a fascinating project. It is always interesting to see how people blend the ancient and the modern.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Jane Louise Boursaw said...

Sounds wonderfully remote and beautiful.

8:43 PM  
Blogger jcreaturetravel said...

What gorgeous islands! I love windswept, isolated isles. And the project sounds fascinating. I love anything that keeps the voices of the people alive. And, here it's done with 21st century technology.

12:11 AM  
Blogger MyKidsEatSquid said...

That sounds like an amazing production--I idea behind it. Any chance it will be available in the U.S.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous merr said...

Being able to preserve the quality of sound is a gift for those who know the music, and for those who are only just discovering it.

8:36 PM  
Anonymous Donna Hull said...

I love the idea that such a beautiful placed inspired music and beyond. I can't hear those howling winds now.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Andrea said...

I have never heard of the islands before but I'm sure it would be interesting to visit and I love that there is a Viking history there.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Brian McGuire said...

Excellent Blog and great information, just out of interest there is a new Celtic Connections event happening in Paisley in October to coincide with the brand new Spree Festival which will also be happening next year with the Royal National MOD to find out more info about the event click the link. http://www.paisley.org.uk/2012/09/celtic-connections-day-at-the-spree/

5:09 PM  

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