music, history, and 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.
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.
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