sound ecoacoustics humanimality
air falbh leis na h-eòin
(away with the birds)
For the last three years I’ve been working with Hanna Tuulikki on her Away with the Birds project, involving the mimesis of birdsong in traditional Gaelic music of the Western Isles. Hanna has been researching source material and developing her own interpretations within this tradition in various modalities of cross-form artworks. The culmination of the first phase was a series of performances of her choral composition in the harbour bay of the island of Canna in August 2014.
My role has involved field recording, ornithology and soundscape performance.
Two excerpts from on site rehearsals for the performances:
The beginning of movement 5.
The end of movement 5.
Canna is quite a small island, in fact one of the Small Isles, around four miles east to west with its sibling Sanday rolling to the south-east, separated at high tide. It sits in its own space out in the Hebridean sea, hidden from the mainland by Rum and the Sleat peninsula of Skye. The Hebridean islands hold a good population of Golden Eagles and now a growing population of White-tailed Eagles, returning to their old haunts after they were wiped out early in the twentieth century.
While we were on the island, a pair of White-tailed Eagles, who had brought their single offspring of the year over from Rum where they had bred, patrolled the skies and the basalt terraces. Mostly they kept their distance and followed their own secret routes, as eagles do; but every so often one or other soared into the spacious blue overhead. While the singers' voices drifted up from Canna bay, the silence of the eagles was awesome on the ears.
In our scientific era it’s difficult to grasp what magic is. And so much of my understanding of the natural world is underpinned by the facts, as established by countless researchers and carefully expressed in learned journals or collated by other interpretive authors. And yet, there is more. Maybe magic is the glue that holds it all together; or the myriad infinitesimal pathways of connection whereby the flight of a butterfly changes the world. Unquantifiable. All I know is that the presence of eagles in a landscape changes it; they imbue place with a quality, even if they are not actually there at any particular time. It’s a kind of numinous infusion sensed in the air. How people can kill eagles I don’t know: their senses must be so dulled that they are unaware of how they drain a land of such magical qualities.
One day I sat for an hour above the northern sea-cliffs and watched the young one practise his flying, patrolling a circuit round and round on steady strengthening wings and passing me quite closely. Across the water hundreds of feet below, the Cuillin of Skye gleamed in the intense sunlight, almost fifteen miles away, but if you reach out you can touch it with the flight of an eagle. Eventually I lost contact as he sheared down into the crags somewhere further along. I wished him well and headed off myself, gloriously contented.
While on the island I was staying in ‘Kate’s Bothy’, framed in a postcard. It offers simple, cosy accomodation; but for anyone who’s used to the MBA mountain bothies, well it’s the lap of luxury. And if location is everything in real estate, it’s beyond the pocket of the wealthiest city banker. It was the boys’ residence - myself, film-maker Daniel Warren, soundman Iain Thomson and photographer Alex Boyd. Great company, not in a partying sense, just an implicit understanding running through what we individually felt, being in this place.
Deskwork in the bothy. To the rhythm of - work a little, go outside and gaze a little. Not bad if you’ve got to put in time at a desk. And it felt like an eyrie: so good to be physically close to the eagles and, sat quietly alone observing, have the outlook of them too.
View from the notebook ...
I find the architecture of Rum’s western mountains constantly satisfying. They aren’t quite as ruggedly spectacular as the Cuillin proper, on Skye. But their serrated vertical ridges, swooping down to the sea, hemmed in lush green ribs, mark the course of the day like a sun dial, as the light changes. Until, on clear days like today and yesterday, all is revealed in the floodlight of late afternoon. Fionnchra’s pap rises modestly with her horizontal steps suggesting a pyramid, and a little way beneath the summit, such an elegant little corrie is bitten out of the hillside. The long ridge of Orval sweeps round on the upper horizon, its line edged by bleached crags with a skirt of screes. But rising in front of Orval is the gorgeous green face of Bloodstone Hill, aptly named despite lacking Gaelic authenticity*. Towards the south its crags fall to the sea with a rugged savagery.
Then, as evening comes on, gradually a rosy suffusion washes the whole scene. Rum is blushing. And I know that people have felt this since the first settlers, after the ice scoured these rocks, sat here and gazed in wonder like me.
* According to John Love, bloodstone is a crystalline form of silica associated with the lavas on the west side of Rum, more generally referred to as chalcedony. It’s colour is variable, though commonly greenish. Some is marked with red spots of oxidised jasper. But a story in Otta Swire’s The Inner Hebrides and their Legends tells us that these were ‘blood drops from the Merry Dancers (Aurora Borealis), who are warring hosts under enchantment and have strange powers’.