The second of three Tales of the Wilderness, in anticipation of Wilderness Festival, where Toast will be curating the Lakeside Spa this August.
Extract from The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.
Water – North
Listen now. Listen to the singing of the guga men on the bare rock of Sula Sgeir, hunched in a stone bothy on that little island far out in the North Atlantic, on an August morning nearly sixty years ago. If I could sing it or play it to you I would, but I cannot, so this will have to do. The scene: a rough hut, six feet high at its tallest, built out of blades of gneiss, its cracks plugged with rags. In its centre a peat fire, above which hangs a storm lantern that lends light to the space. Rough stone benches around the edges, on which the men are sitting, wearing tweed jackets and heavy wool jumpers. The mutter of the fire. The wind moving outside, testing the bothy. The singing begins. First comes the leader, his voice low and rich, incanting the verses of the day in Gaelic – ‘ach is e an gràdh as mò dhiubh so’, ‘and the greatest of these is charity’ – his voice dipping then rising at the end of each verse. The lesson ends. A pause. A cough to clear the throat. Then the leader offers a high line from a psalm, his voice gaining in volume: pure notes sung from the throat and chest. This is the ‘throwing’ of the line. The other men answer in song, the sound swelling to fill the bothy. Another line is thrown, followed, completed. Shades in the singing of cotton-field gospel, and hints too of the muezzin’s call. These are fire-songs of worship, consolation and comradeship: song as devotion and as stay against the storm. These are the guga men of Ness, the gannet hunters, singing in the Year of Our Lord 1953.