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Behold the Hebrides
Herbridean Sea Moods

TO the Hebridean the sea is a creature of many moods. By the sea he earns his daily bread; and his existence is so closely associated with it that he is obliged to study its several peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. The Western Isles-man is as well acquainted with the sea and its moods as he is with the members of his own family. And so he has learnt throughout the centuries to make generous allowances for its fickle temperament and to humour it as he would a child, whether its mood be sombre or ecstatic.

Only the dwellers in the remote islands can properly appreciate and understand the intricate language of the western sea. To them, and to them alone, it speaks a Gaelic language. They hearken attentively to what it has to tell them, for by its murmurings and croonings they are wont to foretell events which may seriously affect the happiness of their homes. Thus, for example, they prophesy the occurrence of mishaps to relatives far at sea as well as births and deaths in their own and neighbouring villages.

The sea, too, is their most reliable and accurate weather-chart, for by its sounds and moods they record the approach of various changes in exactly the same manner as the man in the city plots his barometer readings. Nor are they often mistaken in their weather forecasts: on the contrary, certain well-known sea sounds predict the coming of wet weather or of a storm with unfailing regularity, so that the island-fisherman knows pretty well what to expect when he puts out to sea.

In the Hebrides the laughing of the waves is a term to which we frequently refer. In Gaelic we call it gair nan tonn, or gair na mara, because of the close resemblance it bears to laughing. Very often this phrase is used in irony when a storm has endangered the lives of those at sea, and laughs mockingly and derisively at the endeavours of the distressed to combat the tempest whose strength is so much superior to theirs.

In Loch an Tuath, in Lewis, the laughing of the waves is a familiar sound, especially in calm or frosty weather. Here the sea rolls swiftly across a great stretch of white and golden sand, and the waves race over one another and spill in sheets of foam and froth all along this broad, flat bay. To stand on a sand-dune near by and to listen to this weird and eerie sound is most fascinating. At night the picture is a particularly beautiful one. In the darkness the long, white lines of successive waves and phosphorescent water tumble endlessly towards you, and carve fanciful shapes and forms, on a dull black background of sea and sky to the rhythm of this laughing ceol-mara, or sea-music.

On the west side of Lewis there is a wave known locally as Tonn Chroic, meaning, literally, the wave of the rocks. During a heavy Atlantic swell the sea runs up Loch Roag with much force and fury, and rushes into a huge, gaping cleft between two rocks. Its roar is usually regarded as a warning of an approaching storm; and on a clear, mild day its buirich, or bellowing, is plainly audible twenty miles away, for I have heard my old father say that, when a boy, he used to hear it as he stravaiged across the moors behind Sandwick on his many poaching ploys with an old ramrod gun.

The sounds of the sea often resemble the lowing or bellowing of cattle, as the phrase nualan na mara denotes; and if Saul had lived in Lewis it might have been quite a simple matter for him to have proved to Samuel that he had taken neither sheep nor oxen from the Amalekites.

A Hebridean sea can be very moody indeed. Of this all western seafarers are well aware, because the sea is capable of great extremes of joy and of sorrow; and it possesses a knack of altering its moods swiftly and almost imperceptibly. At one moment it is troubled and uneasy; at another it is overflowing with rapture and joyfulness. In Gaelic we speak of its restlessness as buaireas na mara, of its complaining and fretting as gearan na mara, and of its joy and cheerfulness as mire na mara. Are not these beautiful phrases?

Then there is the osnadh, or sighing of the sea, with which we are all more or less familiar, for it sounds just like a cool breeze blowing through a great forest of pine and larch trees at nightfall, when the soft, lambent shadows of the dying day peep through the interstices of a tree-clad skyline. The sea sighs repeatedly; and at times its sighing developes into a wail. We often use the phrase caoidh na mara when we wish to signify the lament of the sea.

But sometimes the sea is full neither of joy nor of sorrow, but of a quiet peacefulness and rest. It has its croons and lullabies as well as its music of mirth and rapture and gladness, and sings itself to sleep when the wild winds have fallen and the violent excitement of the storm is over. At times it is so still that at eventide

No sound is heard except the splashing oar
Of some late fisher making for the shore.

It is then that the ringed-plover and the whaup and the oyster-catcher wade on the beach, where the tempest-torn seawrack has filled the creeks and crevasses around the shore with a water of a deep wine-red colour.

And when night comes on the sea begins to fall asleep as a tired child; and by its soft croonings and murmurings it puts the sleep on those who live around it and whose homes are scented with its salten fragrance. Surely a husheen such as this would be a fitting prelude for the thoughts and fancies of a sweet dream!

Now I want to take you to a sea-loch where the night-wind, that creeps up from the wide open sea a mile or so off, rustles among the bog-myrtle and the top-heavy cotton grasses that are bent over upon the hillside. This place, indeed, should have been called Loch na Suaine—the Loch of Sleep. At the water’s edge there is the tiniest croft you ever saw. It has not even a butt and a ben; it has a but or a ben, though not both. Outside there is a hen-house, which is not any larger than an orange box; and I often wonder how it accommodates the fowls so comfortably as it does!

The door of this croft looks straight down the loch towards the sea; and its only window faces the other side of the loch, which is about two hundred yards distant. Altogether it is the neatest and the cosiest place imaginable. I found my way to it one dark night when on a visit to the parish of Lochs, and, as we approached it from the sea, we were guided to the stone causeway close at hand by the cruisie’s soft crimson rays that came streaming through the open doorway. The boat in which I was being conveyed belonged to the owner of this tiny place; and from time immemorial it had been customary, when the boat was at sea in the darkness, to leave the door ajar in order that by the glow of the cruisie the benighted fisherman might be directed safely and readily to his home at the edge of this long, dark loch. When we came nearer to it we could smell the strong peat smoke, and hear the quiet movement of the spirtle with which the goodwife stirred a black pot that was suspended from the rantle-tree over her fire. The meal was prepared; and, having moored our boat and gone through all the necessary formalities that constitute a welcome in the Hebrides, we sat down to a simple but wholesome repast.

It was now getting late; and the sleep of the sea was swiftly falling upon us. And so that night I rested there with the soft wavelets ebbing and flowing within a few feet of my pillow, and with the intermittent tinkling in my ears of an almost dry rill that centuries ago had cut its way into the face of the rocks hard by, and with the incense of the perfumed seas around me.

Here it is that

The waters lull me, and their foam
Laves softly round my firelit home;
And through my flowing hair the breeze
Blows gently from the moonlit seas,

Filling my nostrils and my ears,
Bathing my cheeks with salten tears;
And in my sleep I hear the tide
That creeps beneath my window wide.

These are the moods of Hebridean seas, whose enduring lure and enchantment fill us with a keen sense of magic and of bewilderment.

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