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In July 2011 Cape Farewell embarked on a month-long expedition by boat across the Scottish Islands, bringing the notion and experience of expedition home to the UK, with an exploration of island ecologies and cultures, and of the strategies for sustainable and resilient futures being implemented across the Scottish Isles. More ›

The Crew

The expedition crew of 40 includes island artists, storytellers, film makers, playwrights, architects, designers, musicians, community leaders, social scientists, ecologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, poets, acclaimed Gaelic singers and a chef.
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Rock, wind, sand, peat, water

Lochboisdale, South Uist. Met with Joanne Ferguson of Scottish Natural Heritage, David Muir from Coast Adapt, and Huw Francis from Storas Uibhist (community landowners of the South Uist Estate, the largest community buyout in Scotland). Small crofting communities, separated by mountains, boggy peat lands and lochs, are scattered along the broken coastlines east and west, facing into wind and weather, watching over their narrow strips of machair farmland. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the sparseness of habitation and the domination of natural forces, the Uists boast a large number of community groups and projects aimed at strengthening interconnection and cultural and economic resilience.

It isn’t easy. Issues of land ownership and management are passionately debated across the islands, where every form of social and environmental governance is represented: from private ownership of islands like Muck and much of North Uist, to the National Trust ownership of Canna and Mingulay, mixed ownership as on Rum (SNH and community trust), to full community possession as on Eigg and Gigha. There’s no right or wrong, it seems: history, religion, local relationships and availability of resources all play a great part in determining the orientation of communities in relation to the land. Every story here has many sides, and every side many stories…In the end, though, they all come down to the same thing: the need to hold onto the young and keep communities intact through employment, identity and opportunity.

Out on the machair, both the value and the fragility of the land and its traditions are visible, palpable, present. The crofts are bounded on one side by infertile peaty hills and on the other by the Atlantic. Violent storm surges, like the one in 2005 which struck the west coast, sweep away many metres of protective dunes and flood the low-lying crofts, causeways and houses. The machair is always moving – its symbiosis of low intensity rotation farming and natural accretion of shell sands, seaweed nutrients and wildflower seeds drifts east with wind and water. It’s the most fragile environment in Europe, but a temporary home to countless numbers of migrating birds and waders, and the fallow strips between the rye, oat and barley fields are dense with eyebright, rare orchids, lady’s bedstraw, clover, vetch, corn marigolds and gentian. It’s astonishingly beautiful. RSPB warden Jamie Boyle walks us along white sand paths of the Balranald bird reserve and explains the RSPB’s conservation strategy of engagement with the crofters in supporting farming practices which benefit all the users of the machair. Marine biologist Kyla Orr from SAMS takes us down to the beach, where the shallow gradient leaves miles of white sand exposed at low tide, and holds up giant fronds of kelp, scratching out a lesson on seaweed as a biofuel in the flat sand. From the dunes to the water, the life, death and decomposition cycle of seaweed is visible here and its essential role in feeding and fertilising the entire environment raises serious questions about any prospect of large-scale harvesting for biofuel. Break these delicate cycles and any part of the ecosystem, from the phytoplankton to the wading birds, may be affected.

We walk softly on the way back, listening to corncrakes rasping in the rye.

Author: Ruth Little

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Joins the expedition for week 1, 2 and 3 Ruth Little is Associate Director at Cape Farewell. She is an Australian dramaturg, teacher, writer and former academic who lives and works in London, where she is Literary Manager of the Royal Court Theatre. Much of her work with writers and theatre artists explores the territory at the edge of chaos, and the dynamic relationship between order and disorder.
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Sea Change Programme

Puffin from the Bird Yarns project, part of Cape Farewell's Sea Change programme.
Grown out of the Scottish Islands Expedition, Cape Farewell’s Sea Change is a four-year programme of research and making across Scotland’s western and northern isles. Sea Change involves over 30 UK and international artists and scientists, working collaboratively and independently to consider the relationships between people, places and resources in the context of climate change.... Read more ›

A timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be

Community Energy Scotland’s annual conference offered a timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be.  It was reported on some research into how different countries are taking forward the development of renewable energy. The study looks at several European countries including Scotland, as well as five states in America. The most striking feature... Read more ›

First there was an island – then there was a boat

Shiants 2
“First there was an island – then there was a boat”, so begins a poem by Shetland writer Laureen Johnston.  Since owning my first boat at the age of eleven, I have been an obsessive explorer of islands, the smaller and more remote the better.  Once, in the grip of a sudden attack of aquatic... Read more ›

‘On these isles’

Lawrence has a 7am coffee break after feeding cattle.
‘On these isles’ is a project by photographer Ed Smith, whom we had the great pleasure of meeting when visiting the Island of Eigg. Ed has spent large periods of time on Eigg and other Inner Hebridean isles capturing life there in pictures. Have a look at more of his images and this project at... Read more ›

A gaelic song

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Mary Jane Lamond, Jo Royle and Julie Fowlis Video by Ruth Little

Cape Farewell – we know what to do, can art help us get on and do it?

The following is an excerpt from Sara Parkin’s article found on the Forum for the Future website. …I was fortunate enough to join the crew for one week of a four week tour of Scottish Islands, starting with Skye and Canna before crossing the Minch to Mingulay, Barra and South Uist. The weather was kind,... Read more ›

Islands and Visions

Eigg Barbecue on Song of the Whale
There is a sea view when travelling from Eigg to Mallaig where you have a 360° vision of the Small Isles, Skye, the mountains of Scotland, Mull and, far into the distance, the Outer Hebrides. At 6 am yesterday the grey of the sea bled into the numerous blues of the mountains all dramatised by... Read more ›

Annie Cattrell and Jo Shapcott in conversation about week 4 of the expedition

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JS Annie, what is it about islands? AC I like the fact that there’s a larger proportion of sea than land mass visible. There appears to be a completeness and self-sufficiency about the individual islands even though they are all distinctly different. There seems to be a big distinction between uninhabited and inhabited islands –... Read more ›

Spume

Photo by Sion Parkinson
(1) On the crossing from Ullapool to Stornaway on the Calmac, I wrote myself a list of rules, a set of behaviours that would concentrate my efforts, or assuage any guilt from any feelings of impotence, in my seven days aboard the ship. (1.1) Rules: (1.1.1) Take photographs, more than you need to, get in... Read more ›

Shelter

Cotton Grass marking  Dwelling Rona
It was my birthday when I went to Rònaidh first. A place I wanted to see since I was little but I had always missed the boat. It is about forty miles north of my house near the Butt of Lewis. I went on the sixth of August aged thirty eight on the yacht ‘Song... Read more ›

Mary Arnold-Forster

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Skye architect Mary shows the house of Fred Taylor she designed and reflects on the progress on Eigg and other green based aspirations for the islands architecture and energy supply.   Video shot by David Buckland     Sketches by Mary Arnold-Forster

Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage

Photo by Mary Smith
“Back in the kitchen.  A new group has joined Song of the Whale. There is an overlap of crew, Cape Farewell folk, and the artists and scientists who will sail together this coming week. They are planning to sail to North Rona, the Shiants and the coasts of Skye. But I’ve left the ship though... Read more ›