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.
Meet the crew ›

Read posts by



Video highlights

Watch video highlights from the expedition ›

HIORT – Far an laigh a’ghrian (St Kilda – where the sun sets)

D’ dhà shùil bheag bhiolach

D’ dhà shùil bheag bhiolach,
Dham choimhead tron toll,
‘S cha leig mi ort; cha leig mi ort.
Tha càch aig am beinn, ‘ s tha mis’ aig a’ chloinn,
‘S cha leig mi ort; cha leig mi ort.
D’ dhà shùil bheag bhiolach,
Dham choimhead tron toll,
‘S cha leig mi ort; cha leig mi ort.
Ma thig Ailean gu baile ‘s gu ruig e dh’ alam,
Bidh sinn aoibhneach, O; bidh sinn aoibhneach, O
D’ dhà shùil bheag bhiolach,
Dham choimhead tron toll,
‘S cha leig mi ort; cha leig mi ort.

This song was collected in Harris in 1952 by the School of Scottish Studies. Janet MacLeod from Harris learnt the song from a man from St Kilda who was at the whaling station in Harris before the First World War. It was sung as a lullaby, and refers to hunting puffins, which nest in secret, isolated places.


From that mysterious western archipelago, the litany of names, Soay, Stac Lee, Stac an Armin, an Dun has coloured my imagination since childhood, re-informed by countless Gaelic songs, some joyful, some sad.

Though I was familiar with the Rocket range on the island of South Uist, the role of the radar-tracking station on St Kilda was something that melted into that far west, out of sight of most of the Western Isles. The presence of the army helicopters at Benbeculaa airport was the only visible sign that the area was of great national importance.

Artists and writers discovered the awe-inspiring strange beauty of the area centuries ago, and their impressions coloured our thoughts and perceptions. The nickname ‘Hiortach’ in the town of Stornoway denoted a link with a people who had distinctive facial features, and were thus of exotic origin.

‘Tìr gun chànan, tìr gun anam’ – ‘A land without language is a land without soul.’ It was that soul that I sought. Whoever lived there left their ghosts and the songs came flooding back, when I – thanks to the care and consideration of the ship’s crew – landed safely on the pier.

Birds, seals, sheep, sounds, shapes, real and imaginary, crowded in. I felt I was cradled into a strange sense of safety and security. But maybe it was the same sense that I felt on the ‘Song of the Whale’. I was prepared for a bleak existence for a few days, but that was quickly dispelled by the warmth and good humour of the staff aboard.

The island quickly became another welcoming part of our western seaboard. A remark by a passerby from the base spoken in Gaelic (‘Unusual to hear the language’) led to a series of pleasant encounters in Scottish and Irish Gaelic, that restored a sense of identity, in a place that seemed alien at first sight.

The Cubist shapes of the rocks round the bay quickly gave way to the rough jumble of ill-designed shapes of the military base. The dainty high-stepping walk of the elegantly earringed Soay sheep and their disintegrating fleeces on the highway surrounding the alien buildings made for an absurd promenade.

The ‘cleits’ I was familiar with. Years ago I bought a Norman Ackroyd print, and here they were for real – over a thousand of them, with more in common with the structures in Sardinia than the Hebrides.

How functional everything was for their purpose. I reflected on the huge change since 1930. Who uses the discarded wool now that Winifred (Miss Shand) – whose brass nameplate was the first one I saw in the church – has gone?

Do they still need the watchbird now that the last hunter has gone? The bird world entered into their lullabies…

Then there are the coastal Monachs, where the storms have altered the sand dunes forever. And back to the poetry of Caolas Odrum and the stories of the seal people. The call and response of the seals reflect the familiar tales.

Mary Smith


A bare art

There is a bare severe art that I am searching for
Suddenly I catch glimpses of it in my mind.

It is a landscape with grey stones,
the sun is not much present there, but the mind

broods on it, and the mind is severe and grave.
It does not make dramatic machinery

exuberant with colour out of the stones.
The mind and the landscape are the same

and the music that exudes from it is bare
with much in it of the intellectual

Bride of the intellectual, you are so spare
not garnished with bouquets but weighty as if with stone

engraved with a bare literature, a dry
concentrated sparkle of the elements,

and the bird that rises from it is sober and is grey
with a light hint of red along its wings.

Iain Crichton Smith

Author: Mary Smith


Joins the expedition for week 3 Mary Smith, from Ness in the Isle of Lewis, is interested and involved in the shared experience of Gaelic traditional song in Scotland and seannos singing in Ireland. She is particularly interested in the social function of song, past and present within the Gaelic communities of Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
View profile ›

Recent posts by Mary Smith

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

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

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

Annie 1
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 ›


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 ›


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

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 ›