Are young women about to sink the Western Isles?
Gaels from the strict Free Church tradition see nothing at Callanish but a pile of stones made special only by heathen tradition. For such folk, relating the tales of Brigid and suggesting they predate her appearance in
Christianity as “St Bride” also borders on the sacrilegious. But for island women, who’ve accepted their absence from public life is both “natural” and “traditional”, it’s important to know there’s another story where women shared the responsibility for shaping Celtic society. That’s why the feminist magazine Harpies and Quines in the 1990’s used the image of Scottish actress Juliet Cadzow in warrior mode from a John McGrath play to express the traditional strength of Celtic women.
And that’s why Brigid needs mentioning again. Because without a resurgence of women power on the Outer Hebrides, the island chain faces depopulation and stagnation. And without knowing it, the island fathers have invoked the memory of the Celts most powerful female figure by the simple act of renaming the island chain last year.
Hebrides means the place protected by the pre-Christian fire goddess Brigid or Bride. And the Gaels’ decision to revert to “the Outer Hebrides” after 35 years as the breezy-sounding Western Isles, would suggest the ancient role of women in protecting island culture is finally being embraced.
Not so. According to the Outer Hebrides Migration Study young women are about to sink the “place protected by the goddess” – by leaving.
The report, published in February, states baldly that twice as many young women as young men are peeling away from the traditional crofting areas on the Western Isles. And 71% of the incomers are men. If the current trends continue there will be more males than females by 2009.
This demographic role reversal may sound like girl heaven for women wanting a bit of prospective partner choice. Or just a correction of the “woman heavy” status of the Isles since war casualties and emigration removed proportionally more young men from the islands than from any other part of the UK in the 1920s. Traditionally on the Hebrides, men have left and women have stayed. But now that bedrock is shifting, and with it the whole infrastructure of island life is being shaken. Fewer children are being born, the population is ageing and these old people need care – traditionally supplied by women – who have left.
Why are they leaving?
If anyone could answer that question, rural societies across the world wouldn’t be sharing the Western Isles’ problem.
But ten years ago Norway’s first female Minister of Agriculture Gunhild Øyangen had a try. She surveyed areas losing people and discovered that contrary to local mythology it was local women who were leaving first.
“The young girl dreams of another life than her mother’s. A professional career may be easier to obtain in the cities. The small villages are felt to be narrowminded and with no space for untraditional or unconventional behaviour. The girls lack relevant female role models, and few local jobs fit with their future plans. Many social and cultural activities are those that men favour, like hunting and fishing, and this does not necessarily attract younger women.”
The Norwegian solution was truly radical. They introduced quotas to get women into local planning and politics – “women can be a vitamin injection in the democratic process.” They paid remote mums or dads who wanted to bring up their children full time. They gave special funding to women setting up businesses in remote areas – “women’s ventures tend to add value to the raw materials produced by male labour.” They backed places for socialising other than the sheep fank. They put public money into creating challenging indoor jobs not just producing more jobs at fish farms. And they paid for good public transport to stop women feeling trapped without access to boats or cars.
At least on the Outer Hebrides, the creation of a “Spinal Route” has helped. Causeways now connect outlying islands to larger ones and that means women can come and go when they want — lifting car keys rather than an outboard motor to cross the sea.
But in a society that still calls girls Hughina and Williamina (sometimes to curry favour with a croft-owning relative who might assign it to his namesake after death, sometimes to remember a relative lost in the wars, and sometimes to continue the fathers’ own name as if they had been boys) few seem to understand women might take offence at being offered second class status. And that’s in part because women have accepted it for decades and left quietly rather than risk family wrath by questioning those Island Terms of Trade.
It is now time for Hebridean women to risk that wrath and have that argument. If island ways don’t change to suit the women who’re leaving, they’ll change to suit the incomers who are arriving. And that will be a profoundly bigger shift.
From Barra to the Butt, many women with whom I had hugely enjoyable private conversations involuntarily recoiled the minute I even mentioned the microphone … and made me promise I would divulge nothing of their inner thoughts. Most men had no such misgivings. One husband even told me to delete the perfectly innocent interview I’d just completed at the breakfast table with his wife about the trials and tribulations of running a B&B. I pointed out the radio series would give the impression no women lived on the Isles.
“So be it,” he said. And the fabulously effusive lady of the house stood there, eyes downcast, embarrassed to the core.
Women don’t argue back in public here. I don’t know what happens in private. But that absence of public dissent may be mistaken for widespread female satisfaction with local male leadership. Wrong. Women don’t argue – they either accept the deal and moan in private, or leave without warning when the brick wall is finally revealed in its full impenetrable glory. Excuses will be given, punches will be pulled but no-one close to the decision will be in any doubt. Intelligent women leave the Isles just as intelligent women leave Africa as nurses or Belfast as students. Societies that offer no challenge to capable women are simply losing them. And if the Western Isles Council goes ahead with plans to close 7-9 schools over the next couple of years, the number of decent jobs for women will plummet.
In 2003, the Western Isles had the lowest percentage of women councillors in Scotland — at 10% less than half the Scottish average.
Gender parity in island government would not in itself turn the depopulation problem around – the fact it is currently unthinkable and probably unachievable speaks silent volumes.
Doubtless some Gaels will think they’re better off without demanding, “modern” women. But ironically, the language leaves with all young women – whatever their outlook on life. One of the biggest and least discussed problems for the language is the loss of Gaelic speaking mums. Some incoming women have learned Gaelic, many have tried, but most know only a few words. And an uncertain mum can be enough to stop Gaelic being used informally by her children – even though dads may be native speakers. Ironically again, the more “traditional” the household, the more it falls to the women to inculcate language skills and prompt basic, intimate communication with children. So Gaelic is losing sassy, young would-be mums, at its peril.
The Isles are also losing women with life-saving social and economic skills.
On Orkney, women have helped build up the largest jewellery industry in Britain outside Birmingham and thriving knitwear chains. They’re also behind some of the brands like Orkney Ice Cream and Orkney Cheddar which add value to the basic foodstuffs island men produce. By contrast, on the Outer Hebrides everything from seaweed and lobsters to tweed and wool have been exported as raw materials for centuries. And the value added skills of design, clothing manufacture, marketing and processing have gone to the mainland instead.
The issue of women’s involvement is also critical in managing successful community buyouts. Having had the good fortune to watch several historic bits of land reform at close quarters – principally Eigg and Assynt – there’s no doubt in my mind that problems start when men try to perform DIY single-handed on their own community. The role of women in Eigg was pivotal. Women like Maggie Fyffe, Camille Dressler, Sue Kirk, Marie Carr and many others made it their business to keep even the most sceptical islanders informed of progress. Their ability to build bridges with outsiders and local doubters and their determination to restore island culture as well as bricks and mortar has paid massive dividends. The island is about to go energy self sufficient this Spring.
Strangely this echoes the mythical past where Eigg was run by a race of “Big Women” who killed the Christian St Donnan and in turn walked off cliffs to their own deaths in a trance. Local belief in the legend is evidenced by placenames and the gaelic nickname for the island itself. I’m not saying the current generation of powerful Women on Eigg developed because of the old “Big Women” myth.
But it did question the “natural” order of things, and may have helped release some women from the feeling they (and indeed all “proper” islanders) should be “seen and not heard”.
So maybe it’s time for the Outer Isles to embrace their “Big Woman” too. She is, after all, the Mummy of the lot. Brigid was a Celtic goddess who in later times became revered as a Christian saint and was often described as the midwife of Christ. She’s pictured in Scottish artist John Duncan’s famous picture, The Coming of Bride as a wide-eyed, golden-haired girl, encircled by children. Brigid — whose name means “The Exalted One” – was also known as Bridget, Brighid, Brighde, Brig or Bride. Names like Kilbride and Brechin speak of her influence. And there are apparently ruins of “Brigid worshipping” nunneries along the western seaboard – though none to my knowledge has been surveyed or named. Brigid was worshipped as goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft. Elsewhere she is described as the patron of other practical crafts: dyeing, weaving and brewing. Her festival day on February 1, heralds the return of the life-giving forces of spring. Of her, the celebrated Gaelic folklorist Alexander Carmichael wrote:
Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day.
Isn’t this kind of awakening precisely what the Outer Hebrides needs now?
Riddoch; On the Outer Hebrides is published by Luath price £12.99 More info on speaking events www.lesleyriddoch.com
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