Ceòlas’ annual symposium has become an integral part of Uist’s July calendar, allowing for a community-led scrutiny of their shared heritage. The foreshore and its resources – specifically seaweed – featured as this year’s topic. For generations, the people of Uist have used seaweed in a plethora of ways, perhaps most iconically during the kelp boom of the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, with new developments in research and global commerce, the seaweed business may enjoy resurgence within Uist. Ceòlas’ aim for the symposium was to explore both the industrial history and potential avenues for future development.
A series of lectures were presented by two speakers, Philip Kerrison of SAMS UHI and Dr Kevin Grant of HES, on the history and archaeology of seaweed extraction in Uist and on current trends in the seaweed industry globally. The eclectic mix of past, present and future, mixing oral history, archaeology and marine science, made for a fascinating exploration of Uist’s relationship with seaweed.
Alongside the lectures, a series of walks to the foreshore were given by Heather Beaton, from the RSPB, and Fiona Bird, an author and forager of note. Participants walked along the coast of Loch Sgioport on the east-side on Monday and along the beach near Rubha Thornais in Ìochdar on Tuesday, exploring the shore habitats and discovering which foods are available naturally in the area. Dr Kevin Grant also lead an archaeology walk of the kelp industry at Taobh a Tuath Loch Aoineart, where many tons of kelp and potash left Uist’s shores for international markets.
Ceòlas also hosted Gaelic author Màrtainn Mac an t-Saoir on Sunday evening as he launched his new novel, Samhradh ’78, about a young man who comes to Uist in 1978 and records exponents of the oral tradition. Those present at the book launch, organized in partnership with Luath Press, also enjoyed listening to a selection of field recordings made by Màrtainn himself in the 1990s in Uist. Ceòlas is indebted to Museum nan Eilean for allowing us to play the recordings.
In the evenings, Talla an Ìochdair hosted two concerts. The Piping Concert, opened by the remarkably talented Ailis Sutherland, featured the trio of Ali Hutton, Ross Ainslie and Jenn Butterworth on the guitar. The Family Cèilidh, MC’ed by Mòrag Dhòmhnallach of Radio nan Gàidheal, featured an amazing line-up of local musicians, many of them under the age of 20, demonstrating the depth of talent being fostered in Uist.
The symposium opened Sunday afternoon with the annual symposium mass in Eaglais Àird Choinnich in Ìochdar, given by Mgr Mìcheal MacDonald, the parish priest. The symposium was then drawn to a thought-provoking close by the Rev Ishie MacLean during a service in Eaglais Thobh’ Mòir.