Cullaig is an ancient Celtic tradition that has persisted in Eriskay, and in a few other scattered villages in South Uist, in the Western Isles of Scotland. It’s something I took part in for years, and, consisting of a pagan ritual, its one of those lovely little connexions we Gaels have with our ancestors. On New Year’s Eve all the boys under the age of fourteen on the island partake in this tradition – they are called na Gillean Cullaig. They make a caiseann, which, historically, is a sharpened stick wrapped in sheep’s wool, but which is today more likely to be a candle wrapped in an oilskin. Bearing the caiseann they visit each house on the island. They knock on the door of the house, chanting as loudly as possible an old Gaidhlig rhyme called the duan. Here are the first few lines:
Thàining sinn a-nochd don dùthaich
A dhùrachadh dhuibh na Callainn
Cha leig sinn leas a bhi ga innse
Bha e ann ri linn ar seanair.
We came to the country tonight
To bless you with a New Year’s light
We needn’t bother telling you
Our grandfather did it in his time too.
The inhabitants of the house stand on the inside of the door listening, and when the boys finish the duan, they shout “friceam fraiceam leig a-staigh sinn!” [friceam fraiceam let us in!] and the man of the house is obliged to welcome the boys into his home.
The man of the house takes the caiseann from the boys and lights it in the fire. He makes the sign of the cross using the caiseann. He then moves the caiseann thrice clockwise in a circle, before making the sign of the cross again. Clockwise is a ‘lucky’ direction in Gaelic superstition. He performs this ritual on any of the children too young to do it themselves, before passing the candle on to the lady of the house (provided there are no other men in the house.) She blesses herself and repeats the ritual. The caiseann is then passed on around the elder children, and any other women. Tradition dictates that if the caiseann goes out on anyone while making the circular motions, then they will not live to see the next New Year.
The gillean Cullaig are given sweets and other treats, as well as money, and if they are lucky a bonach – a slice of dumpling. They are then sent on their way to the next house. The boys must be quick as they cannot be out on Cullaig after midnight. When they return home, the night’s takings are eaten to bring in the New Year, and any extra is shared out between the boys, and their sisters, if they have any.
After the bells, the grown men on the island will go first footing. Often they will take their sons’ caiseann with them, and the entire ceremony will be repeated again. This time, however, the rewards are a dram in every house. For obvious reasons, the grown men tend to linger in houses so they do not cover as much ground. Indeed, today, while the gillean Cullaig are still going strong, I only know of a few men – my dad among them – who still bother taking their caiseann with them when firstfooting.
Freedom. The concept has been hammered into me by my parents ever since I can remember, ‘Sian, you have an enormous amount of freedom.’ And isn’t it such a brilliant word? It is the word that instantly rouses any individual, crowd or nation. It is the word that to everyone conjures romanticised images of open roads, walls being torn asunder or a collection of people rising together. Until now I’ve never really understood what freedom is and that I am in possession of it.
I have been born and raised on a remote island –North Uist - in the Outer Hebrides, my little Alcatraz. You can choose between a two or three hour ferry or a highly expensive plane to ‘civilisation’. But even then, not really as if it is the city you crave, that’s another five or so hours away in a bus or car. So yes, living here is isolated and escape isn’t easy. Growing up I have always felt a sense of being trapped and that I was missing out on what’s going on ‘out there’. My thoughts went as far as a ‘streets-paved-with-gold’ image, though in my case gold means interesting people and buzzing avant-garde life. In addition, despite living every second of my life on this island, I am a foreigner. My parents are English and Dutch so my accent is ill defined and from this I am regularly told that I am not Scottish; Never mind that I am a Catholic living in Presbyterian North Uist with my house situated next-door to the Free Church of Scotland.
I think it’s interesting to compare what we both wrote on this same topic. Yours being from a ‘neocolonialist(!)’ and mine from an ‘indigenous(!)’ perspective.
The Real Tìr nan Òg?
The ever-present sea-breeze on our backs, buffeting us forward – we clattered and stumbled over the half-made road. This mass of people, the largest I’d ever seen, marched on laughing, like a conquering army, across the brand-new causeway to Uist; from dear little Eriskay to what I thought of then as the big wide world. The flash of cameras followed us: the last community in the Western Isles to be linked to the rest of the western civilization. We watched the rocks tumbling with our past into the sea. And I, six-year old wannabe spaceman, took my own one small step to Uist, no longer a giant leap over the Sound. My brother and I, breaking free of Granaidh’s grip, running ahead of the crowd, inexorably into the future, running away from my island, running away from home…
Eriskay, the Island of Youth, the island of my youth, was connected to Uist on November 27th 2000. This bare rock, home to just some six-score souls, most of them old, godly but grumpy, has been my playground, my paradise, my prison. I remember the day when I first realized the sheer tininess of this Hebridean pebble: Dad dragging me up to the top of the hill; a watchful crag from where I looked out to see nothing but sea. Perpetual, endless sea. Stretching – curving – beyond the borders of my world.
And then I looked down upon Eriskay, and was surprised to find the people like dolls, their houses like toys, so small compared to that carpet of blue. I appreciated at last that these three square-miles of Lewisian Gneiss were our fastness, our only sanctuary from the sea’s storms – it was truly our island paradise. Yet even then I felt a creeping sense of entrapment, suffocation, that one day the baleful ocean might swallow us up, scarcely a pip. Though I felt big and grown-up, like an astronaut, like Edmund Hilary after he conquered Everest, I also knew that I was indeed a little boy.
This is where I live. The Island of Eriskay in the Western Isles of Scotland. Fr Allan MacDonald wrote (in Gaelic):
“Should I even have my choice
I’d prefer of all in Europe
A dwelling place beside the wave
In the lovely Isle of Youth.
It’s bare of foliage, bare of bent-grass,
Bare of barley sowing,
But beautiful for all its bareness
Is each sod of it to me.”