The Road to Tobha Mòr

Professor Hugh Cheape, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, shares an experience from ‘The Edge’ which sharpened perceptions and shaped a view of the relevance and vitality of the ‘heritage’ of the Highlands and Islands going forward.

One day I met a man on the road to Howmore who told me that I was on the site of an ancient ‘university’ and that folk came from all over the world to it. If I doubted this at first, I came to understand how essentially right he must have been. The year was 1984 and I was in South Uist during the Edinburgh ‘Fair Fortnight’ holiday, staying at Stilligarry (Stadhlaigearraidh), a short way “down” the island to the north.

Township of the Bards, Stilligary (Hugh Cheape)

I had been told that Howmore – Tobha Mòr – was worth a look as an ancient church site and so, like any pilgrim, I walked there. Shortly before I reached the township, an islander (as I guessed) came walking past me the other way. Naturally in the islands he stopped to ask me who I was and what was my business, questions I always enjoyed since you could in turn ask for local information which would be freely given. This was good crack which we now call ‘Knowledge Transfer’!

Howmore (Wikimedia Commons)

My informant of the day made it clear to me that the pre-eminent status of An Tobha Mòr was a matter of common knowledge, laying a responsibility on me that I should understand this and take it away with me. Doubting inwardly this emphatic account, I walked on. The first element to draw the eye was the solid mass of the mid 19th century Church of Scotland, celebrated now in the guidebooks for its surviving central Communion Table, and then, to the right, a scatter of ruins and stone walls came into sight. These evidently comprised five churches and chapels and the foundations of other possible stone structures all surrounded by a ‘precinct’ enclosure wall. This was surely some sort of early Christian monastery site, and a dedication to St Columba – Calum Chille – was persuasive. This was an institution created by missionaries and scholars and its identity carried forward unequivocally in Hebridean oral tradition. It’s no matter whether this was elevated ‘university’ or modest ‘school’; it offered learning and attracted students. If my informant described Tobha Mòr as ‘university’, he may have had ‘oilthigh’ in mind – as in our own Oilthigh na Gàidhealtachd –  literally, ‘great house’.  

Communion Table in Church of Scotland Howmore (Hugh Cheape)

Gaelic came to Scotland from Ireland early in the first millennium and remains as the most distinctive and potent feature of what might be termed the ‘cultural heritage’ of the region. This is ‘Why Gaelic Matters’, as Professor Derick Thomson of Glasgow University titled his 1984 booklet. One reason that we know so much about it was that we can presume that this was the ‘first language’ of the ‘celtic church’. Calum Chille’s church  of the 7th – 12th centuries then came to be known throughout Europe for its learning. If Tobha Mòr was one of his foundations, there is a documentary link to his first foundation in Iona and the high status of Tobha Mòr under the Lordship of the Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries all point to its historical importance. But the history of Tobha Mòr still has to be written; its position and condition must have declined around the 16th century Reformation and a lack of documentation has hindered the historians – no documents, no history!

With an unequivocal statement in my mind about a ‘university’, and the place deserted, I had time to absorb what was round me and to form my own ideas about where I was. The Glasgow ‘Fair Fortnight’ had not yet started and, in those days, the Edinburgh Fair never brought many visitors to Uist. Sights gave way to sounds, and I was listening to a low but somehow ‘massive’ continuous sound – a sort of muffled roar and a sound that could literally be felt – coming from the sea, close by in front of me but invisible behind the banks of dunes. I walked up and over the dunes and confronted a huge reality of sea and sky. This was the edge of my world, the Atlantic edge of the European continent and even perhaps a remote periphery of the British Isles!

Standing on the beach and facing the ocean, gulping down the sound and sight, my world rearranged itself. We talk of a ‘sense of place’ as an almost objective impulse which is placed before us and we absorb. This time an intense awareness of where I was seemed to grow from within. Conceptual clichés of periphery and centre flipped over and slipped away. In a eurocentric and anglocentric culture, cities have been at the centre and islands at the edge. Moreover, this north-west edge of Europe seemed not to be familiar and any discourse from the past had inferred values of ‘otherness’, remoteness, strangeness or even backwardness.  This was a landscape of condescension whose history was imposed and articulated from the centre. This inheritance evaporated in the proverbial ‘split-second’ and my perception was reversed, not so much to assure myself that the ‘centre’ was now where I was standing but to understand that this was not a periphery. Anyway, in the context of the language (and therefore the culture), periphery or edge is iomall and it has been traditionally perceived that iomall na Gàidhealtachd was not the Outer Hebrides but places such as Dumbarton, Dunkeld, Blairgowrie and Braemar, or places further south. By contrast, places seen in the past as peripheral were linked by sea to the rest of the world, known and unknown, and linked to Europe in fact more directly than most parts of Scotland. Here, on the west coast of Uist and on the doorstep of Tobha Mòr, was the self-evident highway of the oceans leading west and an ‘Atlantic corridor’ leading north and south.

Surely the builders of Tobha Mòr chose their site wisely? Behind them were the barriers of the Minch and the mountains offering security, ahead of them was a highway to the rest of the world offering ‘connectivity’ and liberation and the spiritual comforts of the eternal ocean – when the wind was in the right quarter! And if they could go anywhere, anyone could come to them; they must have been assured an international student cohort!

Uist Beach (Hugh Cheape)

New views, like scholarly paradigms, may be slow to emerge. Assumptions emerging from ideas of centre and periphery are slow to dissolve while conventional knowledge is reinforced by a professional literature of academic disciplines, and premises of argument and debate arising from conventional responses. But ‘paradigm shift’ can begin before the textbooks shift their views, sometimes many years previously, and new ideas give rise to ‘opinion creep’ and views that might attract popular support. The ‘Atlantic Corridor’ concept is one of these and has been explored in both scientific and non-scientific discourses. John Francis Campbell of Islay (1821-1885) used the concept of natural migration on the ‘Atlantic Drift’ or ‘Gulf Stream’ to represent movement of ‘popular culture’ and used tropical ‘Drift Seeds’ picked up on Hebridean beaches as a metaphor for the spread of ‘folk tales’. This can be said to be attractive rather than conclusive, but it offers a new geography onto which other narratives can be mapped. This connectivity therefore helps you understand where you are and to look outward rather than over your shoulder to the familiar hinterland. History as ‘sensation’ beside the precinct of Tobha Mòr allowed the intuitive to open a new discourse and lay the periphery aside for good.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

An t-Ògmhios 2020

In his next article, Professor Cheape continues his journey along the road to Tobha Mòr, asking “how can we bury the concept of periphery?”

We welcome article submissions on a rolling basis. If you would like to contribute an article to The Edge, please contact joanna.rodgers@uhi.ac.uk

Find out more about The Edge programme – featuring seminars, images, articles & a conference on our website.

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