Someone the other day used the word hiraeth. It is Welsh, ‘untranslateable’, similar to the Portuguese saudade, a word suggesting a breath, the loss of home, of Welshness, of a past. It is more painful than ‘nostalgia’. It pierces the heart.
I was reminded of this listening to a programme on the radio about Saint Kilda, the islands that died. In 1930, the last few islanders were evacuated from Hirta, the main island of this archipelago. The forces of change and forces of nature had combined to make the lives of the islanders impossible. The last 36 islanders, having made a collective decision to leave, were taken off to the mainland. The last islander, Rachel Johnson, died in 2016.
It was said in the programme by one of the last St Kildans that, after the leaving, men would take their boats out as near as they could and sit and look at the island. Some were able to return for visits and, in doing so, could, as one article says, ‘recharge their batteries’. These, I think, are the batteries of the soul. We find them when we are next to nature or in our own places. This is why the songs and the poetry, and the psalms and the prayers of the dispossessed, have such power. We recognise our own losses within them. I found mine down by the Bandon river – a peace I did not know I lacked.
Everyone from there knows of course that the music and the wind and sea and the land and the work (the songs that went with waulking the tweed, for instance) are indistinguishable from each other; everyone knows that a song is breath. As for all peoples, life and music are indivisible. The First Australians we are told, sang their lands into life. The Scots sang their lives. I am partial, I know, but I will attest that the difference between speech and song in the Scots and Irish voices is slight.
Here is some line singing from the Outer Hebrides and some songs, once last, now found, from Saint Kilda. Writing this piece is a sort of impossibility – nothing can be expressed that is not sung. Looking on the world wide everything, I find that the Gaelic word is cianalas. The Irish is cumha – pining.
Image rights: Otter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9980931