The Rhythm of Uist
For my masters at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, University of Manchester, my final project was a short film and accompanying thesis titled, The Rhythm of Uist. The Rhythm of Uist is a lyrical meditation that takes the audience to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, immersing them in the sphere of life for three young adults who have grown up in these unique and cultural islands. Through focusing on the stories and everyday activities experienced by each protagonist it aims to provide a new way of understanding island life, particularly how young people experience island life and reimagine their connection to the islands.
Coming from a background in anthropology, The Rhythm of Uist, is my first experience of presenting my research in a visual format and using filmmaking as a main research method. The project was fully self-shooting and stems from spending eight weeks, over the months of July and August 2021, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, on the Isles of Uist. Drawing on anthropological literature on island communities and the Anthropocene the film intends to open doors to how people, particularly young people, experience life and reimagine their connection to the islands.
It aims to delve deeper into island communities, the culture and traditions that are ever-present and changing, and how younger generations feel having grown up in such a distinctive place. How has this helped form their connection with these islands and shaped who they are today and how they choose to continue to live their lives everyday?
The ethnographic film is filmed in an observational style going through each protagonists’ own stories. Showcasing a snippet of life for each of them, it is intertwined with voice over from each participant speaking about their own experiences of growing up and becoming an adult in these distinctive islands. In a world that is becoming progressively technologized there are fewer areas that can maintain their stamp of distinction from a complete modernised overhaul. The western isles of Scotland, also known as the Outer Hebrides, are of particular interest as they do just that. With some of the last Gaelic speaking communities that exist today, importance is placed on the strong sense of community and the traditional crofting way of life. These islands are some of the last places within Europe where traditional life is still strong.
Drawing on anthropological literature, The Rhythm of Uist is an ethnographic research project that explores the lives of young Scots in an island community that is gradually losing its inhabitants. Focusing on the stories of young citizens it aims to look at how they belong to this island, and how being from a culturally strong, small island community plays into one’s own identity. Each island is unique in landscape, habitats and culture and as aforementioned, the project is focused on the stories of three, 18-23-year-olds who have grown up on the islands, specifically on the islands of North and South Uist. Focusing on anthropological theories on island communities and discussions within the field concerning more than human relationships and human/ landscape connections, the project aims to propose how younger generations understand evolving relationships within their community and reimagine their own relationship with the islands and land they grew up in. Within the anthropological argument of islands, while it has proved to a be fruitful way to understand and acknowledge cultures and systems, often we understand and look at societies encompassing all ages and groups. This research aims to look specifically at the younger generation focusing on how these people can chisel out a path to the future without abandoning their heritage.
The young people on the islands are trapped between an ageing population and decreasing economy, where jobs and studies are limited. As they grow older and finish school, they often are faced with the hard decision to stay or leave their home and explore the vast variety of opportunities available on the mainland. Despite this, what I found was not a dying culture but rather I found young people reinterpreting traditions and reimagining their connection with the land. Through the creation of the ethnographic to present my fieldwork findings this project aims to look further into how the everyday, mundane activities play into one’s individual and collective island identity and sense of belonging. I believe this project and the film can open an interesting ethnographic window into the different experiences of young people from island communities, within the UK. The sense of belonging and yearning for a place presented through the film creates an interesting dialogue between person and place. Additionally, by connecting arguments within the anthropology of islands to more than human, human/ landscape connections it opens the scope of research for island communities.
The islands that make up the Outer Hebrides of Scotland are the edge of Britain. Unsurprisingly, life in the outer limits of the UK is a little different. With around 27,000 people living across the fifteen inhabited islands, the rugged landscape, close island communities, economic fragility, declining population, and distinctive social and cultural history makes an interesting place for anthropological research. The main islands that make up the Outer Hebrides are Lewis, Harris, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra. Situated around forty miles off the west coast of Scotland, in the North Sea, and only accessible by boat or plane, these islands are known for their beautiful landscapes, unique wildlife, the Gaelic language, crofting (small-scale food production), sheep farming and their pride in the way of life that continues to exist and is evident in the everyday lives of the current islanders who undoubtedly feel proud of their heritage. While the Gaelic language is not as prominent as it once was, the western isles continue to be known as the ‘Gaelic heartlands’ and it is often described by speakers as more than just a particular practises, worldviews, and moral understandings and today there has been a push towards the preservation and continuity of Gaelic in the islands.
My research is focused on the island’s that make up Uist. The islands of Uist make up the middle chunk of the Outer Hebrides, situated between Lewis, Harris and Barra. There are six islands collectively known as Uist. All six are connected by causeways and are known individually as; North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and the smaller isles of Berneray and Eriskay on either side of the larger North and South Uist. With two ferry ports on North and South Uist and one airport on the central island of Benbecula, it is well connected to the outside world. All six islands are each home to their own specific host of traditions but with only one high school on Benbecula it really does have that stereotypical island motto of ‘everyone knows everyone’. I found this can have positive and negative connotations, particularly for the younger generation who can find these small, tight-knit communities both empowering and suffocating. With approximately 5000 inhabitants spread across all six islands it is undeniable that community spirit, Gaelic language and crofting exists in Uist and the importance that is placed on this way on life and how in-sync it is with the environment around them. With many of the roads being single track, no traffic lights or roundabouts, it can often feel like you are on the edge of earth and a slow-paced way of life is expressed in most aspects of life here.
A lot of the younger generation don’t realise how special their culture and traditions are because it’s the norm for them on the island and it is such a big part of life in the Hebrides. North Uist is known as crofting country, where crofting is a traditional social system, defined by small-scale food production. Passed down through generations it has existed within Gaelic culture since the 19th century and continues today, specifically in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. In South Uist, while crofting is still ever present it is known for music, bagpipes and ceilidhs. Music is not just a hobby here and the islands have a strong, proud musical tradition and many young people start early on the chanter, pipes or accordion and singing traditional Gaelic songs.
While developing my project further, reading on the anthropology of islands and island ethnographies it became clear in order fully experience island life, the life stories of those who have grown up on the islands, the culture and traditions present, and to be able to build relationships with the people in the field I had to stay on the islands for an extended period. As the project developed, I also had to find somewhere to stay for eight weeks over the months of July and August. I must note this is peak season for this part of the world, with a huge influx of people coming to holiday on these islands, therefore, accommodation is limited and expensive. Due to financial worries, but knowing it would be favourable to spend all eight weeks living as a young person in this unique setting, I looked into getting a job for my time here. After a few phone calls with the manager at one of the main hotels in South Uist, The Borrodale Hotel, I was offered summer work, working mostly hospitality (bar and waitress) and reception work. I was delighted and having this job ended up being one of the best things for my project. I was working alongside other young people who lived on the island, who for them this was mostly a second job as an additional source of income, or they were working a few shifts a week to help the manager as she was short staffed. Being one of the main hotels, and a close community they wanted to help where they could. Working here, alongside my filming schedule, allowed me to really feel like I was living on the island and meant I slotted right into the close community that exists here, becoming accustomed to local life and feeling like an outsider who had been invited in.
Introducing the protagonists in the film
Calum Macmillan , aged 18
First we have Calum Macmillan. Calum, aged 18, has grown up in South Uist and to this day only speaks Gaelic with his dad and the rest of his family. He is a passionate piper and frequently plays within the community and for larger organisations. He spends a lot of time outside fishing with friends or helping his dad on the croft with their Highland cows. Having just finished school he was getting ready to leave the island and move to the mainland for University in September.
We spoke a lot about what it means to him to be from these islands and what the future holds. It was clear, most young adults feel they have to leave the islands at some point either for further education or job opportunities, but it was clear most people want to come back. For Calum this was certainly true and while he was excited to experience life on the mainland and university, Uist would always be home.
Calum Ferguson, aged 23
Calum Ferguson, the second protagonist in my short film, grew up in North Uist. He grew up speaking more Gaelic than English, playing outdoors and helping his father and brother shear their native Hebridean black wool sheep. Having moved away for university, where he studied at Glasgow School of Art, he has spent time living off the island.
During covid in 2020 he found himself back on the island and was inspired to complete his final year degree show work based around Uist. Calum’s work addresses the challenges faced by young people as they begin crofting. Ultimately, he is interested in the housing crisis and effects of climate change on the island and what this means for the younger generation here.
While filming with Calum it was clear his love for the environment and the island was a part of his identity. He is a surfer, artist and ultimately a Hebridean and I tried to convey all these traits through out the film. While he isn’t sure living on the island is exactly where he wants to be in this moment he can always see Uist as being his home base.
Chloe Steele , aged 22
The final protagonist in my short film is Chloe Steele. I first came into contact with Chloe over Instagram and she was the first person I spoke with who was from Uist. After a zoom call one afternoon I knew heading to Uist to complete my final film with Chloe would be a great idea. Her passion and love for her island and the culture that surrounds it was evident from the very beginning.
Born and bred in South Uist, Chloe grew up surrounded by music and Gaelic. Pursuing her passions, she is now a singer and piper living on the island. She is very passionate about the culture and way of life that continues to exist on the islands, and she works hard to ensure those who follow her will be inspired to protect and celebrate the strong island culture that is ever-present.
At 16 she was ready to leave the island and never return, but it wasn’t until she left she realised how special this place was and how strong her sense of belonging was to Uist. Inspired by how unique these islands are she dedicates much of her time to the local community in South Uist. Motivated to continue the culture and traditions for the next generation and generations to come she runs monthly ceilidhs for all age groups and teaches the younger generation traditional Gaelic songs and chanter. For Chloe, Uist will always be home.
Filming was my fundamental method for this research. I made the choice to use film, rather than for example writing or photography for the following reasons. Within the existing arguments on anthropological research into island communities, it has been documented solely within writing and/ or photography. While this has proved to be a fruitful way to engage in important issues relating to the field, most of the writings reinforce the unique setting of such research. By representing this research through audio-visual means it allows a deeper understanding into life in island communities. This film was shot on one camera, a Panasonic GH5 with a rode NTG1 microphone and the additional use of a second lavalier microphone for interviews. The style of the film was not predetermined at the start of fieldwork, however after being in the field for a week and spending time in the landscape and with my participants, it became clear it was best to shoot the film in an observational style. I filmed synchronized environmental sound and edited the film myself, taking on the role as the researcher, anthropologist and as the filmmaker.
The process of deciding what to film with each protagonist was highly collaborative and I spent a lot of time with each participant off camera drinking coffee and speaking in detail about their own experiences of being from this part of the world. The decision was made quite early not to make a collaborative film, as I wished to have the film focus on those who have grown up here and the island setting of Uist, with the audience feeling like they have experienced a snippet of life for the younger generation through the eyes of the camera. As participant observation was my primary means of conducting research, I felt it was only natural the film take shape in the form of an observational film. It was as though the camera became my eyes and the perspectives I framed became my way of seeing and representing the world I had been invited into. The sound and video allowed me to explore the space and life on Uist as I understood it, but also how the younger generation experience and live in it.
The Rhythm of Uist takes the audience on the journey of the story unfolding. The observational style and slow processes invoke the slow and simple way of island life. It has a poetic, lyrical meditation where the audience is transported to the Outer Hebrides, immersing them in the sphere of life of the three protagonists. While making the Rhythm of Uist I wished to invoke the sensorial aspect of the island and have the setting of the island, Uist, as the main protagonist in the film. Filmed on the ground with one camera, one perspective, I wanted to add aerial shots from above to reinforce the unique island setting and sense of isolation and surrounding body of water that is often felt in the everyday lives of my protagonists. I worked with aerial and landscape photographer Carla Regler to capture these shots and through conversations we weaved my concepts for the film into the shots to capture the sense of place and island setting.
It was important that the narrative of the film spoke to the wider issues the film represents and echoed life for the younger generation, island community, identity and ways in which, the younger generation are re-imagining their connection to this land, giving a sense of the space of the island. All my participants spoke about their imagined future and within this imagined future the setting of Uist was always home. This reimagining and connection with the land allows them to understand the difficulties, the struggles and breakthroughs of growing up here, which involves leaving at one point or another. However, at the end of the day most young people want to return and continue the way of life on these islands and hope they will be able to do just that.
In order to reinforce this connection to the islands and sense of belonging it was important that the setting of Uist was ultimately the fourth and most important protagonist in the film. Decisions were made both in the field and in the edit to reinforce this. Each interview with my protagonists was done outside, in the landscape, in a setting that holds meaning for each of them. Wanting to showcase the processes of the everyday activities filmed with my protagonists, I opted to use voice-over with only a short time taken from the interview of synced sound and video to introduce each central character. The moments that come in-between the voice over of the protagonists speaking about their experiences of growing up here and connection to the island, offer in-sync sound and video and allow the audience to breath and take in the mundane, everyday processes and life for these young adults. The process of honing in on the island setting of Uist lead my understanding of life for the younger generation in a new direction. I was almost taken aback by the profound understanding and maturity my protagonists possessed regarding their connection with the land and how they were able to re-imagine their sense of belonging to this place. Everything on the islands is connected, whether it be; music, religion, crofting, Gaelic, fishing, weaving, dancing, singing, they are all connected and entangled as one and so in-sync with the environment and landscape. The place of Uist was at the beating heart of the community that existed here, keeping the culture, traditions and way of life alive, allowing for the younger generation to reimagine their connection to the place and bring new ways to experience the culture and traditions.
This project set out to critically engage with the existing anthropological literature on islands and to explore island communities and island identities for the younger generation. It also looked into how being from a culturally strong, small island community plays into one’s own identity. While not a core aspect of my research upon beginning fieldwork, over the eight weeks I spent on the island - and four weeks spent in the edit suite - the connection between island identity and a more than human connection to the island emerged as an interesting way to further the project and add to the anthropological discussions on island communities. By focusing and telling the story of three young adults, The Rhythm of Uist attempts to show their unique way of life that exists within the island settings of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Drawing on anthropological literature on both island communities and the Anthropocene, I argue, by acknowledging a more than human connection between islanders and island, it opens up doors to how people, particularly young people experience life and reimagine their connection to the islands. It reinforces how everyday life and island are inextricably woven together creating a more than human, profound connection between islanders and the land. The resulting film, I hope, can stimulate discussions about island identity, ongoing connections people have with the land and space of islands and offer new ways of understanding these unique communities through the eyes of the younger generations.