CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE HEBRIDES: The rising sea and an eerily prophetic tradition

The coastline of South Uist, under threat by climate change Pic Flòraidh Forrest

Liam Alastair Crouse, a PhD student at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, considers the impact of sea-level rise in South Uist, where he currently lives, through the lens of recordings available on Tobar an Dualchais

Readers will be well aware of both the purpose and the urgency of the COP26 summit in Glasgow this month.

Among the complex and wide-ranging challenges which human-induced global warming brings are rising sea levels.

In this article, I’ll explore the cultural theme of sea-level rise and draw connections between oral traditions and built infrastructure.

For those acquainted with Gaelic oral lore, it cannot be denied that there is something intensely perceptive, and eerily prophetic, about the traditions tied to the steady ingress of the sea.

Since time immemorial, the mental record-keeping of a coastal people has documented and predicted the near imperceptible, yet near constant, rise of the waters since the Ice Age.

The theme of land lost to the sea runs deep in Uist. The most well-known story is probably the loss of Am Baile Siar and Bail’ Hùsabost, settlements between Am Baile Sear and Heisgeir near North Uist which were submerged in a cataclysmic storm in the 16th century.

In Tobar an Dualchais, there are numerous recordings illustrating similar examples where the sea has conquered the land.

In one example from 1977, Dòmhnall MacCuinn and Dòmhnall Ailean MacCuinn were recorded describing old domestic ruins seen at extreme low tides over a mile from the shore in An t-Ìochdar (Track 71872).

These homesteads must have once been on dry land, they surmise.

Examples of Ligidhean in South Uist, picture Liam Crouse

In Tracks 32060 & 32066, the collector Dòmhnall Eairdsidh Dòmhnallach of the School of Scottish Studies asks Dòmhnall Alasdair Johnson about submerged places near An t-Ìochdar, including Sgeir na h-Àtha – The Skerry of the Barn.

Similar shore names which incorporate terrestrial features dot the seascape of Uist and evidence the widely held belief that the machair once stretched much further into the west.

Anxieties tied to coastal life were not only informed by past experience and day-to-day observation; they also manifested themselves in people’s visions of the future.

There is a prophecy, for example, retold by Dòmhnall Alasdair Johnson in Track 32059. It presages that the Ìochdar shoreline will soon be as far inland as A’ Bhuaile Dhubh and An Càrnan, close to where the old Church of Scotland is.

He remarks that such an outcome isn’t all that farfetched, considering the severity of coastal erosion in the area.

Alexander Carmichael, the folklorist and compiler of Carmina Gadelica, also published several climactic prophecies. He was fascinated by these histories and repeatedly drew attention to the submerged remains of houses, temples and tree-roots in his writings.

A poem collected in Lìonacuithe in 1869 prophesies the flooding of the Atlantic: 

“The walls of the churches shall be the fishing-rocks of the people, while the resting-place of the dead shall be a forest of tangles, among whose mazes the pale-faced mermaid, the marled seal, and the brown otter shall race and run and leap and gambol, like the children of men at play.”

The approaching catastrophe so arrestingly depicted in this verse parallels many of the same fears voiced by coastal communities today.

Indeed, such predications are the reality for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. The most recent UN report on climate change published in August 2021 warned that we could see the ocean ascend nearly 1 metre by the end of the century.

Such outcomes will threaten many of these societies existentially. Island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu will disappear.

Cities, including New York City, Shanghai and Kolkata, will be exposed to coastal flooding by 2070. Bangladesh could lose up to a fifth of its land mass, displacing 15-20million people.

What may have been dispelled as old wives’ tales in the 19th century is our frightening reality.

In Scotland, low-lying areas with soft coasts of machair are particularly vulnerable, especially those at the edge of the Atlantic like Islay, Tiree and Uist.

In addition to the constant erosion on the western edges of Uist, there is a further struggle in low-lying areas.

Drainage is critical, as any crofter will tell you.

Sufficient and well-maintained drains allow water to flow to the ocean. When there is heavy rainfall – a trend that is due to intensify in the UK in the future, drains alleviate inland flooding.

In South Uist, a large drain is called a “lig(e)”, a term associated with letting water.

There are several main lige systems in South Uist and some are apparent in placenames. There is An Lige Mòr in Dalabrog, An Lige Mòr in Loch Aoineart, Loch Bun an Ligidh in Dreumasdal and Loch an Ligidh at the western terminus of Loch Bì.

While the ligidhean today act as drains, most of these sizeable watercourses were likely built as canals to transport goods.

This is reflected in the oral tradition of Uist that most of the machair lochs were once connected by ligidhean.

In Track 2079, Dòmhnall MacAonghais of Taobh a Deas Ghleann Dail credits the Norse with the original construction of the canals, which ran from Poll a’ Charra to An t-Ìochdar. He says that the waterways were used in place of roads. 

Track 2079 runs into Track 2082, where Dòmhnall says that there were three places where the Norse wintered their fleets, at An t-Ìochdar, An Ròdha Glas in Cill Donnain, and at Poll a’ Charra.

Interestingly, these places correspond to locations where there are manmade drains running to the Atlantic Ocean.

Regardless of their actual origin, which is the subject of ongoing research, the ligidhean of South Uist endure as critical infrastructure against flooding.

As sea levels rise, however, the drains are rendered less effective due to the reduction in the height between the inland water table and the sea.

This gets so bad during some springtides that saltwater can even flow back into the freshwater system, risking the salinisation of the ecosystem.

The threat of climate change and sea-level rise unites coastal communities across the world.

It is imperative that the COP26 debates take notice of these voices and reflect on the cumulative experience and knowledge of these societies.

Gaelic is only one voice, and there are numerous other climate threads and themes, from within Tobar an Dualchais and without, which couldn’t be included into such a short article.

We can only guess at the breadth and depth of information about climate change that exists in other endangered and indigenous languages across the globe.

This information is not only relevant to fully understanding the crises we face; they may also point to a way out of them.

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.