A film for home and the people who came before

Waving goodbye at the pier in Berneray duthchas.org


Once when living in Idrigill and walking past the house next door, I ended up chatting with my neighbour who had been standing in his driveway.

While passing the time of day, he suddenly announced, ‘hang on’ and rushed up to his car which was parked facing out towards Earlish.

On opening the door, he lent in sideways and flashed the headlights while his wife stood at the front door to the house looking across at the other side of the bay.

Probably a kilometre or so away we could see flashing car headlights.

Their family tradition every time visiting relatives left, was for those driving away to pull into the viewpoint above Cuil up the hill out of Uig.

Turning their car perpendicular to the road it would face Idrigill and here they would flash their lights, which my neighbour responded to by flashing his own. One last gesture of farewell till the next time.

I think young grandchildren, nieces and nephews found it quite exciting, almost out of sight and too far away to wave, but close enough even in daytime for the lights to be seen.

A simple demonstration and I suspect the adults enjoyed the tradition as much as the youngsters, both as a bit of fun but as a final sign of affection before Uig Bay and eventually Skye disappeared from the rear view mirror.

Nothing quite as entertaining when we left my grandfather’s house in a cul-de-sac in West Bromwich in the midlands of England, but the old man would walk with us to his gateway and lean out onto the pavement with a hand on each post.

As we drove past after turning at the end of the street he would break out into a grin and wave.

He had a big smile and a big wave which helped sustain us for the long motorway journey home.

Home is such an emotive word with layers of understanding and meaning, from the building where you may live, to the place you are from and the people who came before you.

My father had been brought up in an area known as ‘The Black Country’ due to the coal mines and probably the air pollution from the factories and foundries which developed in the industrial revolution.

Although he left with a young wife and lived in various places, eventually making a village in Lancashire his ‘home’ for 50 years, he still had a huge affinity with the place.

Despite the many changes that had occurred over the years and the fact it became almost unrecognisable to how it was when he was a boy, it was still where he was from.

My own place is on Skye.

My children, although technically born in Raigmore are Skye people, it is very much where they are from, even though I was brought up elsewhere.

When I return to that small village in Lancashire where my father ended up and I was raised, there is a familiarity and a connection which runs deep.

Although most of the people I knew have gone, old folk having died and peers moved away, I still find a closeness and comfort which comes from the experience and deep knowledge of having grown up there.

Bill Scott was an architect living in Cheshire in the 1960s and 70s and as his wife was from Bernaray, each summer they would return to her home on the island where her mother still lived.

Bill’s hobby was photography and a new ability to make colour home movies with 8mm Kodachrome cine film.

The wedding of Gloria and Splash MacKillop. duthchas.org

While on holiday he documented much of what his family experienced on their trips to the Hebrides. 

These films were discovered in an attic and found their way to Andy Mackinnon and Kirsty Macdonald who digitised and used them to create an incredible portrait of a time and place.

Being married ‘into the island’ it is clear that Scott unknowingly had access to a natural, intimate, and authentic experience, and although there is much smiling and posing, there is also a glimpse of what was reality.

Each time the Scotts left Berneray, people would gather on the pier and wave, and each time Bill would film from the boat capturing something moving and poignant. People waving goodbye.

Mackinnon and Macdonald have called their film ‘Dùthchas’ which on one level translates into English as ‘home’ but includes connection with place and belonging as well as the rights and responsibility which might rest upon a person because of where they come from.

Alongside the unique home movie film pieces, are interviews with Berneray folk today, some of whom feature as young people in the footage from the 60s and 70s.

They talk eloquently about life on the island then and now, the rose coloured glasses with which we might view times gone by and the social acceptance of leaving, especially for women.

They also talk of language and its importance to culture and life.

That there is such a word as Dùthchas with its layers and meaning, a word that requires a paragraph in English to explain, with nuances requiring further sentences is reason enough to defend, support and encourage any language.

The words used to describe the experience of existence is integral to culture and opinion but unfortunately, there are those who are scared – perhaps even threatened – rather than excited by language they don’t understand.  

Society has always been subject to change and always in flux, not much stays the same. The fields where my father played became suburbia and community changed.

In Bernaray, as the television and the telephone replaced the ceilidh, culture changed.

If ‘dùthchas’ is simplified to home, then ‘dualchas’ is the kin and the people from whom we have come from, overlapped and linked with geography and place.

The academic Donald MacAuley in his essay ‘Canons, Myths and Cannon Fodder’ suggested that included with these concepts and to help understand identity, should be the word ‘gnàthas’ referring to a personal behaviour and the effect someone may have on culture and community.

The final scene of the movie is of a handkerchief being waved from a departing boat.

Although described as portraying the end of an era, perhaps the film is really just a showing the continuing era of constant change. 

Whatever language we speak, dùthchas and dualchas are beautiful words to try and understand, but maybe of most importance is how we embrace and live the concepts they explain, and perhaps that requires an understanding of gnàthas and how we affect everything around us.

‘Dùthchas’ is available on BBC Alba through iPlayer until the end of January