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Skye is separated from the Scottish mainland by the Sound of Sleat (pronounced 'slate'). At the waterway's narrow northern end, a small ferry still operates the long-established crossing from Kylerhea to Glenelg and the old drove route across Wester Ross. Down towards the south-west of the island lies the peninsula of Sleat, its southern edge fertile and wooded. The road along it looks south to the peaks of Knoydart, passes the Gaelic college of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig with its tall white tower by the sea and its geodesic glasshouse domes, and and eventually runs out at the crofting township of Aird of Sleat, the most southerly settlement on the island.
O great Island, island of my love,
Sorley MacLean, 'The Island
The poet Sorley MacLean went to school on Skye. He was born on the island of Raasay that lies close to Skye's north-east coast, and his family and community had a rich heritage of Gaelic culture. The setting of one of his greatest poems is Hallaig, a township on the south-east corner of Raasay that was cleared for sheep. The poem, looking back at what once has been, has a powerful image of time at its heart, an image whose study can reveal rich depths.
Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
eadar an t-Inbhir ’s Poll a’ Bhainne,
The window is nailed and boarded
Between Inver and Milk Hollow,
Images of time go back a long way. The Greeks debated the merits of two alternatives. One was of time as a river, sweeping us on from birth to death, with no one immune from its power. But others preferred a turning millstone, an image applied to the circling stars, slowly and steadily moving round, and then gradually coming back to the start again.
The image of the millstone appears in northern mythology, as the mill at the bottom of the sea, beneath the whirlpool, at one stage grinding out gold, at another salt. Both these substances are connected with the flow of time, with gold immune to it, and salt protecting living things from its flow.
There is physics coming out of this. The image of the millstone leads us to the circular clock face, and a universe in which things do not decay – they move around, like balls on a billiard table, but they eventually come back again – time does not leave a mark on them.
The river is different. It cannot go back. It develops in physics into a long straight line which we travel in one direction, always going further from our origin. And we find when we look at the billiard basll that not every situation recurs. If we group the balls together in the D to start the match and give them a single shot, its impact destroys the structure and we know that it will never come back again naturally.
So we have two opposing views of time. One is of something neutral, another of something alive that changes the world irreversibly.
Elsewhere, we find ancient cultures which see time as a snake, and we can think of the step-by-step process of digestion, with the snake’s food passing through its digestion system, the position of the food depending on the passing of time. Like the river, the process is one-way.
We also find ancient picture of time as a tall reed, lengthening with the process of growing.
In the poem Hallaig, we find two contrasting images of time. There is the time of the deer flitting through the Wood of Hallaig – and the time of the Wood itself.
We can see the two processes of life, operating in different direction. Vertically there is the slow – ever-so-slow – growth of the trees, the birch and the hazel and the rowan; and it is compared to the growth of humans:
tha i ’na beithe, ’na calltainn,
She is a birch, a hazel,
And then on a horizontal axis there is a different type of time – the time of the deer, a much faster and more elusive time, slipping past amongst them.
‘Tha tìm, am fiadh, an coille Hallaig’
The contrast between these two images leads us into some frontier territory in physics, which we will be outlining in our travels.