The sad news of Seamus Heaney's death this week shocked many and was lamented across Europe and North America.
Roy Foster, professor of Irish History at Oxford University and fellow of Herford College, wrote: "My first thought on hearing the immeasurably sad news of Seamus Heaney's death was a sensation of a great tree having fallen: that sense of empty space, desolation, uprooting."
Trees and uprooting were also brought to mind in this part of the world, and a Saturday nine years ago. This was when the Nobel laureate endured a midge-dominated trip to the island of Raasay.
He had come to see Hallaig, on the east side of the island, a pilgrimage to a place that was both the scene and title of the celebrated Gaelic poem by his friend, Sorley MacLean, who had died almost eight years earlier.
It was Heaney's first visit to Raasay, although he had long wanted to see it. Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye's Gaelic college, and Urras Somhairle/the Sorley MacLean Trust, had decided 2004 was the year, since it was the 50th anniversary of Hallaig being first published, which in turn had marked the 100th anniversary of the last people leaving Hallaig in the clearances.
Heaney gave a lecture at the college that night, but during the day he went to Raasay. His hosts took him past Baile nan Cipean, the township where they used to tether the children to save them from the steepness down to sea, and into the birchwoods at Hallaig.
Despite the rain and midges he seemed genuinely moved, sharing the inimitable language sculpted by his mind's eye: "I have been to Yeats's tower and I have been to Thomas Hardy's house. Both places feature in these writers' poems. This place here is certainly their equivalent. But in fact I think if anything it is more like Tara, a place where meaning congregates in the air. I get the same sense here. It is silent. Time has accumulated rather than stopped. It is standing still and waiting."
His comparison to the Hill of Tara, the seat of the high kings of Ireland and where St Patrick is said to have confronted the ancient religion of the pagans, was no exaggeration, he insisted, as he looked eastwards across the waters of the Inner Sound to the emptiness of Applecross.
"Truly, I have been thinking of Tara. It's the green slopes, the stillness. It's what you bring to it, and Sorley has given people plenty to bring to Hallaig...the poem has its own magic mist which settles over the place, and the place and poem fit perfectly together."
Heaneysaid that the sense of people having left the place in the poem's line - "The window is nailed and boarded/Through which I saw the West" - was something he knew from his childhood, from an empty house on his own farm in County Derry where he used to go.
"The window boarded up, with a nail in the wood whose grain was bleached, exhausted, and the nail's rust beginning to mark it. There was grass round the house and grass in the house. The roof off, and there was this sense of stillness. A place that haunted me. Hallaig is the same."
He was speaking on the 150th anniversary of the last day for people in Hallaig. The next day, June 6 1854, some 129 people left Raasay, mostly "encouraged" by the then landlord George Rainy, a merchant in the West Indies, who had bought the island in 1846 for £26,700. More than 40 came from Hallaig. They made their way by boat to Liverpool where they left on June 17 for Portland in Victoria, Australia.
They sailed on the Edward Johnstone, 80 families in all from Raasay, Coll and Skye, and arrived 78 days later.
The official list of emigrants records the last Hallaig people and their ages when they left: McLeod John, 52 Hallaig, Catherine 54, Mary 25, Mary 19, Duncan 17; McLeod Donald, 62 Lower Hallaig, Marion 60, Murdoch 29, Roderick 25, Angus 20, Catherine 18, Malcolm 26 Catherine 28 (Wife) 1 daughter Mary; McLeod John Bain, 55 Lower Hallaig, Flora 50, Effy 24, John 22, Catherine 17, Roderick 15...
But in MacLean's poem, Hallaig still has her people: "They are still in Hallaig, MacLeans and MacLeods, all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim the dead have been seen alive."
Seamus Heaney, who had previously described the poem Hallaig as the dividend paid by MacLean's muse in return for surviving the emotional turmoil of his life and his age, said he would never forget that day, Hallaig the place, as well as the verse.
That he took the trouble to come so far to pay such fulsome praise to another, displayed his renowned generosity of spirit that will not be quickly forgotten in these parts.
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