Around 80 people gathered in the community centre on Berneray on Friday night (September 29) to mark the publication of a remarkable book.
More people would have been present had the vehicle ferry services from Leverburgh not been cancelled – and it's believed that guests coming from Denmark were able to get there more quickly than those travelling from Stornoway.
The book is Beàrnaraigh na Hearadh or ‘Tis Fifty Years Since’ – A study of life in a Hebridean Island Community by Susanne Barding, published by the Islands Book Trust (IBT).
Susanne Barding is a Danish-born teacher and anthropologist now living in the Faroes, who undertook research in Berneray as a young woman in 1970-72.
Susanne’s study is some 600 pages long with more than 100 contemporary black and white photos and creates a comprehensive account of one particular community, at one unique point in time. It includes the life histories of three siblings (John Ferguson, Rebecca Ferguson, and Mary MacAskill) as told to Susanne in the 1970s.
Life in Berneray in the early 1970s was dominated by hard work and economic necessity on the croft and at seaand by social conventions which were sometimes restrictive, but which helped the community to survive and underpinned a rich and distinctive Gaelic culture.
The book records in meticulous detail how the crofting community operated: for example, the use of the inbye land and common grazings; the seasonal movement of livestock to and from offshore islands; fishing, peat-cutting, domestic life, Gaelic traditions, and the church; and the role of men and women, young and old, in their interactions, personal challenges and social life.
Susanne told the book launch event: “There are three parts of me - the Danish part, the Faroese part and the part that will always belong to the island of Berneray.
“I was born in Copenhagen, and basically, I am still a city girl. I grew up in this very nice neighbourhood called Christianshavn with canals, boats and retired sailors. At high school my English teacher was very interested in Scotland and Scottish poetry, and I am sure that kindled my own interest in Scotland.
“So, in 1969 I found myself at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh and the following year I went back. During the previous winter I had corresponded with Robert Storey at the HIDB, and he advised me to go to Berneray for some very good reasons: at that time Berneray was rather isolated with a small population of around 130 and household lists were already accessible - and it was all very suitable for a three months’ study.
“The first summer I stayed with Mary MacKinnon/MacMillan in Backhill, and when she had to go to hospital (not because of me!) I went up to stay with Mary and Big Angus in Bhrusda. “I returned the following year and this time I stayed at 16 Borve with Becca, Iain and their old mother.
“I went for a third time in the summer of 1972 and apart from a week in June 1974 I haven’t been back to Berneray - until now.”
And she explained why that was.
“In 1974, after my stay in Berneray and passing my degree at the University of Copenhagen, I became part of one more anthropological project, this time in the Faroes. I liked it there, so I stayed on working with books and translations.
“In the autumn of 1977 I decided to return to Denmark, but two months before I had planned to leave, I met Óli and we fell in love, got married and I have been living in the Faroes ever since – next year for 50 years. I went into teaching, and I mostly taught geography and contemporary history.
“I retired at the age of 67 in 2014. My beloved husband passed away last autumn, and the past year has been the most turbulent in my life, a year of sadness but also with many happy moments such as this one tonight.”
When she turned 70, she decided to return to anthropology. “I started writing the Berneray book. There was this promise lying at the back of my head all the time, a promise I had made to Iain. He was worried that his great knowledge of Berneray and all his stories and anecdotes would disappear with him. I told him not to worry, since I had written it all down.
“Today I am happy to say that I was able to keep my promise. I would also like to give something back to the people of Berneray who had spent time with me and met me with generosity and kindness. That is the reason why I opted for writing a community history instead of an academic book.
“And finally, I would, in my old age, like to have another go at anthropology and prove to myself that I hadn’t lost my skills. So I took the young woman I once was by the hand and made a circle of my life.”
Available at price £20 (ISBN 978-1-907443-83-1) from www.islandsbooktrust.org or bookshops throughout the Outer Hebrides and beyond. For more details, contact phone IBT on 07930 801899.