This was the question posed by Alasdair McIntosh in an insightful and lively talk, which started the day’s events at the Re-Soundings workshop at Comunn Eachdraidh Nis/Ness Historical Society on Saturday 19th March. Alastair spoke about often trying to understand the empty belfry; “one of the paradoxes of the highland church” that leaves him “scratching his head.”
In his explanation of how he has come to a closer understanding of the phenomenon, Alastair took us briefly to the writings of Fr. Alexander Men, the Russian Orthodox theologian assassinated in 1990, and explained Men’s concepts of how both a cataphatic and apophatic approach to religion are needed for a holistic understanding of God. This was framed around Alastair’s own observations, that the empty belfry gives view to the blue of the sky beyond, Calvin’s “beautiful theatre” of creation. Alastair’s conclusion; “the sound of an empty belfry chiming is the Bell of Creation”. A timely break for tea and coffee followed, allowing the workshop participants the chance to talk more with Alastair about his concepts and writings.
Silence was enjoyably absent from the next presentation by musicologist John Purser of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Audibly engaging, knowledgeable and not without humour, John’s presentation took us back to pre-historical “bells”; rock gongs, or resonant stones which are scattered throughout Scotland, a notable one being on Iona. John went on to talk about the early Christian hand bells, his speaking punctuated throughout with auditory examples of many Scottish bells. Finally we were treated to a demonstration on the Shawbost conch.
We are indebted to Dr. Findlay MacLeod of Shawbost, for directing us to the “conachag”, or conch kept at Shawbost Heritage Museum. The conch was used in the village of Shawbost and the neighbouring township of Bragar in the 19th century and early 20th century as a way of calling in folk from the fields to the church at times of prayer and also at times of distress or to summon people to a wake. This is similar to how Adomnán describes the use of the hand bell in Columba’s time.
One of the workshop participants, Seonaidh Macdonald, recalled a conch being used by teachers in the village school at Crossbost on Lewis to call the children into school, so it would seem that using a conch in place of a bell was not that uncommon on Lewis in the 19th/20th centuries.
John’s presentation whetted everyone’s appetite to play with the Re Soundings bells, a selection of 13 cast and 2 sheet bells made from WW1 munitions, and lots of enjoyment followed with much experimental playing of the bells. Following a very good lunch in the centre’s bright and welcoming café, provided by Barbara, Joan and Mary of Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, we all headed towards St. Moluag’s chapel, a short drive north from the centre, to play the bells under John’s guidance out-with and within the chapel itself.
St. Moluag’s Chapel dates closely to St. Oran’s Chapel on Iona; St. Moluag was a contemporary of St. Columba, so the building sits within the terrain of the Re Soundings project as easily as it does within the landscape of Ness. Who knows when bells were last rung in the environs of this building? Re introducing the sound of the bells to this space was quite momentous, but it didn’t feel intrusive nor unwelcome and the space reverberated with each solemn or joyous sound emitted. We were joined by Rev. Taggart of St. Peter’s Church, Stornoway and as custodian of St. Moluag’s he spoke later of how he would like to introduce the bell again to the space, following the afternoon’s experience.
Through Alastair’s talk, the workshop gave participants the opportunity to learn about the theological context of the Re Soundings project and John’s presentation allowed a better understanding of the prehistory and early history of the bell in the Scottish landscape. Most importantly, under John’s direction, people were involved in creating sound together; unified in the moment, contained in the pool of sound around them. This workshop will be repeated at St. Oran’s Chapel on Iona in April, providing a wider collection of sound from both of the medieval buildings and local communities, thereby creating an auditory library for John to select from in his final arrangement for the exhibition.
Throughout the day Calum Angus Mackay and Ivor Mackenzie of MastArd Studio worked away in the background stealthily recording sound and image for the project. Our thanks are owed to them both as they are also to Rev. Terry Taggart, St. Peter’s Church Stornoway, and The Trustees and staff at Comunn Eachdraidh Nis.