One of Alec Finlay recent projects, Sweeney's Bothy, was built last year on the Isle of Eigg as part of The Bothy Project. 'The bothy belongs within a new contemporary movement – identified by Finlay as ‘hutopian’ – in which artists create huts and viewing platforms in the Scottish wilderness, proposing them as ecological, technological, architectural, and social models.' Some interesting artists and writers have already stayed there, as you can see from the Bothy blog: Kathleen Jamie, Hannah Devereux, Oran Wishart.
'The bothy is based on Finlay’s design, inspired by the 7th Century Gaelic King Sweeney (Shuibhne). Cursed, Sweeney fled into a wilderness, surviving for a decade among the trees and birds, living on sorrel, berries, sloes and acorns, and enduring ‘the pain of his bed there on the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’ (Flann O’Brien, At Swim, Two Birds). Sweeney’s poetry from that period describes the austere beauty of the remote glen where he lived naked, communed with animals, and existed beyond convention. The myth of Sweeney conceals remnants of shamanic animism within pre-Christian culture. Like Han Shan, Basho, and Thoreau, Sweeney is a visionary hermit rejecting ‘feather beds and painted rooms,’ engaging with nature, the irrational, overturning accepted knowledge.'
View from Sweeney's Bothy with thorn bowl
Residents at Sweeney's Bothy can enjoy 'sorrel, berries, sloes and acorn' from bowls with a scratched thorn decoration, made by my wife. The original poem Buile Shuibhne gives a vivid sense of the way Sweeney was able to live off the land. I have written here before about the wonderful English version by Seamus Heaney, which was inspired by Kenneth Jackson's earlier translations. Jackson's first book, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (1935), has recently been reprinted and it contains this marvellous description of natural foods in Irish poetry (the numbers refer to poems translated in the first part of the book).
'The variety of the plants and animals found in the countryside and eaten by the early Irish on the testimony of the poems is quite astonishing to a twentieth-century town-dweller, to whom "living on berries and nuts" seems such an improbable kind of existence. No. V mentions apples, yew-berries, rowan-berries, sloes, whortleberries, crowberries, strawberries, haws, hazel-nuts, mast, acorns, pignuts, water-cress, herbs, wild marjoram, onions, leeks, eggs, honey, salmon, trout, water, milk and beer. No. XVI speaks of deer, swine, mast, hazel-nuts, blaeberries, blackberries, sloes, trout. No. XV has cress, brooklime, mast, trout, fish, wild swine, stags, fawns. In no. XIX are blaeberries, blackberries, apples, sloes, strawberries, acorns, nuts, pig fat, porpoise steak, birds, venison, badger fat, fawns, salmon, fish. No. XVII mentions blackberries, haws, hazel-nuts, bramble shoots, "smooth shoots", garlic, cress, meadhbhán, dilisk, birds, martens, woodcocks, otters, salmon, eels, fish. Suibhne Geilt gives his "nightly sustenance" as blaeberries, apples, berries, blackberries, raspberries, haws, cress, watercress, brooklime, saxifrage, seaweed, herbs, sorrel, wood-sorrel, garlic, wild onions and acorns ... The diet is then one of flesh of animals and birds, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, shoots, and waterplants, eggs, honey and fish, an impressive and intriguing menu.'
Earlier this year the Corbel Stone Press published Alec's Sweeney on Eigg which 'leaps off' from Seamus Heaney's version of Buile Shuibhne. It imagines the outcast Suibhne wandering as far as the island of Eigg. Fleeing over crags and burns, sheltering among sheep, passing over moss and moorgrass, through birch and tares, blackthorn and brambles, he comes at last to a stop.
I will sing
with peewits, cuckoos, & throstles
making the moor ring
from Druim na Croise.
I will hide Rum
with my hand
and stroke the fine down
on my arms.
Then, when the sunsets
drive me mad
with their beauty,
Suibhne will be gone.