Photo by Laurence Winram

Summoning Celtic Goddesses on a Remote Scottish Island

We joined Edinburgh-based artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki to pay tribute to a forgotten matriarchal society, only just discovered by archaeologists.

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Nov 6 2015, 3:55pm

Photo by Laurence Winram

I know it's been worthwhile to drive across Scotland to the island of Skye, and traipse up a hill in the wind, when Hanna Tuulikki begins singing. Her voice, swooping and bird-like, echoes off the dramatic hills surrounding an outdoor performance site above an Iron Age cave complex. It's sunset on Samhain, the Celtic festival day on what we now know as Halloween, and this special show pays tribute to an ancient site that reveals a matriarchal culture.

Women of the Hill is a one-off performance, commissioned by Skye's Atlas Arts, where a trio of female singers guide the audience on a song-journey through three worlds: Past, Present and Otherworld. It's a contemporary ritual, summoning the young woman buried here; the women who ground grain, spun yarn and watched over the hearth; and the female deities—Bride and the Cailleach—who, according to myth, do battle each year at this meeting of the seasons.

I'd been interested in Edinburgh-based Tuulikki's work for a while and followed her online. A lot of art stuff leaves me nonplussed, but she's a cut above: prolific and genuinely multi-talented; a composer, singer, illustrator and artist. Last year, her project Away With the Birds was performed on the small Scottish island of Canna, where a ten-voice female ensemble performed music she had written that mimicked the calls of birds, based on traditional Gaelic songs. She has even developed her own system of music notation, hand-drawn and beautiful. When I heard she was doing this performance in a far-flung location, I knew I had to attend.

The audience has been instructed to meet at a car park near the bridge that connects mainland Scotland to Skye. Around 50 Skye locals and visitors in wellies, walking boots, technical jackets, and woolly hats are guided onto a coach which is filled with the excited bubble of Scottish accents. The bus takes a single-track road with stunning scenery to the performance site, lurching around bends and passing road signs with strange place names in both English and traditional Gaelic.

Photo by Laurence Winram

We're told over the bus intercom about some of the history of the High Pasture Caves. Archaeological evidence and folklore suggest that the site held sacred significance within the region, with the cave serving as a dedicated shrine for a matriarchal society. Towards the end of the Iron Age, the mysterious burial of a young woman brought that era to a close; the cave was sealed and the entrance forgotten. The site was rediscovered in 1972 and has undergone extensive excavation by archaeologists. Hundreds of artefacts were found, including the woman's remains along with her infant child and unborn baby. The unknown woman's skull had been broken by a rock. There were also pig remains, evidences of ritual and domestic activity, and the first stringed instrument in Europe.

The audience form a procession up the hill, behind a 90-year-old man carried in sedan chair. The Cullin mountains are washed in golden autumn sunlight. As we ascend, a remarkable shape appears above the horizon. It's Tuulikki, elevated in a huge white dress, whirling a spindle that makes a buzzing sound, standing out against the muted colours of the hillside.

Tuulikki in her white dress, Film still by Daniel Warren

The site is a natural amphitheater, a dip surrounded by hills. It's exhilarating to be here. At first Tuulikki, playing the goddess Cailleach, sings alone with the hills' echo. Then a second performer joins her, playing Bride in a splendid moss hat made by a local artist named Caroline Dear. Tuulikki's skirt is unfastened to reveal a scaffold platform, and the third member of the trio.

The singing is acapella but its backing music is the sound of flowing streams, the wind, and occasional sheep. The performance interacts with nature and as it progresses, the sky changes into a orange haze as the sun drops behind the mountains, which are purple and grey and topped with cloud. The south-westerly wind blows the singers' unamplified voices to audience.

In the second act, we move from the goddesses' world into the Iron Age, with rhythm provided by tapping rocks against a quernstone, an object used for grinding grain. A shroud with the representation of the bones of the young woman's skeleton is laid above the cave entrance. The trio are singing a lament with some recognisable words emerging—"ma ma," like the beginnings of language.

A performer playing Bride, a Celtic goddess. Film still by Daniel Warren

I interview Tuulikki the morning after the performance. She's suffering the physical aftermath of what she calls "extreme singing" and "the hardest performance I've ever done because I was holding up a lot of felt [the skirt] with my body, with the wind pulling it down." She has her hair in the same intricate plaits as the night before and, although exhausted, talks precisely about the project, even singing a few sections. She describes the challenges of working on an outdoor site and the weather-responsive set, and how, while rehearsing, they heard ravens using the echo of the hills in the same way as the singers.

Broadly: How did the Women of the Hill project begin?
Hanna Tuulikki: A few years ago, on a visit to Skye, I went up to High Pasture Caves, not knowing a lot about it apart from that I'd heard stories that the women had been buried there. It was a really hot May day and I went into the cave on my own with a little torch and my wellies and spent about an hour and a half in there, and was completely blown away. It's like going into a birthing canal and then it opens out into this womb. I had a bit of a sing in there, it's quite different to an archetypal reverberating space. There's a stream that rushes through there so it was an intense sonic experience. Then I came back out of the dark cold space into this hot air, and it was such an extreme sensory experience.

That night I had a dream that there was a really tall library with dusty books and I was flying up through the library. It was like the cave was the library and was very powerful. I suppose now the dream was a kind of invitation to read and interpret the living library of High Pasture—the cave and significant surrounding landscape.

Building the scaffold on the performance site. Film still by Daniel Warren

How did the project develop?
Through conversations with people, including the site's archaeologists, and research I learned more about the cave and its significance. I was particularly interested in its function in the Iron Age as a sacred site, as a place for votive offerings. Martin [Wildgoose, one of the archaeologists] talks about it as being like the cathedral of the local township.... A lot of the findings seem to be from what is traditionally women's work—lots of spindle whorls, upturned quernstones and jewelry.

I became a little bit obsessed with the cave. And I got really interested in a feminist archaeologist called Marija Gimbutas who, in the 1960s and 70s, was excavating sites and unearthing lots of figurines which she called Goddesses. It was controversial at the time and she was marginalised in archaeology, but her writing was inspirational in relation to this site.

There was something about this trio that I wanted to reconnect with on this site.

Could you explain the sounds you use in the piece?
The first act is entirely non-lexical. I'm interested in using the voice as an instrument and in this context it doesn't feel appropriate to sing words at a hill. I was interested in communicating a battle scene or ritual through 'flighting', an exchange of insults in a non-lexical way. In the second act I was interested in the archaeology of language. Because of the significance of the figure of the mother in the whole piece, I was interested in looking at infant development of language.

Tell me a bit about the experience of working with this team of female performers.
I wanted to develop some things we explored in Away With the Birds, where I'd also been working with Lucy and Nerea. At the early stages of project we went away on a trip to Canna, we were all going through similar life experiences and we made a strong bond. We improvised outside and it was really powerful experience of working with women and rehearsing every day. There was something about this trio that I wanted to reconnect with on this site. I think something about our personalities, which is expressed in our very different voices, felt right for tapping into these different characters. Bride is very regal and young and fair, the lead-keening woman is earthy, grounded, emotional, and expressive, and Cailleach is like a trickster.

The shroud with the representation of the bones of the young woman's skeleton. Photo by Laurence Winram

Back on the hill, the final act moves into the modern day, with the performers playing themselves and with recognisable words. There's a smell of whisky on the wind and drams are handed out to the chilly audience, along with cups of tea. A bonfire is set alight. Archaeologists believe this outside area of the cave was a ritual site where brewing barley grew and a fire perpetually burned, so the performance is bringing back the ancient smells and sounds of the place and re-imagining old traditions. Because of the variables of season and weather, it can also never be recreated.

It's dark by the time we make our way back down the hill to the coach, using head torches to light the way. In Celtic lore, darkness comes before light; Halloween, the start of winter, is the beginning of the year. "Raise your glasses, welcome in the new year," Tuulikki and her performers sang, and we find shelter, having toasted the Goddesses, our ancestors, and mothers—the women of the hill.