Machair (soundwalk)

Machair soundwalk, photograph by Tara Drummie (2022)

This soundwalk explores the traditions and ecology of Uist’s machair. A Gaelic word meaning fertile, low-lying grassy plain, machair is one of Europe’s rarest yet most species-rich habitats; only occurring on the exposed west-facing shores of Scotland and Ireland. Generations of low-intensity farming have shaped this unique landscape and encouraged wildlife over millennia. Developed in partnership with the local community, this work combines spoken narratives, field recordings, and compositions with archival sound recordings from Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, that chart over 70-years of tradition.

For those looking to experience the soundwalk in person, this can be accessed via the geolocative audio app Echoes. Alternatively, a stereo mix of the work is provided below

This work was commissioned by Dandelion and Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, with funds from Event Scotland. Production team: Duncan MacLeod (composer), Mairi McFadyen (creative ethnologist), and Sorcha Monk (creative producer).

About the work

Gathering Seaweed, photographed by Margaret Fay Shaw (1932)

Contemporary voices include crofter and tradition bearer Alasdair MacEachen, whose croft on Benbecula has been in his family for generations. With over 60 years of crofting experience, Alasdair provides a first-hand perspective on working the machair and reflects on how crofting practices have changed in his lifetime. Environmental scientist Matt Topsfield provides insights into the machair’s formation, history, and ecology. Originally from Essex, Matt settled on Uist in 2010 as a project advisory officer for the EU-funded research project Machair Life. Towards the end of the walk, we hear from the next generation of crofters, namely brothers Freddie (aged 7) and Seoras (aged 4) MacDonald, who provide an excellent commentary on harvesting crops on the machair.

From the archive, we hear excerpts of Dr Emily Lyle’s 1977 interview with islanders Roderick MacKillop, John MacIver, Angus MacKenzie, and John Morrison. Through their conversation, insights are given into pre-war crofting practices, collecting seaweed and planting crops, where the absence of machinery required considerable manual labour. Despite the hard work, we learn that these practices were an important social event that brought communities together – as MacKillop exclaims, ‘it was a special day!’.

As a cultural landscape, the machair and crofting practices are a source of inspiration and are often cited in Gàidhlig music and song. As such, songs from the Western Isles feature throughout and help frame the structure of the walk, echoing the themes featured in spoken narratives. These include songs about homeland and crofting practices, such as Angus MacDonald’s rendition of ‘Eilean Uibhist Mo Rùin’ (My beloved island of Uist) recorded in 1986, and Nan MacKinnon singing the children’s song ‘Orra Bhonnagan a Ghaoil’ (Dear Orra Bonnagan) about lifting potatoes recorded in 1958. As we learn about seaweed, a 1977 recording of the waulking song ‘Mhòrag ‘s na Hòro-gheallaidh’ (Morag and the Promised) is heard that recounts a love story about a girl collecting seaweed. Light-hearted songs include a celebration of the humble potato, in the 1950 recording of Angus Fletcher singing ‘Am Buntàta ‘s an Sgadan’ (The Potato and Herring), and a selection of puirt à beul (mouth-music) dance tunes sung by Kenneth MacIver in 1959.


• Common land on Uist – John MacDonald interviewed by Eric Cregeen (1973)

• An Cuan Siar – composition by Duncan MacLeod (2022)

• Uist Machair – Matthew Topsfield (2022)

• Eilean Uibhist Mo Rùin – Angus MacDonald recorded Donald MacDonald (1982)

• Nam Bithinn na mo Mhaighdeann – Kenneth MacIver recorded by fieldworker James Ross (1959).

• Gathering Seaweed on Uist – Roderick MacKillop, John MacIver, Angus MacKenzie, and John Morrison interviewed by Dr E Lyle (1977).

• Using seaweed to grow potatoes and crops – Alasdair MacEachen interviewed by Mairi McFadyen (2022).

• Mhòrag ‘s na Hòro-gheallaidh – Christine Shaw recorded by Morag MacLeod (1973).

• Uist seaweed – Matthew Topsfield (2022).

• Seaweeding the ground – Alasdair MacEachen interviewed by Mairi McFadyen (2022).

• The little yellow of the summer – composition by Duncan MacLeod (2022)

• Planting potatoes with seaweed – MacKillop, MacIver, MacKenzie, and Morrison interviewed Dr E Lyle (1977).

• Sgadan Saillt’ ‘s Buntàt’ – Peggy MacIve recorded by James Ross (1069).

• Orra Bhonnagan a Ghaoil – Nan McKinnon recorded by James Ross (1958).

• Lifting potatoes – Alasdair MacEachen interviewed by Mairi McFayden (2022).

• Machair cropping – Matthew Topsfield interviewed by Mairi McFayden (2022).

• Cropping on the machair – Alasdair MacEachen interviewed by Mairi McFayden (2022).

• Cropping traditions on the machair – Matthew Topsfield interviewed by Mairi McFayden (2022).

• Nam Bithinn na mo Mhaighdeann, Tha Fionnlagh ag Inneireadh, Mac a’ Phì – Kenneth MacIver recorded by James Ross (1959).

• Bailing on the machair – Freddie and Seoras MacDonald interviewed by fieldworker Mairi McFayden (2022).

• Am Buntàta ‘s an Sgadan – Angus Fletcher recorded by John Lorne Campbell (1950).

• Environmental field recordings & soundscape composition – Duncan MacLeod (2022)