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Psalms in Boats Isle of Lewis Tradfest 2017

The Psalmboat project is a multi-arts volunteer community project centred on Loch Erisort, Lochs, Isle of Lewis. The Psalmboat community is sharing stories of travel by sea to church services in the past, and in the present we are singing psalms in boats and on land.

In 2008 a chance remark by Don Alasdair Smith Keose made to visual/ audio artist and community animateur Deirdre ni Mhathuna from Edinburgh, sparked off Psalmboat, a Lochs multi-arts project.

The catalyst was “No more will we see and hear members of the congregation, travelling to church by boat, with the sound of Gaelic psalms coming across the water as they leave the shore”.

The seed for a re-enactment was sown and her artistic vision for community involvement and their associated creativity, lured the artist Deidre ni Mhathuna back to Lochs time and time again.

On a blustery June day in 2011 in Keose, we gathered on the site of the former church at Tabhaigh, to sing psalms, as a red sailed boat battled the elements to enter the bay.

I was astonished at the number of people who had come along, all for very different reasons. The event a powerful draw for a number of people from far and near, a link to the past, memories of family stories heard by the fireside, personal faith, sail boats and the love of the sound of praise in the open air.

One man a taxi driver native to the Westside, who had come, just to drop off a passenger. Never having sung psalms before, was surprised to find himself bobbing up and down in a rowing boat, tied to the pier in a squally Ceos Bay, in his own words “Singing his heart out”. The taxi driver, bowled over by having found ‘his island voice’ as part of this arts project, has been one of the avid supporters of Psalmboat ever since then.

This was just one of the marvellous moments of that day, which convinced me, I should be supporting the artist Deirdre ni Mhathuna, to record memories, plan re-enactments, fundraise for camera hire, stand in waves of paper, or sea water for prolonged periods of time, whatever it takes.

Gaelic services and psalm singing were the bedrock of the lives of our forefathers in Lochs. Today Gaelic church services in Lochs are a rarity, ironically just when the unique art of Gaelic psalm singing is beginning to be appreciated by music lovers, and analysed by academics. It is also, on the cultural experience wish list, of visitors from all over world who come to Lewis.

Psalm singing on water has grasped the imagination of many people from outside the island, since the inception of this arts project in 2008. It is important to nurture and anchor it in our own community.
Here are just some of the comments from those who have participated:

Don Alasdair Smith Keose Precentor
To me Psalmboat highlights that not all religious activities were confined to church buildings. It also illustrates the power, that preaching had on people, who were totally dependent on the Lord for their daily needs. Psalmboat since 2011 has helped to give people a vision and experience of what this sound was like, coming across the still waters of a summer Sunday evening. All of this happening without any artificial props, training or any other technical resources

Murdo MacMillan Keose Precentor
When I was brought up in Keose, I remember my mother telling me about the days of psalm singing in boats when they used to come from Garyvard to the church on Tabhaidh. It was a pleasure to take part and re-enact those special and spiritual times in Keose in 2011 and Crossbost in 2015. This project is important to me as Psalm boat commemorates those occasions which were close to peoples’ hearts back in the day.

Ruari MacIver Laxay Boat Skipper 2015
My father talked of meeting the people from the South Lochs boats, en-route to the Kinloch churches. He valued the chance to continue friendships as they walked. For me, being out on Loch Erisort in one of the village boats was a highlight of childhood holidays. Boats, faith and song have always brought folk together. The Psalmboat project is celebrating just this.”

Rob MacDonald Crossbost
One a sunny afternoon in September 2015 while working on the croft I heard the incredible sound of Gaelic psalm singing coming from the Loch. It was the Psalmboat people out in the boats. I am sure there were many years since the sound of many voices in praise, were heard in the open air, the psalms gliding across the waves and up the Crossbost crofts. It made me think about how much life has changed.

Jann Skelly Stornoway
My mother Jessie MacLeod born in Kershader went to church by boat as a child. Her family sailed from Port Dhòmhnaill Chaluim in Kershader and rowed to the Pol Gorm in Laxay, then they walked to Kinloch church. My mother took part in the first Psalmboat event in 2011 in Keose and shared her memories of life in the 1930s.My mother is now aged 95.
My son David Skelly who lives in Ranish was the skipper on one of the Falmadair traditional wooden boat during the Psalmboat re-enactments in 2015 in Loch Liurbost.
In fact my grandson Ryan MacDonald came to the Psalmboat meeting earlier this summer he is a year and a half.
I think it is important for each generation to know about the traditions of the past. Psalmboat is helping to preserve these family memories for us and gives us a reason to share them with the younger generation.

Film Ariel footage 2015
Field Trip 2013
Facebook Page for project updates
Local writer Donald S Murray’s and Hugh Bryden of Roncadora Press have made two beautiful hand made books of poetry about boats, faith and psalms. More details via email

This is a volunteer arts project which has had several phases. Some funding support was received from the following: Creative Scotland, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, CnES, Sgioba na Gàidhlig, North Lochs Historical Society, Urras Gnìomhacas na Gàidhlig. The Psalmboat project value the support of Falmadair The North Lewis Maritime Society custodians of the traditional sail boats.

Psalmboat UPDATE 2017

The multi-arts project Psalmboat established in Lochs in 2007 by artist Deirdre Ni Mhathuna and members of the Lochs Community, is running a series of events again in 2017.

The project has gathered a diverse group of young and old Lochs residents, during re-enactments of psalm singing in traditional boats under sail. Commemorating the era when members of the congregation crossed Loch Eirisiort on the way to worship.

The first event of 2017 is Lorgan Bata Nan Salm Echoes of Psalmboat at The Storytelling Centre, High St, Edinburgh as part of the National Festival Tradfest on Friday 5th May.

All Lochies living in Edinburgh are invited to come and find out more about Psalmboat, and add their voice to support the island tradition of Gaelic psalm singing.

In August 2017 A two week Residency was held at Soval Lodge, Lochs with talks, and visits to sites of interest and Gaelic psalm singing. 

2018 Psalmboat Update 

Participating in Sail Stornoway at Stornoway Harbour 17th July  thanks to Falmadair for maintaining and skippering the sailboats.   

3rd August The Psalmboat Project -the story so far -as part of the Reclaiming the Future a European project with Rural Nations CIC at the Bays Centre Leaclee, Isle of Harris.