Keening on the Isle of Harris

Peggy and I met in Sandy Beach here in northern NSW and the brisk wind came in from the south as the season turned. The lorikeets feasted on the autumn blossoms. Peggy had been given three weeks to live.  With my pen in hand taking notes for her funeral ceremony, I was regaled with stories of growing up in the late 40’s and 50’s in the Outer Hebrides—a wild windswept island bare of trees with long white beaches, rocky coves and rugged coastlines, peat bogs and highland cattle.  With her seven brothers and sisters, they played in a landscape rich with seabirds—the sanderling, ringed plovers, turnstones, sandpipers, oystercatchers and curlews. Life was simple on the island—singing Gaelic songs on the radio, listening to the rhythm of the loom as her parents wove the Harris Tweed which they would cut and sew into clothing for them all.

Peggy remembers funerals as being a time of bringing the family together and sharing and supporting each other through times of grief and loss. Peggy shared with me the story of the women keening across the isle; she remembers one time when someone died, her grandmother stood outside the house and wailed. This was wailing was picked up by the other women until the whole island knew of the death and would gather. The community would share food and the wake itself was a celebration.

This story of my meeting with Peggy was the prompt that I offered as the guest facilitator for the Writing Oasis run by The Celebrant School – Te Wānanga Korowai Aroha in New Zealand. There were many diverse and beautiful expressions of the same story. We worked on the opening paragraph. These are just a few examples of what came out of the writing session.

Janetta Rose Mandeno

This celebration of Peggy’s life will be a joyous occasion honouring the way in which Peggy lived life to the fullest. Today, there will be many wonderful memories and stories shared by her family and close community that will bring laughter and also tears. As I listened to the opening music—the pipes playing their mournful dirge, I could imagine their wailing vying with the wind blowing through the glens of Peggy’s childhood. However, there will be nothing mournful about the wake later this afternoon which will be a joyous Ceilidh with fiddlers and drummers and all of the old songs, that will be sung to honour Peggy’s life amongst a vibrant Scottish community of crofters. Peggy always loved being amongst the community as they danced their reels and drank their toasts to her. It is in this spirit we gather today.


Winnie Duggan

Welcome to this celebration for Peggy which will be a time of connecting to what made her heart sing over her life time. Let’s open the ceremony by calling in the story of her early beginnings, from that wonderful place in the Outer Hebrides, where she grew up closely anchored to the environment—listening to the sea birds calling from their roosts, the winds howling around the headlands, and the wild ocean with all its tides and storms throughout the year—and in times when loss came in close on the isle, the women keening at the death of a family member.

Today we will start with a piece of music that captures what Peggy herself listened to growing up—the sounds from the vast landscape and her family and community that brought her into the world.

Let us listen to the sound of the oystercatchers’ plaintive cries as they soar overhead; the waves crashing on the rocks of the rugged coastline—let us keen her death through the music, across the space between here and there. As we listen to this music of Peggy’s early life may we also sense the comfort and calm peace of knowing that she has gone home to be part of the isle again.

Music to play

Welcome to guests.

Thank you celebrants, Winnie and Janetta for sharing your colourful and invitational openings. Celebrant, Kathrine Fraser also sent her opening ceremony for her son’s 21st that was inspired by the creative writing session. You can find Kathrine’s work here.

Marg Palmer also joined the Writing Oasis run by The Celebrant School – Te Wānanga Korowai Aroha in New Zealand.

Marg wrote, Your online Creative Oasis workshop kept me focused and interested, it was all so very relevant and has certainly given me much to think about and put in to practice as I write. I reflected back to the 6 years I lived overseas and wrote weekly letters to my parents, describing in detail our excursions on our days off – capturing all the senses. Yet when we come to ceremony writing there is an inner voice quelling that familiarity and leaning to the more formal side. Well not anymore!!

Yesterday I officiated a very small graveside service for a lady who had spent most of her life in community care. Her only sibling was unable to travel from Dunedin to Nelson to attend and so I opened very descriptively so the sister could visualise and feel so much more than she would be able to see on the live feed. I linked back to this in my closing – and on cue a tui (New Zealand bird) sang a beautiful melody from the camouflage of a tree adorned with red turning leaves. I couldn’t quite get the llamas in the paddock next door to participate in song too!

So, thank you for nourishing me with all this food for my soul and my celebrancy.

Marg Palmer, Celebrant, New Zealand

Wendy’ Music Selection

I greatly appreciate the poetry of David White and this compilation of David’s poem, Blessing, and music from Owen Ó Súilleabháin is a gem.