BLOG – Rufus Elliot, composer

Some Commonplace Geiltlings / Some Geiltlings’ Commonplaces

‘We have told how Sweeney went astray…’

GEILT is a new piece that I was asked to write specially for the Nevis Ensemble’s tour to the Outer Hebrides.

Geilt is an early Gaelic word used to refer to the character Sweeney, and other wanderers and outsiders. Sweeney, the cursed king of Dál Araide, experiencing PTSD-like symptoms following a battle, transforms into a bird or a bird-like creature, and flits around the wilds of Ireland as an outcast, telling in verse of the places he drifts through. The clearest account of his story is found in a 12th Century Irish text; however, the story seems to have its origins in the medieval kingdom of Strathclyde.

GEILT calls out to the places the Nevis Ensemble would pass on their journey — places I loved, which gave me an ephemeral life of moving on. It drifts between love and violence, and the places and weathers they happen(ed) in.

During the tour, the piece was sometimes described as being ‘about’ hitchhiking around the North West of Scotland and Georgia.

The actual hitchhiking was:

*a Freudian repetition
*a game of tag with Death himself
*a seduction technique
*an escape attempt
*a practical way of getting to and from work
*not always fun
*also, at times, not really hitchhiking

He was revolted by the thought of known places
and dreamed of strange migrations.

(Sweeney Astray, trans. Seamus Heaney)



In Craiginsh, a Buddhist man who heard the Ensemble’s performance tells me he felt that in GEILT the dark and the light had intertwined in perfect harmony (for do you not know that light is the left hand of darkness?).


(Listen for Nevis’s duet with a piper on the other side of the bay)





(hear the sounds of the ancient drainage system of the formerly-agricultural land in Village Bay)


I am with you, alone
gazing at the coldness of the level kyle
listening to the surge on the stony shore
breaking on the bare flagstones of the world.

(from The Heron, Sorley MacLean)

We were in love with herons — their stillness — as we careered wildly across the North West.

‘You have caught me with your reticence.’

(Barry Lopez, River Notes)

It was a privilege to join the orchestra on their tour: a weird palimpsest journey, finding myself in places I had been only a year ago, a time of deliberately walking south rather than north on those same pathways and beaches.

Cold and hard as stone
lies Sweeney’s path
through the beds of Lisardowlin.
There I go to earth
in a panic, starved and bare,
a rickle of skin and bones.
I am yours no longer.

(Sweeney Astray, trans. Seamus Heaney)


(pictures and sound all © Rufus Elliot)