“A Lewis man would be homesick in heaven.”
I’m not sure where I first heard it, but this phrase – about the island in the Outer Hebrides where I’m from – has stuck with me ever since. It felt particularly relevant in the two-plus years of a global pandemic that halted international travel and confined us to our homes, more or less, for months and years at a time.
This level of “homesickness,” or cianalas as we call it in Gaelic, seems to be a particular affliction for islanders – or maybe English just doesn’t have the language to convey its emotion. Welsh has hiraeth (a “deep longing for something, especially one’s home”) and Portuguese has saudade (“a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia”). The Gaels have cianalas, which although usually translated in English as “sadness,” “homesickness,” or “nostalgia,” has a much deeper connection to place, and for a group of people who have seen generations emigrate near and far, willingly and otherwise, perhaps it’s not surprising.
For a long time, leaving the islands meant leaving for good: to Glasgow and London, to Canada and the USA and Australia.
But in the space of a few generations, islanders have gone from leaving for good – with limited options for ever returning – to knowing we can hop on a plane home whenever we feel like it (or whenever we need to).
And I made the most of that. I lived in St. Andrews, Philadelphia, NYC, and Tianjin before moving back home to Lewis again, with jaunts here, there, and everywhere. I moved to the USA in the final weeks of 2014, but the Outer Hebrides were never far away, a “quick” six-hour flight across the Atlantic to Edinburgh or Glasgow, a little longer if I went via London.
I knew I was lucky to be able to return whenever I wanted to, but the pandemic brought that luck into stark relief, and ushered in a new world for those of us who live in countries other than our own. For all my travels, I had never gone so long without returning to the Isle of Lewis. By the time I walked off the plane at Stornoway Airport in August 2021, it had been more than two years since I had last set foot on island soil. It wasn’t always homesickness – I wasn’t always sad – but at the height of the pandemic, I thought of Lewis every day, in one way or another. It was the cianalas.
The places I thought of most often were not any of the famous sights that so often populate magazine articles and TV shows, or even this blog. The places I thought of were Bayble Beach and Bayble Island in Point, or the view of the Minch and the mainland mountains from my parents’ kitchen window. There was a while during lockdown when my mind’s eye kept wandering to the almost aerial view of the Isle of Lewis from the top of Bayble hill, the beinn, a view I haven’t seen in person since I was maybe 10 years old, when we were still cutting peats.
“A Lewis man would be homesick in heaven.” I’d venture that a Leodhasach (a person from Lewis) would be homesick no matter where they end up, because – as I’ve written before – for so many of us it is always home, no matter where you go, or how long you’ve been “away.”
But why do we call it home, no matter how much time has passed since we left?
What made islanders from around the world tune in every Friday night to the online “Covid ceilidhs” hosted by the local Western Isles council during the long lockdown days, where I watched people reconnect in the comments and request favourite Gaelic songs? What makes fellow islanders abroad bond over a good traditional tune, or a longing for a slice of Stag bread or a marag, a Stornoway Black Pudding? What causes that sense of connection and belonging that stays strong over time and distance?
Although I don’t necessarily have the answers, I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated by the effect place has on people, and the pull of the locations we come from. Judging by those Facebook comments during the “Covid Ceilidhs,” or the stories of island emigrants older than myself, that connection to the Outer Hebrides never quite disappears. The cianalas never really leaves you, and I know that for me, there is nothing like returning to the view of the island in the bay, no matter how long it has been since I saw it last.
Have you ever heard of cianalas, or experienced a similar feeling? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!
This post was first written a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, in the spring of 2021, before being edited and published in December 2023.