Seven Days ‘Abroad’
A Hebridean Odyssey
In memory of
Born Circa 1822, 5 Direcleit, Harris
Died 15th December 1898, Horseshoe Sound, Kerrera, Near Oban
& Mary Macdonald
Born Circa 1822, Orisaigh, Lewis
Died 22nd March 1908, Steornabhagh, Lewis…
…my great, great grandparents whose fortitude, strength and courage in meeting adversity and hardship can only be held in awe amongst the relatively calmer seas of modern life.
Malcolm put it most succinctly when registering
his Nationality prior to his final voyages:
It is said that a Minister, prior to leaving the Hebrides for a trip to the mainland, pinned a note to the church door containing the simple phrase,
‘No Service Today – Gone Abroad’.
Monday‘s child is fair of face.
Tuesday‘s child is full of grace.
Wednesday‘s child is full of woe.
Thursday‘s child has far to go.
Friday‘s child is loving and giving.
Saturday‘s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.
It is a manifest truth that the makings of a good trip are all in the planning.
This trip is the exception that proves the rule.
1) Gaelic, the language, is pronounced ‘GALLIC’ and NEVER ‘GAY-LICK’
2) All place names are given in Gaelic (YES, I know that some have yet to be changed from the English, John Angus!) but a glossary can be found after the references at the end of this journal.
3) If I have made any errors please give me a break – languages were never my forte!
Tuesday – Full of Grace
This story, although not my journey, begins early in the morning in a hotel in Glasgow’s West Regent Street near to the bosom of the Headquarters of the Strathclyde Constabulary. Having forsaken the multifarious delights of Sauchiehall Street in favour of an early bed the previous evening, I awoke to a balmy pre-Spring morning with neither barely a cloud nor a breath of wind intruding. Sadly, the delights of a ‘Full Scottish Breakfast’ have yet to percolate into the realms of the budget hotel but the fare, if somewhat modest by nature, was in abundance and I took my fill. After all, I had PAID for it so I might as well get a decent return for my investment!
Setting up the hill to Sauchiehall Street it had been my intention to intercept a bus on its journey to Buchanan Bus Station where my real Highland adventure was to truly begin. Lugging a somewhat dilapidated suitcase bearing several generations of family history within its bulk proved a somewhat tiresome task, not least because none of the buses I hailed and asked assistance from were actually destined for the bus station.
Eventually, after half-an-hour’s scaring the morning commuters with my suitcase’s railway-like clanging along the cobbles, I reached my destination. Buchanan Bus Station is perhaps the cleanest, best organised and most hospitable (apart from the 20p to take a pee – are they taking the pee?) I had ever seen. There was, however, one minor flaw in the organisation revealed when I discovered that the timetable that I had been directed to the previous day was, in fact, that for the previous season and that the coach I had intended catching at 9am did not exist. Hence I had an hour of extended waiting (hence the loo-break) and the chance to savour the ‘delights’ offered by the passing clientele at the exterior of the building (because I wanted to smoke and that is a total no-no in Modern Scotland). A passing gentleman asked me if I could spare him a roll-up and, as I had just finished rolling one, I handed him a completed cigarette. The fellow returned a couple of minutes later requiring a light and, without malice on either side, left my company puffing away and with, I hope, a forever enhanced view of those who speak with a relatively ‘posh’ accent.
Having stowed my precious cargo of previous and current generations into the ‘hold’ of this land-locked vessel I took a seat, removed my coat whilst basking in the unseasonable pre-Spring sunshine, and contemplated the next seven hours. Now it should be explained that my previous experience of long-distance coach journeys hit the nadir when on a 14 hour journey from my home in the South East Midlands to a town on the far South East of Paris. Even allowing for the ferry passage and the welcome chance to breath sea air it was a most unpleasant experience and was proof that sometimes the journey is NOT as good as the arriving, counter to the oft-told myth.
The coach ride from Glasgow to Portree was in a totally different class and, without a shadow of a doubt, the most spectacular, enjoyable and invigorating that I have yet taken. Perhaps the fact that my hosts-to-be were totally unaware of my personal Odyssey added certain piquancy. Leaving Glasgow, just as is the case with any large conurbation, gives glimpses of the reality masked by the urban gloss. I looked out upon old and beautiful tenements, modern and revolting high-rises and couldn’t think but that, for the folk who inhabited these dwellings, Glasgow would not have its streets kept clean, its refuse collected, its lights kept shining nor its folk kept smiling.
Swirling along the Great Western Road at speeds that I was not to experience again for another week, we passed the hotel where, more that a decade earlier, a great gathering of the ‘clan’ had taken place in celebration of my niece’s marriage. I remember rather more of that event than I should do but it signalled, for me, the border between the ‘old’, familiar tartan & shortbread Scotland of my previous visits and this, my very personal journey to the Scotland of my roots.
We weaved or way by Loch Lomond with the driver exhibiting all the care and dexterity of his forbears as lorry after lorry appeared poised to wait until the narrowest gap before pouncing forth upon us. It is a pity, but true, that the gentleman came from Yorkshire but clearly was a master at his art. As we progressed through ever-more spectacular mountain scenery, carving our way towards the Isles, I was struck that never before had I sat upon a coach that stopped at the merest hint of an outwardly-poised arm, stowed the wayfarers goods below, and then carried-on in such good spirit. I can only describe it as officially organised hitch-hiking!
The first official break came mid-way in our three hour journey to Fort William and, whilst it was pleasant to stretch the legs, pop to the loo and breath the air the best thing of all was to roll and light a fag and share stories with similarly smitten travellers. Indeed, if there is to be a theme to this story then it is that the smoking ban in Scotland has been a boon to lonesome travellers like myself as it forces one to ‘break-the-ice’ in pub doorways and you already have a mutual topic to discuss. I believe that dog owners experience something similar?
The second part of our four-part road journey commenced and, as this is not a travel book, I will leave it thus: WOW!
I have to confess that, although I have been to the place fewer times than there are toes on a chicken, it has always given me a somewhat depressed feeling. It is attempting to be a Perth or Inverness (not noble aspirations in my opinion) with all the tartan & shortbread trimmings but fails because, frankly, it ain’t got soul. As you descend towards it after miles of mountains your heart quickens, your senses turn from rural to urban but, unless it is just me, this place disappoints. The only highlight for me was that I entered the least pre-possessing bar (i.e., the one with the least appeal to a tourist such as myself) and was delighted when, having declined the offer of either water or ice in my single malt, was given a hearty, ‘Good Lad’ from a barmaid young enough to be my daughter. This ‘Water’ or ‘No Water’ will provide another theme as my tale progresses.
Having partaken of my ‘Dutch Courage’ it was time to make a call – not of nature, as such, but of an even more personal kind. Now I hate mobile phones, not because they are intrinsically bad objects but because of the way that they are used/abused particularly in urban areas. However, if you are three hours away from meeting a cousin who has never met you before and whom you have neglected to previously to advise of your impending arrival then, well, they have their uses. John Angus answered and informed me that Dodo was out. (Be aware that nicknames will predominate in this story for two very good reasons.
Firstly because, on the Isles, they are used to discriminate (in the positive sense of that word) between bearers of the same name and secondly because, well, it makes it more homely but not, I trust, in a ‘tartan & shortbread’ way!
After several miles of breathtaking scenery (the next time my doctor says that I am out of breath I will blame the scenery) expertly steered by our new driver on his return to Skye my phone rang and the girlish-giggles echoed around the bus. ‘You’re kidding me’, said Dodo. ‘Nope, We’ll be at Kyle in 40 minutes’, I replied. ‘Signal’s breaking up’, said Dodo, ‘Call me from Kyle’. Well I did and eventually a tired, grinning and unexpected visitor stepped upon island soil for the first time in his life. It came as no great surprise, and a portent of what was to follow, that the chap who had driven us from Fort William to Portree was a 1st cousin of Dodo’s husband, John Angus…
After a HUGE hug, given and received with equal glee from each of us, we were driven the short but, in places steep, climb to Dodo’s home overlooking the ancient hills and the construction site of the new Secondary school. It will not be too long before the sound of children’s laughter rings around giving hope for the future to all in its hearing. A feast of chops, tatties & veg with lashings of love & gravy was followed by one of the many serendipitous surprises that I was to encounter during this delving into my roots. The local history society was hosting an evening of Gaelic song delivered by Fiona MacKenzie on the subject of the life of Mairi Mhor whose Fellowship Fiona currently holds. Now, whilst I have listened to a wee bit of Gaelic singing and have an open mind, I was overwhelmed by the beauty, strength and enthusiasm of the hour that unfolded. A tale was told, illuminated by Fiona’s singing , of the ‘politicisation’ and subsequent outpouring of songs created by this remarkable woman who quite probably never read nor wrote either words or music. If proof was needed that I had left the cities and the mainland far behind me then this was it!
However, I must relate that, far from being a backward-looking, heritage-seeking, hunger this tradition of singing is amongst the liveliest, most progressive and blooming phenomena in the Highlands & Islands. The past is to be learnt from but certainly not to be ossified as a mere tourist trifle.
Returning home (I always consider the place that I am residing in as home) Dodo and I then spent several hours (probably a couple more than was best for either of us!) refining the subtle details of our co-joined ancestry. Finally we agreed that any further investigations would be best kept until the morning and so, with a weary but buzzing mind, I laid my head down to graciously sleep for the first time upon the pillow of the Isles.
Wednesday – Full of Woe
Waking on Wednesday to a glorious sun-filled sky with but a hint of cloud and accompanied by that brief frisson of excitement in an unfamiliar place whence the fear of ‘Where am I?’ is replaced with the knowledge of ‘Here I am!’ I sprang (poetic licence!) from my bed to seek Skye. Dodo was keen to take me for a walk and, as John Angus’ bones precluded his participation, we set out as soon as possible for a tour of the land. It should be mentioned, however, that our keenness to kiss the sand was slightly inhibited as a replacement shower was eagerly awaited but transpired too late for either of us to complete our ablutions. I have a horrible feeling that all other English-speaking visitors will be kept clear-of following the islanders’ experience of the ‘fug’ that lay, both physically & metaphorically, in my wake!
My guide, Cousin Dodo, pointed out all the sites, both municipal & personal, as we descended into, passed through and then exited the town. Minutes later we were wandering in the most beguiling scenery bordering the natural harbour and quickly approached the three flagpoles and accompanying paraphernalia with which the Nicholson’s make it quite clear upon whose territory ones feet are treading at Sgoirebreac.
I suppose that if I were a real writer and this was a real travel book then it should contain second-by-second descriptions of the sights, smells (Whoops, I forgot that I had yet to let any water sunder my visage) and sounds. Tough, I don’t ‘do’ travel! Suffice to say that it was a lovely walk in glorious countryside with the best ever of companions. You might well revisit the place on a similar day but you can never experience the uniqueness of walking with a local cousin of whose existence you were totally unaware less than a year ago.
The ‘Woe’ was more of a ‘Whoa’ as I had thought that there was a daily sailing from Uig to Tairbeirt but had learned that I had to spend another night on Skye before seeking Harris. Hence I invited Dodo & John Angus for a meal in town, although not before ascertaining that the replacement shower was fully functioning, and we three set of down the road to Portree early evening. The hotel/restaurant/bar that was selected is on the site where Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge but, folklore notwithstanding, it served the most heaving platters of food at the most economical prices that I have ever seen. John Angus’ Haddock could have swallowed the Queen Mary, Dodo’s scampi would have burst a drift net and, non-apologetically, my Haggis, neaps and tatties (ordered in a brief moment of ‘tartan & shortbread’ madness) could have sunk the both of them.
A Brief Guide to Ale
John Angus, who led us on our pub-crawl following our fine repast, was horrified by my insistence upon trying a different ale in each and every hostelry. Thus I tried ‘Red Cuillin’ and ‘Black Cuillin’ (Each the product of the only brewery on the Isle), Belhaven (obtainable anywhere but you never know if the locals keep the best for themselves) and another whose name escapes me purely because I am not a ‘proper’ travel writer rather than because of any previous over-indulgence – hic!
Away to bed and to await the ferry.
Thursday – Far to Go
The day dawned bright & clear –NOT! I was awoken by the sound of sealed-unit double-glazing thrashing around like a broken shutter in a horror movie. The general opinion was of ‘IF’ rather than ‘WHEN’ the ferry might sail. We followed the progress of the storm via the Net (I cannot but assume that THE Net is of greater importance to most folk on the isles nowadays than THE fishing nets are) but it was not until after 2pm that confirmation arrived that my time on Skye was soon to end. By pure serendipity (a third theme for my journey) I had encountered a travelling companion the previous evening whose father was able to take us to Uig for the ferry. Without him I would have hade to have left a good hour earlier and uncertain as to when, or if, I was indeed to reach Harris.
As a result of the ferry disruptions that day all around Britain, we sailed not directly to Harris but via Loch nam Madadh on North Uist. Ironically, on of my reason for choosing to engage upon a circular route starting on Skye was to leave the longest crossing, that from Stornoway to Ullapool, until last…) We departed a dreich and dreary (is their any other form of ‘dreich’?) Uig at 3pm. Neil & I got on like a house on fire, or so I presume as neither of us forsake the others company and we each downed three pints of beer during our three hours together). We discovered that we had a mutual interest in photography and, as he was clearly vastly superior in knowledge and experience, I was a keen if somewhat slightly ‘mature’ student. His company was particularly welcome when we hit a brief patch of swell mid-Minch and he looked slightly less comfortable than I!
We hit Loch nam Madadh at 5pm – Actually, we docked at the pier about then and, having unloaded the few (were there ANY?) vehicles and pedestrian passengers set forth for Harris. The sun had set by the time we crept stealthily around to Tairbeart which is my only regret because there was a particular patch of ground that I would have liked to have seen off the port side of the ship but, Hey, you cannot have everything!
Entering Tairbeart in a slight drizzle with the water diffusing the lights of the harbour and glistening upon the roads and town was magical. Even more magical was the way that Neil’s Uncle whisked me up to the Harris Hotel for my one night on the island.
A slightly wet and weary traveller hoists himself and the generations contained in his case up to the doors and through them to Reception. Fortunately there is a room available for me and, once safely registered, I send Dodo’s greetings to the lass in front of me. (Maybe I should have reversed the processes in order to procure a more advantageous rate?) Sarah, the daughter of the Proprietors of this most substantial and welcoming of hotels was evidently swift to contact her father to establish any family connection but, alas, I already knew that I could not claim a reduced ‘family’ rate!
Having lugged the ancestors (I now know the true origin of the phrase ‘the weight of the past’!) to my room I descended for food. Steak Casserole, covered with a pastry that the exterior breeze would have carried to Iceland was accompanied by convivial and erudite company. The first chap who spoke was involved in investigations to show that wave/tidal power was a viable resource. As that very day the decision was being made to erect a wind ‘farm’ (What a benign term that is for a factory!) upon valuable ecological land on Lewis the poignancy of the moment is only appreciated with the benefit of hindsight. When I entered the room there were four people there, each sitting precisely in their own corner. I displaced this symmetry of silence and, once the ice had been cleaved, an amorous, good-natured but heartfelt discourse ensued. The second fellow to introduce himself was the Harbour Master for the Western Isles, although he was keen to inform me that his responsibilities did not include harbours in private hands which struck me as a somewhat clear example of the difference between the Scottish & English laws. I was never able to ascertain the motivations of our other two companions but each was equally enthralled when it was my term to explain my presence upon the island. The family history on Harris, the details of the voyages of the ‘Crest’ and sundry other details that I could furnish from memory were devoured, masticated and regurgitated in more digestible a manner for my consideration.
My final companion was the Harbour Master with whom I had a goodnight dram in the more-than-amply- stocked bar of Malts before sleeping to await my first encounter with a Cousin on the Hebrides.
Friday – Loving & Giving
Windy & Wet – YES, this is more like it! An early rise and a walk into ‘town’ to get my bearings. I reach the Newsagent a tad bedraggled, buy my messages, and continue on my way. Suddenly the heavens open and a squall descends into every orifice of my being. I take ‘shelter’ under the eaves of the Tourist Information Centre which, of course, is implacably closed for the season. I cannot but think upon the wisdom of those who define ‘the season’ and thus limit the potential on the isles. Upon entering the hotel I plead for a coffee to warm my soul and sit watching the weather. My sole neighbour starts to engage me in conversation and the most charming and beguiling Alastair Alan, MSP Candidate, is assured of my vote, if I had one. How come ex-pats can vote for the British Government but ex-pat Scots do not have a say in Scottish affairs? One to pursue, methinks! A quick fag and, on the step of the hotel, I chat to a chap whose chopper is helping the fish-farmers relocate their pens. The weather has grounded him and his pilot but they are optimistic that the weather will clear later. Altogether not a bad start to the day.
10:45am – Sitting in the hotel and awaiting the arrival of Cousin Flora Ann. On the dot (punctuality IS inherited!) I am able to greet my most-Harris-connected and descended fellow family member. After a hug and a kiss and having secured the ancestors in her car (they are to get a trip around the island that they could never have dreamed of!) we return to her home looking across West Loch Tarbert. Here I meet her husband Willy from Scalpay and a very merry time ensues.
Diversion to Direcleit
A brief note: When I was investigating my family history I required some clarification due to the Census referring to a place called ‘Dirachte’. I happened to post a letter to Flora Ann as she was the only named genealogist in Tairbeart that I could find on Bill Lawson’s site so you can imagine my surprise when she revealed not only a wealth of information about the area but also that she was a cousin of mine originating from the same place.
I cannot be sure as to when my family moved, more than likely under duress, from Strond to Diracleit. The earliest record I have is that of the 1841 Census which suggests that my, great, great, great Grandfather was living as a tailor/cottar on the Croft at 5 Direcleit. It is his oldest son, Malcolm, who was born there from whom I am descended. Flora Ann, who took me there, is descended from one of Malcolm’s brothers, Angus. The site links each of us.
My first view was not of the site itself but of the ‘road’ from the township to Tairbeart. Imagining one’s ancestors almost two centuries ago trekking across that same land is an image that will stay with me forever.
A short car journey took us to the shore and a view back towards the family ‘pile’ sandwiched twixt Loch Direcleit on shore and Ob Liceasto on the seaward side. Although I must admit that it is a tad conjectural, I am personally convinced that my family were ‘Cleared’ from Strond to Direcleit when that place first became inhabited and thus that my great, great Grandfather would have been amongst the first bairns to cry their first hungry breath across that bay. It is an admittedly romantic idea but, until I am proven wrong, one that I will maintain forever
Lunch at the Inn was a hearty broth prior to our trip South around the beautiful beach-ridden West Coast of Harris. Refreshed and refilled, we departed the Inn and took the road past Direcleit and followed it South for about another four miles before it swung sharply to the right and, headed West, we left the moonscapes of the Western side of Harris for the lush, fertile plains that borders the beach at Seilebost. The contrast between the thin, poor, peat-based pockmarked landscape we had exited and the vista visited upon us was remarkable. Facing North West the beach afforded a view of the island of Taraseigh which was the only land mass blocking the awesome Atlantic ocean’s vast expanse from us.
Travelling along the southern side of the sands we soon entered Horgabost. It is a notable feature of the West side of the Hebridean islands that they have a commendable concentration of Nordic place-names existing today as testament to the men, women and children who settled these shores many, many years ago. One can only speculate as to the impression these beautiful, benign bays bounded by sand and sweeping fertility had upon people used to inhabiting the harsher heads of Fjords in their native lands.
Another three miles took us to the equally glorious sands of Scarista. This beach extends for almost three miles before the road takes a sharp turn South-East and the port of An t-Ob is reached. This town is better-known as Leverburgh following something of a real-life ‘soap-opera’ in the Nineteenth Century. Lord Lever, of the detergent, margarine and other ‘oily’ products company Unilever was intent upon ‘improving’ the isles and invested a small, no, a rather large, fortune in a vain attempt to do so.
Whether his paternalism was misguided or not is for others to judge but his attempt failed and the town he renamed in his own honour remains a lively if not thriving community.
Within but a few miles of Strannda, the site of the earliest known record that I have of my family’s presence on the isles, we turn back and retrace the roads to Taobh Siar. After a refreshing cup of tea it was time to head for the coach and to resume my ancestral adventure elsewhere on the isles.
The 37-mile trip to Steornabhagh takes about an hour which is pretty typical of such journeys in the Highlands & Islands. When every twist and turn, every climb and descent, every mood of the mountains reveals yet another breathtaking view one cannot but revel in this pace of travel. I cannot recall the last time that I was able to cover 37 miles of the M25 in less than an hour!
A mere handful of miles took us to our closest encounter with the summit of An Cliseam, the highest point in the Hebrides standing domed and dominant at some 2620 feet above sea level. Shortly after, we began the ‘interesting’ descent from 187 meters to 54 metres on a swirling, twirling road of just over a mile in length. It must be even more ‘interesting’ in icy conditions! Ten miles further and we reached Baile Ailein, just after passing a wee road to the right that leads, eventually, to Orisaigh in Paircs, Lochs, Lewis and the site of the other ‘clearance’ that my ancestors were subjected to. My great, great Grandmother (Malcolm’s second wife) Mary Macdonald was displaced to Steinish in 1843, In 1841 there had been her and 96 other folk living in Orisaigh but a decade later it was deserted bar for the deer.
Another dozen miles saw us approaching Steornabhagh. In the space of a mere hour I had travelled from the shore of Ob Liceasto with its rocks, poor soil and lack of space to grow anything to the relative metropolis of the capital of the Hebrides. The contrast between Malcolm’s roots on Harris and his residences on Lewis was to become manifest later.
Txt (No) Spk
For the majority of my journey North, I discovered that my mobile phone had switched to a new network. This network, which I christened ‘N-Zero’, was briefly interrupted after Baile Ailein and so I was able to dispatch a message to my cousin Donaigh to let him know that he need not travel to collect me as my cousin Alma was already awaiting my arrival.
Alighting the coach, collecting the ancestors from their hold, we clattered along the pavement at the bus station to be greeted by the broadest of smiles and the biggest of hugs. Bearing in mind that we had never met, multiple emails and phone-calls notwithstanding, I felt as if I had known Alma all of my life. Whatever else this was, it was certainly not a pair of strangers meeting!
My first priority was to secure a bed for the night because, just as I had surprised Dodo & Flora Ann when announcing my presence upon the isles, Alma only became aware when the ‘jungle drums’ from Tairbeart reached Steornabhagh. We tried a highly recommended B&B but alas it was full – clearly the recommendation was a good one. Our second stop was a hotel but it, too, had no space for this particular progeny of the place (the fact that the go-ahead for the wind-farm had been agreed possibly explained why, given the media interest, everywhere appeared full). Third time lucky! The Caledonian Hotel is on the sea front between the freight and passenger piers on South Beach and I was given a room with a view. Having dragged the ancestors upstairs and dumping them in my room it was time to be taken to Alma’s home in Sandwick but not before having decided that, as the ferries still do not run on Sunday, I was here for three nights and not just one.
The first thing to say about Alan, Alma’s husband, is that one glance tells you that he is a Shetlander. I have noticed that peoples’ softness of voice and sweetness of tone is often in inverse-proportion to the harshness of the climate of their provenance. Contrast the gentle, poetic lilt of a man from Shetland with the coarse, harsh bark of a woman from Southend! Alan’s vocalisations are to the ear as is a glass of Guinness to the throat – rich, creamy mellifluous and, above all, leaving you wanting more! I regret not having requested this accomplished fiddle-player and his wife (a National Mod Gold Medallist in Gaelic Singing) not to given me a taste of their manifest talents.
Given my apparent connections with the ‘Clearances’, I should avoid the cliché of saying that Alan & I got on like a house on fire but we did. His admiration for my efforts in tracing my ancestry was only exceeded by my own admiration for this lovely man and what he has achieved most notably in assisting the crofters of the Hebrides.
Shortly before we ate, Alma sprang three photographic surprises upon me. The first was the only known picture in existence on my Grandfather. The smorgasbord of emotions that assaulted me belies description. The tall, slim man gazing back at the camera was probably in his mid to late 50s (and too few years away from death) but the head-full of thick, white hair reminded me all too strongly of my own late father so as to leave no doubt that this was indeed ‘Grandpa’. If there was a defining moment to this excursion to the isles then this was it.
The second surprise were a pair of photographs, obviously taken in the same studio and most likely on the same day, which we think are of Alma’s Grandfather and one of his wives. Alexander John (Aleck) died in 1922 and his obituary in the Stornoway Gazette portrays him as a seafarer of significant stature.
Finally, I gazed upon the face of the man that we firmly believe to be my great, great Grandfather, Malcolm. It is difficult to place an age upon the portrait but the kindly eyes, somewhat tinged with sadness, the full and slightly fearsome beard, the peaked cap with its band of braid ‘speak’ Malcolm to me. This man, my grandfather’s grandfather is, quite simply, my hero.
Born the son of a tailor in Circa 1822 and within a herring-drifter’s distance from the sea on the inhospitable East coast of South Harris, by the time he was 30 Malcolm was twice married and a Seaman in Steornabhagh. It is quite likely that his first wife, Bess Macdonald, from the neighbouring croft at 6 Direcleit, died during or shortly after the birth of their son Roderick. Roddy was subsequently raised by his grandfather John but meanwhile Malcolm had moved north, remarried, and settled in Steornabhagh. I can only conjecture what led this son of the seashore to make a new start but I suspect that the trauma of losing his beloved Bess, coupled with the economic climate pervading at the time, led him that way. Whatever the reason, it is in Steornabhagh that Malcolm and his descendants make their mark upon the isles.
By 1861 Malcolm, Mary and family (including my great Grandmother Annie) are evidently established in the town. It is worth noting that, just as Malcolm & Mary appear to be making something of themselves despite (perhaps as an indirect result of?) being ‘cleared’, so Mary’s family are also grasping the new opportunities available to them. I am in no way wanting to appear as an ‘apologist’ for the horrendous events that appended many, many of the clearances but merely reflecting the fact that, in this particular case, it would appear that the folks got lucky.
After a sumptuous meal that included a specially cured form of salmon the name of which currently eludes me, it was time for Alma to return me to the hotel to prepare for our ‘town tour’ the next day.
Just as I finished unpacking, Donaigh (Dodo’s cousin) rang and invited me for a drink. We, together with his wife, Vera, downed a quick pint in the hotel lounge before retiring to the British/Scottish Legion for a nightcap. I was offered the chance of a tour of the West side of Lewis on Sunday and, whilst explaining that I would need to let Alma know, felt rather relieved that I now had cousins vying for my company!
Saturday – Works Hard for a Living
A glorious start to the day – the sun was shining, the sea calm and, whilst my head was reeling with all the ‘cousinage’ of the past few days (plus the rather large Whisky that Donaigh had insisted upon before he & Vera boarded their bus); I washed, dressed and exited the hotel even before the reception desk had been ‘manned’. A wee walk to take some photos was followed by a large breakfast cooked by the proprietor who, somehow, was able to do so despite having been kept-up until nearly 3am by the band whose music had lulled me to sleep the previous night. A brief second excursion to purchase some essential items and then Alma arrived for our trek around the addresses that I had determined to be of significance. It was just as well that each of us was shod in stout, sensible shoeware.
Our first stop, after a brief shower of rain that proved to be the only precipitation of my entire stay on Lewis, was the Jeweller/Bookshop where I purchased an excellent book on the history and pre-history of Harris & Lewis. Next, Alma guided me to the most unprepossessing of premises that proved upon closer inspection to be a veritable treasure trove. 6 Bayhead is the home of the ‘Lewis Loom Centre’ and to say that it under-sells itself is, in itself, an understatement. Quite how this cross between a retail outlet, a museum and a cavern is able to procure the insurance required to remain trading is something of a mystery to me but that it is an Aladdin’s cave of interest to any visitor is incontestable. However, as it was fairly busy and we had quite a bit to see, I resolved to return later.
Alma had forewarned me that the place of my Grandfather’s birth had been raised (another ‘Clearance’?) and was now no more than a garage forecourt. Nonetheless it was worth a visit not least because two of the houses on one side (10 and 9 Bayhead for any ‘trainspotters’ reading this) were built by ancestors of Alma’s & mine.
To stand near the spot where, in 1875, my Grandfather took his first breath of fresh island air was more that good enough for me!
Resuming our journey, Alma & I followed the locations on my list. This leads me to something of a minor dilemma – whether to continue this tale in the natural geographic sequence of our travels or to introduce the locations in their temporal sequence? After some reflection, I think that the latter choice is preferable, especially as cousin Dodo has indicated that she possesses additional information as to the tenure, etc of some of the locations.
Eventually, footsore & weary, we took refuge in An Lanntair, the Arts Centre, and ordered some much-needed tea and scones. Unfortunately there were to be three bands appearing live that evening and each of them needed to complete a sound-check as we relaxed. Now, I must confess to having seen some of the very loudest rock bands live in my time but it was notably intrusive to have this triumvirate assailing our ears that afternoon.
We were due to visit cousin Nan at 2pm s Alma decided that she had time to continue my tour prior to meeting Nan.
In amongst the ribbon of houses bordering the sands at Steinis there are two that stand out as being unusually old. It is not inconceivable that one or other of this ancient pair is where my great, great Grandmother was cleared to over 160 years ago.
Nan, Angi & Cammi
Returning to town, we parked outside Nan’s house. The first thing I noted was her doorplate bearing my family name – here was proof positive that my family had a presence on the isles. It is a fact that, unbeknown to her, my snap-decision to visit the Hebrides at short notice was to a very large extent precipitated by her sending me a Christmas card. I am very glad that she did! After an all-too-brief visit we walked the short steps to Nan’s brother Angi’s house. It should be a museum. Angi has utilised his phenomenal skills to its full Victorian glory including a most amazing plasterwork ceiling. Quite beautiful to behold.
Taking our leave, we drove to visit Cammi who was currently resting in Steornabhagh’s excellent hospital awaiting alterations to his own house in order that his habitude there would be more practicable. A retired butcher, he used to be a goalkeeper (just as my own son, Lewis, is) and played a significant part in running Youth Football in Stornoway in his time.
Having completed this ‘triangle’ of cousins, we had time for a wee more of a drive around the environs before returning to Alma’s home for yet another feast.
Coda – Saturday Night
Having returned to my hotel, I decided to take a stroll around the town. Apart from a few groups of loud and slightly drunk but harmless teenagers that I encountered the streets were deserted. Had an ‘Over-21 Curfew’ been implemented, I wondered? Eventually I decided to try a bar as the sound of live music was slipping into the street. The whole bar-full of several dozen people turned as I entered. Not exactly the most promising of entries! As my pint was being poured, another barmaid became engaged in the most foul-mouthed exchange with a customer ever to have assaulted my ears. Suffice to say that I did not tarry too long over my ale before retiring to my hotel.
I was in need of a wee dram to steady my nerves and a fag was also required. While smoking on the doorstep of the hotel (technically an offence as I later was informed) I engaged a chap in some idle banter before bidding him adieu and having a (relatively) early night.
Sunday – Sabbath Day, bonny & blithe & Good & Gay
As breakfast started an hour later than usual and I wasn’t due to be collected by Donaigh until after 10:30, I made a leisurely start to the day. I took a pre-breakfast tour of the nearby streets, uncertain as to whether taking photographs on the Sabbath might lead me to eternal damnation or, worse still, with being reprimanded by a Minister. I had a pre-planned argument ready for any such encounter – How come, if working on the Sabbath is a sin, YOU are allowed to do so for, as sure as chicken ovulations are indeed eggs, Ministers DO get paid for their work on Sundays!
I returned to the hotel having escaped any rebuke and asked my host for no more than a bacon sandwich not because of any slight upon his culinary skills but because my cousins had already done their best to ‘fatten me up’ and more of the same was in prospect later that day.
The late morning was bathed in sunlight as Donaigh drove us to the one shop open so that he could fill his car with fuel and we could grab some refreshments for the day. The garage –cum-gun-shop is run by a Norwegian gentleman who holds a position in some official ambassadorial capacity but whose monopoly of Sunday-sales was in no-way reflected by any over-inflated pricing.
Car fuelled, we departed North West across the somewhat barren landscape until reaching the richer ‘Machair’ whose fertility has supported countless generations of Lewisians – at least until the importation of both deer and sheep in vast numbers and at the expense of the inhabitants livelihoods necessitated them to be ‘cleared’ to far less hospitable areas.
On arriving at Port Nis, we parked and took in the view of the substantial harbour below us.
Sadly, but significantly, it was empty of vessels but the safe-haven it afforded folk must have been a welcome relief to sailors who had experienced the awesome Atlantic, the malevolent Minch and manifest other ‘lively’ seas.
A few minutes later and we were at Port Stoth with its slipway surrounded by bird-festooned sea-cliffs.
An idyllic spot.
Not much further and we had reached Robh Rhobhnais – home of the Butt of Lewis lighthouse. The brick-built tower, attended by its now-deserted homes for the keepers, stands as a beacon of, well, light in the awesome edge-of-the World landscape of the Butt itself. The precipitous cliffs, assaulted by Atlantic waves whose doppelgangers reach Canadian shores without interruption, are home to a memorial to a Mr Martin who, in 1953, took one step too close to the edge never to return…
Retracing our route along the road and then proceeding South along the West coast of Lewis we passed, unbeknown to me at the time, the home of my nephew’s partner’s sister. Sorry we didn’t stop!
A few miles further on and we approached the Whalebone arch at Bragar. This jawbone of a Blue Whale washed-up upon the nearby beach in 1920 is adjacent to a pair of houses. One of them is owned and let as a holiday home by my cousin Murdo and the other by Lord and Lady Macaulay, the latter who is also a distant relative of mine. We were chatting to the Life Peer and his wife when the door opened…
…and in stepped the chap who I had been chatting to on the steps of my hotel the previous evening! He is a 1st cousin of Lady Macaulay’s and, therefore, also related to me. Now, whilst such coincidences are not altogether unlikely when you consider that the population of the Western Isles is less than 27,000 it is still pretty remarkable that it was him, and not on of the other 26,999, who I had met.
Travelling onwards, we stopped to look at the twin bridges in Carlabhagh because they were built by ancestors of Donaigh’s and mine.
Our next stop was a somewhat speculative one at Doune Braes where the hotel looked disappointingly shut. However, ever the hardy travellers, we decided to take a closer look and Lo, the good Lord looked kindly upon us because, on this island that all but shuts-up-shop on Sunday, this oasis of oral delight was open! I insisted on buying each of us a pint not least as I wanted to be able to relate that, contrary to myth, one CAN imbibe a beer on Lewis on a Sunday lunchtime. I have to say that, in addition to the welcome refreshment, the view towards the Hills of Harris over Loch an Dunait was stunning – and it wasn’t the beer that made me consider it thus!
Continuing further we were soon at the car park serving the visitor centre at Calanais. The short, steep walk to the stones was accomplished with ease and then the most amazing site assaults me. I have visited Stonehenge (in the days when you could actually stand amongst the stones) and Avebury too but the situation at Calanais is truly exceptional. It isn’t merely the grandeur of the monument itself but also the location affording panoramic views in all 360 degrees that puts this particular stone ‘circle’ simply in a class of its own. Glorious, simply glorious.
Continuing South-South West, we passed through stunning loch and mountain-filled land until reaching the ‘loop’ of beaches that were our final destination. Mirroring their sister-sands on Harris, these havens host surfing, wind-surfing and other seaside activities but, in late-Winter/early Spring, were deserted bar for a few brave soles paddling on the shoreline.
If only communications could be improved (starting with a Sunday service – ferries, Not ‘Wee Frees’ – then I am sure that the economy of these isles as a whole, and of Lewis in particular, would blossom.
Having completed the ‘loop’ round Cnip and Clioph, we then joined the road back towards town. Donaigh decided to take the scenic route past the Shielings, the summer pastures where cattle, women and children fattened the beasts on the lush Machair growth prior to the privations of the Hebridean Winter.
Descending from these summer ‘holiday’ homes, many still in use and looking more like corrugated garden sheds reminiscent of the accommodation afforded the hop-pickers of Kent in years gone by, we entered town and thence on to Point, the peninsula that is home to Donaigh and his wife.
Having covered nearly 130 miles since leaving the Norwegian outpost, we were ready for the excellent roast meal that Vera (secretly having enjoyed the peace & quiet!) had prepared. Gazing South to the hills of Harris, tired but full, I reflected that island life wasn’t quite as bad as the exodus of ‘females of child-bearing age’ might lead one to think.
Eventually it was time for us to call upon Alma and for me to introduce these two cousins of mine for the first time. A couple of hours later, Alma took me to my hotel so that I could have an early night in preparation for my final day on the island.
Well, that was the idea but, as I could not resist the temptation to take a tour of the town on a Sunday evening to contrast it with that of the previous night, I found myself a couple of doors down from my hotel and in the middle of a Ceilidh. A couple of guys were playing guitar and singing and, whilst ‘The Star’ was predominantly male, there were a few ladies there too to lend a civilising atmosphere. I resolved to partake of a swift pint but then, after yet another doorstep-fag-driven-conversation, this time with a fisherman, resolved to have another. Soon one of the barmaids from my hotel entered so, as it would have been rude to leave, I stayed until, much to my surprise, it was 11pm and ‘kicking-out’ time. I had had a really nice time, the people could not have been nicer, and who says that the pubs are shut on a Sunday in Steornabhagh!
Monday – Fair of Face
The hotel proprietor and his wife had left on the morning ferry to collect their children from ‘abroad’ so my final breakfast was cooked by his substitute. It transpired that, because I had taken another early-morning constitutional, he was looking for me when I was already outside and garnering as much as possible in the final few hours left to me.
After his excellent breakfast, I had a bit more time before meeting Alma so I took a final tour before checking-out and awaiting her arrival. Alma, ever the one to spring a surprise, drove us to Lews castle and we then had a bite to eat at the beautiful ‘Woodland Centre’ in the castle grounds. A further tour was ended when I suggested, with a very heavy heart, that we had better make our way to the ferry terminal.
Two things of note – Firstly, a two-masted ketch (are there any other kinds!) was at anchor in the harbour and, as this was precisely the type of vessel that linked us I pointed it out to Alma. Secondly, there is a photograph of circa 1900 showing the harbour and, as I excitedly suggested, it was very possible that Alma’s grandfather’s vessel at the time was pictured. All a bit ‘romantic’, perhaps, but one never knows.
Finally it was time for us to part company and, after a lovely hug, she departed.
Postscript: In the few years that have passed since I penned this piece, Dorothy’s husband John Angus, my cousin Cammi, and Flora Ann’s husband Willie Morrison have all passed-away.
They were wonderful men and I am thankful to have spent some, albeit too brief, time in their excellent company.
Cealaghbhal (Port Nis)
Gearraidh na h-aibhne
Loch an Dunait
1841 Direcleit & Orisaigh
1851 Einacleit, Steornabhagh
1853 Annie’s birth Y Baptism
1858Malcolm’s birth at 9 Keith Street, Steornabhagh
1861 33 Keith Street
1871 46 Bayhead Street
1881 28 Bayhead Street
27 Bayhead Street
1891 37 Bayhead
1898 Malcolm’s death
1901 37 Bayhead