The last chime faded away as Mary’s mind awoke. It was three O’clock in the afternoon of that sunny Sunday and the house, the street, the town were all asleep. Lying in her bed facing the large bay-window in her large semi-detached Victorian villa, Mary’s memories began to play…
They knew the men were coming. The reception had been weeks in the planning. When the cry (in truth they were coded bird-calls) went out that unrecognised boats were heading to the mouth of Loch Shell all moved to their positions. The men stood listlessly and languorously in small groups, in pairs or alone. The women, with babes in arms and infants at their skirts, approached the landing site. The official party was met in this manner and, when the women’s patience was exhausted, the Factor, the Sheriff and the would-be evictors were chased to their craft and sent back with their tails drooping bedraggled in the waters of the loch. Twenty year-old Mary had been one of those who had seen them off, but shortly after her turning twenty-one the party had returned and this time were met by none but those left to tend the crops.
The whole community had already embarked on their enforced exodus; roofs stripped of thatch and the precious timbers loaded onto boats, other boats held household chattels and a human cargo of the elderly and infirm. The droving parties had departed, taking the beasts to pastures new and, finally, the foot-party of walking women and children, with infants held breast-tight, turned and looked for one last time at the hills of Pairc and the remains of their loch-side homes. No fires, no roofs, the short walls with their grass-topped cavities lying-low within the landscape never again to resonate with the sound of human habitation.
Mary’s hand, beyond conscious control, closed tightly on the blanket and a tear formed in her eye.
Steinish. Her memory had jumped, taking the family in an instant to their new home. No familiar hills, no sight of the Shiant islands, no father. A husband. Children. Stornoway.
Life was never easy but she had chosen well. Malcolm was a quiet man, sober in his habits, respected by his adopted town but who only really came alive when he was at sea. The sea. It had given her grandfather his living burning kelp (and taken his sight in exchange), it had nearly taken one of her sons not once, but twice, and it was fitting that the man who’s photograph she held had been consigned to lie forever beneath its waves.
News of the first shipwreck, in 1890, had come with the arrival of the vessel’s owner at her door. Murdo had first been to tell Alex’s wife the news and had then hurried through the wind and rain to let his Master’s mother know that her son was safe, whilst the ship and its cargo had been smashed upon the rocks. Malcolm had merely said that, as a Harris man, he should have ignored his wife and piloted their son through the Sound of Harris and Mary silently thought that if that had been the case she could have been facing a double-tragedy that January evening. Alex came ashore at the spot where his grandfather had been born.
The clock ticked on.
A few years later she had given-up on trying to prevent the old man from adventuring with their son and so it was that news reached her in 1898 that Malcolm was no more. The trip to Ireland in December was bound to be difficult but the 76 year-old wasn’t going to let Alex face it without him. They had enjoyed several years of coastal trading together aboard the vessels that Alex had owned and the Crest had given good service ever since they collected her from Tobermory and had made Stornoway her home.
Two days into the voyage Malcolm’s health had started to give Alex concern and he decided to make for Oban to give his father a rest. In the Sound of Kerrera, at the Horseshoe Sound, Malcolm’s diseased heart gave its final beat on the 15th of December 1898. An inquest was held in Oban, the Master and Owner Alex had to wait both for it and the arrival of a crewman from Stornoway so it wasn’t until the end of the year that they were able to proceed to Belfast. Carrying Malcolm with them until, when Alex’s telescope revealed a glimpse of the hills of Harris on the horizon, his body was given to the sea.
Mary’s thumb gently stroked the image and a second tear began to form.
The clock was ticking beyond her hearing and her mind led her to 1903 and the second wreck. Crest. Alex. Kebock Head. Loch Shell. It was the 18th of April when she was lost, driven by the gale onto this isolated, cruel headland and the men had trudged through the night the four treacherous miles that led to the nearest lights. They were those of Orinsay, the place where Mary had been born and from which she had been driven just two months short of sixty years before.
The clock was ticking.
The Sun, lying low in the West and reflected by the wavelets of Bayhead, was casting ripples onto the curtains, the light gently caressing the lids of Mary’s eyes. The rippling became that of the waters of Loch Shell and the sound of children playing, of laughter and singing, reached Mary’s ears. The photograph slowly slipped from her fingers and was replaced by a familiar hand. She felt his grip and, as the clock reached twenty-past three on March the 22nd 1908, Mary knew that she was now reunited with Malcolm forever…
The people, places and events described are based upon fact but with embellishment.
Mary and Malcolm were my grandfather’s grandparents.
Documents 16-22 in the link below describe the Loch Shell clearances: http://www.angusmacleodarchive.org.uk/browse/index.php?path=%252F2.%2BHistory%2Bof%2BPairc%252C%2BLewis