‘Free Church open of Black Pt. clears the Oban Rocks’

An odd title for a piece about a nautical chart, perhaps, but to me it has a certain poetry redolent of several facets of the Western Isles. The chart is that of East Loch Tarbert East Loch Tarbert , surveyed by Lieut. FWL Thomas, assisted by WT Clifton, 2nd Master, in 1857.
The title is a phrase found giving a sighting for safe passage into Tarbert avoiding the Oban Rocks and using the sight of the Free Church tower in Tarbert, once it appears from behind ‘Rudha Dubh’, as a sign that the way is free from obstruction. TheĀ church and Manse that appear on the chart, published in 1863, appear to have only been built the previous year but how significant it is that the erection of Tarbert’s Free Church should be used to help enable mariners to steer a safe passage into the harbour! We should also note that, although the sailing direction uses the English ‘Black Pt.’ in its instruction, the chart itself adds the Gaelic name in parenthesis.
Whilst we are in the vicinity of Tarbert, with its School and Inn marked alongside the ecclesiastical structures already mentioned, it is interesting to see how the chart ‘bleeds’ over its rectangular boarder to lead us to the shore of West Loch Tarbert just a few hundred yards away. If only that connection had once been made available to vessels who knows what riches might have been gained for the people of Harris!
Moving South from Tarbert, we follow the coast via Craobhag and Yellow Rock (Sgeir Bhuidhe), past Mhurchaidh Rock to Coal Island (E. a. Ghuail). Stop at this island and look left towards the nearby Trig point (a small triangle with a dot inside it) on the mainland. As your gaze passes from sea to land you notice a small shaded rectangle just a few feet from the shore and not many more above the surface of the waves. A house, roofed, occupied. It is the home of John the Tailor and where his son Malcolm, my great, great grandfather was born.
The house of this landless Cottar lies close to the man-made southern boundary of Croft 5, Direcleit, and that arrow-true pointer takes us to Loch Direcleit and, just beyond, Baile Dhiracleit or the Township (Carmichael prefers ‘Townland’) of Direcleit. Here are the cluster of six or seven houses that sit at the head of head of the bay but there are at least nine others shown scattered around the somewhat obese headland that ends at Dhiracleit Point.
This survey, made a century-and-a-half in the past, gives us the first accurate plan of the land since Bald’s map that dates back yet another half-century. It is, as I trust you will allow me, of particular significance to me for obvious reasons but it is also worth exploring as a thing of beauty in itself. One example, tucked at the bottom left-hand corner, will serve as an example. Here, in a position where it doesn’t intrude upon the main chart, is a drawing of the land as seen from a point at sea. It includes two references to peaks on the land and uses a wonderfully gentle and easily overlooked means of identifying those landmarks for above the summit of each are drawn some birds. The group of three above Roneval are not merely there for decoration but also in order for the summit to be identified in the writing below. It is a lovely touch, adding to our understanding of the scene without detracting from the artistry of the image it adorns. Magical!
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