Eight years ago, at Buaile nam Bodach on Barra, the landlady at the B&B had said, ‘My great-aunt was cleared from Pabbay’ – the next island but two to the south, the third-last joint in the backbone of ‘the Long Island’ of the Outer Hebrides. I was researching my book On the Crofters’ Trail at the time, collecting from people whatever their grand or great-grandparents had told them about the High-land Clearances, when landlords desperate to increase the income from their land forced many thousands of small tenants from their homes by a mixture of bribery, threats and the torching of their thatch, their roof-timbers and their looms.
Chrissie MacPherson, the landlady, was the daughter-in-law of the Coddy – Barra’s famous memorialist or seanchaidh, whose stories were edited into a book by the great Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell. Her words had gone on buzzing and irking in a corner of my brain. Most sources are agreed that the people left Pabbay and the last two islands in the chain, Mingulay and Berneray, quite freely, in a final despair at the harshness of the life, the tremendous winds, the difficulty of landing fish and supplies on the beaches and low reefs of the eastern shores. The last blow was the drowning of four Pabbay fishermen, out of the three families on the island, when a gale blew up as they were fishing at Cuan à Bhòcan, the Sea of the Ghosts, south of Barra Head, on May Day 1897. Highland folk know very well that many of their forebears left their homelands by choice. So why had Chrissie said that her forebear Mary Ann MacNeill (née MacCormick) was ‘cleared’?
Those last islands had been drawing me for most of my life, not because of the hearty ‘Heel-yo-ho, boys’ of the ‘Mingulay Boat Song’, a foreign invention of the Thirties, but because they represented the end of things. Out there, away out there, on those final blue stepping-stones, there could be some fine experience, in a good place which is the last possibility for human life before the huge drowning and foundering of the Atlantic takes over and makes us nothing. I cannot help thinking this, and it has been thought by others – by the Aran islander Dara Ó Conaola, who dreamed he saw the fabled last island to the west, Arainn Bheag, Little Aran: ‘It was an island of two hills, with a tower at either end, and, he told me, it filled up that awful space to the south-west, giving him a feeling of security.’ Tim Robinson relates this, near the end of his double-work, Stones of Aran: pilgrimage and Labyrinth. ‘In reality Pangaea is broken,’ Robinson writes, ‘and all the mysterious bits and pieces circulating in the slow vortices of Panthalassa – Atlantis, the Land of Youth, Maol Dúin’s islands – have foundered, dragging down their rainbows.’ Still we want to reach the West, looking for ‘cliffs against which the waves forever lift their white hands, not in despair, not in joy. Paths lined with flowers that sing their identifications like birds, leading through an infinity of fields, in each of which is an old man remembering its name.’ And so, when Kev Howett, one of the leading rock-climbers based in the Highlands, mentioned a forthcoming expedition to Pabbay and Mingulay, as we stood under a cliff in Wester Ross last autumn, I seized the chance of travelling there at last.
A new island, an uninhabited island, can fold you in, surrounding you with its green arms, crooning to you: ‘This is where to live’ – especially if you are well supplied with tent and sleeping-bag, stove and fuel, food for ten days – and so it was as we half-jumped onto the rocks from the rubber inflatable which the launch had towed on the hour’s journey from Castlebay on Barra. Here was the inlet where the four men drowned a century earlier must have landed year after year, tying their boat to the stanchions whose rusting stubs were still fixed into the rock, laying the split fish to dry on these low reefs of gneiss, curing them in salt from that concrete box further up the geo.
From the launch we had seen the headland of Rosinish draw back and disclose the green eastward hollow where generations of Pabbay folk had grown their barley and potatoes, pastured their sheep and cattle, horses and goats (87 animals at the peak of use in the mid-19th century). On an outcrop above the soft ground fringed with yellow irises stood the shell of a stone house, gables still chimneyed, the lintels of door and windows still in place: ‘the MacCormicks’ house, the one good stone house on Pabbay’, according to Chrissie’s husband Niall. Below it lay the higgledy-piggledy of very old house remains: the buildings would have been cruck-framed and thatched, with a smoke-hole for the fire that burned in the middle of the floor. They could only just be distinguished now from the ruined stonework of barns, kilns and folds. Below these again stood a well-made wooden pen in which the new owners, the Barra Stockmen’s Association, clip their sheep. Sentimentally, I don’t want it to be there. Conscientiously, I’m pleased that the island should still be in use by people more productive than us holiday-makers, and owned locally (like Stoer in Assynt and the island of Eigg).
Now begins the most halcyon time I will ever spend in the islands. A Grecian sun shines and shines. The sea, between here and the visionary mountain citadels of Skye and Rum twenty-five miles off to the east, is a dazzling floor of cobalt, rasped darker here and there by breezes spinning round the anti-cyclone, fretted into cross-currents and overfalls where the floodtide streams both ways round an island. We settle into a habit of exploratory rambles alternating with days climbing the western sea-cliffs. Eleven of us, not solitary, not a crowd: a carpenter, a county council engineer, an Ordnance Survey marketing manager, a nearly full-time climber who paints the Forth Bridge to fund his beloved sport, two writers, a Scottish Nature Conservancy access officer ... The village has extraordinary presence and it’s right that there should be people living here again. Across the burn to the north the wild pasture has been half-colonised by marram, and its curved jade-green wires make a crayoning of paler colour against the sappy mosses and grasses on which the sheep feed. This westward-running stripe of marram is evidence of the deathly gusts that scour sand from the beach and send it to overwhelm the edible grasses – or, as on Mingulay, to bury half the village some years after its evacuation.
One hillock in Pabbay’s marram zone has a monumental presence. Stones litter it, and the nearer you get the more they show their fashioning. Four of them are carved. The finest, recumbent now, four feet long and a foot across, is patterned with symbols cut by Picts around the seventh century: a downward-pointing crescent with two eyes, like a stylised owl-mask, and two superb curvaceous horns or shoots which apparently make a lily. A cross with cross-pieces at the ends of its limbs has been squeezed in unattractively just above the lily and the owl. When the Christians arrived in the eighth century, they did not enhance the art of the place. I have seen similar, smaller grave-mounds on dunes and islets on North Uist and at Barrisdale in Knoydart and been dumbstruck by the poignancy of these thin, flat wafers of stone set on edge generations ago to act as nameless memorials.
Our climbing is a happy-go-lucky, latter-day rebirth of what the islanders, on Mingulay especially, did to earn a livelihood. Early in the 19th century the Pabbay farmer-fishermen used to buy seabirds’ feathers on Mingulay to sell on at Greenock and elsewhere. They still went fowling in the 1880s, when the craft had died out among the Mingulay folk, and roped down the first few hundred feet of those colossal bird-cliffs, the black groins of them streaked orange and green like tribal body make-up or Aboriginal cave paintings of dancing ‘demons’, to catch fulmars with nooses on sticks. Feathers were a crucial commodity, sometimes accepted by landlords in lieu of rent. The best climber (i.e. fowler) on Mingulay was also the finest storyteller, Rory Rum the Story Man, who told ‘with extraordinary effect ... using pause, emphasis, gesture and inflection’ the story of his eviction from Greian on Barra in 1825:
I have lost my memory since my people were scattered – some of them in Australia and some of them in Canada, and some of them mouldering in the dust. Oh the turns of the hard world! ... My fresh new house was burned over my head, and I burned my hands in rescuing my dear little children ... The terrible time that was! The land was taken from us, though we were not a penny in debt, and all the lands of the townland were given to the lowland farmer beside us.
So now we move about in the sublime loneliness of the emptied islands, enjoying ourselves, and they don’t feel emptied at all, they are a kind of rugged paradise, because at this stage in the year (which school and university have prevented me from spending in the Highlands for the first 64 years of my life) the whole ground and air-space is one nest and garden, bower and biosphere, for myriads of flowers and birds. Usually you would go out of your way to avoid stepping on a primrose. Here their buttery constellations star the ground so thickly that they are almost unavoidable. And butter-worts in the damper places, with flowers the hue of bluebells and fatty yellow leaves ready to trap and digest the first midges, which have not yet hatched out to madden us. And milkwort, its little flowers as intense an ultramarine as the sea. And bog-cotton, whose seed-head is like a wisp of wool caught in the node of a rush. And thrift on the headlands, clumps of leafage bulging like green brains, the flowering beds upholstered along the fissures of the reefs in pale-pink quilting. And silverweed, luminously dewy and light turquoise as though a master tailor had found the fabric of them secreted by the earth and cut it into these toothed patterns to embroider every square foot of the old tillage-grounds.
In four days I saw 25 species of flower, plus sundew and red clover on Mingulay, and 30 species of bird, apart from song-thrush and cuckoo which I heard only. The ground was peopled by their nests and eggs: brown-blotched seagreen of a black-backed gull inside the circular foundation of a ruined cairn; black-spotted brown of a snipe, which fled away in zig-zags when I went for an early morning wash in the burn; brown-spotted white of a skylark cupped in the grass near the stone-walled kailyard above the landing place. At all times the air was ringing with their song, like never-ending cadenzas. We shared the air with the flocks of them, and shared the cliffs. On Guarsay Mor, Mingulay’s most hospitable crag, I was clambering up a line where nobody had been before, on rock so carved and etched by salt-gust that its spiny roughness made vertical progress almost easy. A deep scoop like a grotto housed, not the Virgin Mary, but the eyrie of a razorbill and its clutch of eggs, the outermost plastered with guano like heaped drippings of candlewax from the next storey up. From round the corner I heard another razorbill trying to scare off the enemy with a deep gurgle like a coffee percolator. I slanted off to the right, ashamed of intruding on this high-rise maternity ward, and the birds sat tight. Across the 800-foot gulf of Sloc Chiasigeo nearby, puffins whirred and kittiwakes uttered their name precisely as they stitched the air with their flight paths. Shags with stylish erectile crests like Oriental actors’ stood to one side of their nests to let the hot sun brood their eggs. On a coign 350 feet above a slowly revolving curd of sea-foam, deep in the geo, a fulmar egg was showing outside the curve of its parent’s breast, just inches from the drop, until the bird reached down with a gesture as elegant as a swan’s and nudged the egg into safety under its feathers. Even at night, birds ruled. The darkness was alive with drumming snipe, vibrating their tail-feathers a few feet above the tents. Corncrakes squawked from the nettle-beds with their inimitable double rasp, twice every minute from midnight until 4 a.m. – in fact it was not inimitable, since the starlings mimicked them almost exactly in daylight hours, just in case we might be pining for the noisy, seemingly invisible little bird which is now almost extinct in England.
Pabbay was intimate. We could get to know it all, as we walked daily round the coast or over the watershed by little glens crisscrossed by very old dykes – lines of boulders, sometimes topped with turf and heather. There was not the usual ring-dyke round the croft-land and the ends of the gullies were not stopped to save animals from straying into the geos. Could there have been a system to allot the outby land into areas for which the herds from one family or another would have been responsible? Our goals on the west coast were the headlands of Allanish, Sloc Glansich (named after a famous operator of an illicit still) and Rubha Greotach. Here a colossal arch with a roof 30 feet deep and jambs 300 feet high is recessed into the sea-cliff. While the tigers did the big climbs, I did lesser things nearby with another veteran, Bill Skidmore, who had put up formidable routes in the Sixties on a big north-facing cliff in Glen Croe west of Loch Lomond. A jet-black, open-book corner cleft downwards in awesome perspective to a ledge a few feet above the highest waves. This route had been wittily named Wee Free and our two others nearby were the Complete Works and the Abridged Version – all well suited to the devout and literate culture that had once belonged here.
I was never frightened on this island. It was a haven of gentleness – in this weather. No raptors, since there seemed to be no mammals to prey on; a comfortable balance between all the species; a gradual sinking back into oblivion of what had been here. After the only night of rain, mists brooded for a day or two, and from Rosinish you could see through the rising layers of it, hazy blue as the bloom on grapes, island after island in line ahead to the north: Sandray, cleared by eviction in the 1830s, looking always sunlit in the yellow of its many dunes; the vivid, idyllic green pastures of Vatersay, scene of the first famous squatting by landless families towards the climax of the Crofters’ War; Barra’s mountains, Tangaval and Heaval, basking in the benign light, with their lesser fellows on Eriskay and South Uist dimming off beyond them. Becalmed stone whales and dolphins. Blue skulls of the generations, folding into their own time. It looked as much an epitome of the world as the famous blue-white-brown image taken during the moon landing, and it seemed to be signalling everything that we know and live by: that things have endings; that there are footholds; that everything rises into the light; that we embark and arrive; that the compass is stretched out over us; that we steady ourselves among the currents and the winds.
Mingulay was more powerful, and more unsettling. The houses of people whose names are still known are carcasses sour with nettles, their window apertures blinded by drifts of sand. John MacLean, in whose kitchen-room bannocks cooking on the fire had been photographed by Robert Adam in 1905; his three children, Catherine, Mary and Allan, barefoot outside the little window; Donald MacKinnon, who made eight spinning-wheels out of oak driftwood in 1859: they lived here, between the silverweed pasture and the sea-strand of ground white shell. The concrete crosses on the grave-mound are mostly broken (by visiting vandals). On the slope behind stands the chapel-house, which contained St Columba’s Chapel and a flat for the visiting priest, built for £700 (three times more than was spent on the jetty) 12 years before the desertion. Its roof, with its three dormer windows, blew off recently in a gale. The farmland is divided by a burn with the remains of a corn mill beside it and deep clear pools from which we drew water until we found a dead sheep someyards upstream. In this charmed early summer the water was running low, and had already nearly failed on Berneray to the south (where four of our party had gone to camp and put up the first rock-climbs). How had 180 people managed to cook and drink and wash at the peak of congestion a century ago? The fields in the broad dale west of the village are amazingly ample, each bounded by a line of boulders laid parallel, like farmland in the Lowlands. Every available yard had been used. The past life was uncannily present, making me feel an incomer who was taking advantage of the native hardships and final defeat.
Both terrain and wildlife on Mingulay had an epic savagery. Great stacks and headlands jut westward; Lianamul, Arnamul, Sròn an Dùin, clubbing at the sea, cleft by it in return. The bonxie, or great skua, patrols here: a bird, according to the writer Jim Crumley, who was in the party, ‘quite up to dispossessing an osprey or drowning a gannet’. They were not nesting yet and did not buzz us seriously, just stood on vantage-points like vigilantes waiting for trouble. They might have to knuckle under to the sea-eagle, greatest of British birds, which became extinct when the last one was shot on Yell in Shetland in 1915. I had never dared hope to see one, even since their reintroduction on Rum in the mid-Seventies. Now Jim and I focused our glasses on a brown cliff in the side of MacPhee’s Hill where a big raptor was hunched. As it lifted off, we gasped at the span of its wing canopies, then saw the white barring on its tail: a mature sea-eagle, letting the air buoy it, sheering along the updraught of the sea wind and out of sight beyond the peninsula of Tom a Reithean.
The sea, still kingfisher blue, was lifting and sinking and lifting as a swell came in from some turbulence far out to the west. Tempered by days of continuous activity, and recovered from the sleepless corncrake nights, I went for an Extreme climb, well beyond my usual grade, and surprised myself by tiptoeing comfortably enough up its sheer first pitch. At the top of the steely, sea-buffed wall, I looked down through a pleasant adrenalin aura at the crash and smother of the foam as it spilled back onto itself like cow’s milk seething in a bucket. The route was Ossian Boulevard: a good name, fusing the ocean with the Celtic hero, although the spelling ‘Oisin’ would make the pun still better. At 7 p.m. the sun, due west, had engendered a wee rainbow flowerbed to its right and its left, another directly above it, and the bronze track of its reflection burned straight from the horizon to the surf beneath our feet, so that the whole thing composed the trunk, the centre and the connecting arcs of a Celtic cross.
Back on Barra, at Buaile nam Bodach, Chrissie MacPherson gave me epic details of her great-aunt’s exodus from Pabbay. Mary Ann MacCormick’s mother had died there and her father had come to live near here at Ruleos. She herself went back to Pabbay and married Donald MacNeill. By the time he was drowned they had two sons and a daughter. (The centenary of the disaster has just been marked by a Mass at Castlebay on Barra.) Soon afterwards, she rowed her children in a small boat to Vatersay, a distance of between six and seven miles, left her son Kenneth there, and came on to Castlebay. She was given a fishcurer’s hut to live in and worked with the fish at a place on the foreshore called Poirt na Marbh, or Harbour of the Dead. ‘She was a small woman, hunched over, with white hair.’
So one refugee from those islands out on the rim of things comes into focus. Had they all left more or less like that, driven out by the many difficulties? There was no ferry on a Monday and I spent the day in the new Cultural Centre, set up by Comunn Eachdraidh Bharraidh agus Bhattarsaidh, with its beautiful logo on the front wall based on the Pictish lily-stone. As I studied its photographic and printed archive, I was transfixed by these words in the Island Guide to Mingulay: ‘in order that Lady Gordon Cathcart could let the islands of Pabbay, Berneray and Mingulay to a grazing tenant, by her authority “notice has been served on the people on these Islands that they are to leave, and their stock if not cleared off will be seized” ... It is said that the roofs were burned so that they could not return,’ and not only the roofs but the jib and derrick of the crane that had been built by the Congested Districts Board in 1901 in a belated effort to solve the difficulty of getting boats safely inshore and catches unloaded. Had this been, then, the last outright and forced clearance in the Highlands?
That evening I went looking for confirmation or further details on the shingle beach below the Post Office, where John Allan MacNeill, grandson of a Mingulay man, was overhauling the engine of his boat and replacing some rotten planks. When I asked him what he had heard about the exodus, he eased himself upright, fixed me with his bleached blue eyes above the gunwale of his boat, and said: ‘I will tell you what made them leave. The Church. When a new man came in up there’ – waving his screwdriver towards the church on the hill above the town – ‘he was not so keen about going down there twice a year, he did not like it at all. So – they had to go. The ones that were still there, they had no option, because he was not going to go down there in a boat, if it would be stormy or anything like that. So he told them what to do. Och, they were falling by the wayside right enough, but it was the Old Fellow upstairs’ – waving his screwdriver towards heaven this time – ‘yes, that was the way of it.’
‘Did you ever hear that they burnt the roofs of the houses to stop them going back?’
‘I will tell you what happened to the timbers out of the roofs. They made them into stabs, to make fences on the cliffs, for the animals. My grandfather said he would have burnt his house-roof himself, to stop himself going back there.’
He laughed, and his friend from the depths of the boat laughed. On this equivocation the story ends. The story so far. Perhaps the exodus was a mingling, or a Mingulaying, of all three inexorable factors – the Church, the landlord and the elements.