17 December 2014

My Island Home

(revised from 2010 publication on the BDM blog)

Sometimes a longing is transmitted across generations. Racial memory? This poem, by Hector MacDougall (Iain Hyne), “Coll of the Waves,” translated from the Gaelic, resonates among a surprising number of Collach descendants, long-separated from their island origins:

Fair gem of the ocean,
Sweet Coll of my song,
With joy and devotion
To you I belong.
I yearn for the island
I left with a tear
But soon I’ll return 
Now that summer is here.

After almost two hundred years, my McFadyen spirit returned to the Isle of Coll in 2010. And yes, it was summer.

Family historians in Canada have many overseas ancestral “homes.” This is a very special one for me. The Cal-Mac ferry is a liberating, exciting (to me) ride to the Inner Hebrides from Oban, past the Isle of Mull.

What inexpressible feelings to walk among the deserted croft remains, touch the deteriorating burial stones, explore the pristine beaches and hills, enter some of the old dwellings. Of course I did not find the family black house or a “lone shieling” that disappeared along with most of the old inhabitants. A few crofters’ houses have been saved and renovated here and there. But I was able to visit Toraston and Cliad, last known communities of my McFadyens. Each seems to have only one farmhouse now. 

After near depopulation, over the last half-century Coll has attracted permanent incomers. Still, some among the approximately two hundred inhabitants have ancestral ties to the island. The Killunaig burial ground near Cliad has many McFadyen markers, of which only the most recent can be deciphered. It doesn’t take long for the sea air and thriving moss to wreak its natural course. I did not reach another almost inaccessible burial ground at Crossopol, a daunting distance even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, which we didn’t have, across private land. But my people are here under the soil at Killunaig where the overgrown foundation of ancient St Fynnoga church can be seen.

Ballyhough was another community for McFadyens, not of my known line, but who knows before 1776? It’s now the home of Project Trust, founded by Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, the first NGO in Britain to educate and send “gap year” kids to foreign countries as aid volunteers. They learn from historical community life on Coll to prepare for experience in new places. The bond is so close that some of the volunteers have chosen to settle on Coll; some have children who in turn work with Project Trust.

Maclean-Bristol, author of the brilliant history From Clan to Regiment, Six Hundred Years in the Hebrides, among other works, lives in the Maclean fifteenth century Breacachadh castle. It was my great pleasure to spend a few hours with him in this historic setting where my ancestors were clansmen and soldiers for Maclean of Coll.

 Coll is one of Scotland’s great but little-known natural beauty spots. The present inhabitants deal well with occasional tourists who are often birders or hikers or those who just plain want to get away to an idyllic, unspoiled location. The beaches and dunes on the Atlantic side are so amazing they take your breath away. The machair was in full bloom.

One must book well in advance for the 7-room Coll Hotel or the smaller B&B Tigh-na-Mara! Otherwise, you can be one of the infrequent campers among the beautiful dunes. The locals rightfully expect due consideration for opening and closing gates when tramping across their fields. Sheep and cattle are a large part of the livelihood. Signs everywhere in the Highlands and Islands are in two languages: Gaelic and English.

Arinagour is the main community, and you look quite at home if you’re wearing rubber wellies or crocs. The hotel has a jolly lively pub — I expect because it’s the only pub on the island. Any local event is cause for repair to the pub for celebration or discussion. Visiting yachtsmen are regular customers. Soccer and golf were prime topics during my stay. Not to ignore the finer points, the barman tells us the Coll Hotel’s own whiskey is blended “right over there,” waving in the general direction of a windswept promontory, nary a cottage visible. I think of 250 years ago when this small island reportedly had up to thirty distilleries! 

Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland
                              And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”
                           Canadian Boat Song, author unknown, sometimes attributed to John Galt.

                               I left with a tear but a dream come true.

Photo credits: BDM and CDM July 2010.

P.S. Thanks for the comments on the original post, from Callie, Sheri, Ray, and the Anonymouses. They led me to believe I have DSS (Displaced Soul Syndrome).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

No comments: