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).