11 May 2000. I’m driving comfortably up the M74 through the Border hills near Beattock on the way to South Uist and Barra. At Oban I’ll rendezvous with David Paterson, a landscape photographer, who’s working with me on a book on the Highland Clearances. As I overtake a worn blue Audi estate, I look sideways and see Dave’s face and grizzled beard. We exchange incoherent signs, pull in a little later on the hard shoulder, and agree to meet at Arrochar on Loch Long for a snack and petrol. Shortly before noon I’m standing in the filling station letting the fuel run into my tank and staring fondly up at the jagged rock towers of the Cobbler, where I did a climb with my stepson-in-law on a halcyon day like this. As I take the hose out I see it’s blue, not green. I’ve filled my car brim-full with £44 worth of diesel. Two hours of frenzied thinking, rethinking, conferring with mechanics, phoning the AA, being towed to a garage at Tarbet on Loch Lomond, transferring luggage, boots, rucksack, camera and crates of books (including all five volumes of the Crofters Commission Enquiry, 1884, and both volumes of the Deer Forest Commission, 1892) to Dave’s car. Oban by 2.15, 53 miles of Highland road in an hour and a quarter? By half-past two we are safely stowed aboard the ferry and gliding north-westward across the blue glaze of the sound between Morvern and Mull.
12 May. We spend the day reconnoitring the south-west corner of South Uist from our base at a B&B called Ard na Mara (‘shieling of the sea’) in Kilpheder (from the Gaelic Cille-pheadair, or ‘church of Peter’). Ten square miles of machair stretch from the western dunes to the eastern rocky moors. This is a plain of shell-sand, where millions of cockles and whelks, razor-shells and buckies, ground into ivory fragments smaller than a baby’s fingernail, have mingled with a little humus from generations of flowers and grasses, dung and discarded thatch, to make a fragile tilth. When the crofting townships to the north and east were cleared between the 1820s and the 1850s to make ranches for sheep (with Lowland shepherds), this plain is where the families were dumped by the hundred – those who had not fled, or been driven, to North America. The result is weird. Dozens of houses scatter over the grassland like a child’s bricks. Each is hundreds of yards from its neighbour, yet so many are there that from several vantage-points they look continuous as a street. Very few are on a meaningful site, in terms of water supply, shelter, proximity to a river, a loch, a meeting-place, a junction of anything at all. No huddle, no neuk, no landmarks to speak of. On the rim of the country with the Atlantic pounding and bellowing a few yards away, these dwellings are scarcely more ensconced than igloos in the Arctic.
At night: a reunion with the crew of Triple Echo Productions, who are making a radio programme in which I’m involved. Wine, seafood and whisky: on the way to a trackless coast, to talk about people evicted from little thatched houses a century and a half ago, we’re living, as usual, like well-heeled tourists.
13 May. We drive north along the island’s spinal road and east along the south shore of Loch Skipport, a fjord cutting in from the Little Minch, which separates Uist and Skye. At a jetty we embark on the boat of Angus Beaton, lobster fisherman, 40 years old, laconic, a bald skull like seasoned teak. The coast I’ve longed to visit for 12 years swims slowly past – the low-lying, habitable peninsula of Usinish, the little green alluvial tracts at glen-mouths where families lived before the evictions. In 1988 Donald MacLean of Howmore, fisherman and lighthouse boatman, and his wife Jill told me about life on this coast, ‘the back of the hill’ behind the 2000-foot peaks of Hecla and Beinn Mhor. I had hoped to meet them again this week – I wrote to them in March, but her brother replied from Devon that both had died.
We’re steering for Mol a Dheas (‘shingle-beach of the south’) because the bearer of one of the most beautiful Hebridean poems, ‘The Invocation of the Graces’, lived here until she was cleared, probably in the 1820s. She was Catherine MacAulay, one of several people too old or infirm to go to Canada. In the words of the folklorist Alexander Carmichael, ‘she wandered about from house to house and from townland to townland, warmly welcomed and cordially received wherever she went, and remained in each place longer or shorter according to the population and the season, and as the people could spare the time to hear her.’ The idea of the radio programme is to thread the literature of a place through talk about it and through its sounds. Invisible cuckoos are fluting from the hillsides, larks trilling their juicy music from a hundred feet above their nests among the bents. Catherine’s lyric, a blessing on a young woman ready for marriage, begins:
I bathe your palms
In showers of wine,
In purifying fire,
In the seven elements,
In the juice of raspberries,
In the milky honey,
And I call the nine pure choice graces
Into your fair fond face …
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