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 …

There’s almost nowhere to land. The people of the little settlements at Mol a Dheas and Corrodale and Hellisdale (and Prince Charlie’s boatmen, when he took refuge near here) must have run their boats up the shingle. Angus can’t do that, it would ruin his propeller. With the delicacy of a snooker master playing a safety shot, he idles his boat close to a little cliff, barely turning the helm, grazing the seaweed. We reach out, grasp three-inch ledges slippery with bladder-wrack and rough with barnacles, and scramble ashore. At once we’re enfolded by that atmosphere of a civilisation recently past, like being whispered to in a language partly understood. At the entrance to the once-used ground a burn is crossed by a single squared timber, bleached silver-gray. In places the moor plants grow in a corduroy, showing where the people made feannagan, ‘lazy-beds’, cutting the turf with their spades and turning it inwards to make a raised baulk, fertilised with seaweed, in which potatoes grew. At the east end of the curved beach are shells of houses with rounded corners and four or five courses of stones still standing. Which was Catherine’s? Impossible to tell.

We pick our way through thickets of dwarf willow (good for making creels to carry peats or seaweed). I’m reluctant to leave, as though saying farewell. The beauty of the next six miles is that they’re pathless. The ways to and from Mol a Dheas will have been by sea. No sign of Dave, busy at his work in a high midday glare which is not his favourite light. We sidle round great bald outcrops of Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rock in Britain. These islands tore off mainland Scotland tectonic ages ago and churned southward. Now and again we couch down in the bents, among sapphire glints of milkwort and buttery stars of primroses, and I record my impressions of this long flowery reef in the ocean, the foothold it has been for people, and their own stories. ‘My father,’ Donald MacLellan said 117 years ago,

went away with boats to a place 12 miles from the first, where there was no people, no houses, but heavy heather; sleeping in shore dens, with frost and snow covering our beds for five days and five nights, until they made turf cottages … The land of my birth I would prefer to any, where there was no want of food, and no debt.

We’re sweaty and satisfied as we get back to the van at Angus Beaton’s jetty. Later, it turns out that Dave doubts if he found any worthwhile images. The terrain was low-lying and uneventful and there’s a limit to the number of dead houses which can be made interesting. One day he may embark on a comprehensive record of Clearance sites. Usually, he says, ‘a picture matters to me for its emotional content.’ I agree, though in some cases I’ll want a photograph of a place where something especially poignant – heartbreaking or inspiring – took place. Through such discussions we’re feeling our way towards a shape for the book.

14 May. On the second and last day of radio work we walk out along the north shore of Loch Eynort, another of the eastern fjords, once the centre of the island’s import-export, rent-collecting and cultural life, now empty, quietly receiving the tides and the sunlight. Our goal is Arinambane (‘shieling of the women’). There was a nunnery here in the 16th century. It lives on in a verse written down in the 1880s by Carmichael –

A lovely summer shieling of one tree,
Behind the wind, in front of the sun,
Where we could see the whole of the world
And no man could us see.

We record on an outcrop with a bird’s eye view of the headland, looking down on every feature of one old settlement: the stripes of the lazy-beds; the line of the ring-dyke which kept the cattle outside the arable lands, now a wrinkle of earthwork in the benty grass; a stone-walled enclosure, perhaps the kailyard where the inhabitants grew their greens; a landing-place where two straight lines of boulders run out into the sea; a burn for fresh water. A substantial ruin with sharp (i.e. modern) corners must be the inn identified by Donald and Jill MacLean, whose papers I’ve been reading in the cultural centre nearby in Kildonan: ‘A strong tradition insists that the inn was slated, and it was burnt down before becoming a [thatched] shepherd’s cottage.’ Five households in 1841, including a publican; two in 1851, including a widowed shopkeeper; one in 1881, a shepherd incomer; abandoned by 1900. A mixture of forced clearance and demographic drift. As a cuckoo wings right across the sea-loch with its stealthy, dipping flight and the ride fills nearly full, buoying the brown tangles of the seaweed, I can see time pouring in a transparent flux, across the sounds and the uplands, bearing the people away to America, lifting the houses like flotsam and dropping them near a different ferry-port, a different plot of land. Only it isn’t ‘time’ that does it, it’s the calculations of landlords and the needs of the families for more space, in Manitoba or New South Wales, and more freedom from the ground officers, nicknamed abaghan (‘terriers’), who impounded their cattle and searched their cooking-pots for evidence of poaching.

Where the road ends and the lochside track begins, a modern house stands with a garden of extraordinary beauty and usefulness. Rhododendrons and azaleas blaze in the shelter of a carefully planted wood (broad-leaved and conifer) and in little plots inside the wood a range of herbs, vegetables and soft fruit is flourishing on finely-crafted lazy-beds. It’s as though the old civilisation of the nunnery is flowering again in this cranny of the wilderness.

We finish our work at Tigh Mhail (‘rent-in-kind place’), where the crofters came to pay their rent. A ruin now with the traditional rounded corners – which tell us that it was thatched, windowless, with a fire in the middle of the floor and the smoke finding its way out through a hole in the roof. I asked a man once in Iochdar, ten miles north of here, how they put up with the smoke and he said: ‘Och, we just bent lower as the night went by.’

15 May. The radio team leave for their next recording in Sutherland. I drive to Kildonan and spend more time with the MacLeans’ papers, stored in cardboard boxes in the old corrugated-iron building which was the school. They have notes on every bygone settlement on the east coast. The typescript is numbered up into the hundreds, suggesting they were writing a history of South Uist. Will somebody complete it? In the craft shop next door I buy a small glazed bowl made at Locheport in North Uist, where the refugees from the most violent evictions on that island lived ‘in the black moor’ before the bulk of them embarked for Glasgow and Australia. It’s turquoise with radial veins suggesting a sea-urchin – an exquisite secretion of the Hebrides.

16 May. We catch an early ferry to Barra and make for Buaile nam Bodach (‘gathering-place of the old men’) where we’ll stay with friends, Chrissie MacPherson and her husband Niall, son of the Coddy, the island’s renowned storyteller. As usual Niall fixes me up with people who can tell me about their forebears. I’m intent on the north-west end of the island, which I remember as purely green and empty, gutted by eviction. The beauty of the islands is expanding round us now, like a huge flower. Each traigh (‘beach’) is white-gold. The mid-sea blue and shore-sea green are glowing ultramarine in mid-channel, between here and Eriskay, and eau-de-Nil above the sandbars. The slopes of the pastures are an unbroken yellow fabric of primrose. Corncrakes grate among the clumps of flag iris. The green north-west feels silent despite this because there is nobody there: this is the artificial peace that prevails for generations after the fear-thollaidh nan tighean (‘destroyer of homes’) has cleared the place. Hugh MacDiarmid likened it to the silence ‘heard’ through a doctor’s stethoscope when a baby has died in the womb. Fences partition the grasslands of a shallow dale. The links of a river wind glistening towards the sand-dunes. In the newish graveyard I find a granite headstone for Morag Macaulay, Mor Bhan, who died in February 1998 aged 86, ‘Fuilt Bham – Sorely Missed’. Twelve years ago, in her best frock with her hair newly curled, she sang for me ‘The Fair Maid of Barra’, which a Uist man had written in her praise between the wars. The biggest house on Barra commands this scene. Steep gables, Georgian windows, two wings, a walled garden (derelict) behind it. Agatha Christie could have set a murder here. Whose house was it? Dave photographs it from all angles, catching its dark-grey domineering presence among the disused fields which were once the townland of Greian. Then we go over the hill to the next place, Cliad, on a slope above the ocean, and find it full of good new houses, old ones used as barns or garages, and newly fenced garden crofts dug into lazy-beds waiting for the year’s crop of potatoes or cabbages.

17 May. Niall thinks the big house may have been a manse. I hope to find out more when I call on Mary Kate MacInnes in Glean tomorrow. We spend the day on Vatersay to the south. I went there with my wife in 1988 on a wee ferry shared with a collie dog, a bag of potatoes and a bag of onions. Now the narrows of the kyle are bridged by a causeway. Petrol, building materials and animal feed can be shifted over in minutes. The village used to look like an abandoned film set. One house had tattered tin walls that shivered in the wind. Now there are newish cars standing beside the wrecks with deflated tyres, children’s bikes at the back doors, neat screens in the windows. The people still don’t want to know you, they turn back into their houses as you come near. Is Vatersay convalescing after generations of maltreatment? In 1549 It was ‘ane faire maine land inhabit and manurit, abounding in corne and gersing [grass]’. By the mid-19th century only one farmer lived there – we walk about in the shell of his mansion. Land raiders came over from Barra in 1900, descendants of cleared families, and pegged out crofts for themselves, wanting ‘a piece of land to plant a barrel or two of potatoes and grazing for a cow’ in the place where ‘their grandparents and remoter ancestors had crofts’. The island is a dream of green, shaped like a Chinese ideogram, its slender neck flanked by blond beaches, its mantle of grass grazed by over a hundred cattle. These and the unusual number of ploughed fields give it the look of the Highlands two generations ago.

We walk southeastward, letting the rising and hollowing of the ground steer our feet deeper into the green quietude. Against a sea prussian-blue under thickening cloud, three stoneworks come into focus: two pairs of gable-ends and one full shell with windows. Three other remnants stand nearby, like large gravestones. The gables must have been completed with studding and corrugated iron. The south gable of the best house is stone-built, the north is concrete made with beach shingle. It’s filled with a stramash of bleached and rotted tongue-and-groove boarding, a welly boot, frayed lengths of blue nylon rope. Dave wonders if the smaller stoneworks were ‘steamies’ (wash-houses). In one of them I find a little plastic Disney dog with dark glasses that go up and down when you work its tail; beside the house, a cast-iron shard made by the Columbia Stove Company. On the map this is (or was) Eorisdale. Later, the information board beside the Vatersay community hall tells me Eorisdale was ‘established by the land raiders after 1909’ – presumably funded by the Board of Agriculture, which bought Vatersay from the absentee owner, Lady Gordon Cathcart. Among the gaunt masonry, brown and black and ruddy cattle are grazing with their calves, on smooth sward that makes everything seem spaced out and unnaturally distinct, the cattle a blood-link to the people of Vatersay, the houses memorials to the departed and dead.

18 May. A morning with Mary Kate MacInnes, a former history teacher at Castlebay. She says her memory is poor since a house fire poisoned her with carbon monoxide and destroyed her library. In fact she teems with precise information and fishes out text after text from the shelves she’s laboured to refill by scouring bookshops on the mainland. Yes, the grimly handsome house at Greian was a manse – it was the home of the Rev. Henry Beatson, Presbyterian minister (on this largely Catholic island) from 1847-71. ‘Of course it was,’ she says. This is the Beatson, who in 1850 could ‘be seen in Castlebay, the principle anchorage in Barra, whenever a sail is hoisted, directing his men, like a gamekeeper with his hounds, in case any of the doomed Barramen should escape’. Many of those who had agreed to emigrate, often to qualify for a handout of meal in their destitution after the Potato Famine, tried at the last minute to stay. Beatson brought to his splendid house his bride Christina MacDonald, daughter of the factor who supervised the Clearances, and thus bonded himself deeply into the island’s ruling class. All this and more I find out from Mary Kate’s documents and conversation, which disclose one cache of island history after another as though we were finding clutches of eggs in the grass.

Afternoon: Dave and I walk up and down the little western glens, exploring settlements wiped out by clearance and still inhabited ones where people were dumped and the crofts halved and quartered, condemning them to still worse poverty. One glen houses both Craigston, where St Brendan lived for a while in the sixth century before sailing off to explore St Kilda and Greenland (a fine scraperboard mural behind the altar in the church shows him hauling on an oar), and Borve, special to me because Michael Buchanan, the most eloquent witness at the Crofter Commission hearings in 1884, lived here. A rare book at Mary Kate’s described how he made speeches about land rights in the churchyard: ‘His weekly communiqué was awaited with the same eagerness with which we receive the radio bulletins.’ The light for photography is only so-so. All the time Dave is making mental notes of places he’ll return to when the sun is low and relief and texture are more sharply defined.

19 May. One day left in the present stravaig. Before I visit Mairi Jane MacLean at Eoligarry we’ve time to climb the hill to Dun Scurrival, an old circular stronghold 250 feet above the sea, and look back down the west coast – the combers breaking brilliant white – to Uist, where the mountains sheltering the east side of the island from Atlantic gales are bruised with cloud-shadows like giant footprints. When Mairi Jane welcomes me into her house among the flowery pastures, she tells me at once that it was built by her father and uncles who sledged the stones down from the old fort that we’ve just been standing on. Each thing is a clue to history. A turfed hump on the hillside had been puzzling me – she tells me it’s a ‘clearance cairn where the cleared family looked back to see their old place for the last time and piled stones, a big one for each parent and small ones for the children’. Beatson’s name, she adds, was ‘synonymous with heartlessness’. When the western townships were burnt out, ‘there was an old man dying in one end of a house, he wouldn’t last many more days, and his daughter was giving birth at the other end – death and life at either end, and neither had any place in the inhumanity.’

Her passion and her epic phrasing bring her to her feet from time to time to dramatise a point. One of her finest stories is from her father, born in 1893:

In 1901 the men from Borve and Craigston decided to march into Cliad and Greian – they made it a kind of holiday, and maybe it coincided with a holiday of obligation … They took a white horse and a black horse, and my father said he never forgot how their manes were going up and down as they worked, up and down. They put them into a plough – a metal plough would be the acquisition above all. They gathered where they would be seen, down by the shore. The grieve – he would be a non-Catholic – he said: ‘What are you doing? You’re on MacGillivray’s [big tenant farmer’s] land!’ That made no difference to them: ‘We are going to make our mark.’ Every man put his hand to the plough, to show their solidarity. They were all a part of it, the women and children were standing round. ‘Donald, where do you want your land?’ ‘There – or there.’ They would be ploughing two or three strips each, it was only a token. ‘Jonathan, where do you want?’ He was my uncle and he was very quiet: ‘Here will do.’ And that was the croft he later got, No. 7. There was no violence. They threw up little shacks here and there. My father’s sister was the first child born in Cliad since the clearance – her mother had been unwell so she had never gone to Canada. And my father said he would never forget them, the two horses, black and white, and their manes going up and down.

A morning of Mairi Jane’s talk is like reading a fine novel. Each of her stories is a chapter in the history of her people. Her great-grandfather lived in the Plague House, now a stone shell at Buaile nam Bodach between our digs and the sea. In 1894 he was dying of typhoid and his daughter was looking after him, living on heaps of mussels left outside by her neighbours. They also left a coffin there with a rope that they threw in at the door. When he died she struggled mightily to get him into the coffin, afraid it would be too small for him, finally sitting in it herself, then dragging the corpse in after her across her thighs. Years later, when the house was empty, Mairi Jane asked if she could play in it. Her mother said: ‘No – let the wind and rain cleanse it.’ Towards lunchtime I say: ‘It’s amazing how people here know about every house and every thing.’ She answers at once: ‘It is so small a microcosm here, we know it all, so the history is just flicking back a page in the book of life.’

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