The 'passages' of this memoir are more than passages of words. They depend on words, but these words are no more than an attempt to give expression to 'passages' of many different kinds - passages of time, place, people, and, above all, passages by sea, to and from Tiree. The latter represent a great deal of what Tiree means for me, and they have contributed immensely to my formation as a person. Self-definition came slowly and gradually, and usually in contexts in which I was being 'separated' from Tiree, taken out of my normal operating context, and being forced to operate in contexts very different from those of my native island. 'Rites of passage', of movement from one level of being to another, are at the heart of my self-perception.
|The Claymore is pictured leaving Tiree pier about 1.00 p.m. on the outward run to Barra|
and Lochboisdale, which she undertook on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
It is a route that I know very well, since I have travelled it almost annually over fifty years and more. In that period I have witnessed an immeasurable improvement in the vessels supplying the service. Recently, when staying overnight at an Oban guest-house on the way to Tiree, I rose early with other family members to catch the Clansman sailing at 6.30. As we struggled with tea and cereal, we were all treated to a loud discourse from an obvious ‘incomer’ to a neighbouring island, who apparently felt it necessary (as such people often do) to enlighten all present with a litany of complaints about the ‘locals’ and other unfortunate aspects of island life. Among his list of faults, uttered in a deep, gravelly, unforgiving Yorkshire voice, were the failings of current car-ferries. Their lack of speed was his chief concern, and particularly the slow turn of the Lord of the Isles, which, as it happens, has a service speed which is only half a knot less than that of the Clansman. It occurred to me that the gentleman had little inkling of what matters were like before he himself arrived on the scene, and brought enlightenment to the benighted isles.
|A fine view of the Claymore, with her characteristic 'dome', disembarking a deckload of |
passengers at Tiree pier. Photograph by Edgar Hodges.
My first expeditions from Tiree to the mainland were made about the age of two, when my mother discovered that I had a ‘squint’ in my left eye. For that reason I had to visit the Eye Infirmary in Glasgow on a regular basis until the age twelve or so. As part of my treatment, I had to align tigers with their cages, and cars with their garages, by means of a machine which allowed me to steer the frames into alignment with one another. I also had to get used to very early rises, cold mornings and sea-sickness, but the ships themselves compensated for all of that. I cannot remember my earliest voyages, but by the time I first became aware of the journey, I was absorbing the details of the ships on which I travelled. They were infinitely better than cars and tigers, and well worth the ‘squint’!
|The inner (landward) end of Tiree pier in 1969, photographed by Linda Gowans.|
My initial memories are linked to David MacBrayne’s Lochearn, a ponderously slow motorship built in 1930 which wallowed her weary way from Oban to Tiree, and might take as long as six hours on the outward trip. However, as my relatives in ‘Coll View’ used to tell me, she was infinitely better than the Plover and the Dirk of earlier days. Sometimes my mother and I were forced to sleep overnight on the Lochearn, and I can still feel the hot, claustrophobic atmosphere of her tiny cabins – and I will not easily forget my mother’s fear of resident rodents! In 1955 the Lochearn was replaced by the Claymore, a much more up-to-date vessel capable of twelve knots, but with a distinctive and unnerving vibration which made it hard to sleep or rest in her saloons. Her vibration would ‘wind up’ gradually to an all-embracing crescendo, and then sink back into a quiet phase, which lulled passengers into a false sense of relaxation. For all that, the Claymore was a handsome ship and a good sea-boat, infinitely better than the ungainly Lochearn, and she could usually reach Tiree in about five hours. The Claymore maintained the service to Tiree and the Outer Isles from Oban until about 1973. She became my favourite vessel, and, despite her idiosyncracies, still rides high in my affections.
Visits to the bridge of the Claymore, courtesy of Captain John C. MacKinnon, MBE, a Tiree man (Teonaidh Dhomhnaill Bhig, from Vaul) who was my maritime hero, filled those early voyages with great excitement. I can still remember Captain John’s voice and booming laughter, as he came round the ship to talk to his passengers. He would invite me to the bridge, where I could stand alongside the helmsman and feel ten feet tall. Not infrequently on these trips, Captain John made his cabin available to my mother and myself, if we were suffering from the effects of wind and tide, and we often stayed with him and with his wife in their Oban home on the night before travelling back to Tiree. Such was the extraordinary kindness and the human touch of MacBrayne captains in those not-so-distant days. As a schoolboy in Oban in later years, I was to experience immense kindness from the crew of the Claymore and from her master in the mid-1960s, Captain John Lamont, another Tiree man. It is little wonder that, throughout my life, I have regarded the captains of the MacBrayne and Caledonian MacBrayne fleet with an esteem which far surpasses my estimation of the lords and ladies of our land.
|John Lamont, from the Green, Tiree, oversees cargo-loading on the foredeck of the Claymore. He was then First Mate, but later became Master of the ship. Note the naval uniforms of the time - a far cry from today's hard hats and high-vis jackets!|
Travel to and from the mainland on the Claymore implanted in me a sense of Tiree’s position and distinctive features relative to the other islands of the Hebrides. As our home, ‘Coll View’, Caolas, looked across Gunna Sound to the island of Coll, we could see the Claymore every Monday, Wednesday and Friday as she sailed north through the sound to Barra and Lochboisdale. Indeed, I can well remember her maiden voyage in 1955. I was then six years old, and I rushed home from school – for some reason we had been given a half-day – to observe her going through the sound for the first time. She looked magnificent, with her modern lines and large, distinctive funnel. Throughout my boyhood years, when I was on holiday from school, I used to look out for the Claymore when she left Scarinish, and I would watch her negotiating the narrow channel of the sound, before meeting head-on the rough waters of the Minch, which often sent clouds of spray across her decks.
The Claymore’s return from the Outer Isles was in the very early morning of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Only when we needed to sail to Oban did we see her coming in the opposite direction. From our skylight window, we would look out anxiously for her lights as they came into view from the north about 4.30 a.m., and by the time she was in the southern approaches of the sound we could set off for Scarinish pier, knowing that we would arrive about ten minutes or so before the Claymore. As we banged and rattled our way to Scarinish in our little Morris van, I was filled with excitement at the anticipation of being on her again.
The bridge of the Claymore gave me a splendid view of the natural panorama formed by islands and mainland. As we headed out of Scarinish, particularly on summer mornings, I could see my native part of Tiree from a different angle. Tiree is a low-lying, fertile island, punctuated by small hills, and a couple of higher hills which Tiree people regard as ‘bens’, Beinn Hogh and Beinn Haoidhnis, at the west end of the island. The east end, to which I belonged, had no significant hills, but its sloping machairs, cultivated fields, and rough coastline, with its rugged little islands of Creachasdal and Lithibrig to the south-east, gave it a warm and friendly look. I learned to identify all the houses as we sailed past, and to this day I look out for ‘Coll View’ as it appears over the green slopes as we return or depart. I watch it until it slips into the flat machairs of the island, or is lost behind another landmark. Tiree houses, firmly built of stone and larger than the average croft house, stand high above the island’s coastline, like the sails of approaching ships.
|The low-lying profile of Tiree is more than evident in this photograph of the Claymore leaving Tiree|
and turning to sail out of Gott Bay.
It was then, and still is, a pleasure for me to see the houses of Caolas from the sea, and to realise in the process that, for this islander at least, knowledge and experience of the place itself take precedence over geological form and natural beauty. I confess that I have never regarded Tiree as a particularly beautiful island, in the totality of its features, though back in the days of my innocence I would praise it in a verse or two of poor song. Innumerable islanders from other other parts of the Hebrides have done exactly the same with their own areas across the centuries, and with very similar images and sentiments. To its own natives, every island is unquestionably the most beautiful, the most fertile, the most luxuriant, under the sun. For me, however, Mull surpasses the flat machairs of Tiree in the sheer variety of its landscape, its mountains, its glens, its precipitous slopes, its rivers and waterfalls. So too does Skye. What makes Tiree special to me is that I had a relationship with it, with the people who lived in those houses, and who worked the land. I knew every nook and cranny of the shoreline round my part of the island, and they were, and are, invested with interactive memories. I had a relationship, and still have, with the soil and the climate. Even if I were struck blind, I would know, by the wind on my face and the texture of the atmosphere, that I was in Tiree, and I would recognise Caolas beyond any other part.
As the Claymore passed Milton (a district of Caolas), I could see the very rocks where my father and I had gone shooting cormorants early in the morning, as a pink dawn dragged itself over the sea, and those black, heavy birds were lured into the shoreline, believing that a cap being waved by a young boy behind a rock was the wing of one of their own species. A steady aim, a pull of the trigger on a 12-bore shotgun…and there was our dog, leaping into the heaving sea to retrieve the dead bird. As the Claymore reached Roisigil, I could see those areas where, in summer evenings, we had fished for saithe and lythe. I could feel again the tug of the successful line, and see the fish gasping on the wooden floorboard. I could see Dùn Mòr a’ Chaolais, the Great Fort of Caolas, where I would sometimes go on a Sunday-afternoon excursion, and view the neighbouring townships, letting my eye stray across Ruaig and as far as the curve of glorious Gott Bay. Each feature of sea and land reflected something of human experience, and formed a point of contact between me and my people, and between me and the island. I could be captivated by the beauty of the bigger, broader vistas which opened before me on the bridge of the Claymore, but these vistas were neutral in terms of human experience, and they never won my heart in quite the same way.
|The houses of Milton, Lower Caolas, are in the immediate foreground. 'Coll View' is the middle house|
of the three white houses on the higher ground of 'Upper Caolas'.
By the time the Claymore passed the southern approach to Gunna Sound, I was in unknown and unexperienced territory. The first port of call on the voyage from Tiree to Oban was Coll, the island which gave my home its name, ‘Coll View’, and which I could see on the other side of the sound every time I looked out of a front window. Yet Coll never became more than an island in the distance, and I did not set foot in it until the late 1980s. It was very different from Tiree in its complexion; it seemed much more rocky and rugged, though it had fine white sands at its western end. Gaelic was not as strong there as in Tiree, and large farms, noted for their dairy products and especially their cheese, had taken the place of crofts. The farmers were mainly of Lowland extraction. Even so, there was a fair bit of traffic between Tiree and Coll in earlier days. The ‘Coll View’ folk fished for lobsters, and took their lobsters regularly to Arinagour, the main village in Coll, where they were sold to an appropriately named fish-merchant called Sturgeon. One Caolas family, the MacDonalds, who were blacksmiths as well as fishermen, used to run a small boat across the sound to Coll, as required.
For me Coll is synonymous with small boats. For most of the time when I travelled regularly on the Claymore, from 1955 to 1970, Coll lacked a pier, and for that reason passengers, mail and cargo were transferred from the ship to the island and vice versa by one of MacBrayne’s little ‘red boats’. In those days, such vessels were called ‘ferries’, as there were no car-ferries of the modern type in the Hebrides. There was always an element of excitement in the encounter between the Coll ferry and the Claymore. However cold or blustery the day, it was well worth standing at the rail of the Claymore to view the spectacle of loading and unloading the cargo, human and otherwise, between the red boat and the large motor-vessel. The view from the bridge was, of course, infinitely better.
There was occasionally doubt as to when or whether the Coll ferry would finally make it alongside the larger ship. Sometimes she was waiting for the Claymore as she came into Loch Eatharna, the arm of the sea on which Arinagour stands. Often in the mornings, the red boat could be seen butting her way through putty-coloured seas, with a frothy wisp at her bows, as an angry dawn broke overhead. Depending on the direction of the wind and the strength of the tide, the process of coming alongside – the ‘mating’ of the two vessels – could be a little unpredictable, and might even prove impossible. The Claymore was normally held on her engines in such a way that her port side, which held the main door for passenger transit, gave shelter to the ferry. Most of the time, successful docking was achieved, but the ferry sometimes made several attempts at a rendezvous. Local legend has it that, on one occasion, the Captain of the Claymore became so unhappy with the ferry’s pointless circles round his ship that he grabbed a megaphone and shouted down from the bridge, ‘You drop your anchor, and I will come alongside you!’
The Coll ferry was manned by kenspeckle figures, most notably Neilly John, whose rotund profile was always to be seen in the forecastle, where he acted as the human windlass, hauling at the rope which was thrown down from the forward deck of the Claymore. As Neilly John heaved on the rope, the brown woodwork and slatted seats of the open-decked ferry were clearly visible, as she rose and fell on the current, her diesel engine puttering and spluttering, her cooling-system pumping water into the sea in white spoutings. Her red ensign, fixed to a staff on top of the helm, fluttered in a confused manner not entirely inconsistent with the anxious look on passengers’ faces.
In the first stage of the rendezvous, the ferry was moored at the Claymore’s side-door. As both vessels rolled on the swell, passenger-transfer was fraught with danger. Passengers had to judge the moment when the gunwale of the ferry was level, or likely to be level, with the bottom of the Claymore’s side-door, and to engage in some smart foot-work, particularly if boarding the larger ship. As the faint-hearted put their best foot forward, two burly crewmen were waiting on each side of the door to pull them to safety. When passengers had been embarked or disembarked, the ferry was eased ahead, so that she aligned reasonably closely with the Claymore’s derrick. The non-human cargo was then transferred. The Coll ferry could accommodate a car or a tractor in addition to passengers, and it was especially exciting to see such a large item being raised or lowered. Usually the cargo consisted of mail in slings and animals in cages or boxes. When the process was completed, the little red boat cast her moorings, and drifted to leeward of the Claymore. She then engaged full power, and headed for Arinagour, doubtless to the great relief of all concerned.
|This very fine photograph of the Coll ferry was taken by Ian Bald, West Hynish.|
The lack of a pier at Coll was frequently mentioned on the bridge of the Claymore in those days. Though the need for it was recognised, the general view appeared to be that it would be etremely difficult to build. That proved to be the case. When the pier was completed eventually about 1965, Coll entered civilisation, at least in the eyes of Tiree people who had had a deep-water pier since the early twentieth century. For better or worse, my own impression of Coll as a somewhat inaccessible island was formed in those years, and I marvelled at the doggededness with which the Coll folk clung to their ferry. They had no option, of course. Now both Tiree and Coll have their own linkspans, and are able to handle multi-purpose ro-ro vessels like the Clansman and the Lord of the Isles. Both islands have come a long way since 1960. Although these developments have helped to change the nature of the islands, they have added good sense and convenience to a challenging existence. They even permit such individuals as my early-morning friend, the gravelly Yorkshireman who so disapproved of certain ships, to travel in some degree of comfort, without contributing too much of his breakfast to the inhabitants of the deep waters. One wonders what this irascible gentleman might have said if he had been forced to trust his impatient self to the tossing, open-decked, cold, slow, little boat that butted its way so diligently from Arinagour harbour to the Claymore, and back again, some forty years ago.
|Congestion at Coll pier on a wet day, with the Claymore berthed to the left and the |
cargo-boat Loch Carron to the right! Sheep and cattle await 'transportation beyond the seas'!
On leaving Coll, the Claymore sailed eastwards towards Ardnamurchan. The passage from Coll to Ardnamurchan and the northern approaches to the Sound of Mull could be very rough in windy weather, but on a good morning it was often unimaginably glorious. I recollect particularly clearly one morning in the late 1960s, when travelling to Glasgow University. The sun was rising in a soft, red glow over the mountains of the mainland, throwing Ben Shianta into a dark silhouette. To starboard lay the beautiful silhouette of Mull, with Ben More bold against the skyline, and the volcanic plugs of the Treshnish Islands, looking dark and angular, like gigantic building blocks that had fallen into the sea, with a large dollop of concrete topping off the appropriately-named Dutchman’s Cap.
|This splendid photograph by Edgar Hodges shows the Claymore passing Rudha nan Gall|
Lighthouse, close to Tobermory, with the hills of Morvern in the background.
By my late teenage years the land and landscape had become very meaningful to me in terms of history and story. Ben Shianta reminded me, as it continues to do whenever I see it, of the clearances which had been carried out ruthlessly on its slopes in 1828. The removal of the communities around its foot had roused the local medical doctor, John MacLachlan of Rahoy, to compose a song in which he expressed his deep sadness at the desolation which had been inflicted by the policies of James Riddell, the landlord, on that part of his estate. Families had vanished, driven out by the local farmer, and only the rubble of houses remained, with rushes sprouting from their broken hearths. Few parts of Scotland have had a more tragic experience of population displacement than Ardnamurchan and the adjoining district of Morvern.
One of the many pleasures of travelling on the Claymore was what I learned on the way. As a boy, I was able to talk to the sailors, who were only too pleased to chat to a rather precocious, Gaelic-speaking child. They would tell me tales of their own parts of Tiree, or of other districts of the Highlands and Islands to which they belonged. For most of the time that I knew her, the Claymore’s complement of officers came from Tiree – the Captain (in succession John MacKinnon, Neil Campbell and John Lamont), the chief officer (John Lamont, for many years) and the second mate (John MacDonald, Iain Non), and several crew members (among them John Fletcher and Calum Brown) hailed from the island. Among officers from other islands who became my firm friends in later life were Archie MacQueen from Staffin, Skye, whom I first met when he was second mate on the Claymore. Archie, with his craggy looks and warm smile, became master of the 1965 Hebrides and later the Hebridean Isles. I also got to know Donald MacCuaig, whom I visited many years later in Bowmore, Islay.
Of the crewmen, I became particularly fond of Angus Morrison from Harris, surely the epitome of the Hebridean sailor, who was regularly at the wheel of the Claymore, and knew the course as well as any of the officers. Tall and well built, with high cheek-bones and a ruggedly handsome complexion set off by his MacBrayne sailor’s bonnet, Angus was one of nature’s gentlemen, with an innate genius. He had a deep love of Gaelic, and particularly of unusual words. He would store them in his mind for me, and then challenge me as to whether I knew them in Tiree Gaelic. In this way he enriched my Gaelic in ways of which he himself was unaware, as he imparted knowledge of other districts of the Highlands. In so doing, he sharpened my mind, and gave me my first lessons in Gaelic dialectology. When I went to Glasgow University, Angus was still sailing on the Claymore, and took a deep interest in my progress. He was at the wheel on that particularly beautiful morning when we saw Ben Shianta in all its splendour. When I last saw him in Oban, Angus was a mere shadow of his former self. He was suffering from cancer, and knew that the end was close. As we parted for the last time on Oban pier, I was so sad that I was barely able to thank him for the many occasions on which he had added an unforgettable sparkle to my boyhood years. The helmsman of the Claymore was among my best tutors, and he was also one of my finest friends. I can still hear his voice, as I write this.
As the Claymore swung past Ardnamurchan to the north-east, she entered the Sound of Mull, and called briefly at one of the most beautiful harbours in the whole of the Highlands and Islands – Tobermory. I loved to look at its houses, dating back to its early days as a fishing port founded by the British Fisheries Society in the late eigheenth century. The harbour was usually thronged with boats and all sorts of interesting larger vessels, including naval craft, and even (for a period) a diving-support ship, which had come to aid the Duke of Argyll as he tried to improve his bank-balance by recovering treasure from the Spanish warship, Florida, which had sunk in the bay many centuries ago. It was wonderful to stand on the bridge wing of the Claymore as she berthed at Tobermory pier, so close to the shoreline, and to watch the goings-on. Cargo would be heaved on and off as the passengers clattered down the gangway. Up on the hillside, the Western Isles Hotel would stand guard over the procedure. Off on the port side, the motor-launch Lochbuie would putter into view, her elegant wake fanning astern, and tie up on the far side of Tobermory pier. Her engine cooling system would send spurts of water into the dark-green bay as she waited for passengers for Kilchoan.
And then we were off again….the gangway would hit the pier with a rattle and flat bang. The derrick would be slewed in amidships and secured above the Morris Minors and Pickfords containers. As the First Officer stood up forward on the forecastle and the mooring ropes were slackened, the Captain would pull the brass telegraph handle to Slow Astern on the starboard engine, and then Slow Ahead on the port, and Angus would turn the wheel gently to port. ‘Hold her there, Angus, to see if we can clear that so-and-so of a yacht yonder … we’ll give him a blast if he doesn’t get out of the way….Does that Para Handy think he owns this harbour….?’ The Captain muttered audibly as he moved from the starboard wing to the port, conning his ship. Then, as the Claymore gain momentum astern, Angus would get the order to set the helm ‘Hard a-starboard' ('Hard a-starboard, Sir') and Full Ahead on both engines would clang out on the telegraph, with the engine-room ringing back, in a hoarse ‘trrring-trrring’ which seemed to be muffled by the deck planks.
I would rush down to the stern of the Claymore to watch as the engines were restarted ahead, with the wake curdling to the most magnificent froth that I had ever seen, as the forward-thrusting screws, suddenly halted in reverse, bit the brine angrily, stopped stern way and pushed the bulky ship in the opposite direction. The Claymore would throb and shake and heave, like a floating earthquake, her huge funnel coughing and spewing out clouds of spotty, oily smoke. Gradually the good ship would settle down to her customary twelve knots, rounding Calve Island, while her escort of seagulls had a shot at repainting her masts and her green canvas lifeboat covers, and delivering a ‘surprise packet’ to unsuspecting passengers.
|The Claymore looks small compared with the Duke of Lancaster. Photo by|
Richard Danielson, Isle of Man.
And still the idyll goes on. I still love to stand on the pier at Oban, as the Clansman looms large, or the Lord of the Isles. They are splendid ships of their kind, which make me feel proud of my roots in an intangible and indefinable way. I photograph them endlessly, always looking for the ‘best shot’. Somehow these vessels speak to me in the deepest parts of my being. Sometimes too I become the boy again, on the very rare occasions when I go up to the bridge. Yet, as I look at the electronic consoles of today’s car-ferries, with their flickering screens and fancy gadgetry, and only an officer to keep a watch on the automatic pilot – which will alert him if the ship deviates from her course – I realise as few do how much has been lost as sophisticated navigational equipment has displaced the human hand, and perhaps even the human heart that throbbed so strongly in the days of the Claymore. Exciting as it may be for today’s sailors to function without the traditional wheel, I find myself running from this ultra-modern plate-glass wonderland after a few minutes. It is, for me, a bleak experience, compared with the many hours which I spent gladly on the bridge of the Claymore, learning as much as I could from the gifted and able men who kept her on her way. Life’s great voyage was well charted between Tiree and Oban.
|The handsome lines of the Claymore, as she approaches the Railway Pier, Oban,|
are well captured in this fine photograph from Linda Gowans' collection.
|Journey's end! Captain John MacKinnon keeps an eye as Archie MacQueen checks|