Sunday, 28 April 2013

Autobiography: Chapter 7 (under construction)

Chapter 7

Township and Community: the corporate life of Caolas

Crofting encouraged the growth of individualism by giving each family its own house, garden ground and land for arable and grazing purposes.  Each croft too, whether with direct access to the shoreline or situated some distance inland, had its own stretch of shore for the harvesting of seaweed.   Rough grazing was generally held in common, and the corporate life of the community was particularly evident in that context, as groups of crofters shared the common ground, and operated through a 'Grazings Committee'.   In some localities, there were sheep clubs, which allowed crofters to hold a share of a flock, rather than own an individual flock (in circumstances in which a croft might not be able to sustain sheep, or at least a viable number thereof).  In this way, individualism was balanced by a practical understanding that co-operation within the wider township, or a segment of that township, was an easier and more productive way to proceed.  Indeed, a co-operative policy was frequently essential to the maintenance of township life by pooling and sharing wider (and often scarce)  resources, including 'person power'.

Such sharing was obvious at times of seasonal labour, for example, in harvesting crops, planting potatoes, sheering and dipping sheep.  The organising, 'digging' and unloading of the puffer or 'coal-boat' was another occasion calling for a communal approach.   Building and launching a wooden boat for family use offered opportunities for a series of interlocking contributions from the community, with a sense of celebration when the boat embarked on its maiden voyage.   The community also 'pitched in' when there were difficulties within a family, as I well recollect when my father had his serious tractor accident in February 1973 (see Chapter 6).

Such interaction existed in a wider context of family links and relationships, through direct blood lines and also through marriage.   Families maintained very careful records of consanguinity, as this was essential not only as a safeguard  on the health of the people themselves, but also as an index of who was to be invited to such events as funerals, which were likewise communal happenings.  'Maintaining the relationship' through frequent visits to relatives in the community, but now living in other townships, or originally domiciled in these other townships, was an indispensable part of the social 'glue'.   Fourth and fifth cousins were remembered, and the genealogies recited and discussed on regular occasions, including old-style 'ceilidhs'.   Sometimes these links extended as far as the 'other end' (the west end) of Tiree, and even to other islands, such as Coll and Mull.

In addition to such networks, there were overarching events which embraced the entirety of the island and its various townships.   These included markets for animals, cattle shows, sports' days and entertainment centred on the island's 'community hall'.  As the earlier locality-based sense of community declined, these 'island-embracing' events came to assume ever greater significance.

As I was growing up in Tiree in the 1950s and 1960s, I was well aware of these conventions, and this chapter will consider various aspects of the theme of 'township and community'.

Launching a boat

Charles MacDonald (Uncle Charlie)'s new boat undergoing trials at the Port Ruadh, Caolas.

One of the most remarkable visual demonstrations of community 'togetherness' in Caolas is provided by a related pair of photographs in the 'Coll View' family album.  These show a boat launch and the 'launching party' who attended the occasion.   The boat was built by my great-uncle Charlie, and the event is evidently earlier than 1924, as it shows my great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, as part of the 'party'.   He is still in fairly robust health, and it is possible that these photographs were taken by his youngest son, (Private) John MacDonald, before he left Tiree to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in May 1916 (see Chapter 5).   John was a very keen photographer.   The fine composition in both images suggests that they were not mere snaps, but were taken by a person who had both a sound sense of occasion and an awareness of the 'good' photograph and its significance.   As my Uncle Charlie built a succession of boats, there is no 'technical' evidence that could help to corroborate the date.  The regularity of his visits to Tiree, even when he was working abroad, also make it difficult to date the photograph.  There is no 'special visit' with which to connect it.  Glenda MacPhadden Franklin kindly informs me that one of the men in the photograph, John MacFadyen (Iain mac Neill), died in 1919.  It would thus appear that my dating is likely to be correct.
The men testing the boat in the first photograph can be identified readily from the second.  In the stern is young Colin MacFadyen, in the rowing-thwart is John MacArthur (Iain Chaluim), and holding the stem is Malcolm MacDonald (Calum a' Ghobhainn).  In the background is the island of Gunna.

The second photograph is of surpassing value, as it preserves images of a group of the 'worthies' of Caolas who were very close friends of the MacDonalds of 'Coll View'.   Although several of these 'worthies' had passed away or left Tiree before I was born in 1949 (namely, James Tooick, Johnnie MacDougall, Lachlan MacLean, John MacFadyen and John MacArthur), their memories were well preserved in my time, and to this day I feel that I knew them all.  This photograph will therefore provide an opportunity to offer some biographical material and/or stories about each person in the picture (other than the 'Coll View' family members) - which, in itself, is yet another demonstration of the (enduring) sense of community which existed within and beyond my immediate family.  Each of my biographical pictures will open fresh windows into the life, work, families and connections of the people of Caolas who functioned beyond the walls of 'Coll View', but not beyond the hearts of my MacDonalds.

The 'launching party' for Uncle Charlie's new boat: Back row (left to right): Colin MacFadyen (Cailean Anna, brother of Hugh MacFadyen), Hugh Hector MacArthur ('Caolas House'), James Tooik ('Taigh Iain'); Malcolm MacDonald (Calum a' Ghobhainn); Donald MacDonald (my great-uncle Donald); John MacDougall (Milton), Lachlan MacLean (Lachainn mac Eoghainn, 'Caolas House'). Sitting (left to right): John MacFadyen (Iain mac Neill, 'Taigh Iain'), Charles MacDonald (the builder, my great-uncle Charlie), John MacArthur (Iain Chaluim) and Hector MacDonald (Eachann Ban, my great-grandfather).

Colin and Hugh MacFadyen
Colin MacFadyen ('Cailean Anna') lived with his brother Hugh in the cottar's cottage on the eastern edge of the 'Coll View' croft, directly overlooking the Sound of Gunna.  Their mother, Anna, was still alive when I first remember her, but she was confined to bed.  I can still see her image, with her white mutch and white hair.  The bed itself, as I remember it (and I was only about two years old at the time), was in traditional box style.   The felt-roofed cottage had two main rooms below (the bedroom on the left, and the kitchen and living-room on the right, as you entered the door), with a loft above.  Anna died in 1952.

Captain (?) Lachlan MacFadyen, brother of Anna MacFadyen, and uncle of
Colin and Hugh MacFadyen

Colin and Hugh were fishermen, as well as workers on crofts and in other local employment.  Colin had also spent time at sea during the Second World War.  As has been noted in Chapter 6, Hugh often assisted with the harvest and other seasonal activities on the 'Coll View' croft.  The brothers owned a fifteen-foot open boat, not unlike the MacDonalds' 'Peace and Plenty', but a strake lower on its gunwale.   This design was doubtless intended to facilitate the handling of lobster creels, but it must have reduced the boat's seaworthiness.  In their younger days, Colin and Hugh were given to occasional outbreaks of fisticuffs, which tended to occur when they were in the boat.   It was said that there were times when all that one could see of the gallant sailors were arms and legs flailing above the gunwale of their boat, as they engaged in a trial of strength!  Maritime encounters of that kind were not the safest of pursuits.
The brothers lived in a curious combination of devotion and disharmony.  Colin, tiring of brotherly love and its tensions, eventually 'upped sticks' and went to Glasgow, where he found both work and love of a more predictable kind.  There he married Bella Armstrong, who had Tiree connections.  Together they returned for the Fair Fortnight to live in Bella's holiday cottage in Milton, 'Taigh nan Suacan', named after the treacherous reefs known as 'Na Suacain' which lay just off the shore, and which were notorious for their lethal ferocity in stormy weather.  'Taigh nan Suacan' was one of the oldest traditional-style thatched cottages in Tiree, and attracted the attention of the folklore scholar, John Francis Campbell, who produced a fine sketch of the house as it was in his time.  The house represented the days when the rocky area above Milton was inhabited by the ancestors of the 'Coll View' MacDonalds, who lived at 'Tobhtachan Mhurchaidh' (see Chapter 2).  Its plain style, stocky dimensions and shaggy thatched roof, with creels and old tyres on top of its thick walls, gave it a character unmatched in other similar dwellings.

Taigh nan Suacan, Milton, as it was in 1973.  It was later absorbed into the new edifice of
Mr Isdell-Carpenter.


For some reason, Colin did not announce his marriage to Hugh, who was mortified when he heard that his brother had returned to Tiree, and was living with a woman in Milton.  He decided to investigate the matter, and stormed off down the road.  On his return, he called at 'Coll View' to tell my mother his news, and to compose his tempestuous emotions.  Forgiveness appears to have won the day, and Colin and Bella and their entourage were regular visitors to Hugh's cottage.  Indeed, after Colin and Hugh had passed on, Bella moved to Hugh's cottage by Gunna Sound, and used it as her holiday home for her remaining years.

Hugh MacFadyen, Eoghann Anna, as a young man.

Because Colin moved to Glasgow in the late 1950s, I was not as familiar with him as I was with his brother Hugh.  Hugh was, in every respect, a close family friend.  On his way home from his daytime job at the Reef, he would often call at 'Coll View', and pass on some of the latest tales from the centre of the island!  His best friend on the Reef was 'Lal', Lachlan MacLean from 'Cnoc a' Mhurain', Cornaig Bheag, whose wise words and observations seemed to steer Hugh's view of the world.   I can still see Hugh arriving at the Caolas road-end early each morning, with his canvas satchel containing his flask and sandwiches over his shoulder, and waiting for the 'Reef lorry' to pick him up.
Hugh participated in various 'Coll View' activities in addition to seasonal labour.  He was particularly keen to go fishing, as that was his natural bent, and he almost always accompanied my father and myself when we went out of an evening in the 'Peace & Plenty'.  Hugh had an intimate knowledge of the Sound of Gunna, and often acted as our pilot in shallow waters.  Together we would go through the annual early-summer ritual of laying the mooring for our boat, just off the shore, and Hugh would guide us to what he considered to be the best location.  As Hugh became a little less agile with the passing of the years, we would bring the boat in to a flat rock known as 'Ceidhe Choirneil' ('The Colonel's Quay'), just to the north-east of the cottage, where Hugh would step on board.
As we waited for the fish to bite, Hugh would engage in another of his skills - yarning and story-telling.  Like many others of his day, he was much more fluent in Gaelic than in English, and his inadequate knowledge of English often led to hilarious moments (with stifled laughter on our part!) when he used the wrong word.    On one occasion, he told us that the Tiree-based owner of Gunna at that time had bought a 'platoon' to transport his goods across the sound, though he obviously meant 'pontoon'!  A local legend had it that, when he and Colin had taken some visitors out in their boat, the visitors were keen to try their skills at rowing.  When they had been shown how to hold the oars, Hugh gave the order, 'Roar!'   The visitors duly obliged by roaring at the tops of their voices.
Hugh was, in fact, a fine storyteller, and he was in best form when he was at his own fireside.  When he retired from the Reef, I used to visit him fairly regularly in the evening.  I well remember a gripping narration of the Gaelic tale 'Colainn gun Cheann' ('Body without a Head') which Hugh delivered one very dark and windy night when I sat on the other side of his crackling Raeburn stove.   His telling was so effective that I was frightened to walk up the machair to 'Coll View', and I was in my late teens at that time.   When he had visitors, Hugh would make a cup of tea, but he had the somewhat alarming habit of taking fresh water from a commode which sat by the side of his large, old-fashioned dresser.
Hugh was very proud of the network of MacFadyen families to which he belonged.  Telling of their exploits and recounting their genealogies was one of his favourite occupations, and it was through him that I first learned of 'Ailean Shandaidh'  (Alan son of Sandy), Alan MacFadyen, from Scarinish, who owned a number of sailing smacks which hauled coal, stone, wood and other commodities between the mainland, Ireland and the other islands.  The best known of these smacks was the 'Mary & Effie', which often brought cargoes to Tiree.


The 'Mary & Effie' at the Old Harbour, Scarinish. 

Captain Alan, an old Cape Horner, later moved to Port Ramsay, Lismore, and I had the pleasure of meeting his late son, Johnnie MacFadyen, in Lismore in 2011.  Johnnie was also a seafarer, and skippered numerous cargo vessels, including puffers such as the 'Texa' and the 'Polarlight'.  Hugh visited his MacFadyen relatives in Scarinish faithfully until the last of them, 'Mairi a' Chladaich' (Mary of the Shore), Mary MacFadyen, passed away.  Mary lived in the felt-roofed cottage on the right-hand side of the road leading down from the Co-operative store to the old harbour.


The MacFadyen-owned smack, 'Helen Brown', makes a wonderful sight as she sails out of the 'Gut'
from the Old Harbour, Scarinish (Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre).

Hugh MacFadyen passed away in Glasgow in 1979 when fulfilling a medical appointment and visiting his sister-in-law Bella.  His former home is now owned by Sir Raymond Johnstone, and is beautifully maintained, commanding its time-honoured view of the Sound of Gunna.   Nevertheless, the cleanliness and sparkle of a holiday-cottage, with its monied feel, cannot in any way compensate for the 'extra-ordinary' treasure that once lived within it, when it was a much less ornate building, in need of tar and lime.  'Eoghann Anna' is greatly missed and warmly remembered to the present day as one of the 'old style', a link with a way of life now, like himself, long gone from our communities.

Hugh MacFadyen's cottage as it is today, with the Clansman coming south
from Barra on a Thursday evening.


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