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.
|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.
|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!|
|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.
|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'.
|This very fine photograph of the Coll ferry was taken by Ian Bald, West Hynish.|
|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.
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.
|The Claymore looks small compared with the Duke of Lancaster. Photo by|
Richard Danielson, Isle of Man.
|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|