Fair gem of the ocean,
Sweet Coll of my song,
With joy and devotion
To you I belong.
I yearn for the island
I left with a tear
But soon I’ll return
Now that summer is here.
Family historians often have many overseas ancestral “homes.” This was a very special one for me. What inexpressible feelings to walk among the deserted croft remains, touch the deteriorating burial stones, explore the pristine beaches and hills, enter some of the old dwellings. Of course I did not find the family black house or “lone shieling” which disappeared along with most of the old inhabitants. A few crofters’ houses have been renovated here and there. But I was able to visit Toraston and Cliad, last known communities of my McFadyens. Each seems to have only one farmhouse now.
After near depopulation, Coll has attracted some permanent incomers over the last half-century. Still, a few among the approximately 200 inhabitants have ancestral ties to the island. The Killunaig burial ground near Toraston has many McFadyen markers, of which only the most recent can be deciphered. It doesn’t take long for the sea air and thriving moss to wreak its natural course. I did not reach another almost inaccessible burial ground at Crossopol, a daunting distance even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, which we didn’t have, across private land. But my people are here under the soil at Killunaig where the overgrown foundation of the ancient church can be seen.
Project Trust, founded by Nicholas Maclean-Bristol, the first NGO in Britain to educate and send “gap year” kids to foreign countries as aid volunteers. They learn from community life on Coll to prepare for experience in new places. The bond is so close that some of the volunteers have chosen to settle on Coll; some have children who in turn work with Project Trust. Maclean-Bristol, author of the brilliant history, From Clan to Regiment, Six Hundred Years in the Hebrides, lives in the 15th century Breacachadh castle. It was my great pleasure to spend a couple of hours with him in this historic setting where my ancestors were clansmen and soldiers for Maclean of Coll.
“Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”
-- Canadian Boat Song, author unknown, sometimes attributed to John Galt.
I left with a tear but with dreams come true.
Photographs July 2010 by BDM and CDM.