04 August 2010

Hands On Scotland: Isle of Coll

Sometimes a longing can be transmitted across generations. Racial memory? This poem, Coll of the Waves by John MacFadyen (Iain Hyne), translated from the Gaelic, resonates among a surprising number of Collach descendants, long-separated from their island origins.  
        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.
After 182 years, my McFadyen spirit returned to the Isle of Coll. And yes, it was summer. Cliad Beach above.
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.
Ballyhough was another community for McFadyens, not of my known line, but who knows before 1776? It’s now the home of 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.
Coll is one of Scotland’s great but little-known natural beauty spots. The present inhabitants deal well with the occasional tourists who are often birders or hikers or those who just plain want to get away to an idyllic, unspoiled location. The beaches and dunes on the Atlantic side are so amazing they take your breath away.
One must book well in advance for the 7-room Coll Hotel or the smaller B&B Tigh-na-Mara! Otherwise, you can be one of the infrequent campers to be seen among the isolated dunes. The locals rightfully expect due consideration for opening and closing their gates when tramping across their fields. Sheep and cattle are part of the livelihood. Signs everywhere in the Highlands and Islands are in two languages: Gaelic and English.
Arinagour is the main community, and you look quite at home if you’re wearing rubber wellies or crocs. That's the main street above. The hotel has a jolly lively pub—I expect because it’s the only pub on the island. Any local event is cause to repair to the pub for celebration or discussion. Visiting yachtsmen are regular customers. Soccer and golf were prime topics during my stay. Not to ignore the finer points, the barman tells us the Coll Hotel’s own whiskey is blended “right over there,” waving in the general direction of a windswept promontory, nary a cottage visible. I think of 250 years ago when the island reportedly had up to thirty distilleries! (After several tries, my photo of the pub has wandered off into bloggerland limbo ...no, hang on, I found it!)    

        “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.

8 comments:

CallieK said...

Beautiful place, beautiful words.

Brenda said...

Kind of you, faithful reader.

Sheri said...

It's not camels, but I am still very jealous. What a beautiful county!

Anonymous said...

Welcome home Brenda! You did come home didn't you? You were missed !

Brenda said...

Nice to be missed ... "home" has more than one meaning.

Anonymous said...

You are right about "home". I was told a long time ago the I had D.S.S.
I asked "what the heck is D.S.S?" The reply was, "Displaced Soul Syndrome". Looking back on it now, I think it was a very accurate diagnosis.

Ray McHatton said...

Thanks for this, enjoyed it very much. Found this blog while doing a search about Culloden. Am co-writing a book. Was trying to find a copy of a National Trust for Scotland pamphlet on Culldoen by Lindsey Bowditch. Any ideas??
Thanks

BDM said...

Ray, I don't know about a brochure but I have a 72-pp book about Culloden by Lyndsey Bowditch, purchased on site at the Culloden shop. You could investigate the National Trust for Scotland website and choose "Culloden." There is an online shop with that particular book along with many other NT guides.