No doubt there are one or two of my friends who think I should have been despatched to a place like that long ago – bound, tied and consigned to a cattle mart, ready to be priced and sent into exile, as far from civilised people as possible.

Around me, too, was all the paraphernalia associated with the bidding ring. An electronic scoreboard above my head to mark my weight in kilos. An auctioneer’s box peering down in my direction. A couple of steel holding pens where some of my audience could be caged and bolted, turned mad, perhaps, by all my ranting and raving. In my defence, though, it should be pointed that out that I was in well-known company. Behind my head was a white screen where the faces of Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro and Ewan MacGregor might sometimes be seen.

Where was I? In the Rural Centre in the isle of Tiree. A modern building, part of the conditions involved in its creation had been that it would be fit for all seasons and purposes. And so there was a café at its entrance, a cluster of offices and an exhibition area at its centre, a bidding ring, too, in its cattle mart that doubled both as a forum for talks and discussions and a cinema with plastic, fold-away seats. Hence, too, the screen behind my head, one where Hollywood’s heroes sometimes appeared looking more surreal than ever in that place where cattle sometimes trod and flicked their tails.

Clearly the Rural Centre was taking the adaptability that has always been a feature of island life to a new level. In Tiree, for instance, I met many people who are similar in their range of skills to those found in any island community. There was the Cal Mac ferryman who worked part-time as a carpet-fitter, the cheerful, accordion-playing postman who could be persuaded to kit himself out in drag to entertain the audience in the local hall.

There were also the houses. Instead of the new, sparkling structures that are found throughout most of Scotland’s islands these days, many of Tiree’s homes possessed their own unique style. In the island’s villages, the old black houses – with their two metre thick drystone walls and low roofs lying small and squat against the onslaught of the wind – still reigned supreme. A large number had either been restored or built from new since the council had begun encouraging this in the eighties; their traditional form and shape altered with both imagination and enthusiasm for the requirements of the contemporary world.

While their sound and solid walls remained largely unchanged, the covering of thatch had disappeared, receding almost as quickly over the years as the crown of certain young royal person’s head. In its place was a framework of wooden boards cloaked with black felt and painted with bitumen every few years. Some of these even had velux or other forms of windows lodged and fixed within them. Unlike their older equivalents, their chimneys were not slightly askew, built at odd angles from the rest of the house, but embedded into the roof. At one time, they built them in this peculiar way because they had a nasty habit of crashing through the roof in a high wind, disturbing those who were sitting at the fireside listening to songs and stories, the latter-day, more honest equivalents of Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV. Some of the houses built more recently – in the 1920s or after – also showed signs of the adaptability that often marks out the islander from his equivalent on the mainland. An incomer told me when they renovated their new home in Tiree they had discovered their upstairs bedrooms were partitioned with sackcloth, made stiff and colourful by a cloak of thick paint. Downstairs the internal walls were made from the outsides of sugar boxes and tea-chests, given strength and durability by shattered masts and driftwood washed ashore on the island’s sandy beaches.

And all this gave me insight into the life of my ancestors. (My grandmother who had died many years before I was born had been a native of Balemartine on Tiree’s west coast.) Tiree was a location where the shallowness of the Minch, the rocks stretching out from shore, even the lack of a decent, safe harbour may have prevented the development of a fishing industry, but there were other prey a man could catch. Until the building of Skerryvore lighthouse in 1844, this was a coastline notorious to all those who sailed nearby. Many ships were wrecked, losing their cargo. The people of Balemartine and the other villages nearby took full advantage of these happy accidents, scouring the beaches for whatever the tide washed their way. Brandy. Sugar. Timber. Even a large quantity of church candles cast a certain aura of sanctity upon the shadows of the black houses that still – to this day – dominate the island landscape.

Did my people benefit from this? In some of the oral history I uncovered, there was evidence that they might have done. Apparently, my great-grandfather Archie Ban MacLean was the source for some of the alcohol that arrived on Tiree, selling the occasional bottle of whisky to those who lived in the community to augment his meagre income as a fisherman. There were even rumours that he diluted and watered down the drink that he provided for those with a desperate thirst on an otherwise “dry” island.

Perhaps it was for this crime that I ended up in the cattle mart. Perhaps the sins of my ancestors were not quite forgiven here …

Donald S Murray


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