We looked around at the wilderness of rock and sand and short, scant herbage, at the group of men still shouting in a strange, foreign tongue, at the funnel of the little Fingal disappearing in the blue distance, at some tiny huts scarcely distinguishable from the rocks among which they seemed to hide, at the “road” a foot deep in loose white sand, at the bare-legged boy driving a herd of cows which clambered awkwardly among the rocks, and found the notion of an hotel somewhat bewildering. He would go with us, this kind young Highlander, and turning back, soon conducted us to an unenclosed house overlooking the harbour, destitute, like most Highland inns, of signboard—and being conducted on strictly teetotal principles, destitute also of everything else—open doors, loafers, sound of human life, which one associates with inns. A kindly landlady, a quiet sitting-room, a clean bedroom, and a welcome tea soon made us feel that home life in Tyree had begun.
We have long remembered that tea; after nine hours’ feast of the eye only, it was very welcome. It certainly was excellent, but we remember it the better because we sat down to its counterpart every time we called for food during our stay on the island, and after a time it palled. Good tea, good cream, good eggs, Glasgow jam, Glasgow bread (it was long before we convinced our kind friends that we preferred their own home-made scones), Glasgow cake, and from time to time something of the nature of meat out of a tin. Our sitting-room window opened on to the moor or common, that is on to unenclosed space, and the cows often looked on at our meals, sheep and fowls came in at the door, and presumably fish swam about in the sea which lay almost at our feet; but none of these things found their way to the table except once, when we had an orgy of chops—what became of the rest of the sheep we could not discover—and once when we had a fish of species so perplexing that we tossed up who should first venture upon it. It was finally rejected by the dog, and given, through the window, to a cow, who apparently thought it an interesting experiment.
Except for some potatoes, which we were assured were excellent, but which differed in some essentials from those which we were accustomed to, we moreover never saw either vegetables or fruit during this visit. On a later occasion, when the hotel had got into more experienced hands (into kinder it could never come), our bill of fare was greatly enlarged, and now every necessary of life is amply provided for.
After tea we of course went out, and first learnt something of the glory of evening in the Hebrides. Tyree is so flat, that a considerable tract of country in the middle, known as the Reef, is said to be below sea-level. The island slopes from south-west to north-east, and its average width is about two and a half miles; though, according to the Government Survey, it varies from seven miles to one. There is not a single tree, not a hill worth mentioning, and as we looked straight out into the open glory of the July sunset it seemed somehow to belong to us in some especial manner, so isolated did we feel on this little shelterless sand-bank in the wide Atlantic Ocean.
It was a pageant of which we never tired, but what followed was to us an even greater miracle. Elsewhere, when the sun has set, “at one stride comes the dark,” but here, in these low-lying islands, the darkness hardly comes at all, and at half past ten we could still see the time by the tiny watch on my wrist, or read the Evening psalms from the smallest of pocket prayer-books. And again, when the change came at dawn, and colour, rather than light, returned to the sky, we were awakened, by the rush of wings, and strange sounds overhead, as the sea birds flew over the island from their home on the western side to seek for food in the more sheltered waters, between the island and the mainland.
Later we came to know that home of theirs, a precipitous cliff, not above 300 feet high perhaps, but absolutely perpendicular, where, on almost impossible ledges, the sea fowl dwell in thousands. Long before we came in sight we heard their voices in the cliffs of Ceann a Mhara, which for convenience I spell—phonetically—Kenavara; and though we have since seen even more wonderful sights of the kind, none have seen more impressive than those bare cliffs fronting the ocean, a world of feathered life with all the freedom and independence which is its birthright. One evening too, we were so fortunate as to see the return of the sea-fowl. Towards the western side of the island, we found a house with a garden, a rare phenomenon in these treeless isles, and, still stranger anomaly, a garden enclosed with such a fuschia hedge, as one seldom looks for out of Devonshire—probably the only shelter of the kind within fifty miles. Standing silently near by we heard a rush of wings; and a sudden cloud coming towards us, resolved itself at our feet into myriads of small birds; starlings, sparrows, chaffinches, stone-chats, thrushes, larks, alighting, upon, and below, and around, the green and crimson hedge. There was no chirping, none of the usual chatter of small birds, the invasion was sudden and almost silent. In a few minutes the sky was again swept, this time by a very different concourse. Far, far aloft there sailed a mighty fleet, looking like a vast white cloud, so far above, that the shrieks of the great sea birds, gulls, cormorants, guillemots, seemed a phantom sound. Almost in a moment, they were out of sight, and then, as suddenly as before, there awoke a whirr of small wings close beside us, and the little birds arose from their hiding-place, and this time, with much clamour and talk, dispersed again into the fields of air, once more left open to them, as the crowd again closes in after a royal procession has passed by. We wondered what became of them all, and where they found homes for the night where there is no vegetation, and even where roofs and chimneys have, for the most part, so little elevation as to afford no protection from cats, and dogs, and even sheep. Strange shifts are they put to, these feathered exiles, and we have since found them, crouching in holes in the rocks, or under tufts of grass, or even in ruts on the road.
It was not indeed upon this, our first visit to the island, that we discovered that fuschia-hedge, and all we could learn in these earlier days, was that the Free Kirk Minister had a tree. We never saw it, and we never saw the policeman, one third of whom, it was alleged, belonged to the island. A story is told of some old woman who, having been taken to the mainland, was much perplexed by the “big kail,” cabbages having been the nearest approximation to trees in her limited experience.
As to the fractional policeman, we could, on one or two occasions, have found a use for him, as on this island alone of the whole range of the Hebrides we saw signs of drunkenness. No licensed house is allowed; consequently, on occasions of weddings and funerals, the host imports or otherwise obtains his whisky in larger quantities than would in other circumstances be the case, and this, one gathers, it is considered hospitable to furnish. The results are generally obvious enough. There is moreover we are told, a considerable amount, among the fairly well to do, of that “close drinking” which comes of the private consumption of what, in public places and with companionship, would probably be taken in moderation only.
As long ago as 1811 it was stated, in the Agricultural Survey of the Hebrides, that “there were formerly large sums of money drawn by Tyree for whisky, distilled from the excellent barley of this fertile island; but of late this branch of industry has been suppressed, and that too, very probably, to the ultimate advantage both of proprietor and tenants.”
We ourselves could not speak with same conviction either as to the entire suppression of the commerce, or the advantage derived, at all events by the people, from the alleged abolition of the “shebeen.” The Highlanders cannot be expected (apparently) to drink beer, but to assume that because the Duke of Argyll has suppressed licensed houses that they will necessarily abstain from whisky, is like other attempts to make people good by Act of Parliament, assuming too much. The Fingal is of course allowed, though at a special price, to sell whisky to her passengers; and, as we have seen, affords a frequent opportunity for a little mild conviviality while she lies in harbour; and remote and lonely as is the island, the inhabitants are visited by an occasional cargo-boat, the Dunara Castle or the Hebridean, which carries cargo direct from Glasgow, a journey of from twenty-four to thirty hours, and have thus the opportunity of importing whatever they desire for their private consumption, possibly sharing it with friends. Not to seem censorious, nor to speak de haut en bas, I freely acknowledge that we obtained a bottle of excellent whisky with little difficulty, and with the gratitude one feels for luxuries, when necessaries are somewhat scarce. One of us who had an appetite for dairy-food did very well (though I fear the cheese was Glasgow, not to say American), but the other, an eater of dinner rather than tea-meals got, after a time, what old women call ‘rather low,’ especially as we were taking an immense amount of exercise and the sea air was strong and exhausting. We had forgotten the case of soda water, and the water of the island was of quite too doubtful a quality to drink when not boiled, but after we possessed that bottle of whisky we felt that we were in touch with life and not more, perhaps, than eighty miles from a lemon.
Extract from Outer Isles by Ada Goodrich Freer, published in New York by E. P. Dutton & Co in 1902.