I regret to say that I did not stay long enough in the island of Tiree to add to my store of legends, and yet, I went there with a capacious note-book and excellent intentions. What is more, I read from beginning to end, Dr. Erskine Beveridge’s detailed book on the island, and could have passed an examination on semi-brochs, rock-forts, marsh duns, islet-forts, sandhill dwellings, and prehistoric burial-sites. I steeped myself so thoroughly in the minutiae of pre-Reformation churches, that I almost forgot to go to the modern ones. Tiree took hold of me completely, and so did the Norse invaders of the Hebrides–men like Ketil Flatnose, Magnus Barelegs, Hako, and Somerled. I got a pocket map arranged for my own use (copied from Dr. Beveridge’s large one) with a red cross at all the sites of ancient forts. It was my fond hope, for pride attends us still, that I might find some inaccuracy in Dr. Beveridge’s book, and, from measurements on the spot, be able to contradict some of his statements. But what are the hopes of man! I did not know that predestination, in the form of dirty weather, was working against me, and was about to quench all my interest in duns. On September 5th, 1907, I determined to take Dr. Beveridge’s measurements for granted.
On that day, in fact, I was for some time under the impression that my last lecture had been delivered. It was on the way between Coll and Tiree. The gale was a furious one and, combined with the greasy odours of the Fingal, was enough to sicken a practised seafarer. I did notice that some of the crew were prostrated, so that there was some excuse for a landsman not being proof against Neptune’s dandling. So low, exposed and precarious is the shore at Scarinish, that often for weeks the ferrymen do not venture out to the steamer for passengers. I asked one of the Fingal men if there was any chance of being landed. He was a cruel cynic and said: “No, not today. The sea is too wild for the ferry to come out. We’ll go right across to Bunessan in Mull, so prepare for three more hours shaking. You won’t forget the Dutchman’s Cap for the rest of your life.” Then with a remark addressed to the Creator, he added: “There’s the ferryboat after all; she’s racing over the water like a stag.”
He was right: the lugsail was careering out to us and came alongside at length and, after fearful trouble, got fastened to the Fingal. Sometimes the ferryboat was even with our deck, sometimes far above it, sometimes fifteen feet below. It looked like certain death to leap into that lugsail.
I hesitated and shouted to the captain: “Is it safe to jump?”
He replied, “I wish to Tophet I had the chance.”
I watched for the next opportunity of the ferryboat and the Fingal being approximately on the same plane, and leaped into the arms of a boatman.
Other passengers followed,–men, women, even babies. Then came the mails; and finally, live stock. I remember being struck on the mouth by a sheep heaved into the boat by the above-mentioned cynic. “Come, come, that’s enough, keep the rest; let us be off,” shouted a boatman. Everybody was wet to the skin: the wind was howling; the women were weeping; and the babies were mixed up with the sheep.
Once clear of the Fingal the adroit ferrymen did their duty well, and in less than ten minutes we were all landed. A crowd of islanders were waiting to lift us out. All agreed it had been a close shave.
Such was my introduction to Pierless Tiree.
I did not stay long enough in the island to measure the brochs, but quite long enough to experience the goodwill and kindliness of the natives. The houses are solid and substantial, the inhabitants strong and muscular. Great gales from the Atlantic blow almost continually, sweep up the sand in clouds and prevent any trees taking root. I did not see much poverty with my own eyes, but the ministers all assured me that there was a great deal. Maize, more than oatmeal, is used for porridge. For supplementary information, Dr Beveridge’s admirable and accurate work may be consulted.
Extract from Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by D. T. Holmes, published by Alexander Gardner, Paisley in 1909.