The Green Island

In the Hebrides, there are traditions of an Island away in the West, submerged by enchantments, in which the inhabitants continue to live as formerly, and which will yet become visible and accessible. Traditions regarding its position vary, each locality placing it near itself, and the tales are of interest as showing the direction popular imagination has taken on such a topic. It would be strange if men, placed on the margin of a boundless sea, and in whose evening entertainments song and poem occupied a prominent part, did not people the cloudy distance with inhabited islands.

The Sgialachds or winter evening tales, often make mention of the ‘congealed sea’ (muir-teuchd or m. tiachd), the name now commonly given to jelly-fish. It was supposed to be the region where sea and sky meet. The water there is like jelly-fish, and boats cannot move through it from its consistency. This fancy very likely originated in vague rumours of the Polar ice. Before arriving at this distant region lay ‘the Green Island in the uttermost bounds of the world’ (an t-Eilean Uaine an iomall an domhain tur),1 which is at present invisible from being under enchantments (fo gheasaibh).

In the same ancient lore about giants, Lochlin, the kings of Ireland, and distant voyages, Tiree figures as the ‘Remote Island’ (an t-Eilein Iomallach), and the cave, in which, according to one of the tales, Sir Olave O’Corn killed the giant, is the Big Cave in Kennavara hill, at its western extremity. It was also known as ‘Kingdom Tops-under-waves’ (Rioghachd Bharrai-fo-thuinn), there being a current belief that it is lower than the surrounding sea. The extremely level character of the island is so much in contrast with the rest of the Hebrides that such a belief might naturally arise. During a heavy surf, the sea is seen in several places right across the Island, from the one shore, breaking in foam upon the other. A fisherman in the west end said there could be no doubt on this point, as the boats always took longer getting out to the banks than coming in again. In the latter case they were coming down an incline!2 There was also a tradition that the Island was at one time separated from Barra only by a narrow sound. A woman, milking a cow in Tiree, could throw the cow-shackle (buarach) across to another in Barra. Probably the tradition has originated from the existence of peat-mosses under the sandy beaches of the island and the neighbouring sea. After heavy storms, large pieces of peat are cast ashore. These are known as moine thilgte (i.e. cast peat), and are dried and used as fuel…

It was said in Tiree the Green Island was attached to itself, as Roca Barra was to Barra. There was even a popular saying, that it was mentioned in the charters of the Island. The following will suffice as specimens of the tales told of it and Roca Barra:

A stranger came to Mull and asked to be ferried across to the Green Island. The boatmen said they did not know where that place was. He said it was near Tiree, and he himself would guide them to it. On arriving at the place, he took them up to his house for refreshments. The only person in was an old woman, who was busy eating. In reply to the inquiries of the man, with whom the boatmen had come, she said her appetite was failing, but she could still take ‘seven little cod, and seven large cod, one from off the embers, a drink of juice and three bannocks.’ The Mullmen were seen safe on board this boat, and when they looked about, after setting sail, no island was to be seen, nor has the Green Island been seen since…

…An old blind man asked to be taken out to fish on the banks to the north-west of the island. The fishers had previously met with little success. He said this was owing to their not finding the right place. After going a long distance, he asked them how they saw Tiree, and, not satisfied with their answers, made them row on. At last, when they said they saw Tiree like two islands, he told them to cast anchor and begin to fish. He asked for the first fish caught, and feeling it over with his hands said, they were not yet in the right place. Refreshed by the rest, the men rowed further out to sea until they could row no further. Again the same thing occurred, and thrice the anchor was cast and raised. Then the old asked if anything was in sight. The men said they saw an island. He told them to row towards it, and not to take their eyes off it until they landed. They did this, and on reaching jumped out and made fast the boat. The old man was left in charge, and the rest went up through the island. They fell in with no one, but an old woman in a solitary house. She had a creelful of potatoes (puntat’ air craoileig) before her, and was busy eating. She said never a word, and paid no attention to the intruders, but continued eating. When they returned to the boat, the old man asked them what they had seen. They told, and he said, ‘Aye, Big Sense has got her appetite yet.’ By his advice they made to return, and went into the boat, leaving the old man on the shore. They bent down to get ready the oars, and when they looked about again the island had disappeared, and the old man along with it. Neither have since been seen. Had the old man, or anything belonging to the island, been taken away, or had the men even kept their eyes upon it, the mysterious island would not have disappeared.

1  Others say ‘an domain dàmhair’ but can give no explanation of what dàmhair means.

2  It is quite true, that it takes longer to go out to the fishing banks on the west of the island than to return again, but the reason is, that the ‘set’ or swell of the sea is always from the west.

Extracts from The Green Island by John Gregorson Campbell, published in The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 5, 1908.