I’d loaded the van with hay from Drimore Farm, and had just set off on my journey up south‡ – back to the walled garden for lunch. The sky brightened a little and the landscape seemed to spring into life – albeit looking a little washed-out : the air being full of moisture after a week or more of rainy days. I looked down at the clock on the dashboard : there was time enough for an half hour holiday∗. The side-road coming up on the left was a favourite for just such an excursion – the road to Loch Sgioport
I’m never disappointed. There’s always something new to see along the Loch Sgioport road ; or to see afresh. Something wonderful, or beautiful, or awe-inspiring, or uplifting. Four miles out, and four back of slow, patient driving. Careful, too : the road is very narrow, twisting, uneven – it needs care! And stops at passing places : not to let another vehicle pass (even in summer, there may be none), but to just stop and stare awhile.
At the end, just before the steep, switch-back slope down to the old ruined pier, there’s a place for vehicles to turn around. Pausing there, I caught a glimpse of something I’ve never noticed before – the ruins of a house in the abandoned crofting township of Caolas Mòr [The Big – or Wide Straits].
The house appears to be one of those many that were built, in the early 1920s, by men who had returned from the war demanding ‘land for heroes’. Even before the war, the crofting communities of the Highlands and Islands were struggling with many hardships, and many chose or were forced to emigrate to the USA, to Canada, Australia or New Zealand, or join the merchant navy. The shortages and hardships of the war made life harder still for the women, children and elderly who remained at home. But with the majority of men of working age away at the war, there were too few bodied men – or women – left at home to crew the fishing boats, dig the peats for winter fuel, handle the cattle, repair houses after winter storms, bring in the harvests. For the men who did return, a few were able to take over crofts of those who did not, or had been abandoned for want of anyone to work the land : many such men soon found the crofts they’d ‘inherited’ to be too small to be viable. Others demanded the creation of new – and much larger – crofts out of the land reserved by the proprietor of the estate for ‘sport’ (ie hunting deer, grouse shooting, fishing for trout or salmon, and such like) or was simply unused.
Only a few of those men, with their families, were granted new crofts. They were obliged to build – within a certain time – a house on the croft for themselves, and for this they would have received from the government grants to cover the cost of certain materials (usually cement, lumber, corrugated steel, nails – everything else the crofters had to find themselves, as also the labour). They received no other help. There were no roads, no fishing piers (piers for other purposes such as ferries could not be used for fishing) ; no public utilities. (Even long-inhabited areas of Uist didn’t get electricity until the 1950s, and public water supply in the 60s or even the 70s.) There was no school either – though in some townships the crofters clubbed together to build a school and not only find and pay a teacher, but also to build a house for that teacher). But the east coast of Uist (and indeed the east side of almost all the Outer Hebrides) is extremely inhospitable : without the capital to invest in boats and gear to exploit the rich fishing in the cold nutrient-rich waters of The Minch, most of these pioneers had no option other than to wrest what living they could from this desperately poor land. For the most part, they grazed the hardy Scottish Blackfaced sheep and raised lambs to go to the mainland marts. But it was a desperately hard life with little reward and no security. Many of the pioneers had already left by 1930, and many many more left during the Great Depression. The outbreak of another world war in 1939 brought a repeat of history, but this time – when peace returned, there was no call for new crofts, and even the long-established crofting townships on the fertile lands of the west coast were falling into ruin for lack of men and women of any age – only the old folks were left.
This simple, solitary house at Caolas Mòr speaks volumes of social history!
‡ up south : as opposed to down north. To refer to the north as ‘up’ and the south ‘down’ is the convention that almost everyone is familiar with, but is actually of quite recent origin – quite likely in the early 20th century. It’s a convention that pre-supposes a familiarity with the conventional layout of maps – in a World Atlas, for example. Previously, up was used in reference to a place of greater importance : one went ‘up to town’ – eg London or to Oxford or Cambridge (referencing the universities in particular) ; Railway tracks in the UK are still referred to as Up lines (leading to London and certain other significant cities and towns) and Down lines (leading away from London etc). In Uist, all places of over-arching importance are to the south (whether Edinburgh or London, or Rome) and thus South is Up!
∗ Half-hour Holiday : A brief divergence from normal routes and routines that serves to refresh the spirits : usually unplanned, ideally spontaneous!