Coll The Coll Magazine

Article by Angus MacFarlane (1997)

Sea Captains of Coll. An occasional series

It will come as no surprise to learn that Coll has a long tradition of seafaring.
The island can also boast a number of highly respected sea captains.
Here, Angus MacFarlane tells the story of his father, Donald MacFarlane.

Captain Donald MacFarlane, or Domhnull-na-Heb as he was affectionately known, was born in Sorrisdale on the 5th September 1889. The midwife who had attended the event, when asked, some years after his death, if she recognised a certain young lad who happened to be one of his sons, said "Yes, I well remember the day that his father was born. I walked to Sorrisdale and there were heavy showers of hailstones."

He went to Cornaig School in Bousd and, at the age of 12, was awarded the Scotch Education Department Merit Certificate which states that 'Donald MacFarlane, having been examined in August 1902, has shown thorough proficiency in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and English according to the requirements for the Merit Certificate, and has received efficient instruction in An Approved Curriculum of Studies embracing the following subjects: Nature, Knowledge, Geography and British History.' He was presumably given, along with the other children, a china mug which reads: 'Cornaig School 1896.' This could have been to celebrate some historic event.

It could be assumed that by the age of 15 he would have left school to work on the croft. Some years later Neil MacLean, a Sorrisdale crofter died suddenly. The death occurred shortly after the mailboat had sailed for the mainland. Without the assistance of the Postman to pass on news of the death and details of the funeral - which was arranged to take place following the arrival of the next mailboat - Donald saddled up his pony and left Sorrisdale with the intention of notifying every house on the island.After struggling for many hours through a typical Coll gale, he took refuge at Breacachadh Farm and, over what was left of the night, stayed with Hamish MacRae's grandparents. While the men slept, the Good Mrs MacRae stayed up by the fire drying Donald's clothes so that he could return home in the morning in some degree of comfort.

In time he took up commercial fishing, no doubt to alleviate the burden of the exorbitant rents which existed in those days. He appears to have been quite successful and at times had up to two of a crew with him on the skiff. At one point his crew consisted of Alistair MacKinnon, Bousd and Cnoc-a Bhadain, and Hector, the twin. Fishing was then, as it still is, hard and dangerous work. Trips along the Coll coastline and out to the banks close to Rhum were entirely dependent on sail and oars. Long lines were baited with herring and took many hours to prepare. On a particularly calm day during this period he suggested landing on the rocks of the Cairns of Coll which they did. It is doubtful if anyone has landed there since. One of his most notable catches included a huge halibut which was the length and breadth of a door. It had to be moved on a handcart.

Most, if not all of the fish caught off the island at that time was sold or bartered to Mr Robert Sturgeon who operated the principal store in the village and a long lasting relationship, based on trust and fairness had long been in existence between the East-Enders and Mr Sturgeon. With his very first earnings from fishing, Donald bought his mother a dainty set of three china cups and saucers, which are still intact today.
Donald Joined the Merchant Service probably around 1920. His sponsor was Captain Neil MacQuarrie who secured him a position on the ship Ardgartock which was employed in the North European trade. In due course he joined Messrs MacCallum Orme which was a highly reputable shipping company based on the Clyde with a fleet of three ships: the Dunara Castle, Hebrides and the Challenger. Indeed, such was the desire for employment in this company, that it was frequently expressed that a vacancy occurred only when a coffin was taken down the gangway.

In 1923 Donald married Catherine MacKinnon, a sister of the Sorrisdale twins. Katie recalled that on her first day at Bousd School Donald was given the responsibility of seeing her there safely. During the journey she noticed some warts on the hand that held hers and in later years she used to laugh as she remembered that all that day she kept checking her hand, fully expecting the appearance of a crop of mysterious lumps! They settled in Glasgow and had three sons. Summer holidays were, naturally, spent on Coll. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Donald moved the family to Sorrisdale and later to Arinagour. By this time he had been sailing as Master on both the Dunara and the Hebrides - having had the rather unique distinction of serving from seaman to Captain. During his career he met and sailed with many people up and down the West Coast. He had been at the evacuation of St Kilda and personally knew most of the inhabitants. He had regularly visited all the smaller ports and was widely respected.

The extent of his coastal knowledge was quite remarkable and he thought nothing of taking his ship into Tarbert, Harris by the tortuous South route which was unmarked by buoys or beacons. In the narrow channel leading to Loch Eport he used to lay the Hebrides alongside an unusual sloping cliff where cattle and sheep could be driven directly on to the ship's deck, thus saving the drovers miles of difficult overland travel to the pier. He also brought the Hebrides to the Middle Pier, Arinagour, on several occasions to unload heavy or awkward cargo which could not easily be handled by the ferryboat. Apart from the re stricted manoeuvring space and the lack of suitable mooring bollards, it was a risky undertaking because of the lack of water alongside and the real danger of the engine cooling water intakes becoming blocked with sand and weed.

On the cultural side he was interested in all aspects of the Gaelic traditions. A keen supporter of Highland and Island culture and the campaign to preserve, sustain and encourage the use of the Gaelic language, both socially and domestically, especially among the younger generation, he was an early member of the rescusitated Coll Association. He made up for his absence at sea by encouraging his wife Katie to join the `Coll Committee' as it was then designated. Over the years he gathered an impressive collection of Gaelic proverbs and also contributed a series of articles to the Gaelic publication Gairm under the heading `The Captain's Tales'.

During the war the Hebrides was mostly on the mail service from Oban to Coll and Tiree. This had an added responsibility for the safe passage of hundreds of Airforce personnel who were based in Tiree. The shipboard facilities were quite inadequate and The MacCallum Orme Steamer, The Dunara Castle. travellers, generally, were at times obliged to huddle in groups on deck without shelter. Serious delays on account of bad weather usually meant that there was hardly enough food to produce a decent meal.

In 1944 Donald fell seriously ill and spent almost a year recovering at home in Arinagour. Later, having returned to sea he received notification in January 1946 that he had been appointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for 'meritorious Sea Service in the Merchant Navy'. He had engaged in a well executed rescue of life at sea and successfully extinguished an on board fire. The reward was heartily applauded in the maritime company and amongst his friends. After a recurrence of his pre vious illness he died in Arinagour on the 19th January 1947 and is buried in Kilunnaig cemetery. An appreciation which appeared in a local newspaper reads, 'He typified in courtesy, bearing and efficiency all the best qualities in Hebridean seamanship than which no higher praise can be earned by anyone.'

Images associated with this article:-

SS Hebrides at pier, Isle of Coll

Landing from S.S. Hebrides, Island of Coll

The MacCallum Orme Steamer, The Dunara Castle
Coll Magazine - Article by Angus MacFarlane

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