Coll The Coll Magazine

Article by Betty MacDougall (2000)

Suil Air Ais - A Backward Look
Here I am in the year 2000 and thinking back to 1925 the year of my first visit to Coll, a trip I had longed to make but until then my mother had thought me too young to be out of her care. My father Hector MacDougall left Coll in 1899 but though settled in Glasgow he never missed a yearly visit back to his native isle. In 1925 he took me and my older sister to see his family at Sorasdal. It was the longest trip I had ever made but was full of interest as my father had a fund of stories to pass the time on a journey.

On the way we stopped for a night in Oban staying with Hector's Aunt Kate, mother of Neil MacLean the famous Gaelic singer. The sea trip next day was a long one. I think there was a ferry stop at Craignure, no pier in those days, then a call at Tobermory where his older brother Lachlan met us at the pier for a chat. There was another ferry stop at Kilchoan and then on to Coll. In those days there was no motor power on the ferries, only oarsmen. The steamer was the Cygnet of limited passenger comfort. It was the Glasgow Fair so there was a full complement on board as this was before the days of staggered holidays and many old friendships were renewed.

At Coll the ferry had to make more than one trip out to the steamer to cope with the holiday makers and cargo. The huge oars on the ferry had many willing hands to help and a Gaelic rowing song to urge them on - yes, those were the days when Gaelic was common usage in the island. Passengers were landed at what is now known as the middle pier and Arinagour street was lined with carts to meet the exiles, brasses and paintwork shining.

My Uncle Neil was one of the island postmen so while he was attending to his duties with the mail we were in the house at No.1 Main Street with the ever-hospitable Katy MacFadyen, daughter of Neil the island carpenter. He and his son Charles had a workshop where I can remember seeing coffins in preparation. It is now the holiday house of Neil MacFadyen's grandson, Kinfad. My uncle had a horse and trap and once he had his mail for the east end organised and groceries collected from Robert Sturgeon's store, we set off.

The two old MacLean women Mary and Mor were living at Crannag, having retired from their work in the kitchen of Miss Cranston's Tea-room in Glasgow. They had been nicknamed "The Dearies" - perhaps by myself, I am not sure because their usual greeting was always "Oh, a theist bheag" (little dear) regardless of whom was being welcomed. There were 5 houses occupied in Sorasdal at this time, the croft was worked by the MacKinnons down at the shore and a Campbell family. In Bousd there were 8 houses occupied then 2 at Cornaig Mhor, Cornaig Bheag Farm and the Toraston shepherd family, Kennedys. All the people in the east end were Gaelic speakers.

My grandmother was bed-ridden and my cousin Annie-Jessie kept house. She had come from the fishing town of Rosehearty on the East Coast as a young girl without a word of Gaelic but with total immersion in the language at Sorasdal, within a year she became quite fluent. Having been a learner she made a good teacher and she took me in hand to acquire at least a smattering. She started with the items on the meal table - the direct method and then by degrees introduced me to the use of verbs by question and answer. There was a collie dog, a houseful of cats and hens strutting about the ever open door. Annie-Jessie was good with animals, she had the cats performing tricks, the reward being a sliver of Coll cheese. An intriguing feature was the well down at the shore where the fresh water came bubbling up to fill the pails. That was a daily trip at least as there was no piped water, lighting was by oil lamps and candles.

I suppose there must have been some bad days that summer but nature is kind and I have only sunny memories. That first visit had me hooked and thereafter as soon as the term exams were over, I emptied the school books out of my case and packed myself off to my island paradise.

A year or so later my father sent a car out for Neil to give him more shelter at the posting. Lachlan went out from Mull to teach him to drive and after a few days, left him to it. I am not sure just how many cars were on the island at the time, the laird had one complete with chauffeur, Captain MacQuarrie the hotel keeper had one, probably Johnny Fotheringham had one, so it was quite a nine days wonder.

It was a truly communal way of life in Sorasdal, we were in and out of one anothers houses and there was always a helping hand, potatoes from the croft and plenty of milk. When the men went out fishing the catch was counted out and a share sent up to the pensioners' houses. Neil dried and salted fish so every house had a string of salted fish in reserve for the winter. The able-bodied men attended to the cutting, drying and carting of the peats from the moss and the old folks usually managed to help stack them.

My uncle was also the keeper of the lighthouse Suil Gorm so every night the light had to be checked to make sure it was flashing on and off at the correct rate. He was also a lobster fisherman and many a day I enjoyed with him and the twins on his yawl the Heather Bell. Then ultimately there would be a sail to Arinagour to sell the catch to Mr. Sturgeon (agent for the mainland market), no motor, only oars and a sail. It was quite a long time before the east end people changed the clocks to summer time, they kept what they called God's time. Popular visitors were the packmen and the travelling salesmen, I remember Barney Long who would undo his bundle on the kitchen floor, temptingly. The Bousd people were back and forth, Mrs. Livingstone the Cornaig school teacher kindly let me and my cousin take some books from the library. I remember the Dumas novels from that time.

A poignant memory is sitting on the hillside watching the funeral cortege of Neil MacKinnon, father of the twins. He was a kindly, venerable man who worked to the end of his days, he was 78 when he died in 1932. It was a carried funeral in the old style and I was amazed at the speed of the procession, the men fairly stepped out.

In those summers I was free to roam as I pleased but from what I hear, we are now being fenced off the island. However, my days of wandering are over.

By Betty MacDougall
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Coll Magazine - Article by Betty MacDougall

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