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Article by Uilleam Mairi Niall Iain Unknown (2000)

Coll's Contribution to Maritime History
 

Tr mo ghridh an t-Eilean Chollach, Fada mach 'san chuan an lar
Eilean beag nan cluaintean torrach, Anns am faigh sin filt is fial,

Sud far bheil an t-ile cbhraidh, 's faile meala thar 'nam blth,

Ein air gheugaibh, seinn gu sunndach, danadh iolach ris an l.

 
Each year as a result of continuing improvements in methods of mass transportation, the island of Coll, welcomes an ever increasing multitude of visitors, drawn from all parts of the globe. Should these visitors, perchance, question the Island's contribution to the world outside Arinagour, the answer must surely be its People, whose profound faith in God, high moral standards and keen industrious nature, made them valuable acquisitions to wherever they sought residence, especially the Colonies, to which they emigrated. Others were lured to the City of Glasgow and Southern areas of the mainland, where rapidly expanding industry offered the prospect of regular employment and modern housing. Employment at sea and recruitment into the Highland Regiments also fuelled the exodus. Those who remained on the Island crofted and fished, exporting their cattle and sheep which were reared with great difficulty, to mainland markets for little reward. Coll cheese, renowned world wide for its exceptionally high quality, was in great demand and brought badly needed revenue to the Island population. John MacKinnon, (affectionately known as lain Dhonnachaidh and also lain aig Sine) was one of these young men who were content to remain at home, in the village of Bousd, with his parents.

John was called to arms in the Royal Navy. After serving in a number of H.M. Ships, he was drafted to the Dover Patrol and subsequently as Leading Seaman, on board H.M.S. Vindictive. At this time the Merchant ship losses were increasing with such rapidity, that serious concern was aroused within the Establishment about the damage being inflicted upon our shipping by the Submarine and Motor Torpedo boat campaign operating from Zeebrugge. It was decided by The High Command that Zeebrugge Harbour and canal must be blocked, to deny access to the English Channel to enemy vessels of war. A Task Force was hurriedly mustered to achieve this objective; Vindictive and Iris, an ex Liverpool ferry were included in the Task Force. Several old ships were prepared for scuttling and ships, to provide defence cover, added. Vindictive and Iris were to berth on the harbour mole, land raiding parties and generally support the overall action. Unfortunately the operation was not entirely successful, and during the ensuing fierce battle, Vindictive was badly damaged, casualties were heavy and the Force withdrew to Dover. Meantime it was decided that a second attempt was to be made to block Zeebrugge, but on this occasion, Vindictive was to be one of the ships to be scuttled.

Leading Seaman John MacKinnon was detailed for the scuttling party, and once again the Force set sail. On arrival a similar hot reception from shore batteries awaited the Task Force. However, Vindictive was successfully sunk in position and in accordance with previous instructions the scuttling party remained on board until fast motorboats disembarked them. It was at this time, while still under heavy fire, that John sheltering behind one of the upper deck casings, spotted a small two sheave block secured in the rigging. He immediately climbed up a mast stay and retrieved it, knowing it would be suitable for his boat moored at Ceann a Bhaigh, Coll. John and his block were eventually taken off and put on board a ship returning to Dover, whence he went to Coll on leave.

Few people were aware of John's part in this grim action and it was only about two years before his demise that he told his story to me. Although I immediately recognised the importance of this block as a historical relic, I just could not muster the courage to say to him, if you precede me to Ethereal Mansions, will you leave the block to me, so that I can have it suitably deposited, as a lasting memorial to a very brave man, who has reflected the greatest credit upon his Country and native Island of Coll.

On his return home after hostilities he continued to croft and fish until he joined John MacDonald (lain Dhomhnuill Thearlaich) on the Coll ferry. Later he became the senior ferryman, with John Allan Cameron becoming the engineman. In addition to ferrying for MacBrayne they also served MacCallum Orme. On one of the Hebrides' fortnightly visits to Arinagour, the late Captain Donald MacFarlane was in command. There was an unusually heavy cargo to land. The first load having been landed, the grey boat, as she was known, returned for the remainder of the cargo, amongst which was a considerable amount of slag fertiliser, the weight of which can be very deceiving. Alasdair-aig-Sine, (John's brother) who was extra man on this occasion, was loading the boat with John Allan. lain Dhonnachaidh was on board Hebrides having a chat and a dram with his good friend Donald in the pantry. They had been fishing together for years when young men and were still staunch friends. Suddenly Alasdair jumped on board Hebrides, shouting "Tha am bata a'dol fodha" (the boat is sinking). Brother John, downed his dram, jumped on board the ferry boat, saying to Alasdair in an admonishing tone "Tha Diobhal eagal dhith dhol fodha" (there's no fear of her sinking) manned the hand pump, told John Allan to start the engine, and set off for the shore. Hebrides always had a seaboat at the ready, and Captain Donald being sufficiently concerned about the situation, called away the seaboat, (propelled by oars) to follow the ferry to the pier, in case that she might sink, in which case the seaboat would save the lives of those on the ferry. John got safely to the pier and the seaboat's crew helped to discharge the cargo onto the pier, after which the ferryboat returned alongside Hebrides for the final part of the cargo. What had caused the furore was, the amount of slag in the boat looked so small that it deceived Alasdair and John Allan. They were unaware that the boat was deeper in the water than usual, and the seam between planks normally above water had began to leak when now submerged. John in his typical placid manner, quickly realised what had happened and took the required countermeasures to deal with the situation.

John MacKinnon was undoubtedly one of Nature's Gentlemen. Kind and courteous in every respect, a man who lived respected and died regretted.

The ferocity of the fighting and the bravery displayed by all who took part in the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend is exemplified in the numbers of awards and decorations presented after the operations. Eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, two posthumously, and a large number of lesser decorations were presented. John was one of the lucky ones to return from war to his native Island. All too sadly, there were others who were not so fortunate and made the supreme sacrifice, some of the from Coll. Looking back at the outcome of two world wars and other lesser but equally dangerous campaigns, one becomes deeply conscious of the tremendous debt of gratitude owed to the brave men and women who preserved our freedom, and gave us the opportunity to rebuild our lives, by their great sacrifices. Although today, we in our beloved Country, enjoy a comparatively affluent lifestyle, we must not forget those who made that possible. Therefore it behoves us all to pause, think and bear in mind, not only The Dead, of these wars but also those whose bodies have been mutilated and still suffer the scars of war. Let us ponder the question, what can we do for them that have given so much for us?

In St.Andrews Church of Scotland, Gibraltar, hangs a poignant epitaph to Soldiers of Highland Regiments who made that supreme sacrifice. It is quoted below.

Eternal honour to the True and Brave,
Who for their native land their lifeblood gave.
Mairidh an Cliu gu Brath

by UILLEAM MAIRI NIALL IAIN

Coll Magazine - Article by Uilleam Mairi Niall Iain Unknown

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