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Issue 57 - Island Hopping

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

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Island Hopping

John Hannavy recreates 1772 journey

Thomas Pennant was not a man for idling away his time. Becalmed on board the cutter Lady Frederic Campbell off the east coast of Islay, he passed his time in contemplation! “The leisure of a calm”, he wrote, “gives ample time for reflection on the history and greater events of the islands now in view, and of the others, the object of this voyage.” There followed a lengthy – and wildly inventive – history of Scotland’s Western Isles, full of myth and legend.
“The remainder of the day” Pennant continued, “is past in the Sound of Jura: about twelve at noon a pleasant but adverse breeze arose, and obliged us to keep on towards the north, sometimes tacking towards the coast of Lower Knapdale, black with heathy mountains, verdant near the shore with tracts of corn: advance towards Upper Knapdale, rugged and Alpine.” They got as far as the mouth of Loch Sween before the wind helped them turn west and into the lea of the Small Isles off Craighouse on Jura, where they dropped anchor just after midnight on June 30, 1772.
After walking extensively around and across the southern tip of Jura, Pennant and his traveling companions crossed over the fast-flowing Sound of Islay to Islay itself – referred to through by Pennant as ‘Ilay’. He described the primitive housing of the local population, and the hard existence they endured. At Bowmore, he observed that ships of up to 300 tons could safely moor offshore in Loch Indaal, but of the village’s unusual round church – completed only five years earlier – he makes not a mention. And therein lies a useful reminder that almost 240 years have passed since Pennant’s journey. He limited his descriptions to historic buildings rather than new ones. But more than two centuries later, that round church is one of the most historic buildings on the island!
Their journey then took the three men north west to Oronsay, and a chance to visit the ruins of the ancient Augustinian priory and the stone cross which still adorns the site.
At low tide, they walked across to Colonsay, where he was struck by the poverty of the 500-600 islanders. They depended on the little cultivation they were able to do, and on kelp gathering. “They have a good soil”, wrote Pennant, “plenty of limestone, and sufficient quantity of peat. A sea abounding the fish, but their distressed state disables them from cultivating the one, and taking the other.”
Back on board the Lady Frederic Campbell they set off towards Iona, but as they approached the island in darkness, the sound of waves crashing over offshore rocks alarmed both passengers and crew, and the skipper decided to drop anchor for the night. At 8am the following morning, with a strong tide running, they found it impossible to make shore, and eventually sailed east round to the safety of the quiet water off Fionnphort.
Even in the late 18th century, the privilege of being buried on Iona was sought by many. Pennant reminded his readers of an ‘ancient prophecy’ which promised “Seven years before the end of the world, a deluge shall drown the nations: the sea, at one tide, shall cover Ireland, and the green-headed Ilay; but Columba’s isle shall swim above the flood.” So it is nothing to do with being buried near the great Kings and Lords of the Isles, it’s all a matter of keeping dry!
As ever, Pennant laced his account of the island with folklore and legend, including the gruesome story of St Oran being buried alive in the foundations of his chapel by St Columba as a means of stopping the Devil causing the walls to repeatedly collapse. There is not enough space to relate the full tale here, but read it if you can!
Returning to the ship, the travelers sailed north, passing Mull and the entrance to Loch Scridian to the east, and the Treshnish Isles to the west, intent on visiting the ‘recently discovered’ island of Staffa! His plans to investigate the rocky island were thwarted by “the prudence of Mr. Thompson [the skipper], who was unwilling to venture in these rocky seas”.
After sailing on to visit some of the smaller islands, Pennant set foot on Skye – or Skie as he spelled it – somewhere near Castle Moil, and set about exploring the island. What is interesting in his account is how much more of the many ruined castles and brochs on the island survived in his day. A further two centuries of development on the island would see much stone removed from these sites to be re-used in crofts and walls.
After visiting Dunvegan Castle, Pennant reveled in the fact that “Am lodged this night in the same bed that formerly received the unfortunate Charles Stuart. Here he lay one night, after having been for some time in a female habit under the protection on Flora Macdonald.” – a tangible link with the history of Scotland’s recent turbulent past.
His fascination with the macabre surfaced again at Duntulm Castle almost at the very north of the island where, after a brief description of the ruined castle, he informed his readers that “Near this place was pointed to me the spot where an incestuous pair (a brother and sister) had been buried alive, by order of the chieftain.” Despite his clear love of Scotland, the picture he paints is, at times, of a land so recently feudal, impoverished, and brutal.
The weather delayed there departure from Skye, and “after a most tempestuous night” they set sail at 2pm on July 24th, less than four weeks after setting foot for the first time on Jura. In those 24 days, they had maintained a hectic schedule yet, by Pennant’s account, had seen and learned much.
Plans to visit Stornoway and explore Lewis and Harris had to be abandoned – “It was my intention” wrote Pennant, “to have steered for that port, but was dissuaded from it by accounts I had from the gentlemen of Skie, that a putrid fever raged there with great violence.”
So, instead, Mr. Thompson steered the cutter towards Loch Broom, passing the Summer Isles the following day.
On July 26th they dropped anchor off Isle Martin north of Ullapool. Eventually, the following day, the party took a small boat ashore at Ardmair, ready to start their exploration of Ross, Sutherland and Cromarty – which is where we will rejoin them next time.