Island Roan (Eilean nan Roan)

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By mid 1938 only four men and five women* – three families in all remained and it was inevitable that evacuation from this small North Sutherland island one mile off the mainland would have to take place. There was a reluctance to leave and so they remained throughout the summer. On Tuesday, the 6th December, 1938 the final crossing was made.
The day had been spent by the few remaining islanders carrying household goods and furniture down the steep steps, cut into the hillside at the turn of the century, to the boats and ferrying them over to the mainland. The calmness of the weather gave way to a change in the evening and they had to wait until dusk to finally secure all the hens. Even then as they were being carried in boxes some escaped, and delayed the final departure. All the while the wind rose, the houses were in darkness, only sheep remained. The familiar lights were missed as they quietly pushed off and hoisted sail. No one spoke and a few tears were shed.
The boat soon left the shelter of the island, going at speed in pitch darkness, and lurching wildly in the rising sea. The sail was lowered and shortened and the north wind carried the boat along at a good pace. Once more the sail had to be reefed, and sailing through the black December night with the boat pitching on the waves, thoughts turned to their island homes now deserted. The bleakness of sorrow crept over them, but soon they caught sight of a light stabbing the dark night and suddenly all felt happier, knowing that a lantern had been placed on the pier at Skerray to safely guide them towards a small group of friends waiting to welcome them. Cold wintry conditions ensured a rapid dispersal of these families to their new homes in the Skerray townships of Tubeg, Achnabat, Clashclevan and Torrisdale.

Eilean nan Ron- Island of the Seal, was well named. On one particular rock it was quite common to see more than forty seals at one time. In midsummer it was never really dark,- the day merged into the night. It was so light and the seals kept barking and making strange noises. The island once had a compact community surrounded by the unending music of the sea. A people with flocks of sheep and boats, they harvested from the land and from the ocean. The island and the sea with its music remain, but the people have gone- on the green plateau above the dark cliffs, stand the empty houses, clearly visible from the mainland.

Oral tradition cites the first to have lived on the island were three families, one from Melness, one from Kirkiboll and the other from Poole. Towards the end of the eighteenth century they found themselves there as social outcasts. The Melness family, for example, had burrowed into the communal potato pit, leaving the community desperately short. Such an offence in a previous generation had carried the penalty of deportation to the colonies.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the only remaining individual was a dwarf, known as Pipeir an Eilean. He had formerly been a piper in the Duke’s regiment. He had two daughters, one of small stature, Betsey, married, Angus Macdonald, the tallest and strongest man in Ceann Tuath. They were joined by five other families to settle on the island and raise their families. The others had found themselves displaced as a result of the Sutherland Clearances.

In due course twelve families settled on the island, only six had crofts, which carried from three to four head of cattle each- the mainstay of the island being the herring fishing. In the early days, as was the case all round the northern seaboard, the boats were small, around thirty-five foot in length, and only the forehalf decked for accommodation. With these boats they went as far as Stornoway on the west coast and Wick on the east. The size of these boats diminished their earning capacity, and thus around 1870, the Duke of Sutherland gave the island fishermen a new and much larger boat. It was paid for in yearly instalments according to their earnings. An increase in the island population allowed them a few years later to purchase and man another boat. With the larger and better equipped boats prosperity grew. In time these boats were replaced by boats over fifty foot in length with a steam capstan for handling the nets.

Around 1905, the steam drifter came on the scene and the life of the sail fishing boat came to an end. Around 1910 the islanders chartered a steam drifter and continued fishing with this till after the First World War. It allowed a longer fishing season and eventually they ventured as far as the fishing ports of Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The resident island population thus rose and fell according to the fishing season.

The crofts were tended by the women, elderly men and older schoolboys. A Side- School teacher had been appointed around 1870 and at the turn of the century the school role rose to eighteen, whilst the island population reached its peak of over 70. In 1904 a designated school and teacher’s house was built. Inspections and assessment of educational attainment were conducted at the main Skerray School by members of the School Board and necessarily involved the school pupils in sea journeys. Island life brought many visitors during the summer months. A visitors book presented to the islanders in 1883 by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, records over two thousand five hundred visitors to the island until its final evacuation in 1938. The older women worked the crofts and had to launch and haul small sailing boats to collect provisions from the mainland. On Sundays they would cross to a church service on the mainland, and if weather did not permit, a service was held morning and evening in the little school.

Island life brought the need for communication with the mainland. It was accomplished by lighting a fire and making smoke signals. People on the mainland also signalled the islanders by the same means. One smoke for transport, two fires for a telegram and other signals for funerals and health emergencies.

The highest point of the island offers splendid views of the north coast-the high islands of the Orkneys, Strathy Point and westward to the Rabbit Islands and Talmine Bay. To the far north lies the ocean and little between the island and the polar ice. Fishing was not without danger especially when venturing into the Roost, the treacherous exposed waters between Fair Isle and Sumburgh. On one occasion, Donald Mackay, skipper of the island boat-“The Morning Star”, fishing in these waters, was caught unawares when a strong south westerly gale sprang up. He barely had time to haul the gear aboard and the gale blowing too hard to hoist a sail, he ordered the crew, in great danger of being washed overboard, to take shelter below, while he lashed himself to the wheel and the boat ran before the gale, Soaked and nearly half-drowned he steered the little boat and brought it safely to Lerwick Harbour.
Fortunately the seasons change to be overtaken by summer and this gives the island a special beauty. The rough heathery island with its houses scattered about the cultivated plots. The faint smell of peat smoke in the heady air- the sea breeze brushing the vivid green of the growing corn. Happy cries of children playing and all around the blue of the tranquil sea.

In many ways the island was self-sufficient. The islanders killed their own cattle and sheep and salted the carcasses. Fish was naturally cured by hanging the fish on wooden spars in Carn Talmhainn, a cave by the sea. The prevailing wind blew into the cave and the salt air imparted a very special flavour. Sometimes there would be almost two thousand fish hanging in the cave at one time- the fish never had to be salted. A small store house was opened at one end of a croft house to provide basic utilities. There was always a plentiful supply of peats. At one time they made their own candles, and grew their own Tobacco plants.

By 1937 the population of the island had dropped to nineteen. The First World War had brought a spirit of unrest. The contentment of former generations had passed with the decline in herring fishing and a feeling that an easier living could be made on the mainland. It brought about a partial evacuation- four families left, one entire family at one time to Australia, whilst other individuals went to Canada and America. As with St Kilda in 1931, there was an inevitability about the future of life on the island.
In anticipation of a forthcoming evacuation, in June 1937 the Scottish Daily Express sent a reporter, closely followed by a reporter from the Scottish Daily Record in early December, 1937. Mr James Morrison of the Scottish Daily Record experienced at first hand the unpredictability of island life, being stranded on the island over a few days. He stayed at the house of Donald and Seonaid Mackay. Their daughter, Kitty Ann Macqueen, the last side-school teacher on the island clearly recalls the events of that period. As side-school teacher her last and only remaining pupils, were her two brothers, John Angus and Donald. As a family they left the island in the spring of 1938.
Although not the oldest surviving islander, Kitty Ann recently celebrated her ninetieth birthday and early in 2008 revisited her native island by helicopter, arranged by Caledonia TV, to make a documentary** about island memories and life.

Eilean nan Ron, Eilean nan Ron,
Island whose hills are as dear as my own
Over your heather I'll never more roam
And I am sad that I am going to leave you

* Final Evacuation List:
Christina Bella Mackay, Hector Sinclair Mackay, Jessie Ann Mackay, Willie John Mackay, Hugh Campbell Mackay
Donald Mackay, Ina Mackay
Chrissie Dolina Mackay, Christina Mackay