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Scottish Review

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Behold the Hebrides
The Highland Student
Trials of Penury and Distance


THOSE of us who live our lives in great towns and cities, where every possible educational facility is afforded us at practically less than cost price, have very little conception of the economic difficulties which have confronted, and indeed still confront, students from the remote parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and of the odds above which they invariably rise.

Of course conditions to-day are very much more amenable than they were even thirty years ago. But, when we think of the extraordinary problems of transport even under modern circumstances, particularly in the Western Isles, we begin to realise how wonderful it was that an outlandish island like Lewis, or even Skye, sent forward so many students to our Scottish universities in the days gone by, and produced so many distinguished men.

To a people lacking in grit and in determination the serious handicap placed upon them by difficulties of transport would have been an almost unsurmountable obstacle, at any rate so far as university careers were concerned. Just think for a moment of those fellows who, not so very long ago, were obliged to tramp twenty or twenty-five miles over moor and machair to reach Stornoway or Tarbert, Harris, where they embarked for Glasgow after a wait of several hours, because the boat was usually late in arriving on account of uncertain weather! Much worse was the lot of those who, before beginning their tramp, had probably to row or sail a few miles from some little island that was still more remote.

Many of my own contemporaries are faced with such hardships each time they return home on vacation, though the introduction into the Islands in recent years of light motor-cars has helped matters considerably. You can imagine the endurance of an acquaintance of mine when I tell you that he lands regularly at Tarbert, and walks many weary miles round the western seaboard of Harris, via Amhuinnsuidhe, to discover that the Atlantic is too stormy to permit of the frail ferry-boat crossing that day to his island-home in Scrap. The marvel is that the people has survived in these parts at all when one considers the economic and climatic conditions under which it has laboured for generations.

Of course the advent of steam has relieved matters enormously; but even taking this fact into consideration the train does not bring the Hebridean student nearer his home than Kyle of Lochalsh, or Mallaig. No doubt steamers in recent times have improved conditions somewhat, because they move more rapidly than do sailing ships, and they can make their voyages in all winds and in practically all weathers. Then the use of light cars, as already noted, has during the last two decades saved many a long, weary tramp, or a bone-shaking jostle in an old cart.

Not so very long ago students walked all the way to college at Aberdeen from their crofts in the north and west of Scotland. But in the olden days it sometimes took a couple of weeks to sail to Lewis from Glasgow; and within living memory the outward journey frequently occupied five or six days, because the steamer called with odd passengers and sundry cargoes at innumerable little ports on the way, and often steered as far north as Aultbea and Lochinver before crossing over the Minch to Stornoway. It must be remembered, too, that there were no sailings on Sundays; and this sometimes added an extra day to what was already a tedious voyage. This day was spent in the last port at which the steamer called on the Saturday afternoon.

You see, during the long summer holidays these fellows go home to their crofts and help their people all they can. They, perhaps, assist in rebuilding their houses or in re-thatching the byres, or they tend to the cattle, or help with the peats or with the harvest, which, as I have told you elsewhere, is as scanty as it is laborious even in the best of seasons, because, among other things, of the impoverished nature of the soil. A few years ago it was not an unusual thing for a student to teach during his vacations in the school of some neighbouring township, and to provide a substitute, so as to enable him to attend college during the winter and spring months.

Smooth waters never make expert mariners any more than uninterrupted comfort and prosperity equip men and women for usefulness and service. In a manner not unlike that of the storms of the ocean, the storms of adversity arouse the senses and increase a hundredfold the fortitude, endurance, and skill of the voyager. A glance through the achievements at our Scottish universities readily re-assures us that at all events Highland students, who have almost invariably come from poor circumstances, have nothing to be ashamed of. The record of Lewis in this respect is one of which any race might have every reason to be proud.

These island students know that if they are to be successful they must needs deny themselves, and that those at home must be denied too.

But they are all recompensed in due season: they cast their bread upon the waters, and receive it after many days.


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