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Behold the Hebrides
In Hebrid Seas
Life on a Coaster

HAVE you ever smelt the tangle of the Isles? If you have, I need scarcely ask you what you would do were you told that in a few hours a smoke-blackened collier or a sea-smelling drifter would be gliding past Eilean nan Gobhair (? Gobhail) and Arnish Lighthouse on its way to Na h-Earradh and Uist and Barra, and that the skipper had expressed his willingness to take you with him. More than once have I availed myself of such an opportunity, and have dashed home along the shore for an oilskin, a pair of seaman’s boots, and some old clothes.

I recall that on one occasion I went at a moment’s notice for a trip on a sooty coaster; and that at midnight I was left all alone at the wheel in the dangerous Sound of Shiant. We were actually making for Scalpay (Harris) at the time. But against the strong headwind our old tub could not move more than two knots an hour, for, I believe, in calm, windless water its maximum speed was less than seven.

It was a grand experience, an experience the like of which only comes along once or twice in a lifetime. And I must admit that several times we were nearly on the rocks, because I was unaccustomed to this part of the sea, and entirely ignorant of its treacherous currents. Frankly, I was not a little nervous, though at the time it would have been easier for me to have perished at the helm than to have admitted it!

Had it not been for the flashes of the lighthouse on Eilean Glas, and for some extraordinary impulse that inwardly and secretly prompted me to bear slightly sea-wards in the direction of a vessel which, from its lights, I took to be a haven-seeking trawler, a most thrilling sea-tragedy could not have been averted. It was only in the half-light of the following morning that I realised how narrowly we had escaped being wrecked.

Against wind and storm it had taken us several long, dreary hours to reach as far south as the Shiant Isles; and our only real consolation was that the wind, having been straight at our bow, kept the boat fairly steady and rigid, except when, owing to my very inferior helmsmanship, some heaving wave thumped with terrific force against our larboard, and splashed over our timber-laden deck and cargo of sundry merchandise. I can assure you, had I faced that night without my oilskin and jack-boots, I would have looked like a drowned rat hanging on grimly to the spokes of the wheel.

Oh! it was a wild night; and the Sound of Scalpay was particularly choppy. I had once set out from Stornoway in a small sailing-boat on a visit to the house of Nighean Main Bhan in Loch Odhairn, when a squall encircled us off Creag Mhor (Kebock Head) and imperilled our lives until the hour of 3 A.M., by which time the tempest had subsided sufficiently to enable us to beat into the mouth of the pitch-black loch. But for the sacks of meal and flour that in the bottom of the boat acted as a considerable ballast, and for the incomparable skill in seamanship of the father of Domhnull MacMhathain, the skipper and owner of this tiny, fragile craft, we would never have survived to tell the tale.

That experience, in all conscience, was bad enough. It seemed impossible to imagine that anything in seafaring could be more thrilling, until I had encountered a storm in the Stream of the Blue Men and in the Sound of Scalpay. On the one side lay the island aforementioned; and on the other loomed the great sea-rent cliffs below Beinn a’ Chaolais. And so near did the latter appear that I felt it would have been possible at times to have stretched out my arm into the darkness to touch them.

I gave a sigh of relief when, having come at length to Ard an Aiseag, we swerved round into the wide harbour which, though stormy enough, was more sheltered than the open sea a few hundred yards behind us. Here I witnessed one of the most impressive scenes of my life. We had blown our siren when about half a mile away from the shore in order to give warning of our approach. And far off on the storm-swept pier stood the sturdy, oilskin-clad figure of one who, all his days, had been used to the sea, and knew the ways of the tempest. It was Alasdair Mor, who for six hours had been patiently waiting for us, and who, wildly waving a lantern to guide us through the eerie, drizzling darkness to the pier, sent a shrill, piercing whistle over the island for someone to assist him in the safe berthing of our tired and harassed coaster. Suddenly the throbbing of our engines ceased; and through the pandemonium of the storm and the noisy fizzing of steam came the voice of a strong, fearless man—’Caite am bheil Alasdair Beag?' (You see, I am tiny in comparison to Alasdair Mor!) ‘Tha e ceart gu leoir!’ replied the skipper, who in the meantime was eagerly engaged in supervising the slinging of the ropes and the safe docking of his old tub. At that moment I was standing shivering at the bow, but was so utterly overawed by the whole drama that I could not speak!

The tide was low at Scalpay; so we were obliged to disembark by the slippery, grimy under-stagings of the pier. And, after all the necessary duties had been fulfilled, we went for a few moments into a small cargo-shed near the pier, that we might take a breath and collect our wits once more. I leave it to my readers to picture a scene such as the one which I have endeavoured to describe to them. Unless you have had some experience of the sea, you can have no conception of the skill and determination in face of adversity of those who spend their lives on little ships.

Had this particular night not been so wild, we should certainly have picked up Alasdair Mor and gone on to Barra, where for more than a week the phenomenally heavy catches of herring landed at Castle-bay had been attracting adventurous crews from every port within reasonable distance.

It was now about 2 A.M.; and eventually I was led by Alasdair Mor to his summer quarters that lay at the northern extremity of a dark, sodden bridle-path. I had not seen him for years until this night: and, having supped at length, I sat up in bed and chatted on till daybreak, while he smoked an ancient, weather-beaten pipe by the warm, cosy fire.

On the following day the tempest had not abated sufficiently to enable us to proceed southwards to Barra; and, so, about noon we crossed over by Scotasay and Eilean a’ Gheoidh, the Isle of Geese, to the mainland of Harris, and moored our coaster to the pier at Tarbert.

Around us a thousand spating streams were tearing violently down from the great, mist-enwrapped mountains; and we could scarcely hear ourselves speak for the moaning of the wind and the gurgling and the gabbling of rushing water.

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