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Chasing the Children

Title: Chasing the Children
Posted by: Thomas Riley on 01-11-2008

Discussion: For several hours we were children of tempest, as a force ten gale shook our little rented bungalow 'Tigh Alasdair'; on a grassy strip between two lochs in North Uist, in the Western Isles: with the great stony bulk of Mount Eaval staring into our lounge windows. By two o'clock in the morning the wind had moderated to a breezy eight and we could sleep with some assurance that we would not share the fate of Dorothy, in the film 'The Wizard of Oz'. Outside in the morning we tested the air and found we could practically lean on it: truly Neil Munro had chosen a very appropriate title for that lovely novel. Now what were we doing there?
Well, I'd read 'Children of Tempest' twice, and I was thrilled with the prose; Neil seemed to be writing in English but phrasing in the Gaelic idiom: who could resist 'stretch your hand honest man' instead of 'have another mate'. I'd visited Lewis several times before retirement, working on the Stornoway radar systems, but had little contact with the people, and wondered could Neil's characters really be true; I'd had an unfortunate run in with the Shetlanders the last time I visited that outpost of Scandinavia. I found the people of the Uists and Benbecula absolutely wonderful. One had only to ask a simple direction and you would find yourself still chatting twenty minutes later. As a bit of a writer and poet (just for fun mind) I was curious how Neil built his characters and locations and whether present day actuality reflected the times of the novel, so with my bundle of O.S. Maps - all in Gaelic - and a good supply of Bell's eight year old cough mixture, Suzy and I set off on a 900 mile pursuit of the Children of Tempest.
Saturday afternoon in early September, and we crossed The Little Minch to Lochmaddy, the sturdy MacBrayne's ferry making light of the boisterous conditions, and made ourselves comfortable in our little 'self-catering' house on the shores of Loch Euphort and Loch a Ghoil. I had only one criticism of our accommodation, in that a supply of peat was promised and all we could find was coal: I did want to experience a fine peat reek.
Sunday, as a little square notice in practically every shop window admonished us, was the Lord's day, and we were quite happy to hand it to him after our long drive. We rested, and only exerted ourselves to the extent of walking eastward until the road ended, where we found a lovely bronze statue of swans flying over little islands.
Monday, and mammon must be served, which meant an interesting trip to 'Solas' in North Uist, as the C.O.O.P. there was the only fount of our tickets to heaven, the national lottery. There was a good short cut across the moors which obviated the long drag round the coastal bulge and we were soon on our way to Benbecula and South Uist. We marked Kirkibost as a future beachcombing session, but more of that later. We observed one preserved example of the old black houses but alas, with the walls all white washed; which was a shame and seemed to be the norm for a few other preserved examples. At least, a hundred yards from our beloved Tigh Alasdair, there is a lovely ruin of the genuine article, with an outhouse still black thatched. It provided me with an eerie quatrain for the sonnet I left on the visitor's book.
But we had work to do and headed southward for Boisdale (Baghasdal), the hub of the novel.
We looked for lunch at the little town, Balivanich, literally attached to the airport at Benbecula but found the prices were horrendous. I would recommend the restaurant at the airport, open to all, good food, and reasonably priced. The proprietor of Gillivray's store gave us useful tidal information should we attempt Triallabrec Mhor, which pointed towards Friday as a good day to find that romantic location.
I love walking and greatly admired Col's walk home (p20), and consequently examined the nearest route of this 20kilometre hike as we motored south. Askernish and Mingary were noted, the usual light sprinkling of well insulated low houses along the road but Col would have to leave whatever counted for a road in those days about the height of Loch Ollay and Ormacleit to cut across round the ends of Beinn a Charra and Maola Breac for Glen Dorochay and the pass of Hellisdale. A leg testing climb over the top, then down Glen Hellisdale to the coast, then a left turn into Corodale. We had hoped to do the bit over to Corodale but with no road or marked tracks, a fine damp looking cloudy hat on both Benmore and Hecla and heavy rain threatening, we took better advice and continued south to Boisdale
Boisdale - now there was a surprise, not a black house in sight or even the remains of one. The usual confetti of modern houses along the road for about a kilometre, and the macharland between the road and the coast, all farmed, with a healthy crop of barley ready for the Combine - I wonder if any of it went into the local cough mixture or to Barra, to produce "Flying Jib-boom's" cargo for the mainland and the Excise Men? Looking very lonely, there was a ruin of sorts about half a mile from the sea and the binoculars declared it a church and burial ground: we had struck gold, or so we thought. Taking a closer look, the latest date we could decipher from the tombstones was 1915 so the church was likely to be in full commission round about Neil's visit. The church was on a little eminence much as described Father Ludovic's charge in the novel, but nowhere could we find a name.
The two little islands just offshore were too low to be seen from the church but the map shows that a bit of revettment between Traigh na Doirlinn and Orasaigh could have provided quite a serviceable little harbour. The islands bestowed with the magic powers of Tir-nan-oig, would likely be Lingeigh, south and west in the Sound of Barra.
Disappointed we drove on toward Eriskay, but at the last house in Boisdale there were three men working with the owner, converting the house for self catering letting in the season, well I thought, there's no harm in asking and so I put the question to the first of the helpers, did he know the name of the old church? In true Para Handy fashion, here was a chance for a gas, and tools were downed immediately, all four men gathered round talking in an alarming mixture of Gaelic and English. It seemed that the church had been built on the ruins of an older church and consequently had several names but they could not recall even one of them, but the owner, using his mobile, phoned his grandfather and a long conversation in Gaelic ensued with, I'm afraid, no better result. They were very sorry they couldn't help and to cheer them up I told them I was researching for an article I might write about a novel largely set in Boisdale and produced the book; the effect was astonishing.
I opened the book at page 20, Col's journey, as therein many local names were mentioned and interest was immediate; the book was gently lifted from my hands. There then followed another animated polyglot discussion the book passing from hand to hand with the discovery of familiar names and places being excitedly pointed out to the other three. I managed to get the book back, with the youngest of the quartet noting all the publishing details and declaring he would order the book as soon as he arrived home. Who knows, we might have a best seller.
One would expect the village to be clustered round the church, and as the farm buildings looked of fairly recent origin, I suspect, old dwellings had been cleared for the fairly extensive arable activity. Later I remembered, there is a sign a mile or so north of Boisdale, pointing east to a shrine prominently labelled - to 'Our Lady Star of the Sea' - and I'm sure Neil would have known about it, and used the very appropriate and beautiful name for his church; so, there we have Father Ludovic's little community.
Dalvoolin was a name that fascinated me but we could find no trace of the habitation on map or landscape. On our way home we attempted to get some photographs of Col's approach to Glen Dorochay and Hellisdale but the visibility was very poor, with Benmore and Hecla each pulling a thick cloudy cap down over their eyes.
The tidal information we had, showed Friday as the best day to continue our researches as Triallabreac might be accessible, so leg stretching and photography was indulged in on Teusday. Suzy wanted a session of beachcombing on Wednesday so we headed for Kirkibost beach where we were caught in lashing rain driven by a fierce wind. Soaked to the skin we returned to Tigh Alasdair and, nothing daunted, showered, changed and the inner man fed, we toured the peaceful land as far as Berneray. It's worth noting Borve has a first class toilet and shower on the harbour front.
It was Wednesday night that little Tigh Alasdair showed it was firmly wedded to terra firma as the gale reached force ten. Although inordinately fond of standing on my hind legs and reciting, I easily resisted the temptation to follow Ludovics example and hurl poetry into the teeth of the wind. Admiral Beaufort would have us know that trees would be uprooted and structural damage would occur but, any trees on the Uists capable of uprooting would have been sent flying long ago - we rested easy. The morning wind was still force eight, so the day was spent in modest indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh and mind, open to two fairly conservative and elderly persons, Gordon's and Bells being notable names in helping us to produce a decent Sonnet in praise of the noble little house. Suzy, a talented artist, entered our effort into the visitor's book in a fine stylish script.
Friday, and the first on the list was old Dermosary's last resting place, Trinity Temple (Teampuill Trianaid) in North Uist, and we were surprised to find the approach to the ruin was across the fabled 'Ditch of Blood', well advertised by a large notice. As the land thereabouts was very marshy - plank walkways having been provided now by some benevolent authority - the fighting there must have been very trying indeed. As Neil mentioned, while we photographed we could hear the breakers left by the gale smashing on Eachcamais: a melancholy sound.
Now for Benbecula, and Creggans Inn: the seat of skulduggery. Sadly, the only location I could accept for the inn was in the middle of Benbecula Airport, which would have been a bleak spot in any case and may very well have been an empty landscape at the time of Neil's visit: ideal for the plot. The choice of the name puzzled me for a day or two until I realised that the Creggans Inn would have been visible to Neil on a good day as he walked out of the front door of his birthplace, Crombies Land, Inveraray: although separated from him by the width of Loch Fyne. I noticed the Creggans inn at Strachur - opposite Inveraray - while leaving Cairndow after a night stop at the Stagecoach inn; I might add that Creggans looked a fine Inn and is not to be compared with the Sergeant's lonely outpost. Neil may very well have patronised the Creggans at one time or another.
Trialabreck (Triallabreac) was very difficult to find; the site of that wonderful awakening of the irresistible chemistry of love between Anna and Duncan. We could not get very close to the sea and wasted many frames taking pictures of possible islands from the jumble of islets but I was not happy with any of them. We progressed homeward but paused beside a cottage where an elderly person was feeding his chickens; a magnificent speckled rooster strutted haughtily about the yard and eyed us with grave suspicion: he would certainly 'rule the roost'. I asked the old gentleman could he point out the location of Trialabreck and to my astonishment found it was almost directly opposite his cottage. While Suzy busied herself with the camera I chatted quietly with our informant as is the way in the islands. He offered to take us down to the shore but although the tide was well out, bearing in mind the warning of quicksand in the novel we declined. There wasn't much shelter on the island as it had a flat green top, and the couple would have had to shelter on the beach below the grass level but of course, Neil provided the romantic pair with a fine rocky shelter in the novel. It came to me later that at the time, I was standing in Gramisdale, and the cottage stood almost exactly where the comforting beacon was lit for the stranded couple.
For anyone visiting, I might point out that Creagorry in Benbecula has the best stocked C.O.O.P. in the Islands
Saturday unfortunately for me is ceilidh day on the islands, our travelling day, with one held on the day I arrived and one on the day I left, so my wee bit poetry and stories never got an airing: I'll do Monday to Monday next time and I'm sure, sub Deo there will be a next time. We journeyed on to Cairndow.
Our day at Inveraray was very wet and something disappointing. We enjoyed the big schooner and the Vital Spark at the quay and the skirl of the pipes from the Castle was a lovely sound. We visited Neil Munro's birthplace in Crombies Land with the memorial plaque above the front door which was wide open. We walked in, in all innocence and had a short look around, but were gently thrown out by a very Junoesque lady who informed us it was a rented property for holidaymakers and not open to the public. What we wanted to do was to climb to Neil's monument, but although we could see it plain on the hill we could not find the start of the path even after driving nearly fifty miles in the search. Perhaps 'Paragraphs' could give us directions for another attempt. We then tried to find Neil's last resting place but found this an almost impossible task as the entrances to the two burial grounds were not marked and not visible from the road. We finally found two graves with a Neil Munro remembered at the top of the stones. We could not decipher the dates. Puzzled, I stood before them and recited the prayer of the fishing ladies as old Dermosary's cortege passed over the ford.

"O Mary! Mother of Christ.
A soft path for the far traveller."

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