Sunday, May 11, 2014

Rescued from the Sea 1853

From The Welshman 30 December 1853 (reprinting item from Glasgow Herald):

'PRAISEWORTHY CONDUCT AT SEA.—On Friday last, while the Islay steamer was crossing from the island of Islay to the Mull of Kintyre, on her voyage from Stornoway to Glasgow, a young female lunatic, who was on her way from Skye to an asylum in Greenock, under the charge of her brother, suddenly cast herself into the sea... The willing sailors...finally succeeded in picking up the poor woman in an insensible state. When returned to the steamer, Captain Urie used the most judicious means to restore animation, and persevering almost against hope, he at length completely succeeded. It is needless to say that the conduct of the captain and crew is beyond all praise'

Monday, December 30, 2013

Otters and Otter Hunting on Islay

Otters are among Islay's many wildlife attractions (see Islay Natural History Trust for details of sightings), indeed last year Andy Cranwell won a Telegraph travel writing prize for a piece on 'Otter watching in Islay':

'We met a fellow visitor to Islay who was peering through binoculars. “Are you looking for otters?” we asked. He said he was, and that he could see nine or 10 of them on the estuary. He seemed very pleased. We wished him well, but couldn’t bring ourselves to tell him they were grey seals.. Suddenly, there it was, an otter, 50 yards ahead of us. We watched it pop up out of the water like a fishing float, and then dive back in, barely pausing for breath. It remained visible a little longer each time it caught something. We could see the fish scales glinting in the late afternoon sun as it chewed another snaggletoothed mouthful' (Telegraph, 10 August 2012).

2012 photo by Niall Colthart, taken on a kayaking trip to  MacArthur's Head, Islay - not sure of exact location
Otters seem to be mainly spotted near the coast, but was this always the way?  This letter by J.G. Cornish in The Spectator Magazine, 13 August 1898, suggests otherwise:

'I have recently received several instances of the ways in which British mammals contrive to maintain their existence in spite of persecution. In the island of Islay in the Hebrides some years ago otters were very common round the lochs and inland streams. Then otter-skin waistcoats became fashionable, and many were killed for their skins. The survivors took refuge along the coast-line, and now are quite numerous there, but have not ventured far inland'.

Otter hunting was banned in Scotland in 1982, and those tracking otters today are now generally armed only with cameras. But at one time otter hunting in Islay seems to have been relatively common.

Edward Chatfield's painting  'The Otter's Cairn—a Scene in the Island of Islay' was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834, with the figures on an otter hunt in the painting including Walter Frederick Campbell (1798-1855), and his son John Francis Campbell (1822-1885). The painting was sold at Christie's in Edinburgh in 2008, but seems to have been misidentified then as by George Sanders (1774-1846), as discussed at All This Useless Beauty.

L.C.R. Cameron's 'Otters and Otter Hunting' (1908) mentions the rarity of an albino otter on Islay, stating that there was a stuffed white otter to be seen at Kildalton House.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

By Islay's Shores: a Victorian ballad

'By Islay's Shores' is a ballad, with words by William Black (1841-1898) and music by Alfred 
Stella. A review  in The Lute magazine (November 1 1891) says: 'A pathetic story is here 
related in verses so appropriate in diction and good in construction as to be worthy of being 
placed in the category of poetry. The melody attached by the composer lends itself admirably to the task of arousing the sympathies of the listener'.

The song seems to have started out a poem by Black in his 1885 novel 'White Heather', which
features a number of 'Rhymes by a Deerstalker' including this one. It is also included in Modern Scottish Poets, edited by D.H.Edwards in 1887:

By Islay's shores she sate and sang : 
" winds come blowing o'er the sea, 
And bring me back my love again 
That went to fight in Germanie " 

And all the live-long day she sang, 
And nursed the bairn upon her knee ; 
"Balou, balou, my bonnie bairn, 
Thy father's far in Germanie, 

" But ere the summer days are gane, 
And winter blackens bush and tree, 
Thy father will we welcome hame 
Frae the red wars in Germanie." 

Dark the night fell, dark and mirk ; 
A wraith stood by her icily : 
"Dear wife, I'll never more win hame, 
For I am slain in Germanie. 

" On Minden's field I'm lying stark, 
And Heaven is now my far countrie ; 
Farewell, dear wife, farewell, farewell, 
I'll ne'er win hame frae Germanie." 

And all the year she came and went, 
And wandered wild frae sea to sea : 
" neighbours, is he ne'er come back, 
My love that went to Germanie ? " 

Port Ellen saw her many a time; 
Round by Port Askaig wandered she : 
"Where is the ship that's sailing in 
With my dear love frae Germanie ? ' 

But when the darkened winter fell : 
"It's cold for baith my bairn and me ; 
Let me lie down and rest awhile : 
My love's away frae Germanie. 

"far away and away he dwells ; 
High Heaven is now his fair countrie; 
And there he stands with arms outstretched- 
To welcome hame my bairn and me" 

See also these songs:

An Islay Song from 1850
Ceann Traigh Ghruinneart

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Iain Banks and Islay

The writer Iain Banks announced today that he is suffering from terminal gall bladder cancer and does not expect to live for more than a year, which is very sad news. Banks was born in Dunfermline in 1954 and now lives in North Queensferry in Fife, but he has visited Islay on a number of occasions and also written about it.

Raw Spirit

His 2003 book 'Raw Spirt: in search of the perfect dram' is essentially a travelogue describing his tour of Scottish distilleries, a journey which of course starts off in Islay:

'The first signpost you see coming off the ferry at Port Ellen on Islay has only two words on it; it points right to ARDBEG and left to BOWMORE. Brilliant, I thought; a road sign that is made up of 100 per cent of distillery names; a proclamation that you are on a Island where making of whisky is absolutely integral to the place itself, where directions are defined by drink!

This was, patently, a great place to start the distillery tour. I love Islay whiskies. There are seven working distilleries on the island - pretty good given that there are less than three thousand people on the place - each producing their own distinctive whiskies, and I have a deep affection for all of them. I have favourites amongst those seven basic malts; but they're basically in my top twenty Scotches...

Distinguishing between different styles of Islays, the most obvious micro area lies in the south, on the shore stretch of coast - extravagantly frayed, wildly indented, profusely hummocked ad multifariously cragged - facing south east towards the Mull of Kintyre.

The three southern coastal whiskies of Islay - with Laphroaig in particular providing the radical example - constitute what is almost a different drink from whisky. The distinction is that sharp... The Islay distilleries are all pretty spoiled when it comes to setting. The two least favoured are Bruichladdich and Bowmore, the former because it's just a pleasant assemblage of buildingsby a nice wee village on a stretch of shore which is by turns sandy and rocky, with a broad, shallow sea loch in front and low, tree-lined hills behind (see, its actually in a pretty damn spiffing situation, but we are talking relative values here); the latter because it's roughly similar context on the opposite side of Loch Indaal and is part of the town of Bowmore. In fact, the distillery's so intergrated into the rest of the town that, when its stills are producing, the excess hot water helps to heat the municipal swimming pool next door. Again, Bowmore, Islay's effective capital, is a fine, attractive little town and no disgrace at all to the smart, tidy distillery on its southern perimeter, it's just that the other Islay distilleries are so much more dramatic in their surrounding...

They look elegant. They have whitewashed walls, black roofs and black detailing, pagodas standing proud, clipped lawns ad a general air of discreet pride. Handily, all of themhave their names in VERY LARGE LETTERS painted in black on their tallest seaward walls, so if you take photo from the right angle you never need to scratch your head and mutter, Well, I think it looks like Laphroaig, but maybe it's Ardbeg ...

Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain sit in even more dramatic scenery, wedged at the bottom of steep hillsides as though teetering on the brink of falling in to the sea, looking respectively across and up the sound of Jura, with the Paps of Jura across rising in an appropriately, if colossally, mammiform manner across the water. There used to be a quite spectacularly complete but rusty wreck lying at a steep angle up on the rocks just along the coast from Bunnahabain - I remember seeing it from the ferry as we approached Colonsay, a dozen years or so ago - but the same stormy seas that drove the ship there in the first place have pounded it to pieces since and there's little left to see now'.

Banks also mentions that during this visit he stayed with somebody who had a role in his literary career:  'On Islay I'm staying at Ballivicar farm, near Port Ellen, with Toby and Harriet Roxburgh... Toby is a man I first got to know as the person who bought The Wasp Factory for paperback, when he was editor of Futura. Later he took on Consider Phlebas, my first science ficion novel'.


Banks' whisky research for this book was not his first time on the island though. From the start, his novels inspired fierce devotion and discussion and in the late 1990s people began holding 'Crowcons' to share their enthusiasm. In April 1999 the fourth Crowcon was held on Islay, and Banks attended. In 'Raw Spirt' he recalls visiting 'Islay years ago, when we went to Crowcon a microcon of people who'd got together over the net on a newsgroup discussing my books (hence the 'Crow' bit). One of the group happened to live on Islay and have a connection with Ardbeg distillery, which  is why I'd already been there before'.

Of all Banks' novel, The Crow Road  (1992) is the one that is most evocative of the West coast of Scotland, even if Islay itself does not feature. It is set in Gallanach, partly based on Oban, with events taking place at various Argyll locations. In 1996 it was made into a BBC TV series starring Bill Paterson and Peter Capaldi - for the purposes of the TV series, Tarbert, Loch Fyne doubled up as the village in the story, with most of the filming taking place there or nearby (including scenes shot in the Islay Frigate Hotel in Tarbert).

In September 2008, Banks appeared at the Islay Book Festival, talking about his novel Matter in a session at Port Ellen Primary School.

Banks at the Islay Book Festival 2008
(picture from Ileach on flickr)

Update Sunday 9 June 2013: Iain Banks died today

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Death and Disease on Islay, 1891

Scotland's Places includes a copy of the 1891 Medical Officer of Health report for Argyll: 'From 1890 onwards a full-time Medical Officer of Health was appointed in each county in Scotland with a remit to report on the state of health of the county and its various parishes and towns. The annual reports of the Medical Officers give an objective view of the living conditions, diseases and major health issues in different parts of Scotland'.

The Medical Officer of Health for Argyll in this time was Roger McNeil (M'Neill)l, who was based in Oban. His report identifies some of the causes of ill health, as well as providing data on the prevalence of particular diseases. McNeill records that nine houses on Islay were 'Reported or Certified as Injurious to Health, under the Housing of the Working Classes Act'. Houses so reported were typically 'old, thatched houses, dilapidated and out of repair, with leaky roofs, unplastered damp walls, damp mud floors, and in want of proper draingage and ventilation. In many cases cattle and fowls were kept in the dwelling houses; in a few cases pigs'.

He calls for better health facilities on Islay, recommending that 'the Poorhouses in Tobermory, Lochgilphead, and Islay' be 'converted into isolation hospitals' (eventually this came to pass, the current hospital on Islay is on the site of the old Poorhouse in Bowmore).  The hospital facilities in 1891 were very basic:  'Near Bowmore, in Islay, there is another cottage, consisting of a kitchen, nurses room and two rooms for patients... The wards here also are not sufficiently far apart for the isolation of two infectious diseases at the same time. It is not well situated, being closed to the public road; it has no water supply; there is no disinfecting chamber; nor an ambulance for the conveyance of patients to it'.

The 1891 Census recorded that the population of Islay was 8514. In that year there were 162 registered births, and 148 deaths. 19 of the deaths were in children under the age of one year - an infant mortality rate of more than one in nine. There was a severe outbreak of Whooping Cough in April 1891, with 100 cases in Islay in that month, though this doesn't appear to have causes any deaths. 8 deaths were attributed to 'drowning' or 'violence' - Islay was clearly something of a dangerous place...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tales and Travels of a School Inspector

The 1872 Education Act created a system of state-funded schools in Scotland overseen by local School Boards. Long before Ofsted, school inspectors were sent around the country to check that schools were doing their job properly and that therefore that they were entitled to continue to receive funding . John Wilson, who was born in Dufftown in Banffshire and had been a headteacher in Morayshire, joined the inspectorate in 1882 and continued as an inspector until the 1920s, with his patch covering parts of the Highlands and many of the Islands - including Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Lewis and Orkney, among others. Shortly after his retirement he wrote 'Tales and Travels of a School Inspector' looking back on his long career (republished by Acair in 1998).

His account provides lots of interesting details of the social history of that period. He describes the poverty, including a visit to Lewis where 'children were vomiting water' during an examination as a result of being desperately hungry and gorging on water to try and fill themselves up. He mentions religious controversies, including Free Church ministers in some areas attempting to ban the teaching of singing in schools. And he remarks sadly on the decline of Gaelic - a fact partly explained by the fact that most teaching was in English.

Some children lived too far away to attend school, and the inspector was also required to check that they were being taught properly at home. He describes an occasion on Jura where 'A girl twelve years of age, daughter of a gamekeeper, who lived fully twelve miles from the nearest school' was late to meet him for examination as a result of stormy weather. So as not to miss the boat back to Islay, the inspector put the girl through her maths and other tests in a farmer's cart on the way to the ferry

Travelling around the islands in all seasons was not without its risks and he describes a hair raising journey in a storm from Colonsay to Port Askaig, where on finally getting off his boat at 2:30 am he was harangued by a parent complaining about his child's school!

In a chapter on hospitality he mentiond 'staying for a few nights in Bridgend Hotel in Islay' one winter, where 'The wife of the proprietor of Dunlossit in the north end of the island was entertaining a number of the leading natives'.  Seeing that Wilson was all alone, the inspector was invited to join the party as a result of which he 'spent a most enjoyable evening'.

Also in relation to Islay he talks of the 'exquisite crosses at Kildalton in Islay' and says that  'I never visited the small school of Kintour in this neighbourhood without having another look at it and other crosses within two hundred yards of the public road'.

Wilson was in Islay during the First World War, and recalls one of its great tragedies: 'When I think of Islay I see Port Ellen, where I had occasion to be during the Great War when the Tuscania, with thousands of American soldiers, had just been torpedoed by a German submarine off the south coast with terrible consequences. Two rafts of curious construction lay stranded on the sandy beach in front of the hotel. A series of loops of rope with small globular wooden floats was attached to each side. A soldier clutching one of these could keep himself afloat till rescued/ The bodies washed ashore were collected and buried in a fenced piece of grassy sward about a mile to the west of the village' (this burial ground was at Kilnaughton - see previous post on Tuscania burials).

Portnahaven School in 1915 with teacher Jean Currie on left -
Wilson would almost certainly have visited this school during this period
(photo from Betsy West's Photo Gallery)

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Islay Poorhouse

The Islay Combination Poorhouse was in Bowmore - the 'Combination' referred to the fact that the local Poor Law Board, charged with providing for the destitute, combined the three Islay parishes plus Jura when it was established in 1844. In 1864 the Poor Law magazine for Scotland  noted the approval of 'amended plans for the Islay Combination poorhouse', and the Poorhouse opened the following year.

Peter Higginbotham's The Workhouse site has some further information about it, and notes that 'After 1930, the site became known as Gortanvogie House Poor Law Institution which accommodated 60 immates, including the provision of 10 medical beds'.  Like many old workhouses it ended up being used as a hospital. The old buildings seem to have been demolished in the 1960s, to make way for the new Islay Hospital buildings. The old name is remembered in the Hospital's address - Gortan Vogie road.

Who ended up in the poorhouse?

The 1901 Census provides some details, listing as it does the inhabitants of 'Poorhouse Lane' in Bowmore. The Governor of Poorhouse at the time was Murdoch MacLeod, a  51 year old man orginally from Rosshire. His wife Joan (aged 47) was the Matron and their 11-year-old daughter Ellen was living with them. Islay-born Maggie Johnston (28) and Ann Campbell (aged 25) were also working there as domestic servants.

Amongst the inmates there were a number of elderly paupers - Duncan McPhee (78, born in Kildalton), Hugh Currie (84, b.Kilarrow). Betsy Mclean (80, b.Kilchoman), Christina Mcindeor (80, b.Kilchoman),  Euphemia Johnston (80, b.Kilarrow). The latter was there too in 1891, listed as a former domestic servant.

There were also child paupers, including John McDongall (11, Kilchoman), Charlotte Cameron (13, b.Paisley), Maggie Cameron (9, b.Kilchoman), Neil Cameron (6, b.Kildalton). I guess the last three may have been siblings, perhaps orphans.

Other inmates included Donald Graham (48, b. Kilchoman), Donald Mcarthur (55, b. Kildalton), Maggie McIntyre (19, Kilchoman), Isabella Mcintyre (60, Kilarrow), Ann Kean (53, Kilarrow), Jane McGillvray (36, Glasgow) and Ann Ramsay (61, b. Kilmeny).  30 years earlier, in 1871, Ann Ramsay was living in New Street, Port Ellen (later renamed Lennox Street),  with her parents Donald and Mary and occupation described as Weaver's daughter.

So almost all the inmates in 1901 were Islay born, and had fallen on hard times. This was a time before the benefits system and state pensions. An old person no longer able to work, no savings to live off and no family to support them was effectively destitute. Perhaps some of these old people had no relatives able to help, maybe in some cases staying behind when others emigrated. In the case of the younger inmates we can only guess at what personal hardships and tragedies might lie behind their coming to the poorhouse.

(see also the 1881 Census records - at that time there were 11 inmates aged from 13 to 80, all five women were former domestic servants, the men included a shoe maker, a ship carpenter and a former farmer. The governor then was Archibald McIntyre)