The boat song

The Isle of Mingulay, in the southern Hebrides where the Reformation never reached, is uninhabited today; owned by the Scottish National Trust and “protected” from human rehabitation by stringent environmental laws. It is less than three square miles, and for its scale, mountainous and bare. Yet in the outset of the 20th century it still had a village on one side, and a hamlet on the other, and perhaps thirty crofts. There was a Catholic chapel, a house for the priest, a mill and various outbuildings — for sheep, cattle, pigs, ponies, poultry. There was wool-waulking and peat-cutting as a way of life. Seabirds and their eggs were a significant part of its economy. Fishing was the mainstay.

I mention the place only because its name came up in my Internet browsing this morning. My personal obsession with the Uists and “Bishop’s Isles” is typically North American, and multicultist: my mama’s people came ultimately from Adam, but by way of the Hebrides (North Uist).  My feet have never stood on Mingulay, and I should think never will. If they did they would be the feet of a tourist, indulging a romantic dream.

This isle was continuously inhabited for thousands of years. It had been Catholic for the previous thousand or more; pagan before, back to the stone age. The people spoke Gaelic and Gaelic alone. They were not communal by some government legislation, but so because they had always been. The whole village would participate in landing and launching boats from its sandy beach; bad weather could cut it off for weeks. Yet under normal conditions it was very much part of western Scotland: its herring and shellfish (often gloriously peat-smoked) sold in the market at Glasgow.

What happened? Why did they all leave? There was no catastrophe, no plague, worse than had visited through the centuries before. The young began to leave for wage-paying jobs, then the old lost their confidence. In the years just before the Great War, they all went off; gave up everything, including who they were.

I think of a rugby crowd I saw on video. Scotland were in the final moments of beating England, last February — the Scots’ brutal defence slicing down the English momentum as they tried to recover from an unlucky first half. And the fans, so many face-painted in the blue of the Saltire, seeing victory near, broke into song. Ten-thousands of them singing “Flouer o Scotland,” recalling the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but written a few decades ago. It is about men:

That focht an dee’d for
Yer wee bit Hill an Glen,
An stuid agin him,
Prood Edwart’s Airmie,
An sent him hamewart,
Tae think again. …

Now it is the anthem of the independence movement; a cheap piece of jingo to be sure, though I found myself singing along. And like that romantic twaddle, “The Mingulay Boat Song,” written a generation after the isle it celebrated had been abandoned. (The “flower of Scotland” is the thistle, by the way.)

I think too of the descendents of Mingulay, among that blue-painted crowd of conurbanized, post-modern savages, who buy packaged food in supermarkets, and live in rent-regulated flats, and have no notion, not only where they are going, but where they came from. Whose ancestors left the thatch to blow off their ancient stone blackhouses, for a vision of comfort and ease.

They have their reward, as Christ would tell them. They have their abortions, and their drug overdoses, their anxieties and night fears, now different in kind. They have crime their ancestors could never have imagined, behind their unlocked doors. Religion and family, hard work and permanent neighbours, are long behind them. It is true that we cannot go back. But it is also true that we will die out here.