Heel y’ho boys, let her go, boys
Bring her head round now all together
Heel y’ho boys, let her go boys
Sailing homeward to Mingulay!
What care we tho’ white the Minch is
What care we for wind and weather?
Let her go boys, every inch is
Wives are waiting on the bank, boys
Looking seaward from the heather
Pull her ’round boys, and we’ll anchor
‘Ere the sun sets at Mingulay!
Another day, another island. Mingulay lies in the Outer Hebrides, just north of Berneray at the very southern edge of the island chain. In many ways, the island is reminiscent of St Kilda – formerly populated, now deserted, it may not quite have had Hirta’s desolate edge-of-the-world isolation but it made up for this with living conditions that must have been equally harsh.
Although there are parallels with St Kilda, the people here were more involved with fishing than they were at Hirta where seabirds were central to both diet and economy. With frequent violent Atlantic storms but plentiful fish and some decent grazing crofting life was tough but just about sustainable. Seabirds did have their part to play though: rent was paid to absentee landlords on Barra mostly with shearwater chicks collected from the island’s precarious cliffs.
Unlike Hirta, and perhaps to the good, there was no well-intentioned but misguided 19th century tourist industry here, and Mingulay continues to lack the celebrity status that has long been associated with St Kilda. Here there is no post office, gift shop or warden’s house; no quay – just a sheltered beach, some fine views, wild yellow irises and a plethora of kittiwakes and guillemots. By way of welcome, inquisitive grey seals loiter beneath the cliffs in the bay, their sleek heads bobbing on the waves like maritime Labradors.
Walk uphill from the beach at Mingulay Bay and you stumble upon the remnants of a few dwellings, the roofless shells of the turf-roofed black houses that Mingulay folk called home. The most complete building is the schoolhouse, built in the 1880s by the Free Church Ladies’ Association, while further uphill lie the remains of the chapel house, which had the Catholic priest’s living quarters downstairs and a chapel above. Now the chapel house is a picturesque ruin, with one gable still standing while the chimney pot from other stands centre-stage amidst the rubble like a post-Apocalyptic pulpit. Someone has gone to the trouble of sorting the reusable roof tiles into neat piles – even today, Hebridean island life does not encourage waste or the overlooking of free architectural salvage such as this.
The sea shanty quoted above could never have been sung by Mingulay-bound sailors as it was composed by a Glaswegian in the 1930s – the island has been deserted of folk since 1912. Nevertheless, it evokes splendidly the atmosphere of the place, its sea-tossed shoreline, heather moorland and the ghost of a seafaring tradition.
If you would like to hear a contemporary version of the Mingulay Boat Song you can find Richard Thompson’s excellent rendition here.