Riasg Buidhe – an abandoned village on the Isle of Colonsay

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It is not that easy to find but if you go to the recycling depot at the highest point on the road between Scalasaig and Kiloran on the Isle of Colonsay, then follow the rough track that leads towards the coast, you will eventually stumble upon it.  The abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe lies a kilometre or so east of the road. The Gaelic name translates as ‘yellow moor grass’, although how yellow the grass is tends to depend on the time of year and how much recent rainfall there has been.

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Walking towards the sea, the Paps of Jura rising across the water like a squirming sea monster, the village ruins slowly pull into focus ahead – a freestanding gable here, a dry stone wall there. The most notable of the ruins is a row of terraced cottages, seven in total, each one now roofless and overgrown with bracken and foxgloves. The cottages are probably of 18th century origin with chimneys and fireplaces added in the 19th century. Originally rush-thatched, their roofs, long-rotted away, are now notable by their absence.

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Formerly a village associated with run-rig agriculture, Riasg Buidhe transformed, with encouragement from the local laird, into a herring fishing community in the late 19th century. The transformation was not wholly successful however, as shortly after embarking on this new venture a great storm silted up the approach to the curing station on neighbouring Islay. The villagers then tried their hand at lobster fishing, pursuing this as a livelihood until the coming of the Great War, after which they left the village for good.

A community had existed at Riasg Buidhe for more than a millennium. Of far greater antiquity than the cottages are the chapel and burial ground that stand to the south of the village. Little remains of the chapel today and clear identification on the ground demands a keen archaeological eye although a few un-inscribed gravestones can still be seen. Southeast of the chapel was the village’s water supply: a well that was once marked with a finely carved cross. This we had seen a few days earlier in the gardens at Colonsay House, where it had been ‘taken into safekeeping’ and repositioned next to another well (Tobar Odhrain – ‘St Oran’s Well’) in the 19th century. The cross, known locally as Dealbh na Leisge (‘the sleepy figure’), is believed to date from the 8th or 9th century and portrays a cleric with a tonsure. Its reverse bears a fertility figure, a reflection perhaps of the pluralistic faith of the Viking settlers who occupied the island when the stone was carved.

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Walking among the ruins, exploring the terraced cottages and trying to make sense of the village layout, the sense of absence is palpable: a tangible awareness of long centuries of human presence and then sudden abandonment. Standing within one of the cottages and looking up, the low walls make a frame for the ever-changing Hebridean sky above, which one moment may be cirrus-flecked blue, and the next, a silver-grey glower of cumulus that threatens rain. These same stone walls and the small, bare living spaces they enclosed would once have rang with children’s voices, Gaelic song, whispered endearments, perhaps heated argument. Like all ruins, they were a stone repository of memory.

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There is an echo here of the much-photographed terraced cottages on Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago. These are similar in structure and size yet Riasg Buidhe was a very different community to that of far more isolated St Kilda. The villagers here were never evacuated wholesale to start a new life on the Scottish mainland, nor were they driven from their homes by the hated clearances that plagued much of the rest of highland and island Scotland. Instead, they moved away simply because of the provision of new homes at Glassard on the coast just a few kilometres away. With more comfortable and better equipped housing on offer, who could blame them?

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Homeward to Mingulay

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

Wearing homeward to Mingulay!

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.

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St Kilda

The St Kilda archipelago lies a choppy 45 miles west across the Atlantic Ocean from the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Western Isles. Constantly settled from at least 5,000 years ago until 1930, when the inhabitants were finally evacuated, it is impossible to overestimate the brave determination of those early settlers who, seeing these rocky islands poke tantalisingly above the horizon in the far distance, pointed their flimsy boats in that direction and rowed through murderous seas to reach new land.

Rather than fish, the economy of the island – the main and only consistently settled one was also the largest, Hirta – was always linked to seabirds – gannets and fulmars in particular – and bare-footed St Kilda men used to gamble their lives dangling on horsehair ropes down treacherous cliffs faces in order to collect nesting birds and eggs.

Once upon a time there was a demand for fulmar oil as a fuel and St Kildans were able to barter this plentiful resource for the items they needed like grain and tobacco. But the coming of the modern age meant that the demand for this commodity waned dramatically and many of the island’s young people started to leave in order to seek their fortune on the Scottish mainland and even as far afield as Australia. Given this sudden decline in what had hitherto been a small but relatively stable population, it was perhaps inevitable that Hirta’s population would finally ask to be evacuated in 1930. For their own part, centuries of inbreeding and the islanders’ insistence on using fulmar oil to anoint the umbilical cord of newborn babies had already ensured a savagely high infant mortality rate. An evacuation was arranged but, despite having spent their entire lives on a windswept island entirely devoid of trees, the displaced islanders were offered jobs in forestry on the mainland. Such ironies did not ensure a happy outcome.

Hirta’s cottages, cleits and blackhouses may be empty and roofless now but the fulmars and gannets are still there in number, as are the high winds that characterise this archipelago, the most westerly situated group of islands in the entire United Kingdom. Visiting St Kilda is hardly straightforward even today – there is no regular transport and it’s a long rough sea trip west from the Western Isles. I am lucky to have arrived here yesterday morning on the MSS Clipper Odyssey on its Island Race expedition cruise around the British Isles. Today we visit Barra and Mingulay in the southern Outer Hebrides before heading south towards Donegal in Eire. By the miracle of a satellite-connected internet connection I am able to communicate this fact whilst on board (the connection was too slow to add images though – I added these later).

At over 8 degrees west, East of Elveden it certainly isn’t – West of Wester Ross might be a better description – but the St Kilda archipelago in the shape of Hirta, Soay, Berneray and other monumental stacks is still a place apart worthy of honour in any discussion of Britain’s special places. Not only does it stand at the very edge of the British Isles but it would seem to lie at the very edge of Europe and the entire Western world.

St Kilda already feels like a dream just one day after having left its shore. But St Kilda does not exist (the name is probably just a Norse corruption); you will find no saint of that name in the hagiographic annals.