Saturday, December 17, 2016

Soay of Our Forefathers

I love memoirs written by people that grew up on remote Hebridean islands. One good example is Angus Duncan's Memories of Scarp. Another one I recently re-read is Laurance Reed's The Soay of our Forefathers. I first read it in 2006, and during a cruise on the sailboat Zuza in 2008 I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a few hours on Soay. 

Soay was Macleod territory for centuries. But the Macleods left the island in the 1700s. It was resettled in the 1800s, and by 1851 over 150 people called it home. The population gradually declined after that. Gavin Maxwell bought Soay in 1944 where he established his basking shark-oil factory. Maxwell wrote about his shark hunting business in Harpoon at a Venture (1952)Also working the sharks with Maxwell was Tex Geddes, who wrote his own book, Hebridean Sharker, in 1960.

In 1953 most of the population, some 27 people, left the island to live and work in the Craignure area on Mull. Only one family remained: the Geddes, who eventually acquired the island in 1963, and lived in the old Mission Hall (built 1890). They had to sell the island shortly after that, but managed to re-acquire their property on Soay in 1993.

Mission Hall (1890), later the home of Tex Geddes & family
The only full-time residents of Soay these days (that I am aware of) are the Davies, who live in a beautiful house called Ceann a Stigh at the head of Camus nan Gall (Stranger's Bay on the east side of Soay). You can visit Soay on a day trip with Skye Boat Trips, and if you are lucky the skipper will be Oliver Davies of Soay. I was fortunate to meet Oliver on Muck last May (they also do trips to the Small Isles). What follows are a few photos of a beautiful sunny day spent on Soay in 2008. I hope to return someday.

Zuza (and a RIB from Skye) in Soay's Bagh Clann Neill

Ruins of the Shark Factory

Debris filled ruin of the shark-oil factory

Shark factory overlooking Soay harbour

Shark factory building - Fish curing station on ground floor and accommodation for fishermen on upper floor.

Site of the radio-telephone exchange

Phone box (Post Office behind it).
Below is a photo of the school built in 1878 (it was in use until 1950). Some point after that it re-opened, for when Hamish Haswell Smith wrote about Soay in his epic The Scottish Islands it was in use. But when I visited Soay in 2008 it was boarded up.

Boarded up schoolhouse (built 1878, photo 2008)

Ruin on Soay - Skye Cullins in the distance

Camas nan Gall

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