Thursday, June 13, 2024

Meanais of Coco is Crubagan

Last month I had the privilege of a guided walk with Alasdair MacEachen to two of the abandoned settlements of Nunton Hill. Nunton Hill lies in the centre of Benbecula, between the highway and the sea, and I wanted to visit it due to two books I'd read. The first was Coco is Crubagan: A Hebridean Childhood (published by the Islands Book Trust in 2009). The book tells the childhood story of Flora MacDonald, who grew up in the Nunton Hill croft known as Meanais in the 1940s and 50s. I read it in depth multiple times as my Gaelic class spent many lessons reading and translating the text in 2010. 

The second book that made a visit to Nunton Hill imperative was Bob Chambers' Off the Beaten Path: The role of roads and other infrastructure in the life or death of remote Hebridean communities (Blurb, 2018). It tells the story of several land settlement schemes in the Hebrides, many of which, like Nunton Hill, failed due to the lack of a road.

Getting to Nunton Hill involves a bit of a walk, as you can only drive a regular car as far as the recycling center at Market Stance. The total roundtrip distance to Meanais and back is about eight miles.  Adding in a visit to Haka (which we did), adds another two miles. Thanks to Aladair's Land Rover, we were able to save a few miles of walking.

Our first stop was the settlement at Haka. It consisted of one large farmhouse with four smaller outbuildings. It was the site of kelp processing in the 1800s, and on the shore below was a sizable landing place. 

The tide was low, and the landing high and dry. But when the tide is high it floods a quarter mile up a nearby narrow gully. As we headed back to the track along the gully, we passed an odd series of fences draped with seaweed stranded by the falling tide.

After making the hike back to the track, Alasdair drove us another mile to the east, where we set off on foot to find Meanais. A half-hour's walk led to the site of the Nunton Hill Side School, which Flora MacDonald attended. The school was originally in North Glendale (see Chapter 2.3 of Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: The Outer Hebrides). When it was no longer needed there, Flora's father moved the corrugated iron structure to Nunton Hill in 1946, just a quarter mile from their house at Meanais. Sadly, like its original location on South Uist, the only remnant of the Nunton Hill School is a vacant foundation. Even so, thanks to Flora MacDonald its memory lives on. (The third photo below is from Flora's book and shows the school before they dismantled it in 1951.)

We then followed an overgrown track to the MacDonald house at Meanais.The roof was gone, but the walls still stood. Looking inside it was obvious that the house had been altered to hold sheep.

The date of construction was proudly displayed above the main entrance. The second image below is the back cover of Coco is Crubagan, which shows Flora standing at the entrance when she returned to the site decades after leaving.

It had been a memorable day out. And I'd like to thank Alasdair for showing me the area. Be sure to read Coco is Crubagan, and then do this walk yourself. Nunton Hill was abandoned because a road was never provided, but while it was alive it had been a remarkable place, made immortal by Flora MacDonald's book. 

Note that Alasdair MacEachen will be guiding walks through this area on June 15 and June 22. See this link for more information:

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