Marooned on Roan
Daily Record and Mail, Monday, December 13, 1937.
By J Morrison Daily Record Photographer

The Twenty-first Inhabitant tells the life story of a brave little Scots community.

Approaching Eilean nan Roan slipway from Skerray - Photo Iain Morrison ©

Twenty miles east of Cape Wrath lies Eilean nan Ron. Although Skerray, the nearest point on the mainland, is only about two miles distant, every other week during winter the islanders are cut off by storms.

There are no telephones on the island. There are no shops, no horses, no rabbits, rats or mice.

It is difficult to imagine the life of this little community, so we give you the story of the people of Eilean nan Ron, of their work, and their play, of their hopes and their fears, of their grim determined fight against odds which are slowly but surely forcing them to defeat.

In May of this year, the islanders petitioned the Secretary of State for Scotland for their removal to the mainland, but another winter is well underway and the battle with grim Nature still goes on.

Leaving Skerray pier for Eilean nan Roan - Photo Iain Morrison ©

I stood on Skerray pier and waited while Donald Anderson and John Mackay piled up half-a-dozen lobster creels for me in the boat. If you have ever sat in a train from Glasgow to Thurso for 12 hours and then sat for another 8 ½ hours with Jimmy Campbell in his Mail-car you will understand why I stood.

Six Families
At last I was in the boat and round the point with Roan lying straight ahead. Donald had his gun with him. To hunt the seals, I learned. John also was very happy. He had relatives on the island. There are only 20 persons living there now, he told me. Six families – five Mackays and one Macdonald.

“You’ll like it here,” he said, as we landed. “They’re kind folk.”

Everything was quiet as we climbed the steep steps up the cliff from the landing place. Not a soul to be seen. Suddenly, on the brow of the hill, we spied five men coming towards us. “Good-Mornings,” rang out; and “Yes,” (in answer to my question), “We’ll surely find a place for you.” Then they were gone to set their lines for bait.

I was taken to the house of Donald Mackay, with Bain tacked on to the end to distinguish him from the other Donald Mackays. His wife is a charming lady. She was in the kitchen with her daughter, Chrissie, who was baking Brandered Bannocks. Not being very well acquainted with the culinary arts, I will describe a brandered Bannock by saying that it looks like a very big, thin soda scone. It is made on a sort of grill over a peat fire. During a storm, when the island is isolated and the bread supply runs low, bannocks are substituted.

Mrs Mackay showed me to my room, and when I came downstairs introduced me to Hughie Mackay, a young man with a mop of the reddest hair I’ve ever seen. He and I set off to explore, Hughie to lead the way.

Nine Houses

The cluster of houses on Eilean nan Roan - Photo Iain Morrison ©

There are nine well-built houses on the island. Three are unoccupied. But, as Hughie said, you need more than houses. They lie in a little hollow on the top of the island. Not too close together, yet all within hailing distance. Each house has thatched roof out-houses for keeping the cattle, sheep and hens.

With the sheep in the pens, the dogs lying lazily at the doors, the hens strutting around the yards, and the folks all going about their various tasks, it made a peaceful scene that first day.

We first came upon Donald Macdonald with a loaded creel upon his back making home from cutting peat farther up the hill. A few minutes chat while he rested and his dog Prince, sniffed the stranger. Then on to the school House.

Kitty Ann Mackay at the black board in Island Roan School Photo Iain Fraser © Daily Record

The teacher, Cathie Ann Mackay, happened to be a daughter of my host, and the pupils her two brothers. – John Angus, called Angan for short, and Donald John, called Nolls because he was born on Christmas day. I took a flashlight picture inside the school, and was asked to make the bright light again.

After Dinner the men came in with their catch. Haddock and Cod were divided out to each house, the remainder laid aside to be used as bait in the lobster creels.

Women folk came down to get their supply, and as soon as they had prepared the fish found time to do other work.

I watched some of them feeding the hens, milking the cows. I saw Miss Christine Mackay making cheese. And it was excellent cheese.

Later the men took their boat and set the creels all round the North East side of the Island.

By this time school was out, and I had to contend with two small boys. The lamps were lit, and out came the draught board. Once upon a time, I imagined I could play draughts. To-day I know I cannot.

At the Ceilidh
After tea we went “cheildhing.” Even grandpa Mackay, aged 89 was there too.

 Finnish vessel M/S Johanna Thorden wrecked on the Pentland Skerries in January 1937 ©

We sat round an open peat fire and talked for hours. Strange as it seems, I don’t remember meeting people who took such an interest in newspapers. I say strange, because in fine weather at this time, they only get across for the papers twice a week, and by that time the news is history. So, happenings that I’d almost forgotten about were discussed in every detail. A prised possession is the middle page of last January’s Daily Record with pictures of the Johanna Thorden wreck on the Pentland Skerries.
Johanna Thorden

Football, too, is a popular topic. You would have imagined they attended a match every Saturday. A Daily Record colour reproduction of Celtic F.C. has an honourable place in a frame on one of the kitchen walls. And, wonder of wonders, football pool coupons arrive irregularly. One week last winter, Hughie had sixpence worth on a ten results column. Sure enough his fancies, “came up,” but, unfortunately, the postman had been unable to get the mail across owing to the bad weather.

We had a grand time, and I left promising to join in the lobster fishing next day.

Just before the break of dawn, I stepped into the boat at the slip. Five men were waiting, ready to cast off. “Aye,” said the postman, William Macdonald, “I mind fine when four boat loads used to set off each morning. Soon there’ll be nobody.”

Four of them rowed the big boat with Hector Mackay and myself at the stern – hector to land the creels, my self probably very much in the way, although no one breathed a word of it. Hector hauled in four creels, but nary a lobster to be seen. Nothing but big crabs. You’ll never get lobsters while there are crabs I was told. I pulled in the fifth. Still no luck. I felt I was the Jonah in the boat. The sixth creel yielded two lobsters.

So it went on. Nothing in this one, a solitary lobster in another. Round the beak we crept. The sea had a swell now. Better for lobsters, I learned. Now, Three in a creel. Hector, scanning the water for the corks hidden by the waves.

Soon we had the forty creels in the boat and twenty six lobsters round my feet. Then back to the landing-place, where the catch was tied up and put into a big box which lay in a channel between the rocks.

The Curing Cave

Natural Arch - curing cave North east of Island Photo and © Iain Morrison

Later Hughie and Angan took me to the cliffs at the North-East corner of the Island. There I saw a cave where fish can be cured without salt. Something in the air inside makes that possible.

I saw the Arch and below it the noise of the sea beating in like the clap of thunder. I saw sheep that had wandered down the steep arms to eat dulce at the waters edge. The tide was coming in so they had to be herded to higher pastures. Dangerous work, but Hughie and Angan took it in their stride. Good climbers both.

Dulse seaweed © Iain Morrison

On our way home we came upon Angus Mackay uncovering his potato pits to bring out a fresh supply. Christine Mackay, too, was pulling cabbages. Add oats and turnips, then you have everything that is grown on the island.

We heard the School whistle blown and Angan, much to his disgust, had to leave us.

Hughie took me to his house. There I watched him at work on the model of a boat. He showed me his collection. There were traders, sailing boats and Yachts. He had made them all himself with the aid of a saw and pen-knife. He promised to make one for me.

That night the wind commenced to blow hard from the Nor’-east. At Ceilidh, they told me it would be impossible to cross to the mainland next day. No one knew how long it would continue or how fierce it would be. Maybe for a fortnight. If so the catch would be wasted and the hard work gone for naught.

Next morning I was awakened by the wind howling round the corner of the house and the rain lashing down on the roof-top. A voice from outside shouted, “Hurry up, we’re going to pull the boat.” I struck a match and looked at my watch. It was 5.30 o’clock.

A Wild Storm

 The Haven or natural beach beside the landing slip Photo © Iain Morrison

At the slip the men were in the boat which was rolling to and fro like a cork on a wild sea. They rowed for the haven where all hands were waiting to drag them to safety.

All day long, the huge breakers kept pounding in. It was as if the sea was boiling. The surf came high up over the cliff. The rain and the sleet came down and the island was transformed.

In the failing light, the islanders gathered in the lambs. Have you ever helped to gather in lambs without a dog? Twice I landed knee deep in bogs. At last the stubborn creatures were penned and we separated to sit round our peat fires.

Morning came with the wind slightly lessened, but the sea still running a heavy swell. Gradually, as the day went on, the wind veered round to the south. A good wind for the island, I was told. Even Angan said I would get over next day if the change continued. The glass was rising.

That night I met Donald the sailorman. He had been all over the world, once was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland during the war. What tales he had to tell.

The wind by this time was blowing gently from the south so I went from house to house saying my good-byes.

The Book
Donald Mackay Bain had the Book in front of him when I tried to thank him and his family for their kindness to me. My eyes fell upon the upturned page:-
“The Lord shall keep thy soul; He shall
Preserve thee from all ill.
Henceforth thy going out and in
God keep for ever will.”
Psalm 121

The passage was well thumbed. At last I understood the creed of Life on the Island.

The first grey streaks of dawn were beginning to show on the sky as I stood on the jetty while the boat was launched and the men packed their lobsters from the cache.

Now the mail bag and lobsters were ready for the mail car and I stepped into the boat.

The motor coughed and spluttered into life. With Hector at the helm we steered clear of the rocks and shot forward.

I turned in my seat to take a last look at that lonely isle. Three black figures, their hands upraised, were outlined against the early morning sky. I took off my cap and waved back.

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Melness Pier Photo © Iain Morrison Welcome to the Melness Internet Site. This is a labour of love for me. It is a celebration of all that makes Melness a wonderful place. It holds so many fantastic memories for me, growing up there until going to School in Golspie. It is a celebration of the people, their culture, history, music, poetry and heritage. I hope you like the new design and find the site easy to use. There are lots of new pages and resources to enjoy and many more to come in the future. Enjoy, Iain