Pabbay to Cape North
I am Donald Morrison, and I was born in Baile na Cille, on the Isle of Pabbay in the Sound of Harris – and you will easily find the ruins of my father’s house, for there is a well just at the corner of the house – Tobar Fhionnlaidh – and beautiful, sweet water it was. Just on the other side of the stream are the ruins of the old school, where Thomas Noble was the schoolmaster, and behind that again the ruins of Teampull Mhoire – Mary’s Chapel – so old that no-one on Pabbay had any idea just how old it might be.
My father had a share of the arable land of Baile na Cille – and good arable land it was too, long ranges of ploughing land, not the thin machair land of so much of the west of Harris. We could grow all the grain we needed – wasn’t Pabbay called the granary of Harris at one time? – and if there was surplus, we had a use for that too – making whisky! That was illegal, of course, but it paid the rent, so the estate factor was happy so long as he got the rent, he didn’t care where it came from!
There was plenty of good water too, at the lochs over at the back of the island, and there was still a small amount of peat, though the sea had gradually swallowed up the old peat banks on the shore beyond Cuidhnis, and latterly we had to go to the islands in the Sound of Harris for peat – but if you knew the Sound, you could go there on one tide and back again on the next.
We had seen that townships on the Harris machair were being cleared for sheep-farms. The crofters there had been in arrears of rent after the collapse of the kelp industry, so it was easy to evict them, but our rents were paid at the due time with the proceeds of the whisky, and we thought that we were safe enough.
But a new factor came, and he belonged to one of the sheep-farming families, and he didn’t care that the rents were paid – he wanted the land for his friends. So he started to send the gaugers – excisemen – across to the island, to try to catch us red-handed – and for a while he couldn’t – the Berneray sailors had a trick with their sails as they came around the Carragh Leith if there were strangers on board – but eventually we were caught by surprise, and the factor had the evidence he wanted.
There were sixty-three households on the island then, and every one of us was evicted. A few were given crofts in Scalpay or elsewhere on Harris, but most of us were left to camp on the shore in Berneray until such times as we could leave the islands altogether. A group of us decided to take our families together to Cape Breton, and we found passage on a ship going there, but the best land in Cape Breton had long been taken up, and we could only get land in the far north of that island, in the deep glens of Cape North.
And what a country that was! – flat barren lands, high above the sea, with great slashes of river valleys cut through them. The valleys were good enough land in the summers, but you couldn’t imagine the amount of winter snow on the barrens, and the floods that came scouring down the valleys when the thaw came in the spring. I remember one of our neighbours was a widow with a young child, and she had been away over the winter, working, but she decided to come home for the New Year. She came as far as the far side of the river before dark fell, but the river was in such a flood that she couldn’t cross, and she was shouting for help, but no-one could hear her for the howling of the wind, and it was the next morning that they found her and the child, dead from exposure.
It is a hard land and a cruel land, but it is our own land, and no-one can put us out of it – and that is enough to make up for all the hardships!
There was good fishing too out of Neil’s Harbour on Bay St. Lawrence, though like most Pabaich, I was never much of a seaman, and I preferred to work away in the south during the summer, coming back for the harvest, and in that way making enough to see us through the winter. I have plenty to do, to fill my mind, and am happy enough here, but it is harder for Mairi, my wife – she has never really got over the wrench of leaving her home and family, and I can see her sometimes, gazing at the Barrens white with snow and I know that she is seeing, in her mind’s eye, the snow-white shell-sand beaches of Pabbay!