• W Cumming

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

Spending each summer holiday in Lewis was an immense privilege, and fishing for wild brown trout on the lochs in the moors was wonderful. The trout were rarely large, but the experience of being under a huge sky with nothing to disturb one's thoughts was fantastic.

I think the first loch my Dad ever took me and my brothers to fish on was Loch Drollavat at the back of Swordale. Our favourite spot was a high peat bank at the north-eastern corner of the loch. We caught far too many eels on the worm, but as our skill with the fly-rod developed so did the number of trout which were fried in the evenings.

My brother Iain, probably about 1992

In order to reach the favoured spot, we would walk out from the northern end of Swordale. The track leads past the northern end of Loch Swordale from where we would cross the moor to get around the north-western corner of Loch Drollavat. Perhaps 200 metres further on there is an unusual grass covered patch which juts out into the loch. It features on the Ordnance Survey map from 1851:

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The grass is covering a long-forgotten heap of stones. In the 1850s the cartographers failed to gather that this was a place of some significance, suggesting that even then the local community had lost some of the traditional lore. However, three early 19th century copies of a lost 1807-9 estate map of Lewis all mark a 'Dun' at this site (see here for more detail).

Aerial image of the now-separated lochs (courtesy of Colin Macleod)

It is interesting to speculate as to who may have lived there, perhaps 1000 years ago. What I find fascinating is that, although their names are long since gone, we know more of them than future generations will probably know of us. This may sound a little far-fetched, but it is a fact that we can see the remnants of their home. Will there be any visible evidence of my 1930s semi-detached home in 3021? I suspect not.

I'm reminded of the old metrical psalm:

Frail man, his days are like the grass,

as flow'r in field he grows:

For over it the wind doth pass,

and it away is gone;

And of the place where once it was

it shall no more be known.

Psalm 103:15-16

Thankfully, this is not the whole message. Just before this honest appraisal of our mortality, the psalmist has expressed God's knowledge of us:

For he remembers we are dust,

and he our frame well knows.

And then the psalmist goes on to God's promise to those of us who love him:

But unto them that do him fear

God's mercy never ends;

And to their children's children still

his righteousness extends.

'His' righteousness; not mine! I am safe, because I have his righteousness.

I do not need to fear the passing of time, or the danger of being forgotten by those who come after me. He remembers, and He keeps me.

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  • W Cumming

In the early 20th century there were numerous fishing boats working in the Minch. The harbour of Swordale Bay was home to a number of smaller boats, but there were two larger boats (moored in Stornoway) owned by crofters at the southern end of Swordale. One was the Corona, operated by James Maciver (27 Swordale) and his two brothers. The other was the Agnes Irvine, a 52-ton wooden boat built in Anstruther in 1905. Her first 15 years are undocumented, but from the early 1920s she was based in East Fife.

The Agnes Irvine, when registered in Methil, Fife.

In 1932 the Agnes Irvine was purchased and re-located to Point, Lewis. The official owner was John Macarthur, policeman of Garrabost. However, it was actually a partnership which also included Donald Macleod (25 Swordale), Donald Macleod (18 Knock) and Angus Mackay (16 Swordale).

Working with the nets: Donald Macleod (25 Swordale) is on the right.

Donald Macleod of 25 Swordale was my great-grandfather, and I wish I had known him. He was an elder in Knock Free Church, and highly regarded locally. When people in the village had a row they would go to him; on being asked what he had said to them he would typically reply,

"I just listened. There will be another side and another side and another side again.

I only heard one side. The complainant probably only told me what he wanted me

to hear, and I'll have to keep my counsel until I hear all the other sides."

He would reason things out, and point out gaps in what people had told him, remembering word-for-word what he had been told. The minister Rev. Campbell described him as 'a very wise elder in the session'.

It had not always been so. He turned to Christ relatively late in life; his daughter Anna remembered him weeping under conviction of sin. His sense of assurance was weak, and after conversion he sometimes felt a failure because he could see no progress in his Christian life.

Then one day Donald was out on the boat and seemed to be making no headway against the wind and tide. Then a small stick drifted past and he realised that, though imperceptible, the boat was making progress. God used this simple moment to assure him that although his development was slow and sometimes unseen, it was nonetheless real.

Do I value the state of my relationship with the One who made me?

Do you?

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  • W Cumming

On a beautiful, calm afternoon in November 1850, six men from Swordale set out for Grimshader, Lochs. They were going to fetch kelp - perhaps to use it as fertiliser on their crofts, or maybe as part of their rental agreement, whereby they would have had to provide the Estate with a certain amount of kelp each year. They probably fished with handlines as they went, in order to procure a little more food for their tables. The men were:

Torquil Crichton, husband of Mary Macleod, and father to 7 children aged between 2 and 16.

John Mackenzie, husband of Christina Finlayson, and father to 5 children between 0 and 12.

Murdo Mackenzie, husband of Mary Crichton, and father to 5 children aged between 2 and 17.

John Maciver, husband of Catherine Stewart, and father to 7 children aged between 6 and 20.

John Macleod (originally from Coll), husband of Catherine Murray, and father to 4 children aged between 10 and 17.

John Macleod, husband of Margaret Macleod, and father to 8 children aged between 6 and 26.

As experienced fishermen they would surely have known not to overload their vessel. Perhaps they were under pressure from the Estate, although some said afterwards that a whale may have surfaced beneath the boat and upset it. Whatever the truth of the matter, none of the men made it to shore, and a village was devastated.

Mary Crichton lost not only her husband, but also her brother Torquil and brother-in-law John Mackenzie. These same men were two brothers and a brother-in-law to Mary's neighbour Margaret Mackenzie. The very ties which knit the 100-strong village together would have made the loss still more shattering. The disaster became known as Bàthadh Mòr Shuardail - the 'Big Drowning of Swordale'.

However, in some strange way, at least one of the men had some knowledge of what would come to pass that afternoon. The youngest son of John Macleod (listed last) was George, and when he died in 1920 his obituary recalled that day seventy years previously:

[George's] father, John Macleod, who was a notable Christian in the congregation of Garrabost, died by drowning. It is related of him that on the day which he was drowned he went in the morning to another township to help his son William in building a house. As he was about to leave for home, he said to his son, “Proceed with the house, but I will not be with

you to roof it.” When he arrived home, his wife had dinner ready, and wished him to partake of it. “No,” he said, “I have something else to attend to first.” He then took his two sons, Kenneth and George, to the barn, and with his hand on the head of each, he prayed that they might be children of “The Covenant”. He then took his dinner, and went out with his crew to fish, but never returned.*

It is surely worthy of note that this crofter, so busy with house-building and kelp-collecting, regarded the spiritual state of his children as being of more importance than either his dinner or his life.

How do we value our souls, and the souls of our families and neighbours?

* The Free Presbyterian Magazine and Monthly Record, January 1921, p.276-277.

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