Scottish Memories MAY2007
Aileen Torrancediscovers how a song of the
Port of Ness Harbour - as it is today.
Captain Binnie Snr my mother’s brother (now retired).
Genealogy has become hugely popular in recent years because looking back into the past satisfies a basic human desire, a need to know where and from whom we came.
Herring girl -tribute in Stornoway harbour on the site where the ‘girls’ worked.
However, as television programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ illustrate,finding out about the flesh and blood folk behind distantly recalled names and faded sepia photographs can also be an emotional roller coaster. There is the odd skeleton to be found in many a
neglected cupboard if one just looks hard enough: but the depth of feelings we experience when investigating our antecedents are often less to do with events in the past and much more to do with recognising in ourselves the character traits,likes and dislikes that have shaped our ancestors and ourselves and the country we all inhabited. From as far back as can be traced down to the present day,the sea and boats have exerted a big influence on the lives of my maternal family that goes beyond tradition. It is a social and cultural version of DNA going a long way to explain my own need to be on,in or near water. My mother’s family came from a small fishing village in Lewis; and, for all its small size, Port of Ness had its own distinctive traditions. For instance,until the first half of last century,the Niseachs,as the locals were known in Gaelic,still busily fished in open, sail-powered skiffs known simply as Ness boats or sgoth miseachs. Murdo Macleod, my great, great grandfather,built the last of these big boats in the last year of the First World War,while his son continued the trade on a smaller scale. The smell of resin,of wood shavings on the floor of the boat house and the thrill of being allowed to plane,under her uncle’s watchful eye,are
part of my mother’s childhood memories. As the last living sgoth builder,John Murdo Macleod,a skilled craftsman but a teacher by profession,had a burning ambition to build just one final Ness boat in order to preserve the traditional skills and techniques handed down so carefully over the centuries. In 1993 a trust was formed and with a partner,he realised his dream. The ‘An Sulaire’ (’Gannet’) was launched a year later,the first such boat to be built in almost a hundred years, and recently she sailed into Port of Ness with the ‘Jubilee’,a restored,smaller sgoth originally built by his father a long time ago now. The boats themselves of course were always used to harvest the fruits of the sea,an essential supplement to the islanders’diet,including fish and shellfish but also some more exotic fare. Solan geese have nested on the tiny island (more like a big rock) of Sula Sgeir,38 miles off the Butt of Lewis,for centuries;and for almost as long a small number of families from Ness have held the right (now protected by law) to harvest these chicks,known as guga,once a year. My mother’s cousins continue our family involvement today,leading the hunt as their ancestors did. A trawler now assists the men with the transport of supplies but the process of the