Diary: North Uist

As we wait for the Lord of the Isles to take us from Oban to Lochboisdale the Labour Party transmits its morning message through the headlines of right-wing newspapers: “Independence could cost one million jobs.” We make some calculations – if Scotland lost one million jobs its unemployment rate would be worse than that of Afghanistan, Libya, Zambia and Ethiopia. Is this all the faith they have in us?

When the Lord of the Isles arrives the vans are parked below deck and we take the stairs to the observation platform. The ferry is broad and painted red and passes through the Sound of Mull in mechanical, quickening rhythm. The sea corridor takes us past Mull, Muck and then Eigg, with its slanted high cliff like a carpet pushed up under an opening door.

Old men in green jackets with suitcases, cameras and binoculars, watch over the deck for whales, dolphins and rare birds. Seagulls skim the white horses of the waves until, looking up, the Western Isles appear on the horizon.

We arrive at port and stop for a moment at the roadside for planning and directions – then, to the southern coast of South Uist to set up camp for the night. There are no trees and no shelter, only bare hills and the bite of the Atlantic. A wild, bleak night follows; gales, torrents and leaky tents. Some abandon the canvases for the vans until the morning breaks, and the rain stops, and we are glad to be away.

Mile after mile of low fields, scattered rocks and bungalows give way to higher plateaus in the north. Twentieth century re-incarnations of houses are built yards from the ghosts of ruined cottages, and between them, in every direction, lie great pools of water – neither lochs, ponds nor bogs, nor anything in particular – just water, on the land, everywhere.

In the afternoon we come to Carinish Village Hall, our venue, expecting to find it on a main street between houses and shops, but instead finding it solitary, and surrounded by barren land. The built environment doesn’t work in the islands as it does on mainland – a village here can span the width of a whole city and be home to only forty or fifty people.

When a Tai Chi class clears the hall we enter and prepare the night’s entertainment. Doors open at eight o’clock and people appear from miles in all directions.

Julia Taudevin recounts the story of Mary Barbour, who led an army of women on the Glasgow rent strikes during the First World War. “Whilst the men were away in war, the landlords put up the rent prices. Mary Barbour rallied all the wifies in Glasgow to fight back – with pots and pans and wooden spoons – and they won. This song dates from around that time.”

She moves the microphone stand aside because her voice can occupy the whole space of the hall on its own. Here is a bridge between urban and island life in Scotland; the struggle of who owns and runs the land. It’s been much the same war in the country as in the cities. When independence is won it can only be a matter of time until the question of the land reoccurs, and when it does we should welcome it.

It is important no part of Scotland is left off the edge of a map, out of sight or out of mind. For the islands it can sometimes feel that way. But it is the wonder of the independence movement that we are learning more about ourselves as a country than ever before. We are beginning to familiarise ourselves with stories, histories, potentials, new ideas, with distant places we knew existed by name but never really existed in our imaginations. Seeing and knowing Scotland in its whole is, in so many ways, as important as the entire case for independence at hand.

– Andrew Redmond Barr

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