A Snapshot of Coll in 2015

Livinia Maclean-Bristol
Coll • 7-11 April 2015

Lauchlan Maclean of Coll owned most of the island from 1400, having been given it by his uncle, Lord of the Isles. The two ends of the island were owned by the Church. Lauchlan built a fortress designed to show off the power and might of the Macleans on the shores of Breacachadh.

As time went on the Macleans acquired estates elsewhere on the islands and mainland, including Quinish on Mull, Rum and Morvern.

Thanks to an astute laird Hector Maclean of Coll, he was able to pay off all the debts accumulated from the Civil War. His immediate successors paid a prominent part in the Hebrides. His nephew Alexander continued with improvements and tried to establish fisheries. He then built what is known as the new castle and moved out of Breacachadh old castle which was pillaged for stone and timber and left as a ruin.

Alexander married a potentially rich wife who was not prepared to live on Coll, so they purchased Aros in Mull and built Drumfinn Castle.

By then things were going wrong in the Hebrides. Alexander imprudently bought Peruvian bonds which paid out nothing. The potato famine struck, and Alexander had to feed his people out of his own pocket.

The family moved south and the Coll estate was put on the market in 1855, and was eventually bought by the Duke of Argyll's factor, Stewart of Stronvar. He saw the bankruptcy of the island looming and cleared the land of the uneconomic tenants and cottars who were forced to the peripheries of the island, including the east end, where they were given land by the sympathetic landlord.

Stewart saw the future in changing to dairy farming. He built new farm houses and dairies, imported tenants from Ayrshire and Kintyre, and set up the majority of the island for dairy production. The cheese, a sort of Dunlop type, was famous, and even eaten in the House of Lords, as my late father told me.

After the Second World War, dairying ceased, and the new incumbent, Kenneth Stewart, tried his hardest to keep the island viable, but it was very difficult; post-war Coll was poor and deprived of modern facilities. The population dropped right down to just over a hundred, farm workers left, and there was very little going for Coll except for its uncompromising attitude and community spirit.

By this time the Gaelic language was in decline. Children were discouraged from talking Gaelic in the playground, and several families came in, their fathers employed by Kenneth Stewart, who brought mainland speech and attitudes, some of which were quite alien to Coll.

It was at this stage that Kenneth had to sell off various farms on the island. He kept the best, but needed the cash to keep himself and his young family going. His outgoings were considerable. He had to look after his predecessor's widow, his mother and his own family, all from the dwindling proceeds of the produce from the farm. The final sale was to the RSPB, who bought a large chunk of land for a bird reserve. They still hold this, most of the west end of the island.

But progress was brewing elsewhere. My husband was obsessed with Coll - he had been since the age of nine when he realised how he fitted in to the Maclean picture. He had a vision of restoring the rotting old ruin of the old Coll castle, living there and making his money from writing. He intended to leave the army which had been his profession, but then he met me.

My father was not amused to find out the plans of his son-in-law, although I would point out that he had another six daughters to worry about at the time. Nick was persuaded to stay in the army and rethink his plans. But Coll always loomed large in his life.

Because of his historical studies he saw the island as place for young people who were strong and adventurous and would go out to help the developing world. It was vague, but enough of a dream for others to come in and help, and eventually Project Trust was born. You can see on their website what happened to this dream.

We moved here permanently in 1972, to run Project Trust with the help and hindrance of two small sons, and another to be born shortly afterwards. The castle was starting to become less of a ruin, and Nick's optimism and my blind faith pushed the building on, and Project Trust's success.

The island I arrived at was very, very difficult for me. It was alien. Although our last posting in the army had been in Perthshire, it was very different. Most islanders regarded us with much suspicion. They were in the main islanders with customs and a culture I just couldn't understand. I used to go to the pier to talk to the piermaster because he had a Cornish accent. Some islanders thought us mad and were convinced we would never succeed, either with the restoration of Breacachadh, or with Project Trust.

But as the years went on, things changed. The young people of the island left, went to Glasgow to make their fortunes and in the main never returned. New families came in with young children. The school changed and improved.

At that stage, in the seventies, perhaps two of the most important improvements took place. The first was what we call the new pier. The link for the mainland in the old days were ferries which would come down the bay, whilst a little wooden open boat came out and collected passengers and freight from a hatch in the side of the big steamer. It was hazardous, frightening, and dangerous, but the pier staff never dropped anyone overboard by mistake.

The new pier started with steamers being able to come alongside and sling nets onto the pier. The boats improved with side loading ramps, and cattle and sheep ramps. The old freight puffers which used to bring heavy loads of hay, or cement, or building materials from Glasgow, were unnecessary, and this was all taken over by Cal Mac's steamers. For the first time it was easy to get cars on and off the island. To give you a contrast, when I arrived there were about six, perhaps, plus tractors and a lorry. Now I reckon that virtually every adult on the island has one, and as a result there is no public transport.

The next major improvement was the coming of electricity. When I was going to get married to Nick my father in the sixties had enquired of Lord Strathclyde, head of the hydro board, about the possibility of getting electricity to the island where his daughter was shortly to be marooned. ‘Some time in the next century' was the reassuring reply. When the electric, as it was called, arrived, Nick met Lord Strathclyde, and reminded him of this. Lord Strathclyde apparently replied;, 'If I had my way it wouldn't be there yet'. Anyhow, on the 25th June 1974, electricity came to the island, and within two years poles were up and houses were ablaze with light.

It was not without controversy, however. There were some who thought it downright dangerous, and others who thought it would be too expensive. Gas lightning was left in some houses for years later, just in case. However the hydro board bought a pantechnicon to the island, unloaded every sort of electric device and sold it all in the village hall. One of the most influential and well liked islanders was one of the first through the door, with her husband gloomily looking at his cheque book behind her – and that encouragement led the islanders to realise just what a difference it was going to make.

Everything improved bit by bit, as communications with the mainland became easier. We had better and more reliable ferries. The shops grew bigger and better. The hotel won awards for its food. Small businesses started up, usually just one person, but that meant that Project Trust was not the only organisation producing employment.

Project Trust now employs around thirty people. It is largely unique to the islands, although Skye has its university. Other islands have SMEs too, but Project employs largely graduates, and because of the nature of its business, sending young people overseas, they are young too, in their late twenties and thirties. It employs several main wage earners, many of whom actually went overseas with Project in the first place. There are a lot of ex-staff and ex-volunteers who now live on the island and have found other things to do.

The result of all this is a young, dedicated workforce, who contribute greatly to every aspect of the island. It makes the place fun to live in. They bring in their friends - others join them. The hotel has an enthusiastic young staff as well, and they all socialise not only together but with the rest of the islanders.

Instead of just a hundred islanders as there were in the 1960s, there are over two hundred now, with lots of children of all ages, some of whom are at the Coll primary school, some at the Oban secondary school and a sizeable number at private boarding school on the mainland. Education is seen as an important part of growing up, and I was interested to find out how many children are keen to return to Coll. When asked why, it was primarily because of the lack of crowds, the open spaces, the freedom, and the friendliness of everyone.

Slightly out of the blue we were offered an air service. This meant building a hard air strip and airport centre. The building of it was dramatic as all the gravel, nearly a hundred loads on lorries, all had to be brought from the mainland. They ploughed up the road to the strip, so along came another load of lorries, this time with asphalt, to mend the road. The upshot of it has dramatically improved communication, as Hebridean Airways currently runs six flights to the island a week, plus considerably more during the present wild weather when the ferries cannot dock on Coll. The original excuse was the ability to bring the school children back for the weekend from Oban, but not so many take advantage of this, preferring to travel with their friends on the boat. However it has been a great boon for engineers, architects, surveyors, professionals of all kinds who cannot spare the three days required to travel out and back by sea.

A mobile mast has opened in the past few weeks, again an aid to communication which, although some thought this to be a step too far, is obviously going to be a boon in time to come, both for islanders and visitors. It is a pioneer for a system which the Scottish Government hopes to roll out in rural areas in time to come.

A major development for the island was the start of Development Coll, set up under government auspices to develop the island's facilities. It works in tandem with the Coll Community Council, and its main achievement has been the building of An Cridhe, the heart of the island. This building, the bunkhouse and land cost £2.4 million, the bulk of which came from the Big Lottery and European funds. The island itself raised over £70,000, a phenomenal amount to raise from islanders and the diaspora. Like all improvements it was controversial to start with, but now it is indeed the heart of the community, hosting parties, films, plays, sport for all sections of the community, talks, meetings, weddings and dances.

A spin off from An Cridhe has been the re-vamping of the old village hall, originally built in the 1950s, and now the centre of recyling on the island. ReCyColl has been incredibly active and inspires many volunteers to work at the old hall.

Many service improvements have happened over the years, and as a result there are plenty of people employed here looking after us all. Three pier staff, a roadman, three medical staff, two in the post office, four in the shops, five in the school, two at the water board, one at the petrol pump, and then several part timers to cover for holidays, and to run the airport. An Cridhe itself has one full time and three part time employees. Tourism is not a major part of the economy, but there is employment to be had at the hotel and guest house.

Something I believe many of the islands have in common, is part time employment, when someone has several jobs. Take Pete Mackay for example: when he is not calling in planes at the airport, he is sorting out people's IT, or tutoring his home educated son.

There are very few natives, although plenty of the children have been born here. I do not believe there are more than half a dozen Gaelic speakers now. Place names, particularly of fields, have changed from the Gaelic to English. The culture of the open door and ability to visit anyone at any time has disappeared. No one sings in Gaelic any more.

One custom I noticed particularly when I first arrived, was the importance of New Year celebrations against Christmas, which was not particularly celebrated. Now both are very important, and the old custom of first footing, largely gone on the mainland because of drink-driving, is still very much practised – no policeman means no prosecuting for drink-driving.

For recreation, there is the bar at the hotel, a very small library at the back of the Manse, the Church of Scotland with a handful of communicants, and a wide section of the population who are members of the gym at An Cridhe. You can play bridge there, or join in any of the sports. U3A has a presence here, with an art group meeting weekly and a walking group in the summer months.

Because communication is easier, medical people come to us now. We get a mobile dentistry service, an ophthalmologist comes in, someone to cut your corns, a physiotherapist; they all come in. It all makes living here easier.

The upshot of it all is of course is that it is getting more and more like living on the mainland. We used to be controlled by God and Caledonian MacBrayne, but no longer - Hebridean Airways can come to the rescue. But we still rely largely on each other - no policeman to keep order, so we can do that ourselves. Drunken disorderly behaviour almost does not happen because everyone is totally shocked if it does. No one will die lonely in their beds.

What the future holds, goodness knows. I have run out of things I think the community could do with, with the exception of putting in a breakwater so that the boat does not miss coming into Coll so often - but we are working on that.
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