EPISODE 7 - OUTER HEBRIDES AND THE ISLE OF LEWIS WITH MAGAIDH SMITH
Listen to Episode 7 - Outer Hebrides.
Interviewer: Grant Stott (GS)
Interviewees: Magaidh Smith (MS)
GS: Hello and welcome back to Tour Guide Tales brought to you by VisitScotland.
I'm Grant Stott and each week I'll speak to a different tour guide to hear the eclectic and often incredibe rich history of Scotland through their knowledge, stories and experiences. Today I'll be speaking to Magaidh Smith from the Isle of Lewis. Six generations of Magaidh's family have called the Outer Hebrides home and having been a tour guide and cultural educator for 20 years, she has generations, in fact millennia, of history and stories at her fingertips. With moon gods, Neolithic history, clan battles and Gaelic history, it's time for more Tour Guide Tales with Magaidh Smith.
GS: I've spoken to a number of tour guides for this series and it's interesting how people find themselves as a tour guide. You know people can do it as an activity when they retire, people find themselves doing it as a way to earn money as a student, but this for you, it really is a job you could say you were born to do.
MS: Well I was quite fortunate in that I had a very rural upbringing and island life I can
certainly talk about forever more and I think that our history was so rich and there's just so much to share, the concern is that our lifestyle has changed so much since the 1970s. I want to share it as widely as possible in the hope that it will be embraced and that it will be renewed and that it is going to be carried forward into the future.
GS: It's obviously something you care very passionately about. Your family goes back six generations, am I right?
MS: Yes, where I live, I'm about ten miles from Stornoway and I live in the Lochs district
and a piece of land that I live on is a croft and it's a croft where six generations of my mother's family lived.
GS: And your family has been there ever since? And you also care very passionately about the environment, the culture as you say, and also the Gaelic language as well? Give me an overview of how you've grown up using both English and Gaelic, is that correct?
MS: Yes, Gaelic was the language of the community and when I went to school I didn't have any English. Gaelic is very important to me. It's a very ancient language, it's one of the
Indo-European languages and it's interesting that we have all these Celtic cousins like the Welsh and the Breton and the Cornish. I'm a member of the Celtic Congress and we meet regularly in each of these Celtic regions to catch up on the situation with the language, how the language is being promoted and preserved in each of these areas. We have a shared cultural heritage going back into the Gaelic language. It's very close to the Gaelic of north west Ireland. When I go to Donegal they can understand me and I can understand them, and
the ghaelgagh in the Isle of Man is also very similar to Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.
GS: It's fascinating because I grew up with Gaelic in high school. It first became available as a language option and that's when I first got to know and was introduced to the Gaelic language. But you're telling me there's so many different strands of it and you can communicate together in Gaelic across the different areas?
MS: No, the language has developed over thousands of years and the written form you can see some root words that the six Celtic languages have in common. So there's a Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, the Gaelic from the Isle of Man, and Welsh Breton and Cornish. So there's about 55,000 speakers of Gaelic in Scotland from the last census. Today there are Gaelic schools in the centres of the main towns in Scotland - Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The reason being that the economics of the heartland, the heartland being the Outer Hebrides, that the population shift has gone to the city. There are Gaelic communities in these cities so it's quite interesting to see the change of where the language is stronger. So we have our own Gaelic TV channel BBC Alba, and the children here are educated through Gaelic from the age of three to the age of eight.
GS: So what level of danger was there of the Gaelic language disappearing back in the
1980s as you touched on?
MS: Well in the 1970s as I mentioned, Gaelic was the language of the community. There was
a huge change here around the 1980s and the English language was really promoted and used and it was the language that a lot of the official bodies spoke in. Then we had an oil fabrication yard here where a lot of the local men went into that industry, and subsequently moved on to pastures new. Once that industry ceased here, this led probably to the beginning of a lot of people coming from the south, buying property on the island, so there's more and more English coming in. There's been a research project which is called the Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community which appeared just about a month ago. There's grave concern at the moment about the state of the language within the community in the Outer Hebrides, and the concern is that there are many learners throughout the world and there's also young people being educated through the Gaelic medium. It's the richness of community life and communication and the stories and the songs which is under threat that maybe is going to be a language for the archives which is just on paper only and not a community language and this one of the concerns at the moment. It was always there, but
the research project just has highlighted this and we've got to move and got to do something about it or in 10 years' time it's not going to be a community language here in the Hebrides.
GS: Well that sounds quite worrying because it seems that the threat at its core is at the very roots of the language.
MS: It sure is yes. Unfortunately, there's so few people left living in the Hebrides that can make a living here all year round. It's a desirable place to live of course for anybody coming from a city who would want to live a rural lifestyle, so we have a lot of retirees coming in and so that's the population shift in the Hebrides.
GS: Well it's clearly something you're very passionate about, not just the language but the history and the heritage of crofting which your family's still a part of. As ever you sound very welcoming as well for people to come and visit and this is where you come in with your role as a tour guide. How did that come about from someone who's lived in your family you know traced back generations? How did you then make that step into welcoming people and giving tours around the area?
MS: I particularly feel that we as children we were given the responsibility of visiting the elderly and what an education that was. We listened to their stories, and we brought their peat in to make sure they always had enough peat in for the fire and brought their water in from the well. I think at a very young age you learned a social responsibility and that you had a place in the community. Every time there was a task when men gathered to work on the sheep or to cut the peat, the children had a role and I think we grew up with this that you always had to contribute to whatever was happening. And put your shoulder up against it and I think that's maybe why I stepped into the tour guiding role as well.
GS: It was just another way of passing on these stories which you had sort of built upon layers of your own stories and you were getting these backstories as well from these other inhabitants. The wonderful thing about what you offer is that you live there and you have a view of one of the highlights of the tour from your window.
MS: Well that's right. Yes I live in Achmore and it's just south of Stornoway, bang in the centre of the island and looking out my kitchen window I can see Cailleach na Mointeach, that's the range of hills known as the sleeping beauty which resembles the outline of a woman lying on her back. The standing stones circles in the area there are many of them 20 odd at the last count. Some of them are covered by peat but it's thought that they aligned to this range of hills which it's thought could have represented Mother Earth during the Neolithic. It's a range of hills that was mentioned by a Greek writer, mentioned a goddess who was visited by a moon god every 18 years and there's been a lot of research in the Neolithic here. We have archaeoastronomists who have been studying the movement of the sun and the moon over the last 40 years and they have observed the moon moving along this range of hills every 18.9 years. It's also in Gaelic it's called Cailleach na Mointeach and it's one of the many Cailleach names in Scotland. The Cailleach mountains are said to have represented a woman and in the spring and the summer she is in good form, very rich in colour and then when the winter winds blow in she changes and she huffs and she puffs and she brings us the hurricane winds and the cold frost and it changes her appearance into the mountain, the hag of the mountains.
GS: I just love the sort of romance of it all, how you have a wonderful way of explaining why the Scottish weather is as harsh as it can be at times. You mentioned the standing stones there and these are fascinating items that have come up a few times in previous
Episodes. The Calanais, the most renowned in Scotland would you say, one of the most famous standing stones there? What do you think it is that's so fascinating about these and why are people so drawn to them?
MS: I think because people can let their imagination run riot, everybody who goes there has got a different theory and every time I go there the light is different because we live here on the west coast we get a tremendous quality of light. You can look at the stone circle and see some amazing patterns within each one of the stones. The whole site itself is very interesting, the shape of it and other things that are interesting are the notches which have been discovered by the archaeologists which are said to relate to lunar and solar alignments, aligning them with something on the horizon. So it brings in people who want to experience the power of the stones. It said they are on lay lines so that's another angle on it. There are many different theories and there's a space for everybody's theory because nobody really knows.
GS: Because they are so old, as you mentioned. It's part of the Neolithic history of the area and also what's fascinating about the OuterHebrides is the landscape is pretty much unchanged.
MS: Yes the landscape in the Hebrides is pretty much unchanged because we have had no major agriculture methods that means the land is more or less undisturbed since the Neolithic, five thousand years ago. The peat has formed since then and the peat has preserved the Neolithic monuments - under the peat it's an archaeologist paradise. If you're interested in archaeology, the Outer Hebrides is the place to come and we have sites from the Mesolithic right down to the medieval and the Neolithic period. The era is very interesting and there's been in the last four years, pottery which was found on a crannogs, sorry around several crannogs, which were previously thought to be Iron Age.
GS: Explain what crannog is. These are homes effectively that were built on stilts in the water am I right?
MS: An interesting find which related to the crannog which are on freshwater lochs so crannog is a man-made island. It has been surmised that the way that crannogs were built that it was a house on stilts and then that the loch was flooded rounded. So this is a fairly new theory and we wait to hear more because it's here in the Hebrides we've achieved the status of having the first place which has recorded Neolithic pottery. The Neolithic pottery was discovered around several crannogs in a freshwater loch here in the Hebrides. It's been analysed and it has been dated to the Neolithic. Previously the crannogs were thought to be Iron Age so that's shifted the benchmark quite bit. We also have a unique herd of deer. The red deer are thought to date back to the Neolithic. They are very unique and they don't have the same DNA as any of the deer on the other islands, or even around Great Britain anywhere, so they are being monitored and there's a lot of research going on at the moment to try and find out just where these deer came from.
GS: Absolutely fascinating just how far back you can go and it's wonderful that as you mentioned that the peat actually has preserved some of these amazing artefacts like the pottery there. Is there anything else that has been discovered that's really fascinated you Magaidh?
MS: I'm quite interested in the Neolithic period but I'm also interested in the Viking period and my own research at the moment is looking at some of the Viking place names. About eighty percent of the major landscape features are from Old Norse. We were under Norse rule for about 500 years and we have a lot of Old Norse words in Gaelic relating to the use of the land and the processes and the same with the sea. There's a lot of Norse words which relate to fishing and to boats and to working the land and the implements that are used. They were using the Western Isles as a base for raiding going to Ireland and also going into the Faroes. There's similarity in names and one of the exciting things is the study into the Viking boatyards which is happening at the moment in Skye and I suspect that we have similar facilities, ancient facilities here in the Hebrides.
GS: It's wonderful. I mean your mind must be just full of all these facts and information about the history of the area that you grew up in. We touched on how you can look outside
your window and you can see the sleeping beauty, the goddess, from your window. I'm just looking at some of the other highlights of the tour which we talked about previously - Dun Carloway Broch - tell us a little bit about this because this is a special place on the island isn't it?
MS: Yes, the broch is the second best example of an Iron Age fort in Scotland and it faces the Atlantic and there's a big bay behind it where there were several broch sites. We know because of the Gaelic place names. All the broch sites have associated stories of giants and the one at Dun Carloway was known as Dunjarach and Dunjarac was one of the Irish Fenian heroes, so the broch itself is an Iron Age fort. It is a dry-stone construction and it stands to about 30 feet. The broch is an amazing piece of architecture. It's perched on the hilltop and it's built on a rock - it's a very prominent place in the landscape and it looks out over the bay and the Atlantic so it is one of the settings for the stories from the clan times. So going back to the 14th/15th century when Clan Macaulay lived on the west coast of Lewis and they were constantly fighting the Morrisons who lived away up in the north. In these days, cattle was currency so they were forever raiding each other's cattle. The broch at Dun Carloway featured in one story where there had been a cattle raid by the Morrisons of Ness. While the Clan Macaulay were out of the fishing - they fished out at the fishing grounds out near St Kilda. When they returned from a lengthy trip of two or three days they realised that their cattle had been stolen. They knew the landscape well enough and they knew the route that would have been taken with the cattle. They brought the boat in to the shore underneath the broch and sure enough they could hear the cattle lowing. The Macaulays crept up to find that the Morrisons were indeed feasting, having the best of steak on the Macaulay cattle. The Macaulays waited until they had gone to rest. The clan chief Donald Caum M'Cuil he scaled the dry-stone walls on two dirks he set fire to the thatch at the top of the broch. The broch has only got one exit, a very low doorway, and as the roof burnt the timbers came down on the Morrisons and they each headed for the exit. As they came through the low doorway, one of the Macaulay men stood there with a club and, being at their most vulnerable as they came through the door crouching, he managed to bump them all off on the back of the head. And that's how the Macaulays won the day and got their cattle back.
GS: That's fascinating. What can you see of the broch you talk about it in this location?
MS: What you can see at the broch is part of the wall still stands up to 30 feet and it is thought there were several layers, several floors in it with a wooden structure inside. The dry-stone wall construction stands to 30 foot at one side but on the other side the stonework has been removed. It was used to build houses which are in the valley just below the broch. The low stone doorway is still there and I was privileged to be there one day at the beginning of September. But the fourth of September and the light at that time of year is pretty unique. It was my second time there that day and it was about half past four and as I turned gathering the last lot of visitors off the site a sun beam lit up the lintel above the doorway and I saw this huge carving which has never ever been recorded. I didn't have a camera but I had a sketch pad and I asked the people that were on the site to tell me what they saw and they saw the same as me. Within seconds the sunbeam had disappeared and you would never ever know that that image, that sculpted piece of stone, was there. It's a giant text message it's full of symbols. We have not been able to recapture that light just to get it right to be able to take a photograph of the image, but that's the thing about being a tour guide, when you're out there and just observing the landscape you see the most amazing things.
GS: I would imagine so, especially on a landscape as beautiful as Lewis. You talked about the wonderful story there with the fight between the Morrisons and the Macaulays at the broch. There's more clan history there for us to learn about as well - the Macleod's versus the Mackenzies - tell us that story.
MS: Oh yes, Clan Macleod, they were the strongest clan here right up till about 1610 and the Macleods they lost favour with the Crown and the land was taken from them and given to the Mackenzies. Clan Mackenzie came from Kintail and they were given control of the land so the Clan Mackenzie chief ordered that all the Macleods that were related to the clan chief be put to death, so that there would be no way that the Macleods could claim the chieftain of the islands again. So the last two Macleods that were on the run were Donald and Torquill Macleod. They were hiding in the home of a weaver in Crosbost who realised that he could make a fine bit of money for himself. He would be able to get some silver from the chief of the Mackenzies and he shopped the two brothers Donald and Torquill. The Mackenzies came and they took the two brothers by boat across The Minch to Brahan Castle which is outside Dingwall. They were thrown into a pit, there were iron shackles on their feet and they were going to be sent to death. They were to be hung on the cross in the morning. Donald Macleod pleaded with one of the guards, "as it's our last night on earth we wondered if whether we could have a couple of things?" The guard had a bit of pity for them and he said, "What would you ask for?" and Donald Macleod said, "I would ask for a keg of whisky, some butter and the head of three blackface sheep." So the guard said, "Well as it's your last night on earth I can provide you with these things." When the keg of whisky arrived Donald took the bung out and he poured a dram for his brother and he had a dram himself and then he told the guards that they could help themselves to the whisky in the keg. Of course within a couple of hours they were blind drunk and they fell asleep on the floor, out cold, so Donald took the sheep's heads and tore them apart and took the jawbone out of them and tried to cut through the iron shackles on his feet. But the jaw bones as they were heating up, he would put them in the butter to cool them down. Eventually he was able to cut through the iron shackles but he was afraid that his brother would not be saved and he was afraid the guards would wake up so he took it upon himself to make the decision that it was better that one of them was able to get away. So he bid his brother farewell and took to the hills. In the morning Donald was hiding in the moorland heading south and his brother Torquill was put to death on the gallows. Donald went to the army and he gave another man's name to get into the army and he was a good soldier. He served for seven years and he was very highly thought of. He was given leave after seven years and his officer said that he should be back within two weeks. Donald said well my home is very far away and I will not be able to go there and return in the time you have given me unless you give me a boat and six oars men. As he had served for such a long time and was very well thought of they gave him a boat and six oars men and they set off, and they sailed up the coast of the Hebrides into the bay at Crosbost where the weaver lived. So Donald sent them in ashore to do a recce and when they returned they said we just saw an old man and he was weaving a tweed on the loom. So Donald knew the weaver was still alive. When the night fell they all went ashore and Donald was in his army uniform with a sword hanging in his belt. They went to the weaver's house and he came to the door and Donald said:
"Do you know me?" He said "No." Donald said, "Do you remember the brothers Donald and Torquill that you exchanged for a bag of silver?" The weaver said, "Oh yes I remember that very well." And he said, "I am that Donald and I will show you the strength of my arm," and he took his sword and he took the weaver's head off with one swipe. They all went back to the boat and sailed out the loch.
GS: So he got his revenge. It's wonderful drink played its part in that wonderful story and also you mentioned the weaver there. This brings us to the very famous Harris Tweed which is still very much a huge part of your community now which people buy all over the world. What makes it so special?
MS: Well, Harris Tweed was a cottage industry and it was made out of necessity. Every family could make a tweed from the wool of their sheep and they dyed the wool different colours using the vegetation that was around them. Tweed was made to pay the rent sometimes when there was no money. It was used to barter with the merchants, you could buy a bowl of oatmeal or you could use it if you needed to buy a milking cow. So tweed making was the backbone of many families, including my own. All the family took part in
making the tweed. So the children would be sent out with little buckets or any bowls to gather whatever wasn't flower so they use things like the wild iris. They could get three different colours out of depending on whether they use the flower or the root or the leaf. They used the lichen of the rocks and they used other vegetation and they used the peat ash as well for different colours. It was whatever was to hand. All the tweeds were different but they had to make sure that they had consistency within the length of tweed that they were making. So the children would bring back all the vegetation that was required. In these days there were three generations in every family, so granny was in charge of the dye pot and she would layer up the vegetation and, on the wool, and she would boil it up until she was happy with the colour. So everybody contributed to the tub of fixative to make sure that the colour would stay in the wool. This was the ammonia pot. The wool was then carded to remove the vegetation bits that were in it and to ensure that all the fibres were heading in the same direction. After the carding it was spun by the woman of the house and then it was woven into a cloth on a loom, a Harris Tweed loom. Originally the looms were wooden looms and then the iron workhorse looms came in the 1920s. They were the looms that we could hear clickity clack as we went through the village to school, so they were the hardest looms. They're still well used by the weavers today. So once the tweed was woven by the man of the house or the woman of the house, when the man of the house had to go away
to sea fishing for to work for the hydro or whatever, the woman of the house took over the loom. Once the tweed was woven the final process was the waulking with a 'u' and this was done by the young women of the village. They would gather in an evening and they would wash the tweed and they would rub it on a board to raise the wool pile and also to tighten the fibres to bring the fibres in together to ensure that the tweed was of the regulation width 37 inches which was required by the industry which dealt with the merchants who were going to barter with them for the tweed. So the tweed was to be washed and it was to be shrunk and the pile to be raised on it and this would take about six hours and it was quite a task. It was laborious but they used to tell stories and they used to sing to pass the time. We have a lot of Gaelic traditional songs which have been archived because of this custom of weaving the tweed so the singing helped because it kept them all to the same timing. If they were all using the same timing as the tweed was passed around the table, around the six or the eight women, that gave even tension throughout the cloth so it had a purpose. The songs that that were sung were jolly songs or spiritual songs, but they also made up songs as they went through the evening. If there was any little bit of scandal or if some lassie fancied a nice young man who had just come back from sea, from sailing, they would get verses made for them so there's a lot of teasing and a lot of fun in the waulking of the tweed.
GS: Such a wonderful history that you mentioned and how it was all interwoven with
the language as well the culture of the island, that it was the currency. Am I right in saying there was no money on the islands until after World War One?
MS: That's right yeah, there was no money here. Now I remember I interviewed a man who told me that when he left school at 14 and it was harvest time and he was ploughing with a horse for several days and he got two six pences. That's like two and a half pence today. He walked about 30 miles to Stornoway where he bought himself a cap and these two six pences were the first time he had ever seen money.
GS: And to this day you know Harris Tweed is renowned the world over. As we talked about you know there are suits made, there are bags made, hats, wallets and it's graced some of the biggest fashion houses in the world as well.
MS: Yes indeed there it was well Harris tweed originally way back in the 1830s it hit the market in on The Strand in London. Thanks to a lady called Lady Dunmore and Lady Dunmore had an interest in an estate in Harris and she saw the quality of Harris Tweed. It was waterproof, it was warm and she realised that the gentry in London would really appreciate something that was so waterproof and she took the tweed to London. There's still a ladies' collection called the Lady Dunmore collection. After that she could see the potential and she organised to send two sisters to Paisley to the woollen mills to learn how to make different kinds of tweed. Like here there is herring bone pattern which is quite common. But she could see the potential for tartans and she sent these two sisters away to the mills in Paisley just to learn about pattern making but still using the Harris Tweed unique genuine island product, and they became known as the Paisley Sisters. After that Vivien Westwood the designer, she used Harris Tweed in some of her fashion collections. In recent years, Nike trainers, they used Harris Tweed on some of their trainers, and nowadays there's some very fine shoes made from Harris Tweed which I quite fancy myself.
GS: It's still clearly a huge industry and you mentioned when you welcome visitors there on the cruise ships or otherwise that must be a big go-to for them. They must be desperate to get to the Harris Tweed.
MS: It's been marketed as a natural fibre throughout the world probably for the last 15 years and our local college, it's part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, do training courses. It's quite heartening to see some of the younger generation are following the family tradition of weaving and making patterns and being creative with Harris Tweed. So we have a weaving course which is managed by Harris Tweed Hebrides who are the ones who are promoting the tweed and where there's an increase in orders they will run a training course. Harris Tweed throughout the ages has always been full of peaks and troughs and only in the last 15 years have weavers, who are self employed been guaranteed work right throughout the year. So now the tweed industry is managed better because there's a big promotion and then the orders come in and then they'll look and see whether they have enough weavers and if not they will train some weavers. Now weaving is an occupation which is very versatile, it's flexible, is what I'm looking for because it'll work with a lot of the people here that are maybe small-scale crofters and fishermen. So the Harris Tweed weaving is a kind of go-to for the men, especially men who are fishing when they can't go to sea. They can work all night on the loom, they're self-employed, they don't have to clock in as long as they produce a tweed for the mill agent within the time that's been specified they can work the rest of their life around the weaving of the tweed. I was quite interested in that and I'm doing a research project on fishing at the moment. I've been talking to about 20 fishermen and a number of them who told me that when there was no fishing to be had when there was new legislation, or the stocks moved. They had a loom and could weave to tide them over that period, and even now there's a couple of the men who are fishing out of a harbour where the breakwater has been compromised, they are still weaving because if it's a certain wind they can't take the boat out so they turn to the loom. So Harris Tweed has always been supplementing the income of the people on the islands here. It's got its own trademark, the orb mark, and every piece of Harris Tweed that you buy has got its own little guarantee along with it that it's tweed made in the Hebrides, woven at the home of the weaver so Harris Tweed is still a cottage industry.
GS: It's like it's got its very own hallmark?
MS: Yes, it's got its own protected, designated, not sure what you call it.
GS: It's like you can only you know call something champagne if it's created in a certain region of France. If this doesn't come from the Hebrides, it doesn't come from Lewis, it's not Harris Tweed.
MS: Oh that's right yeah and the same applies to Stornoway Black Pudding of course.
GS: Of course, now let's briefly talk about the Stornoway Black Pudding because this is something that no Scottish breakfast is complete without. Again, I mean is this something that you have always enjoyed throughout your life? It's something that people come to specifically buy on the island as well I would imagine?
MS: Yes, that's right, the black pudding is probably on a lot of the menus throughout Britain. The puddings were made again out of necessity with whatever was to hand and they used the offal of the animals for the skins for the puddings that they made with oatmeal and onions and blood puddings. So there's always a conscious recycling and reuse on making the most of things that were to hand in our culture. It's something that we yearn to re-learn now so the Stornoway Black Pudding is a product that a lot of visitors want to buy and they're very curious about it. It's one of our organic foods. At one stage I saw it called superfood. I'm no quite sure how that was but anyway.
GS: Magaidh the history as we've talked about is fascinating also though too the Hebrides' role in the World Wars as well. We need to touch on the one particular tragedy which is still remembered to this day.
MS: Yes, for the First and Second World War, the naval recruitment agencies were very aware of the island men having sea skills because all travel was by sea and the young boys learned how to handle boats and read the sea and the sky from a very young age. So when the naval recruitment people came round they would encourage the young lads to sign up. There's something called the Royal Naval Reserve and they would give them clothing and give them a jacket and a jumper and trousers. I know that the clothing was not plentiful so that clothing was worn on the crofts. Subsequently when they were called up to the First World War, they hurriedly had to get some smart clothing, something new, something that was handmade, something that they could wear that was kind of presentable so there's a huge number of island men were recruited for both First and Second World War. During the First World War, the war ended in November 1918, and a large number of island men were in the navy and they were unable to leave their ships when the war ended. But they were able to get leave to come home for the New Year. The New Year was a great celebration here. Even in my young days we didn't celebrate Christmas very much. New Year was the big thing and when they were making their way home after the end of the war for the New Year they were travelling from Kyle of Lochalsh, that was our ferry crossing at that time, that called it the 'steam packet'. They sailed from the air so there were so many of them arrived at Kyle of Lochalsh that they wouldn't all fit on the boat. There was a yacht belonging to the admiralty based on the west of Scotland and they were brought in to take the men off Lewis to Stornoway. It was on December 31st as they sailed on a dark stormy night and the yacht, the Iolaire foundered on the Beasts of Holm just outside Stornoway harbour in the early hours of the New Year and 204 men lost their lives. There were 280 men aboard. One Bray man, John F Macleod from Ness, he swam ashore with a rope. He realised he could hear the waves breaking on the shore and he realised they weren't too far from shore. Although it was dark and he swam ashore with a rope and he tied one end to the mast of the ship and he swam ashore with the other end of the rope and he secured it on the shore. Then over 70 men clambered from the ship to the shore and then ship turned turtle the mast broke and the other 204 men were drowned. It's a dreadful time in island history so many of these men who had come through the First World War unscathed and they were drowned on the shore of their home island on the way home.
GS: And they are remembered every year?
MS: They're remembered on the war memorial. Just recently the centenary there has been a new monument erected in Stornoway in the town centre. There's a monument out at Holm, the boat went out on the Beasts of Holm and there's a monument out at the shore at Holm and there's a service there for the last number of years on New Year's Day.
GS: Well there are just so many aspects to this wonderful part of Scotland Magaidh. I think we're only really just scratching the surface but give me an idea of your impression of what people make when they arrive there and in particular I'm thinking of the beaches. When they see the beaches that are there, how do people react?
MS: When people arrive I think the first thing that gets them is the big skies and then the quality of the light, and the landscape, and how far they can see and to go down to the beaches, the colour of the beaches, the colour of the sea. Also the variations of turquoise that they see in the water as far as the eye can see, how quiet the beaches are, that there's a big long beach that they can walk on by themselves. And then the quality of the air, definitely so many people talk about the fresh air and how you can just fill your lungs and what it smells like and what it tastes like. There's many aspects to it.
GS: Would you have any tips for people who are planning to come and visit? How long should they allow to get the most out of it and what would be the best plan to just to get the full experience?
MS: Well I think if you're going to visit the Hebrides that getting transport here is most important. We have flights coming into Stornoway Airport and also to Barra. We have the three ferry ports of entry via Caledonian MacBrayne and it's very important to book very
early, to book your journey to the Outer Hebrides in good time. The Outer Hebrides have got many things. If you enjoy the great outdoors - walking, cycling, kayaking - there's the archaeology as I mentioned, the cultural aspect, the beaches, the bird life, the sea mammals and any of these. You would probably need, I don't know, at least five or seven days. We get a lot of people coming through and saying oh we just never realised what was here, we need to come back. We didn't allow ourselves enough time, so if you're coming for anything to do with landscape photography it's another big one as well. Yeah do allow yourself plenty time.
GS: Not one for day-trippers?
MS: We would welcome day-trippers just as a taster session, just to dip your toe in the ocean and then immediately book your next holiday to come back.
GS: I like that, a nice little taster session. Magaidh just as we finish, I'd also like to get the little nuggets that our tour guides have had with interactions with visitors to their attraction, to their part of Scotland. Is there any story that resonates with you, when someone came to visit Lewis and something happened - the reaction to something - that's really stick with you?
MS: Well I've had people in tears a few times because it's just so beautiful - possibly people who were Mackenzies. They came and they never realised that this was where the Mackenzies came from, or a connection to the Seaforth Highlanders. I can't really think of more, but there's been quite a few, but not on the spur of the moment, I can really think of just the best.
GS: I think the idea of someone being reduced to tears just by the view is wonderful enough Magaidh. Thanks so much for spending the time with us on Tour Guide Tales. It's been a real treat, something very different. You're a very unique tour guide. I think it's safe to say you've lived and breathed the Hebrides all your life, through generations, and thanks for sharing your tales with us today.
MS: Thank you for inviting me on to Tour Guide Tales.
GS: Well it's certainly been a pleasure to hear more about these incredible islands from Magaidh Smith. I was lucky enough to visit Barra many years ago and I took that wonderful landing on the plane on the beach experience that will live with me forever. Listen next week when I'll be speaking to a different tour guide and if you haven't already, have a listen back to the other fascinating episodes. If you like the show, please join us next week and subscribe and leave a review whenever you're listening. I'm Grant Stott - you've been listening to another Tour Guide Tales, brought to you by VisitScotland.