The following is an installment of my column in the Loch a’ Tuath News – Litir Dhachaigh.
The curious absence of sunshine and unwelcome lashings of rain have, if nothing else, provided great talking points this summer season. What better way to greet an acquaintance than by rolling your eyes and sighing, “can you believe what this weather is doing?!”. I’m certain that many a long-lasting friendship began with a comment on the unique Scottish climate that we all love to hate.
When I visited Upper Coll a couple of months ago, the elements ceased their bombardment for a spell and granted me some beautiful days to get out and about around the village. I set out on my usual route along the bottom road, passed the Trì Geataichean and towards Coll Beach. It occurred to me that to the passerby, ours is a perfect cookie-cutter Hebridean village. Houses and crofts and a scattering of sheep. There are old and modern houses, new occupants and people who carry the names of some of Upper Coll’s legendary characters. As I passed house after house, I was amazed at the thought of how many memories and stories could be contained in such a small corner of the world.
My walk down memory lane eventually brought me to the road end. I tried to capture some shots of Coll Beach in all its glory when something caught my eye. Standing proudly behind its wall of stable stonework was the Upper Coll cairn. Though this monument has stood in its place for many years, greeting us and bidding us farewell each day as we come and go, I’m not sure I’d ever taken the time to stop and read it. The cairn recalls the events of 1921, the year Upper Coll became the village as we know it now. Promises of homes and land for their families had enticed many to the battlefields of World War One. Huge numbers never returned home from the Great War, leaving devastated families and empty seats at tables across the island. Those who had survived the hell of war returned home to discover all the promises that had been made to them were empty. They stood at a crossroads, as we all must do from time to time, and had to decide between what was right and what was easy. Taking their destiny into their own hands, they raided Coll Farm and claimed the land they believed rightfully belonged to them and their families.
The words on the engraved plaque about the history of the land raiders sums up how I felt standing in front of the cairn; “We, their descendents are indebted to them forever for their courageous actions”. Each and every one of us who grew up in Upper Coll, and all the villages on the island that were borne out of similar duress, are indebted to these men. I read these words as an invitation and a demand – that we should live lives that are worthy of the risks that were taken for us all those years ago. We may not have the same grievances as our ancestors but as Ecclesiastes says “there is nothing new under the sun”. There are always people who will try and take advantage of those they think are weak and who will try and turn back on their word. There are always those who will take what they want, regardless of what is right and what is wrong. Which is why the closing words of the dedication on our village cairn are so appropriate for its 21st century readers – “Leanaibh gu dluth ri cliù ‘ur sinsear” – follow closely to the legacy of your ancestors.
It is apt that this cairn is at the entrance of our village. As well as reminding us of where we came from, it is also an invitation for growth and renewal. The sight of a younger generation being brought up here and of new houses springing up would, I’m sure, have gladdened the hearts of all those who risked everything so that we would have a place to call home.