Thursday 31 July 2014

SS Arandora Star

If you have read the previous post then this is the reason why we gazed wistfully across the sea.
When we realised how close the Island of Barra was to the island of Eriskay, it was a huge disappointment to us that sadly our schedule did not allow time for us to visit.
SS Arandora Star shown on a Waddingtons Playing Card c 1935
As a young newly married couple living in Glasgow, Scotland we were introduced to a 'white' Russian lady called Vera Fisanotti (maiden name Maschova) - she was a friend of our 85 year old landlady.  
She was a widow but explained to us that her husband had been an Italian internee during World War II, and that he had been shipwrecked following deportation from Britain. His body was washed up on the shores of the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
During 2012 I had watched a TV programme called Island Parish which was filmed on Barra. The programme vividly brought back memories of Vera and her sad contact with the island.  
I decided to do some research on the internet, and surprisingly quickly came across Vera's husband's name. I found Oreste Fisanotti on a website about the SS Arandora Star, a ship carrying refugees & internees to Canada from Liverpool.
The boat set sail from Liverpool on the 1st July 1940 and was torpedoed off the north-west coast of Ireland by a German U-boat the following morningOreste was among more than 800 people who lost their lives.  I also discovered that, subsequently, and following her own death in 1975, Vera had been taken back to Barra and was buried on a hilltop beside him.

Vera's life was a sad one.  She escaped from Petrograd (St. Petersburg) during the 1917 Revolution, where she was studying to become a doctor.
Because of his contacts, her father, a sea captain, smuggled her on to a boat in Odessa bound for Constantinople (Istanbul). He gave her a small leather pouch containing precious stones.  As a young women arriving alone in Turkey, and unable to speak the language, she found it very frightening and confusing, so she decided to try and make her way to London.  Eventually she arrived and found work in an hotel as a chambermaid. It was in London that she met and fell in love with Oreste Fisanotti, who was also working at the hotel as a waiter, and they married.
From the day she left Russia to the day she died she had no idea what had happened to her family.  She tried to find out information about them from the Red Cross, but she was very wary of giving away too much about herself as she still had a great fear of being found by the Russians. When we met her Russia was still a closed society.
When Oreste, her only friend in all the world and her beloved husband died, heartbroken, she left London to live on the remote island of Barra to be close to his body. She lived alone on the island for over twenty years until her health deteriorated, and the doctors told her that the island was not a suitable place for her to reside anymore. She was suffering from rheumatism and respiratory problems, so very reluctantly she left the Island of Barra and moved to Glasgow.
Our Landlady in Glasgow had befriended Vera at her church and that is how we came to meet her. When we first moved into the apartment Vera was introduced to us but she was very cold towards us both. As time passed she opened up and became friendly. Later she confided that she was, understandably, jealous and anxious that we would take our landlady's friendship and love away from her.
At last together, Vera & Oreste's hilltop graves on the remote Island of Barra - on her gravestone Vera finally had the courage to publicly acknowledge her Russian origins. 
Her tragic life made a deep and lasting impression on us both.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

South Uist (4) North Uist (2) Benbecula (3) Eriskay (5) Berneray (6)

These islands are relatively flat in comparison with Skye and the northern Western Isles but wherever you are, distant mountains feature somewhere on the horizon. The islands stretch across the rim of the North Atlantic like a huge breakwater being home to a large variety of seabirds, seals, otters, dolphins, and whales.
This archipelago of islands features lots of fresh water lochs covered in small wild white water lilies, the roots of which supply a brown colouring to dye the wool used in Harris tweed cloth. 
Around the coast are sea water lochs which penetrate for several miles inland. These are lined with amber coloured sea kelp which the Crofters gather and mix with cattle dung to fertilise the land. 
Moors, bogs, beaches and interesting geological rocks combine to create some magical scenery. 
The area behind the dunes is called the Machair - a rare bio diverse coastal grassland with a total global area of just 19,000 hectares - 70% of which occurs in this Western Scottish area. Machair forms when sand with a very high shell content is blown landwards by prevailing westerly winds, creating a fertile low lying plain. Shell sand is calcareous - lime rich. It sweetens the peaty soil of the islands while facilitating drainage and warming in the spring. Although bleak through the dark winter months, the Machair is transformed during late spring and summer with the coming of the long hours of daylight into a spectacular floral display alive with insects and birds.
The crofters show a determined resilience by making full use of what nature supplies. For generations they have cut peat to warm their homes through the cold dark winter months. Timing and duration of the peat season is weather dependent but tends to begin in April with turfing - the removal of the first few mossy, heathery inches. Cutting the actual peat begins in May, and the skilled knowledge of how to cut and stack is handed down from generation to generation. Once drying is completed the stacks outside the home resemble upturned boats.
The islands are predominantly either Roman Catholic or Presbyterian. South Uist and Barra being the last remnant of native pre-reformation Scottish Catholicism, and the islands of Lewis and Harris are dominated by the Calvinist 'free church', they have been described as the last bastion of Sabbath observance in the UK.
Gaelic is the spoken language, although in a few areas English speakers form a majority.
A recently opened causeway now links Eriskay to South Uist - this beach on Eriskay is where Bonnie Prince Charlie came ashore on the 23rd July 1745, almost 269 years to the day that we too stood on this beach - it was his last attempt to reinstate the Stuart dynasty. 
the hills on the island of Barra
When I first began blogging I did a post which explains the reasons why we would have liked to visit Barra which I will show next time

Sunday 27 July 2014

Dunvegan Castle, Skye

Dunvegan Castle is built on a rocky outcrop which was once entirely encircled by the sea. It has commanding views down the Loch and is the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. The castle has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for over 800 years.

There are no photos allowed in the castle but it has many fine paintings and clan treasures. One of the most famous being the Fairy Flag which according to legend states that when unfurled in battle the clan MacLeod would invariably defeat their enemies. The flag is said to have originated as a gift from the fairies to an infant chieftain; a gift to a chief from a departing fairy-lover; a reward for defeating an evil spirit. Clan chieftains and fairies! - what a strange and curious juxtaposition?
In contrast to the austere appearance of the castle the gardens were overflowing with intense colours and a huge variety of flowers both rare and exotic. This is due to the warmth from the Gulf Stream running down the western side of Scotland and the purity of the air and water.
lilium Pardalinum - Tiger Lily
We have several different Turk's cap lilies in our garden, pink, orange, yellow and white. If I can locate a Pardalinum bulb then this beauty will be joining them
Portree is the largest town on Skye - the pretty harbour has a pier designed by Thomas Telford. The Royal Hotel is the site of MacNab's Inn which was the last meeting place of Flora MacDonald and Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. 
Flora by Allan Ramsay

This portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie was discovered in the last few months and is also by Allan Ramsay
The Cullins
Road to the Isles
The far Cuillins are pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromack to the road.
The far Cullins are puttin' love on me 
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.

A cromack is a shepherd's crook or stick
A final backward glance at the Cuillins and then 
 onwards to catch the ferry from Skye to the outer Western Isles of North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Eriskay

Thursday 24 July 2014

The Western Isles - Scotland

 Eight islands in the Hebrides visited
by air
and land

We flew to Edinburgh, travelled north to the Kyle of Lochalsh, and crossed the sea bridge from the Scottish mainland to Skye. 
We encountered traffic jams along the roads
and curious looks from the locals
A profound sense of remoteness 
peace and quiet
and timelessness
stunning scenery
A unique culture
and ancient history