Journey to the Western Isles

Filed as:
Published in: The Sunday Times Magazine
Location: Stornoway, United Kingdom.

Sunday July 7, had been a perfect summer's day. The Reverend Donald MacAuley concluded the evening service at his church and returned home. Packing for a trip the next day, he reflected on the past week. An international bank had closed, with rumours of corruption and drug dealing. How far away such things are, he thought, from the calm and tranquillity of the Western Isles. How fortunate to live in a society untainted by these modern vices. The Atlantic’s waves broke softly on the shore as the sun sank beneath the blue rim.

Setting off the following morning he first called in at the council offices at Stornoway where, two years earlier, he’d been elected convener - the Scottish equivalent of leader. "Could I have a word?" said D. G. MacLeod, the director of finance, as they met in the corridor.

Soon, the 65-year-old convenor’s peaceful summer demeanour had vanished, to be replaced with incredulity, horror and outrage. He listened with mounting amazement to the admission that millions upon millions of pounds of the council’s money had been lost in the BCCI closure. Accurate figures came later, but there was no doubt that when the Bank of England shut BCCI on July 5, 1991, it presaged the worst disaster to hit the 1120 square miles of islands off Scotland’s west coast since the 19th century clearances.

All told, £24,085,075 disappeared, representing more than £1000 for each registered voter. All this in an economy which was dominated by the council itself. It employed more than a third of the islands’ work force and sustained countless further social and industrial projects.

To make matters worse, just about every single element of their local economy is currently in serious decline. Salmon farming boomed in the eighties but has collapsed through overproduction, competition from Norway, soaring fish meal and slumping salmon prices and virulent disease. Harris Tweed struggles to adapt to shifts in fashion (the coarse, heavy wool is frowned upon in Paris and Milan), wide loom technology and marketing techniques. Even sheep farming, the main stay of the large crofting community, has been savaged by a halving in price of lamb since 1985.

European Community grants flowed freely between the mid seventies and late eighties to improve road and sea transport but then evaporated as Brussels turned its attention to the Mediterranean. A heavily depleted fishing industry battles against falling stocks, encroachments from mainland Scotland, England - even Spain - and further outbreaks of disease. A moribund merchant navy has cut off the traditional escape route for the young, as has rampant Scottish unemployment.

The further MacAuley and his fellow councillors looked into the loss, the more appalling the blunder it seemed. No other council or metropolitan authority had anywhere near this exposure to the bank. Bury, with £6.5 million, ranked second, and the total loss from 32 public bodies around the UK was not more than £19 million. How on earth did anyone come to put so many eggs in one basket? Where did all this spare cash originate? And, most crucially, who will pick up the tab?

The effects were felt within days. All road surfacing work ceased, putting hundreds of men out of work in the months before Christmas. Donald MacLeod lost his job as a lorry driver with the engineering firm Tractor Shovels Tawse in November 1991. "The council was fiddling with something they had no idea about and it was caught with its pants down," he says. "Most of the men have houses and families and they’ll be left with nothing."

Redundancies are nothing new in Nineties Britain, but the isolation of the Western Isles makes job mobility there almost impossible. MacLeod has a wife and three sons; his roof is leaking and this winter looks as though it’s going to be another bad one. We sit in the front room of his house in Back, on the east coast of Lewis. This interview is sort of breaking ranks: "There’s not many will speak to you, but I don’t care. I’m embarrassed to say I come from this place now." His boys come in. "Up!" he says with a pointed finger. "And shut the door." This is men’s talk. He reminds me of Kenny Dalglish, but we don’t discuss football. "One old man I know, he’s 78, waited two years for a backdoor to his council house with the council saying, ‘We’ve got no money,’ and then you find they’ve lost £24 million. Their credibility is zero. No one will ever trust them again."

Known by its Gaelic name of Comhairle nan Eilean, the island’s council is the youngest UK local authority, formed in 1974 to unite what used to be the Outer Hebrides. For a decade, all seemed to prosper. Children who had moved away returned in their hundreds. Smart new roads buzzed with high performance cars. Satellite dishes sprouted from the walls of houses and mantlepieces groaned under the weight of foreign souvenirs. A survey found a 75 per cent ‘satisfaction rate’ among islanders. Yet the council’s financial competence came into question as long ago as 1984. The chief executive at the time was concerned that elected councillors took too little interest in major decisions. He compared two issues: "One involved £50 for traffic wardens’ caps and the other involved £10,000 of complicated banking charges. They will debate the first issue for an hour and pass the second on a nod." Somehow this £10,000 became £24 million, and the nod still remained.

Donald MacLeod, the ex-lorry driver, knew this. He and "everybody else" knew that in 1988 the finance director, D. G. MacLeod, had his knuckles rapped by an auditors’ report for loans irregularities - "borrowing to on-lend", as local government phrases it.

MacLeod - the name, common locally, means ‘son of Lewis’- sums up the islanders’ attitude: "Supposing I lent you £100 and you lost it on a horse. Then you come back to me saying, ‘You’ve got to keep me going.’ How do you think I feel?" He is incensed at the idea of paying a higher poll tax than the £77 set for 1991. This may seem petty to Londoners already paying over £200, but the Western Isles has a 28 per cent non-payment rate as it is, so this is no idle threat.

This question is only a small part of the bitterness and disgust blackening the skies above the islands. A chain of recrimination starts at BCCI itself, proceeds to the Bank of England ("The phrase ‘as safe as the Bank of England’ has lost its savour for me forever," says the Reverend MacAuley), to the government - sturdily petitioned by the local MP, Calum Macdonald and others - to broking firm R. P. Martin, whose Scottish office persuaded the council to trust their choice of bank, despite some objections, and had placed a further £17 million from other local authorities with BCCI. With a heroic sense of timing, the brokers deposited a final £2 million in the bank the morning it closed. Then comes the council itself.

Here, closest to home, the spitting venom of the Western Islanders is most bilious. A council employee described his executives as having "run around like headless chickens" after the crash and strike action is likely if job cuts are forced. Non-council Islanders, meanwhile, think there should be a sacking bonanza. Chief executive Dr. George MacLeod and finance director D. G. MacLeod were both dismissed in December after a long internal enquiry. To the islanders’ amazement, Dr. George winged his way back into the position in the spring by a wafer-thin majority vote. Cheekily, he then applied for a golden handshake, which was flatly refused, yet this summer he was awarded a 15 per cent pay rise, taking him up to £54,000 a year. "Morale has plunged to an all-time low," said Stornoway Gazette editor Fred Silver in June.

"They’ve shown themselves totally incapable of running the islands’ affairs." Donald MacLeod continued, "Nobody is suffering there. In fact, they’ve just spent £700 on a new leather chair for the chief executive."

Leather chairs are seldom found in homes around the Western Isles. In the 12,000 years since people settles in these stormy lumps of granite and sand, life has been a procession of calamities followed by retrenchment. Until well into this century, many families lived in primitive ‘black houses’, stone, one-roomed huts with no chimneys, where they scraped by a living from sea and land. Scandinavian invaders pillaged a path across the landscape for a couple of centuries, followed by feuding clans, then the Scottish aristocracy piled in during the nineteenth century to clear the population by force for the great Victorian craze of deer-stalking.

Large scale private land-ownership is still common today. Chris Shepherd, for example, bought 39,000 acres of southern Lewis land in 1985 and now entertains 200 friends and paying guests annually to salmon and trout fishing, deer-stalking and shooting for grouse, woodcock, snipe and duck. A gamekeeper, Jim McGarrity, and two summertime assistants patrol the miles of river, loch and moorland. Their success is measured not only in blossoming stocks but in the assaults on Shepherd’s property from frustrated poachers.

"They caused £10,000 worth of damage to my boats last year," he says, "plus breaking my game-keepers windows, setting fire to bothies and cutting our phone lines." Relaxing in an over-stuffed arm chair in the elegant drawing-room of his lodge, the stout, ruddy-faced Shepherd sticks his massive feet in their yellow-woollen socks on a coffee table and pauses for a second. "I must be careful what I say but you’ll find there are a lot of cartels in the islands. I paid £1 million to build a road, and it took the workmen a year and a quarter. One of the contractors told me that on the mainland it would take 10 weeks and cost £400,000. I asked another man whether he’d won the contract for a new road and he said 'Oh no, it’s not my turn', which gives the game away, doesn’t it?"

He foresees new outbreaks of poaching following the BCCI loss, partly by newly unemployed fish farmers. It is one section of the cash economy in which Shepherd detects a reason for the region’s troubles: "There are no solvent businesses. Everything depends on subsidiaries and grants."

Calum Macdonald points to equally high public-to-private grants for mainland farmers or to Docklands building schemes, for example. But the difference is that in the Western Isles there is no comparable confluence of industry and urban development, no multi-layered economy. Grants have set up fish farms, conditions have become adverse, and they are failing. "When fishing goes down in Aberdeen or Grimsby," says Robin Mirrlees, Comte de Lalanne and Laird of the island of Bernera, "the government can always inject other industries. We’re too isolated for that." He started a fish farm in the mid-Eighties but thinks that it’s now time to pack up. The current financial crisis has put him off trying to heat up his lochs a couple of degrees to breed sturgeon, but this may just have been a passing whim.

Chris Shepherd has seen estate revenues fall by 40 per cent in the past year, mainly due to ailing fish farms which use his waters. But he is determined to stay. "We spend most of our time convincing people that we’re here for 50 years, not five." Changes of ownership over the decades have built up banks of suspicion and pessimism among islanders which are not lightly breached.

McGarrity the keeper comes in for the worst local antagonism. Telephone advise him to "lock your doors tonight"; but after four years, he and his wife Barbara say they’re happy and settled. "The weather would drive me away sooner than the people," he says as we drive along the million-pound track. "The crofters feel they have a right to the land, and they have the right to graze their sheep here, so you have to get on with them, especially in the shooting season. They feel that the land has been sold to the English buggers by clan chiefs who had no right to sell it."

This end of Lewis, by the Harris border, is mountainous and severely beautiful. Stags appear on a hillside and lakes glitter below. There is no sign of human life at all on the auburn and purple land and it’s hard for a city boy to see how, with so many unspoilt acres peopled by so few, the islands’ troubles can be so heavy.

"If this were a natural disaster, like a flood, I’m sure the government would be willing to assist." Thus council director of administration Robert Barnet describes the catastrophe. An emergency loan of £24 million was agreed by the government in October last year, leaving the council with a total debt of nearly £100 million to repay over 30 years. A tentative deal to refund BCCI investors between 30 and 40 per cent of their losses was announced recently and may eventually mean repayments falling by up to 1 million a year, but this would not happen for several years. Further job losses and cuts to services are still expected.

Already signs of slow decay have appeared. For a few miles cars can zoom along new tarmac on wide, quiet roads which are a dream to the wheel. Then, as if waking to the sound of a fire-engine, the old surface is back, spitting gravel and narrowing to squeeze past peaty streams and bumping over the scenery.

Things can only get worse. The gales which burst over the islands for 250 days of the year will tear off irreplaceable slates; the sea-spray which lashes on to South Beach Street in Stornoway will rust cars which their owners cannot afford to run; the flimsy kit houses dotting the islands will fall into disrepair; the old will die and the young will leave. At worst, the six Outer Hebridean islands to have been totally depopulated this century (St. Kilda, Hakeir, Pabbay, Mingulay, Scarp and Taransy) may find others joining their ranks.

Does it matter? Apart from preventing individual grief, what use is there in sustaining life in such bleak conditions? Calum Macdonald takes the longer historical view: "At the turn of the century everything was put through an industrial sieve. Those who couldn’t keep up were left behind. But in a more heterogeneous society, the Western Isles will have a definite niche to occupy, providing diversity of agriculture and keeping communication links open."

There are certainly many diversities between the life on the mainland and on the islands, as those who move here soon discover. "They can buy a three-bedroom house with six acres of land for £35,000," says a self-employed builder in South Uist. "They put up some trees and plant vegetables and they think it's lovely. Then the first proper gale knocks everything down and they move out within a year."

Erica Preston-Smith has braved three years so far. She and her husband Roger bought a house in Harris where he tried to set up a book-binding co-operative while teaching at the local college and growing a few crops. Six moths passed and stones began to smash through their windows. Anonymous phone callers advised them to move out. One morning, after an especially brutal night of window damage, some young men arrived to apologise. As they did, another pitched up shouting, "I’ll not apologise to some English bastard," and took a huge lunge at Mr. Preston-Smith, who knocked him down with a walking stick, found himself charged with assault and fined £50. In the process of counter-suing for criminal damage he had a heart attack, needed triple by-pass surgery and sped back to West London.

Stories of incomers, or ‘white settlers’, coming to grief are legion. Another man in North Uist asked for treatment for his baby son’s chest infection, but the doctor refused to see him. Eventually the man confronted the doctor, who simply denied there was a problem. The doctor then found himself picked up by the lapels and pinned to the wall, while the man repeated his request in plainer language. Another court case transpired, later to be dropped. Even the Princess of Wales is reputed to have had a dead goose put in her bed while staying on Lord Granville’s estate in North Uist, as a reward for her anti-bloodsports views.

Erica Preston-Smith, meanwhile, moved to a half-wrecked 18th century house in Shoulishader, about 10 miles out of Stornoway, which she bought for £8000 in 1990. "The pull is the landscape, not the people. It’s a corrupt and hypocritical society." Her tales of victimisation include having a relative arrested for drink driving after bar staff where they were drinking alerted the police.

Such arrests are rare, considering the number of cars you see at night crawling along the roads and stopping in mid-roundabout as their drivers crane forward to pick out the road. Loyal to their reputation, Western Islanders are terrific drinkers. Dr. Ian Lawson of Stornoway has research showing bizarre genetic resistance to liver disease. "But the incidence of heart disease is way above the national average," he says. Mention this capacity in a bar and there is an enthusiastic response. "Och aye," says the barmaid, "my Uncle came in from the doctor’s, ‘he’s told me my liver’s slipping, so I’ve come in here to keep it afloat,’ he said."

"They’re a different race," says Erica Preston-Smith as we sit by her fire eating stew and dumplings. "They see things differently." Once an actress, she still gives off a residual glow, sweeping long thick strands of brown hair back from her cheeks, rings flashing. Her eyes brighten as she unburdens herself of stories of council intrigue, crooked builders, court cases where the judge is the cousin of the prosecution and crafty crofters who double-count their sheep to cash in on grant aid.

Erica herself awaits a housing renovation grant of up to £30,000, so to some extent these tales are told out of school. "You should see them eat!2 she giggles, holding her fists out over her plate. "They’re animals. I think it’s because they’re not used to cutlery."

A storm whips up outside, sending water through he gaps in the polythene roof of her kitchen and flickering the candlelight. She has no electricity but "the views over the bays are superb."

Even incomers who have been here for decades feel somehow marginalised: "If my children marry well, then maybe their grandchildren will be accepted," says Carola Bell, an EC researcher on the west coast of Lewis.

One way to break down barriers is to learn Gaelic, now enjoying a revival. At a recent community event - re-opening the Ness village hall - six-year-old Catriona Lexy Campbell enthralled an audience of 250 with a hilarious tale of two young bread thieves. She spoke for more than ten minutes in perfect Gaelic, provoking gales of laughter. This is an example of a fragile oral tradition which the islanders have fought hard to preserve, which the present troubles threaten again with extinction.

"The islands will be decimated," Kathleen Macaskill warns at the Ness event. She is a prominent councillor and helped to motivate the village to repair the hall, which had been unused for 15 years, except as a cow shed. "It will be a tragedy to lose all the young people. I’m so afraid for them. My own son is already applying for jobs outwith the islands…From playgroups to the elderly, each individual will feel the effect of this." She, too, was quite aware of the 1988 reprimand to D. G. MacLeod over his loan swaps behaviour. "We’re too trusting," she says ruefully. "We should have been more vigilant."

Keeping a watchful eye on his deeply silent flock, Donald MacDonald ascends the pulpit steps in his Free Presbyterian Church in Tarbet, Harris, on a Sunday evening. After some psalms are sung in melancholy unison, MacDonald - officially a ‘lay missionary’ - reads the lesson. He prays for forgiveness from evil-doing and salvation from Hell. Then, in a low, reasoned voice, he begins the sermon. Taking the outward deformity of leprosy as his theme, he turns to the inner deformity of sin. His voice rises by degrees as he spells out the viciousness of humankind, the blackness of the soul, the wickedness which permeates our daily lives, reaching a high, raging scream, punctuated by a fist swinging left hooks above the Bible at an invisible enemy. He stares out of a high window, then back to the Bible and suddenly his tone drops to a low murmur on the word ‘Jesus’. Half a dozen more operatic crescendos and sweeping falls ensue. Finally, after more psalms, he says, "This week’s prayer meetings will be at the usual times," and the congregation springs to its feet and heads for the door.

Religion has a tentacular grip on island life, putting the fear of a vengeful God into everyone and making the rest of Britain’s Sunday trading laws seem positively Bachanalian. Nothing, other than church, happens on Sundays. The swings in Stornoway’s playground are chained up. No ferries or planes arrive or depart (no one, therefore, in the Western Isles will read this today). Petrol stations shut. Even the liveliest disco in Stornoway closes its doors at 11 on a Saturday night.

The one town’s cinema was forced to close in the mid-seventies when churchmen condemned a showing of Jesus Christ Superstar. "It’s said that the priest put a curse on the owner and now he’s got multiple sclerosis,! says a young engineer.

The ‘Wee Free’, as MacDonald’s congregation is known, is the strictest island denomination: only men attend burials (even of women) and Catholics -common in the southern isles - are felt to be non-Christian due to Mariolatry. But missionary MacDonald is perfectly friendly out of his pulpit. He invites me to dinner later in the week and his wife cooks a large steak meal for us. "I would support a civil disobedience campaign if the BCCI losses meant a higher poll tax," he says. "The ordinary people shouldn’t have to pay for the council’s mistakes." Macdonald’s face is wary, his skin a yellowish grey, and he blinks awkwardly, mixing intensity of belief with casual chumminess. He has a keen interest in the criminality of the bank and worries that councillors knew of its reputation for years. "If I was 100 per cent sure they did know, then I’d say it was divine retribution. If it was my decision I’d sack the lot of them."

Some fierce opinions began to puncture the calm of the evening. "I voted Conservative three times, but I’ll not vote for John Major because he entertained a gay rights activist"; "I strongly believe in capital punishment"; "Pop culture is a heathen practice, with its roots in darkest Africa, and it has a fearful grip of the people. A religious war has to be declared on that culture."

This kind of far-right thumpery sits uneasily with the islands’ political history. Labour’s Calum Macdonald holds the seat, with an SNP member preceding him and Labour before that. "Conservative means landowners to people here," says Chris Shepherd, "so they’ll never vote Tory." Fellow laird the Comte de Lalanne puts the blame for BCCI at Margaret Thatcher’s door: "The credit boom in the last decade was produced by a falsely stimulated demand-side economy. Now we’re the most debt-ridden society in Europe, with a government of wimps."

Missionary MacDonald leaves politics for a while and confirms that depression and suicide are worryingly common in the Western Isles: a man in his parish hanged himself a few months ago. The most recent figures show a rate of 0.76 deaths per 1000 population from ‘accidents and violence’ (which includes suicide) in the islands - exactly double the average for England and Wales.

His wife interrupts: "It’s the religion that’s to blame. It tells them they’ll go to Hell when they do anything wrong." She is a strong-boned woman with powerful forearms and a sharp gaze and this seems a curious opinion for a churchman’s wife. "It’s the alcohol as well,’ Donald adds, "it doesn’t mix with religion."

Oddly, he is now on his third glass of wine and he offers some to me, despite knowing that I’m driving. Alcohol really is omnipresent. Erica Preston-Smith was on her second bottle of wine when I visited her; Chris Shepherd kept a constant flow of Scotch into his glass and those of his guests. The Reverend MacAuley, paying a call to his friend the Comte de Lalanne, happily knocked back two glasses of port.

There is an edge of desperation in the drinking, making up for the lack of other entertainment. Indeed, looking at the notices in Stornaway’s shop windows, you’d think being a blood donor was the most fun in town. On an average evening children stand in doorways eating chips out of trays in the pouring rain. Pairs of girls trudge the streets, hunched, their sleeves pulled over their hands.

Unemployment runs at 16 per cent overall, with some of the smaller islands sustaining rates of 25 per cent, so you expect to have a bit of a rumpus on a Friday night. And there is an undertow of menace. Walking along a Stornoway street I heard to male voices close behind me. "You hold him and I’ll kick his f***ing head in," said one. "Yeah, the bastard deserves it," replied the other. I tensed and waited, but two early teens, barely reaching my elbows, swaggered past in tracksuits and trainers.

On the other side of the island in a comfortable study looking out over lochs, streams, islands and a placid sea, the ex-convener the Reverend Donald MacAuley furrows his brow and asks, "Now you in London, in the middle of all your knowledge and experience, did you know about the problems with BCCI berforehand?" "Some did," I reply. He shakes his head and cradles his glass of port. "There’s no justice," he says.

 © 2022 David Nicholson