He­bridean sea­far­ing men of the world

The Oban Times - - Letters - AN­GUS MACPHAIL an­gus­macphail@ya­hoo.co.uk

WE LIVE on a shrink­ing planet and are in­creas­ingly con­nected con­stantly to the ways of life, pol­i­tics, opin­ions, cus­toms, crimes and what is be­ing eaten for break­fast in any cor­ner of the globe that can ac­cess the in­ter­net.

This sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance of ge­o­graph­i­cal bar­ri­ers is one of the big­gest cul­tural changes the world has ever seen.

How­ever, for far longer than Face­book has been dom­i­nat­ing our days, the West Coast of Scot­land – and par­tic­u­larly the Is­lands of the He­brides – have been in close and con­tin­ual con­tact with coun­tries across the world.

This was, of course, not via mass me­dia com­mu­ni­ca­tions but through the thou­sands of sea­men who left their is­land homes to travel the oceans aboard the ships of the mer­chant navy.

This meant that, while the Scot­tish is­lands were ge­o­graph­i­cally iso­lated, they were in many ways bet­ter con­nected to the wider world than most ur­ban cen­tres. The sheer num­bers of men trav­el­ling the globe rel­a­tive to the to­tal pop­u­la­tions of their is­lands was huge.

A friend of mine from Barra told me that when his fa­ther left school in the late 1950s, of 43 boys in his class, 40 went to sea. This was typ­i­cal through­out the He­brides at the time and the out­ward-look­ing and non-parochial at­ti­tude of the peo­ple in th­ese parts is largely down to this.

My fa­ther spent 15 years at sea, and the sto­ries he used to tell re­lat­ing to this time and his worldly-wise at­ti­tude that re­sulted from it had a last­ing ef­fect on me.

The be­low lyrics are from a MacPhail/ Robert­son song that was in­spired by th­ese sto­ries and th­ese sea­far­ing men of the world. Ocean of the Free The sailors of the He­brides, they rule the ocean breeze Their an­chor weighed, they work their trade upon the seven seas. Cap­tains, boatswains, en­gi­neers, their skill and craft they ply - The mer­chant navy is­land men are sea­men till they die. From the har­bours of Van­cou­ver to San Fran­cisco Bay, Down the western coast of Chile, round Cape Horn they sail away; Across the South At­lantic, through vi­o­lent wave and squall Up the coast of Mada­gas­car to the dark Bay of Ben­gal. Cho­rus Heave away, heave away, on the ocean of the free The is­land men set sail again, the he­roes of the sea. Three times round the world be­fore turn­ing twenty- one, Lone­li­ness and hard­ship lived, but com­rade­ship and fun, Tales of pil­fered cargo and wild times when ashore From the moon­shine of Alaska to the lights of Sin­ga­pore. I re­call the great ex­cite­ment as the sto­ries would un­furl Other places, other races and a wide view of the world. Th­ese men who tramp the waves bring ed­u­ca­tion to us all, A rich­ness of per­spec­tive and an out­look never small. From Rio de Janeiro to the Gulf of Mex­ico, Past the warm coast of Cuba to the frozen north they’ll go; By the Faroe Is­lands, the North­ern Lights will dance Through the icy Arc­tic wa­ters to the shel­ter of Mur­mansk. On the reefers and the tankers and the great con­tainer ships - You’ll al­ways find a sailor with Gaelic on his lips. The coast­ers and the fer­ries, the sup­ply boats and the tugs The finest sea­men of them all - the sea is in their blood.

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