MacPhail

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

The un­in­hab­ited ti­dal is­land of Soay lies to the south of the town­ship of Ruaig on Tiree. This dou­ble-pronged, fork­shaped islet marks the bor­der of Skip­in­nish Bay and the much larger sweep­ing ex­panse of Gott Bay, where the CalMac ferry berths.

Last Sun­day, I took my 15-year-old nephew for a walk over the ti­dal nar­rows of Cao­las Shòd­haigh to show him the sights of this child­hood haunt of mine.

Apart from be­ing famed for the ex­is­tence of fairies among its many hillocks, knolls and gul­lies, Soay has a rich hu­man his­tory. I am glad that no fairies were around to in­ter­rupt our walk and, although the weather was show­ery and cold, we had a very en­joy­able look back into the mists of time. As well as the en­com­pass­ing nos­tal­gia from my own past, there were two strands of his­tory that were high­lights of our walk.

The first was vis­it­ing the site of an Iron Age fort near the point of the is­land’s south­ern fork. Dùn Odrum, as it is called, is one of around 20 such fortresses that are scat­tered round the coastal edges of Tiree. Un­like many of the oth­ers, there is no vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of this fort’s ex­is­tence, but the high rock on which it once stood can be eas­ily iden­ti­fied.

Stand­ing atop this an­cient sta­tion of sur­veil­lance and se­cu­rity gives one an idea of the ex­tent to which vi­o­lent in­va­sion must have been a con­stant source of worry in these early cen­turies AD. Look­ing to the north-east, the po­si­tions of Dùn Sgib­in­nis and Dùn Mòr a’ Chao­lais can be clearly seen and, to the south-west, Dùn Ghott and Dùn Heanais.

I am very glad that the only sud­den in­va­sions ex­pe­ri­enced on Tiree nowa­days are when a few thou­sand happy Tiree Mu­sic Fes­ti­val rev­ellers ar­rive ev­ery July.

From Odrum round to the op­po­site side of Loch Shòd­haidh, we then walked to view the re­mains of a more re­cent man-made struc­ture of his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

The Port Falach (the hid­den cove) on the north­ern side of the sea loch has an in­ter­est­ing back­ground that is tied very closely to the chang­ing pol­icy of tax­a­tion on al­co­hol.

In the 18th cen­tury, the gov­ern­ment be­gan tax­ing whisky and what had been a strong cot­tage in­dus­try on Tiree be­came il­le­gal. As the au­thor­i­ties be­gan to clamp down on il­le­gal whisky pro­duc­tion and ship­ping, in­no­va­tive means were de­vel­oped to evade the Cus­toms and Ex­cise.

The Port Falach be­came an im­por­tant as­set for smug­glers as a ship har­boured there with its masts down could not be seen from Tiree or from Cus­toms cut­ters out at sea. Whisky would be loaded there and shipped mainly to the Clyde for il­le­gal sale.

The re­mains of a sub­stan­tial pier can still be seen clearly at low tide and the size of the struc­ture re­flects the im­por­tance it must have had to this out­lawed in­dus­try.

As the holds of boats were filled in the dead of night with il­licit cargo, this now derelict cove must have been the lo­ca­tion for some in­tense ex­cite­ment, sus­pense and re­lief, all of which could be felt strongly as we stood in this hid­den har­bour.

Soay har­bour.

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