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Gaelic Ring: Tiree | Coll

The Isle of Coll is about 13 miles long and 3 miles wide. The ferry terminal is located on the south side of Loch Eatharna, a short sea loch and near the main village of Arinagour (Airidh nan Gobhar, meaning shieling of the goats). Before the construction of this modern facility, the mail steamers serving Coll had to lie off and transfer passengers and goods between ship and shore by flit boat. The landing place was further up the loch and nearer the village; handy to that extent, but many were the times when it was too rough for the steamer to call.

The Old Pier - An t-Seann Chìdhe
The Old Pier was built at the time of the potato famine, which ravaged the Highlands and Islands as it did Ireland in the late 1840s. When the potato blight struck in 1846 the effect was devastating as the potato had become the staple for the bulk of the population. Famine prevailed and to help relieve the the resulting destitution, the government and private charity sent grain to the affected areas in exchange for work on roads and piers. After three years delay a financial contribution was approved for the building of a pier at Arinagour. The laird, Hugh MacLean, was expected to contribute but had himself run out of funds. It was not until 1850 that the full funding was approved and the pier constructed. This structure, while a great improvement was accessible only to small craft and it was not until recent decades that the current modern ferry terminal accessible to large ships was constructed.

Clearance - Fuadachd
In 1773 Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were stormbound on Coll. At that time the 1,000 inhabitants of Coll were wholly Gaelic in speech and culture and Johnson remarked of the inhabitants that they “attend to their agriculture and their dairies without listening to American seducements. . . At Coll there is no wish to go away”. This was to change dramatically. By 1840 the population had risen to about 1,400. Then clearance (forced emigration) saw much of the population dispersed to Australia, Canada and South Africa. By 1861 dairy farmers had been moved in from Kintyre and Ayrshire and the overall population was reduced to 781. This influx undermined the formerly strong Gaelic integrity of the community, such that by the 1950s there was little Gaelic heard on Coll. By this time the population was reduced to some 170 and has remained around that figure since. The 2001 census figure was 164.

Rocky Island - Eilean Creagach
It is with good reason Coll is known lyrically in Gaelic as Cola Creagach Ciar – dark, rocky Coll. It is structurally a large low lying rock coverd by a thin top soil. The highest hill is Beinn Hogh at a mere 339 feet. Yet Coll is blessed with sandy beaches, which rise to form large sand dunes. There is a large RSPB reserve towards to west of the island. One of the attractions is the corncrake (Traon) once common but nowadays very rare in other parts of the British Isles. Traditional local farming methods have helped the corncrake with its distictive “creck” to survive.

Clan MacLean - Clann MhicIll-Eain
Coll was the partimony of a branch of the Clan MacLean (MacGill-Eain, meaning son of the follower of John) for 500 years. In 1590 the MacLeans of Duart invaded their cousins on Coll with the intention of taking the island for themselves. A battle was fought at Breachacha Castle where the Coll clan overwhelmed the Duarts and threw their decapitated heads into the stream still known as Allt nan Ceann, meaning stream of the heads. The Macleans of Coll retained their baronial fief and 15th century Castle of Breachacha until 1848 when Alexander Maclean of Coll emigrated to Natal, where he died unmarried. About 1750 the old castle was superseded by a new house, erected on an adjacent site and it was here that Johnson and Boswell stayed. Breachacha Castle remained as a ruin for a century until 1965 when the castle was purchased by Major N V MacLean Bristol, who began to restore the building for private residential use.

The Religion of the Yellow Stick - Creideamh-a’ Bhata-Bhuidhe
A Coll priest in sterner times was accustomed to drive reluctant Colaich to church by a smart application of his walking stick. Thus, those so motivated were said to come under Creideamh-a’ bhata-bhuidhe , the religion of the yellow stick.
In another version it was Eachann, son of Donald MacLean of Col,l who wielded the yellow stick. The method seems to have been utilised in other islands for David Livingston, the famous Scottish missionary whose ancestors came from Ulva said “Our ancestors were Roman Catholics; they were made Protestants by the laird coming round with a man having a yellow staff, which would seem to have attracted more attention than his teaching.”

Fruits of the Sea - Teachd na Mara
All island communities have tales of shipwrecks. At times the outcome has been tragic but sometimes shipwrecks have brought a bonanza to the hard pressed community. The fate of the Politician grounded during the Second World War with her cargo of whisky “rescued” by the inhabitants of Eriskay and South Uist is well known through the book and film “Whisky Galore”, but Coll has its own wartime rescue story. In July 1942 the Henderson Line freighter Nevada ran aground in fog at Coll’s Struan Bay. Here cargo was varied, including soap, shirts, print cloth, coal and millions of tins of cigarettes. As it happened Coll had run out of its wartime ration of cigarettes. As may be imagined, there followed a cat and mouse game between raiding islanders and customs officers. It is instructive to note that when official supplies of cigarettes again reached Coll, demand had fallen off sharply. Talking of cats, the ship’s cat had stayed on board the wreck for two months but was eventually rescued to find a new home on Coll.

Gunna Sound - Am Bun Dubh
The ferry departs from the Arinagour terminal to head south west along the east coast of Coll, at first rocky, then softening to the sand and marram grass of Crossapol Bay and the southern district known as An Sliabh, the moor. Right at the southern tip of Coll is a little landing place called Port a Mhurain, meaning port of the marram grass, and former ferry departure for nearby Tiree across the short stretch of sea known as Gunna Sound that separates the two islands. Gunna Sound is named after the small uninhabited island of Gunna (Gunnaigh) that lies in the middle of the sound. As with many Hebridean island names, Gunna is of Norse origin, meaning Gunni’s (a person) isle. It was possibly a holy island long ago for beside the old well, is Port na Cille, which means Port of the Monk's Cell. Uamh Mòr (big cave) on the north coast, could well be where the hermit sheltered. Gunna is currently used for grazing. The main shipping channel between Gunna and Tiree is known in Gaelic as Am Bun Dubh, the black base.