Journey to Glendale, 1931

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Aerial photograph of Boreraig. The two red spots show the sites of the old MacCrimmon 'college' and the memorial cairn.

As reported yesterday, this month’s edition of the Piping Times features the last article written by Dr Roddy Ross. It is a ‘deep’ article, one that dwells on Celtic mysticism, the MacCrimmons, and ceòl mòr.

Today, we reproduce an article written by written by Roddy in the late 1990s and published in the April 1999 Piping Times. In the article, Roddy recalls a childhood trip to Skye with his father

By Dr Roderick Ross

Young Roddy Ross setting off for Skye in 1931.

In the summer of 1931, when I was ten-years-old, my father, Dr Neil Ross of Laggan, Badenoch, took me for a holiday to his ancestral cottage at Fasach, in Glendale, Skye. His spirits would droop unless he returned there each year.

We were picked up from Fasach by a large open chauffeur driven car and taken to Boreraig where we met Sir Reginald MacLeod, the then Chief of the Clan MacLeod (and father of Dame Flora Macleod). Also present was Nicol Martin of nearby Husabost. Nicol Martin owned Boreraig.

The purpose of the meeting was to decide where to erect the MacCrimmon Memorial Cairn.

The project was initiated by my father’s first cousin, Fred T. MacLeod, who worked at the High Court in Edinburgh. He also raised the finance for it. MacLeod, the author of The MacCrimmons of Skye, was a remarkable fellow but he made little headway with the locals because “he could not speak the Gaelic!” Fred was not present — but had arranged the meeting.

Sir Reginald thought the cairn should be erected on the top of nearby Dun Boreraig as it would be more generally visible. Father insisted that it be built near the site of the MacCrimmon College for this would make it more relevant. And this was accepted.

My father came from a stone mason family. His father was a stone mason and built many houses in Glendale. His father in turn constructed almost single-handedly, the famous dry stone Drynoch Bridge where tour buses still stop to admire. So my father had little difficulty in showing Sir Reginald and Nicol Martin the whereabouts of the MacCrimmon College. If you look at the aerial photo and also the Ordnance Survey map, it is about a third way up from the cairn to the piping museum.

The northern district of Duirinish, Isle of Skye, showing Boreraig, Husabost, Glendale and Fasach.

He also showed us the way to the renowned rock ledge north of the cairn. The immediate access to it has now crumbled away. This was where on occasions the MacCrimmons would play in the evenings getting inspiration from the ocean, the precipitous rock face, the wheeling sea-birds and from the sunset glory which is peculiar to Skye.

We then went back for afternoon tea with Nicol Martin to Husabost. The table was a round one and I dropped something on the floor; and was able to tell my mother that Sir Reginald did not wear anything under his kilt! My mother often laughed at her innocent son’s observation.

Looking at the same aerial photos of Boreraig region you will see on the right side a hill road leading to Glendale. On this road is the famous stone — Clach Soraidh (Farewell Stone) which emigrants would kiss before making their way to Portree from where they would sail away, usually for ever.

Aerial photograph of Boreraig. The two red spots show the sites of the old MacCrimmon ‘college’ and the memorial cairn.

What had happened was that an English GP, Dr Jenner, from Buckley, Gloucester, had in 1796 successfully developed a vaccine for smallpox. It rapidly was used in Europe and North America. The 40% who normally would have died from smallpox now lived, bringing about general starvation which in turn induced the spread of TB due to overcrowding. Emigration was the only answer — and here the MacLeod chiefs spent almost their all in transport fees. As did the Church of Scotland. And we must give thanks to the many MacLeod chiefs, who always stood loyally by their kinsmen, and also to the C. of S.

Yet, as we see the sad old ruins of deserted houses, tears drop into the heart and as we look at the war memorials in Canada, Australia and New Zealand we ask what is this dull smart that pierces the heart.

Some days later my father walked me and my two Glendale cousins, Alaistair and Angus, to Neist Point lighthouse — vide map. In it you will see An Cath (The Way) which is a long steep path leading from the car park above to the green arable land far below. And you will observe Camas na h-Annait (Bay of the Church). See photograph showing site of early Christian church or possible druid cell where Celtic oratory and heroic poetry were taught.

I wrote three years ago to my cousin Alaistair re. the journey and his exact words were, “Yes it is amazing how I clearly remember your father reprimanding you for not articulating properly and the place was at the very bottom of the Catha or Pass”. It was several years later that my father confirmed to me that there had been a bardic school here. He was an authority on Irish bardic schools.

One can well imagine how climbing up the Catha the bardic mind would be activated in the same manner as the MacCrimmons would get inspiration while slowly pacing along the overhanging ridge on the face of Na Ho.

The Boreraig rock ledge and the Neist Catha catch the imagination and it would be just marvellous if both were artistically renovated to celebrate Duirinish’s signal contribution to oratory (the greatest of all arts) and to MacCrimmon piobaireachd whose very essence never ceases to fascinate.

• From the April 1999 Piping Times.