Culture

The Western Isles – Or There And Back Again XVII

By Bernie Bell

Strathnaver Museum, Farr Beach and Heading Home!

We stayed at the Craggan Hotel again – if I find something good, I stick with it – where we met a family from California, who are visiting Scotland and hoping to find out more about their family (MacKay) at the Strathnaver Museum. We were going there too, and said we might see them there.

Strathnaver Museum B Bell

Before you go into the museum, it’s a good idea to have a walk in the kirkyard – the museum used to be St. Columba’s church. It was built in 1774 on the site of a previous church dating back to at least 1223.  If you’re looking for MacKay’s – there are many MacKay’s!

You’ll also find the Farr stone, an 8th century carved stone cross, which is decorated with a mixture  of symbols from the  ’old’ and ‘new’ religions, including what could be a sun symbol in the centre?

When you passed through the gate to the Kirk yard, you may have read the information boards, one of which  refers to two ideas which caught my attention.  Firstly, and I quote…..

“The place name, Clachan, testifies to the long history of the place as a religious centre, as it refers back to a time when worship took place, not necessarily in church, but at the stones, ‘Clach’ being Gaelic for stone.” !!!!!!!!

Standing stone enthusiasts will understand why all the exclamation marks.

And, there is a reference to the idea of carved stone objects being used as “visual aids” for those with knowledge, to convey ideas to the illiterate.  Carved stone balls, succeeded by carved stone crosses?

Also in the kirkyard is the reconstructed cist in which the Chealamy Beaker was found

cist - reconstructed Farr B Bell

The displays the museum begin with the pre-history of the area, including the Chealamy Beaker, and models showing how it might have been made.

During roadworks in Strathnaver, at Chealamy, workmen hit a flat stone, which turned out to be a cist burial, including a Bronze Age beaker and some skeletal remains.  Many similar discoveries , have not been so sympathetically handled, were disregarded, and lost to history . Plaque Attack

Fortunately, in this case, an archaeologist was called in, and both the cist and beaker were rescued and took their place at the Strathnaver Museum.

Moving on through time – quite a bit! – there is much to remind me of the life led by my aunts and uncles, even in my life-time.  Many familiar farm and household implements, including a hand –churn for churning butter, just like the one my Auntie Bridie had.  Though, as I keep on saying, life didn’t change all that much, for country people, for a very long time.  There is a reconstruction of a room from a croft-house, reminiscent of Corrigal and Kirbister farm museums on Orkney.

There’s even an echo of the chair and fiddle by the fire, from Corrigall

Corrigall Farm Museum

Memories of that kind of life, take us to tales of the Highland Clearances, which were very severe in Sutherland.  This is a part of Scots history which is already receding to the edge of memory, or in some cases, is ‘ white-washed’ in the telling.  At the Strathnaver Museum, they present what happened, honestly and thoroughly, and leave folk to think for themselves what that piece of history tells us about man’s  inhumanity to man. And it wasn’t just the aristocracy at fault, it was the Factors, too, who could be said to be ‘working people’ themselves – so – what did they think they were doing?

What did any of them think they were doing?

There is a card for sale in the Museum, with an image of an old woman’s face, as part to the land, which reminded me of a poem my Mum used to say, with great feeling

‘The Old Woman of the Roads’ by Padraic Colum

O, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped up sods upon the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!

To have a clock with weights and chains
And pendulum swinging up and down!
A dresser filled with shining delph,
Speckled and white and blue and brown!

I could be busy all the day
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor,
And fixing on their shelf again
My white and blue and speckled store!

I could be quiet there at night
Beside the fire and by myself,
Sure of a bed and loth to leave
The ticking clock and the shining delph!

Och! but I’m weary of mist and dark,
And roads where there’s never a house nor bush,
And tired I am of bog and road,
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!

And I am praying to God on high,
And I am praying Him night and day,
For a little house—a house of my own—
Out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.

That was the dream – to have a place to live, that no-one had the right to throw you out of.  The Irish also had experience of being thrown out of their homes, and the thatch burnt so that they couldn’t return, then….they’d start walking, and some are still on the roads.

MacKay Clan Strathnaver Museum B BellFor anyone of the clan/family MacKay, the museum has a MacKay room, upstairs, full of history and information, and a HUGE clan emblem, with the motto in Latin, which means ‘Strong Hand.’

The Strathnaver Museum is a good place to spend a lot of time – run by volunteers from the community, helping the wider community of MacKays, who come from all over the world, to find their family.

 The Bettyhill café and tourist info centre are by the car park for the museum, so you can refresh yourself, before going on to your next adventure.

We then visited the nearby Farr Beach and Farr Viewpoint.  The beach is an interesting mixture of  a wide, sandy beach, with jagged rocks to the right-hand side, and little coves of big, rounded – some stripy – stones.  There’s a bit of  a Rackwick vibe about some of the stones. Bernie Bell: Orkney Walks (with Stories)- Hoy & the Dwarfie Stane

Then to Farr viewpoint, where Mike did his ‘Marlboro Man‘ impression.

Mike Bell Farr Beach B Bell

 And so, on to Scrabster and the ferry home.  I go on as a foot passenger, and, walking along the walkway, spotted this stone, which, when turned over, revealed a message.

We’re not on Facebook, in fact, it took a minute for us to work out what “Post to FB” meant, so we left the stone for someone to find, who is.  I took the pictures, because I like it when people do cheery things like this – bringing people together.

Tea on the ferry, home, SLEEP.

The garden had gone mad – two weeks absence in early May – not surprising.  Many jobs to do, much to catch up with, photos to look at and memories to share.

“East-West – Homes best.”


This was the last in Bernie Bell’s series on The Western Isles – or There And Back Again but you can find all of them by going to our search button.  

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