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Caithness Field Club Bulletin 1993
THE SEVEN MEN OF KNOYDART
by the late Ian Munro
On November 9th 1948, six Highlanders staked out and claimed land for themselves (and for another, away on National Service) on land at Knoydart. Knoydart estate is a peninsula near Mallaig, accessible only by water, then owned by Lord Brocket and managed by a resident factor who was buckling under the strain. An interim interdict for trespass was obtained against the crofters.
This is a personal account of how the late Ian Munro and his family coped with the rebellious estate. Ian was the brother of Alisdair and the late Henrietta Munro and is survived by his wife Margaret at Brough, who shared in this adventure.
"The respondents (crofters) admitted visiting parts of the Estate without permission of the petitioners (landlords) and setting up stakes and notice boards indicating areas which would be suitable for small holdings". In his judgement Lord Thompson continued the interdict against the crofters.
Behind the above (given fully later) lies one of the more bizarre episodes of my career. Some background information is necessary. At that time (about 1948) I was with R. J. Firn who was in advance of his time by setting up in Edinburgh a company of professionally qualified people, i.e. an architect, a surveyor, a lawyer, an accountant and forestry and agricultural experts, and took over the management of several estates, mostly in Scotland. Before this time, these works were done by an experienced "Jack of all Trades" - the Resident Estate Factor. Sadly, Firn took on more than he or his staff could manage and was eventually absorbed into a firm of English Estate Agents which pinched all his best ideas.
I mention the above to let you understand that, in the course of my duties, I had visited most of Lord Brocket's estates in Scotland, Berwick-shire and the like, and therefore, thinking it was a matter of an estate policy, I was quite unperturbed when his Lordship asked me to meet him in the Caledonian Hotel after work.
After a large gin Lord Brocket came straight to the point and asked if I would like to go to Knoidart - now that was an estate of some 100 square miles near Mallaig, and one which had a Resident Factor. The idea was that I would go temporarily to stand in for the factor who, because of what was happening, was having a nervous breakdown. I will try and explain what was happening later.
My immediate reaction was that such a project would be impossible, involving, as it would, our family decamping there for an indefinite period. It must be remembered that in 1948, Fiona was 3 and Kirsty 1 year old, and the whole enterprise anchored in Edinburgh. I was still trying to phrase my refusal tactfully when the next large gin arrived. After it had done its work (much easier in those early days) and he had begun to expand on the set-up, it became a remote possibility, and after the third gin, a distinctly inviting one! And so it was that I found myself in Knoydart just before Christmas, sounding out the possibilities of the Munros' arrival there.
What was happening there was first local, then regional, then finally national news (no tv) in all the papers. Some returned ex-servicemen had tried to facilitate the D.O.A.S. in their quest for suitable small-holdings for returned crofters by staking claims to the best arable land near Inverie House (the big house). Their objects were laudable - their actions totally illegal. One also has to remember that in those days there was no D.H.S.S. or Social Security or Benefits for anyone not fully "stamped up", and that there was no alternative employment except on estate work. The men, subsequently becoming known as "The Seven Men of Knoydart" in song and newspaper, had been sacked. The R.C. minister had brought in reinforcements from the Western Isles, and all in all, the tension was mounting for a real showdown. This had caused the Factor to have cold feet and he asked to be relieved of his duties.
None of this was fully appreciated by me on my first visit. The boat trip was flat calm. The staff were polite and helpful, the Factor affable. In fact, the whole project seemed feasible. I was assured there would be staff in Glasshouille, the shooting lodge we were to stay in, that a girl would be there to help as a Nanny, and even that the best cockerel was being fattened for our use! I returned with a reasonably accurate report and in a fairly happy frame of mind. Reality was different.
So the Munro entourage left Edinburgh at 4 am on the train to Mallaig. We were suitably equipped - I can see Fiona yet in her blue coat and a tammy with a tassel, Kirsty in her sleeping bag, and even the big family-sized old fashioned pram safely in the guard's van.
The bedraggled quartet made their way to the pier at Mallaig, lost and abandoned, or so we thought. But I was more observant and saw the knots of locals eyeing us curiously, and with a certain amount of animosity. They knew by this time that I had been sent up to "sort things out" - they could not have been much impressed by this anxious person trying to instill enthusiasm into his spouse and children.
We were saved by the hotel proprietor/ boatman, Bruce Watt, who greeted us warmly and suggested a hot lunch before we set out. Feeling much the better of our meal we sallied forth again down the pier. By now it was lunch time and the shops were shut. However, we were greeted by an affable butcher who asked us, "Shall I open the shop now for your orders or would you prefer to phone later?" Being used to wartime rationing of 2 oz. of meat, we thought waiting was the better policy - after all, there was the magnificent cockerel!
The boat was at the pier, steam up and waiting. Margaret perked up when she saw the size of it, but gloom descended when it was pointed out that the large boat was a McBrayne steamer for the Isles - ours was the small speck some feet below pier level! Transfer, especially of the pram, was a tricky business; by this tine the sea was playing up a bit and the days are short in winter. So, in a very different set of weather conditions from my first trip, the entourage set off.
Our arrival at Inverie was marked by the sullen looks of the locals, the twitching of lace curtains and the Factor. He was standing at the pier with his baggage! There was only time for a brief word - the Estate office keys were given to me with the news that our supper had fallen off its perch that very day!
We were driven to our shooting lodge and to say I was perturbed was to put it mildly! What untold miseries, worries and even danger had I brought on my family and myself? Here we were, alone, on this huge estate with either a discharged or hostile staff and totally isolated, and with no-one to turn to if things became sticky. I could not even count on the supposedly loyal remaining retainers and, after all, it was my first charge on my own.
Perhaps it would be best to describe the Estate. It is a large peninsula with two sea lochs bounding it - Loch Nevis to the south where our lodge, the big house and the Post Office were located, and this long inlet from the sea stretched miles inland without a roadway. The same could be said of Loch Hourn (the dark or evil loch) on the north side. The hinterland was again without roads and only approached on horseback by travelling some 17 miles. There were several peaks over 2000 ft. and the whole was classed as a sporting estate with a small farming enterprise under a farm manager to lend some sort of respectability as the D.O.A.S. were trying at that tine to encourage more food producing projects on these waste lands. But everything was geared to shooting and deer stalking with little fishing.
To illustrate the vastness and isolation of the place, Lady Brockett, who would not use the admittedly small and unseaworthy boat, preferred to take the train to Fort William and car thence, until the road stopped, to be met by the Keeper and finish the journey by pony - a distance of about 20 miles! So isolated was it that when an old crofter died at the top of Loch Nevis, the widow had no means of letting any-one know of her predicament until she burnt (it is said) even her own furniture etc. to attract attention!
The population were scattered, apart from those in the village, and were all either present, discharged or retired employees in tied cottages.
But that night I was more concerned in getting the family safely back to the Shooting Lodge and would reserve the awful consequences of my actions till the morning.
The lodge was a typical Highland Shooting Lodge used for letting and therefore furnished in a spartan manner. The public rooms were large and cold but well enough furnished. One or two principal bedrooms were comfortable enough but the rest were shabbily and sparingly furnished with a biscuit mattress, an iron bedstead and plain wood furniture. Light was by a generator with batteries and we quickly learned one quirk of the installation. The batteries would produce enough power to light three bulbs, i.e. sitting room and two in passages to the bathroom. One was just lowering oneself on to the toilet seat having switched on the light when the mighty generator with its diesel engine and 6 ft flywheel was activated and the combination of sounds in the bathroom led one to think that the end of the world was nigh!
We were also told that cutlery would be supplied but could only find one fork and spoon.
I should perhaps mention that the lodge was also occupied by an under-keeper, his wife and brood who lived in the servant's quarters and appeared occasionally but did not act as our staff. We did share the kitchen which had an enormous black range fed on peat and it was hair-raising to see the keeper's family happily playing beside this pulsating device (if properly fired it could get hot) and dashing past the red-hot fire bars.
So as you can imagine it was a restless night but I had made my plans for an early start to my new duties. I had planned going down in good tine to "start" the men or at least to see some action at the recognised starting time of 8 am. My day was to start with a morning cup of tea which I would make and take a cup to Margaret and, having started the men, return for breakfast before starting office work at about 9.30 am.
I had sorely miscalculated the situation! In the first place dawn is loth to come to Knoydart in early January - in fact some days so discouraged is it by the sheets of rain or the heavy mists rolling in from the Atlantic that it gives up the struggle and the whole day is a sodden one to which the early real dark is almost a relief. This day was no exception!
However, I was up betimes and fondly imagined that the range would be nice and warm with the kettle singing on the hob. Not so! By the time I had managed to boil a kettle of water after having coaxed the sodden peats to life it was 10.30 am. I thought I'd have a combined cup of tea and breakfast before starting out - the latter was another cup of tea and an oatcake.
So I went out of this sheet of depression to find my transport. This was an almost vintage shooting brake of enormous proportions which I learned afterwards could only be turned at either end of its destination i.e. the Lodge or Inverie. Since I was bound for Inverie that presented no problem on this occasion, but it posed many in the days to come.
In those days there was something called a "Six day reliability trial", corresponding roughly to the modern Rallies through forest roads, mountains etc. This trial could have been enacted in the miles that lay between the Lodge and Inverie. The road had been hewn out of rock for large distances and overlapped the sea so that going round the innumerable S-bends, the bonnet was over the sea and the front wheels lapping the road edges. I discovered this once I got started, which was in itself quite a feat. I also learnt at a later date that the track-rod ends were loose and tied on by a mixture of wire and rope. That fact I discovered when once I had to hitch a tow rope on to get out of a ditch!
Arrival at the cold cheerless office did nothing for my spirits and I sat down to ponder the pros and cons of my situation.
The staff seemed to consist of a Head Keeper and 2 or 3 under keepers / shepherds who lived in outlying parts of the estate, a Farm Manager and sundry general workers and the housekeeper and her husband at Inverie. There was also Angus the boatman.
The Head Keeper was an archetypal caricature of what one would expect - he was always popping up out of the bushes or behind walls insisting that he was just "prowling about" but it could be an unnerving experience.
Staff are always a problem but here not knowing whether they are loyal or fifth columnists made it doubly difficult and naturally it produced some copybook confrontations. Some time later I was told by the Farm Manager that the general worker (an Irishman) who lived in the bothy by himself was being consistently late for work or just not turning out at all and it was made clear to me that I would have to "sort things out" otherwise others would complain. By this time I had taken a kind of grip on things and was able to appear at starting time if the occasion demanded it. So one morning in the pitch dark and pouring rain I knocked at the bothy door at 8 am. having splashed my way by torchlight.
Inside I found my Irishman, tucked up in bed in this bleak, frugal apartment reading a "Penny Dreadful" called Dixon Hawke (this was before the days of Playboy). When I asked him why he had not turned out for work there was a bit of a pause and he said "What for?"
It can get very quiet and eerie in these primordial vastnesses - Knoydart has been called "the last wilderness" - pins drop with a clanking sound so the noise of my jaw dropping came as a clap of thunder! Now I am hardly ever at a loss for words but for once I was speechless. In the silence that followed I had to think rapidly. The Irishman volunteered the information that he would work for 25 hours of every day in the long summer days but nothing would make him get up to stand around in the rain without real purposeful work to do. I pointed out that this method of work was not acceptable in well-regulated estate practices and that if he pursued this line of action I should have to discharge him, which I was finally forced to do, having exhausted all my powers of persuasion.
The repercussions of this episode were far more momentous than I could have imagined - but that came later!
It was my policy to oversee all the different estate practices and to this end one day at about 11 am. I asked the Farm Manager if I could examine the stock there and then. His reply surprised me. He said that it was too late to start that day and that he would call for me first thing the following morning. I could not conceive of a place so extensive and inaccessible that could not be visited during the few hours of daylight.
However I dutifully presented myself the following morning. We set off in an ancient army type jeep. We motored for some miles on rapidly deteriorating tracks till it became evident that we would have to walk the rest; so far no sign of a beast anywhere. Had he been duping the Laird and the authorities by having mythical beasts on the mountains? We started to walk. It was rough going over bogs and scree and seemed to take hours and hours. I appreciated now the early start because it was now nearly lunch-time and still no cattle to be seen.
The estate practice was to breed what they called "Herelanders" which were Highland cattle crossed with a Hereford bull. The resultant stock were hardy and meatier than the pure Highlander. There had been rumours however that that Lord Brocket was trying to reduce all stock, including sheep, in order to make more room for deer and make the place solely sporting. Perhaps this had happened and I was being taken an a wild goose chase. Suddenly the Farm Manager stopped, whipped out a telescope and pointed to the far hills. Too small to see by the naked eye were a herd of cattle and most certainly they were too far away to see their finer points and configuration.
I pointed the telescope at them and there were the specks, a little larger, but only just! I said they looked splendid animals to me and refused the lukewarm invitation to go nearer! We made our way back to the jeep and finally arrived in the dark at the lodge. That was my one and only sight of the Knoydart fold of cattle! They were gathered and culled once a year and got no other attention I was told.
You may be wandering how the Munro menage was managing whilst I was out working. The Estate boat was of course at my disposal and I had to go over, fair weather or foul, to get the wages once a week to Mallaig. So it seemed logical for Margaret to do her shopping there too. It was obvious that to transport us all to the shops would be impossible, so the shopping was done by phone and the box gathered at one shop for me to take back.
Margaret intimated to the telephone operator that she would like to shop, at which point the latter took charge. She would say that there was no-one in the Chemists shop at present so perhaps she would put Margaret through there first. The telephone operator had a bird's eye view of all the shops from her exchange upstairs in the main street and so controlled the situation.
She also had an encyclopaedic memory, a shrewd knowledge of peoples' requirements and an up to date idea of what had most recently come into the General Merchants' shop and therefore was the freshest! She had to be listening to the conversations because as soon as one call was finished she interrupted and suggested another shop. And so the royal progress went from shop to shop with instructions for the goods to be delivered to the General Merchants' shop. He then parcelled them all up securely in a box and always remembered a few comics for Fiona.
Of course, I was also getting Estate supplies and goods for the shop at Inverie. These were all loaded onto the boat and covered in oilskins and tarpaulins for the return trip. This was before the days of polythene wrappers and try as we would to avoid it, we always seemed to get the box of Beattie's bread, which was only paper wrapped, well and truly soaked in sea spray. This of course was the staple diet of the locals and can't have been very appetising.
During all this time one must not lose sight of my reason for being there. Having been pitch-forked into the fray I had no idea as to the identity of the "Raiders". I nodded in an impartial way to any-one I happened to meet and mostly they returned my greeting. There had been no sign of further activity on their part. In November 1948 the seven men had staked their claim to some 65 acres each of arable land and the posts with their now tattered bits of paper were still to be seen. They had been in process of parcelling out the hill land in a similar way when the interdict had arrived.
It must be also remembered that this was all before the days of Social Security. Once that arrived it was said that the first English words the Gaelic-speaking people learned were "National Assistance!" The men therefore had to supplement their income in any way they could and some took to gathering and selling whelks. Now these were to be found near the Lodge but this was some 3 miles from Inverie over the rough track (the Rally course I had to travel) and their only means of transporting them was by barrow.
I had noticed these bags by the roadside and in an effort to improve public relations I decided to transport the bags for them. This I did and deposited them quite near but not in view of Inverie (from where they would be sent to Mallaig). My goodness of heart was never acknowledged by the pickers either by word or deed but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had started a reconciliation process and incidentally helped them to feed their dependants.
There were, of course, all sorts of rumours going around; although I had no real "confidante" on the Estate I managed to hear some of them. Father McPherson who was supposed to be the young resident priest was no-where to be seen and it was rumoured that he had gone to the Outer Hebrides to enlist reinforcements for the cause. In what form or number the troops might arise gave this relatively inexperienced factor, alone with his wife and family with no means of getting help, much cause for worry and sleepless nights.
One particular night really did scare us. It was a calm night with a clear sky and plenty of moonlight when sounds outside shocked us to a state of wakefulness and suspicious alertness. The sounds were unmistakable. One cannot fail to recognise the noise boats make being drawn up on the shingle which covered the shore below the Lodge. Could this be another "land raid"; could it be the reinforcements promised from the Isles; could it be poachers, or most worrying of all, could it be the crofters from somewhere bent on revenge on the poor Factor? You can imagine our feelings as each encouraged the other to go look! The shouting became louder and the language was Gaelic!
Eventually we took hands and advanced to peep through the curtains. The poker I held and the tongs from the fireside were gestures of despair rather than defiance! To our astonishment - not I may say to our disappointment - there was absolutely nothing to be seen on the bright moonlit strand. The noise had stopped, so we crawled sheepishly but not sleepily back to bed. Occasions such as we had been party to are not rare in the Highlands and many people have seen and heard soldiers and cries of battle pass either round or through their houses. What we may have been unwilling spectators to might have been one of these, or more probably, an episode of 1843 when a Government ship the "Sillery" came to take crofters evicted from their lands in the "Clearances" to make way for sheep. The boats we heard were them being ferried to the Sillery for the New World. Although that particular night had been clear, the general atmosphere of dank chilling mists and rain with lowering clouds was, to say the least, gloomy and oppressive.
I have tried to describe the difficulties of food supplies and commissariat and our being accustomed to having rationed meat supplies. Accordingly we were somewhat surprised one morning not long after we had arrived to find the keeper come into the kitchen and deposit a large haunch of venison on the table. I assumed, quite rightly, that this would be one of my perks. Margaret busied herself trying to cut it up into lots large enough for a meal - a good haunch would be 12 -14 lb of solid meat - and her actions puzzled the keeper.
On being told what she was doing, the keeper roared with laughter and said he would be bringing another very shortly and we were to eat this with all possible speed. There were no deep freezers in those days so of course we needed no second bidding! Even Kirsty at a year old tucked into the lovely meat with gusto. I reckon Knoydart venison gave them a good start in life!
Just how much I was entitled to I never discovered but nods and winks from keepers indicated I was being generously treated!
So it was that I ran into another managerial snag. In trying to keep tabs on all the Estate activities (and those of the Estate employees!) I had gone to the jetty one day as the boat was leaving for Mallaig. In its cargo I could see hind carcases beautifully wrapped in sacking for dispatch to the wholesale butcher. More as a conversational gambit than for any other reason, I asked the keeper how many hinds were in the consignment and he gave me the dispatch note showing that there were three. Now each hind has four legs, and idly I counted the legs sticking out of the sacking. When I reached about 15 I stopped counting! I had of course two courses of action - either start a huge fuss or else, realising the short tenure of my post, just let it pass without comment. I cowardly chose the latter course which, if nothing else, kept the peace and ensured a continuous supply of venison for the Lodge. But it must have raised some doubts as to my ability to count!
There was a mailboat of sorts but it was a bit cavalier in its performance and depending at which jetty it could safely land the mail, it might become necessary for me to transport it from there to Inverie. One day due to adverse weather the boat discharged its contents at the Lodge. Normally it would just leave the bag in a dryish place but this day things were different. I had been out of touch with a phone for some time and when I got to the office there was an urgent message to go to the lodge jetty for the mail. Some time later I arrived at the jetty to find the boat still there and huddled in a knot my wife, family and the boatman all chilled to the marrow and standing bemused and mesmerised by a small pile of mail bags. It seemed that the Estate's supply of privately ordered boots had arrived and the boatman, feeling the weight of his responsibilities had summoned them to help him stand guard over H.M. mail.
The fickleness of water transport, especially in bad weather, was shown on another occasion. The doctor was located at Mallaig and, knowing what would happen, was understandably unwilling to be called out except in an emergency. Such a crisis occurred and the doctor ordered a boat from Mallaig. No sooner had he started on his call than the news spread quickly through the Estate. After all, since he was now on the peninsula it would be a shame not to get him to look at Catriona's croup, Geordie's gout, Williamina's wheeze, not to mention one or two probably with a terminal illness, dying in a dignified manner without the benefits of medicine. Costs of course could be shared, if ever asked for, on such occasions.
The weather was getting worse and darkness was coming on. I appeared on the scene at this time to find that the doctor's transport had broken its moorings and was lost. However, since the wind was in a direction which would send it up Loch Nevis and not out to sea, it was felt that the crew who were still aboard would either manage to get the engine started or sober up enough to find their way to safety. They duly turned up but too late.
The problem of returning the doctor was, however, still with us and it was decided that it would be safer to bring his relief boat, summoned from Mallaig, to the Lodge where there was more sheltered anchorage in the prevailing weather conditions. My untrustworthy estate wagon refused to start so we set off to walk the three miles to the Lodge in the pitch dark. I noted with satisfaction that he had a decent oilskin and oilskin trousers which gleamed in the torchlight. It was only after we reached the lights of the Lodge that I discovered his gleaming trousers were in fact those of his sodden blue serge suit.
We were preparing a bed for him after a meal of the ever present venison when lights indicated that the boat had made the journey in the pitch dark - no radar - and managed to get quite near the jetty. One jump and more soaking of his carefully dried trousers and he was safely aboard. It turned out that the crisis had been more of a panic than a necessity but I often wondered whether his training at medical school had included self-preservation exercises!
You may be wondering by now, if you have been paying attention, as to whether there had been any repercussions from the sacking of the Irishman. There had been ominous quiet over the whole episode. I had rather hoped it was forgotten. I had forgotten the long memories of Highlandmen.
Even the fact that there was a larger complement than usual embarking on the boat for the Estate workers and their dependants to go shopping in Mallaig on a Saturday did not unduly cause me any qualms or worry. So it was that I was aghast and panic-stricken to get a telephone call from Angus the boatman to the effect that the troublemaking ring leaders on the Estate staff and possibly a few of the rebels, having drunk too much, were now roaran' fu' and hell bent an returning to "do" the Factor for his dastardly sacking.
Knowing there was no policeman on Knoydart I phoned the police at Mallaig for police protection against a riotous mob. It was, however, pointed out that the constable usually allocated to Knoydart was on leave and the man on duty was expecting to be more than fully occupied keeping the peace in Mallaig on a Saturday night without worrying too much about a minor insurrection over the sea.
The next few hours are best forgotten - at least we would like to forget them! I had no idea how long it would take Angus to round up his "troops" but some time later I had another call to say the position was worsening but that Angus had a plan. I could only hope his scheme would work because my thought processes had totally congealed.
After what seemed an age the boat appeared. There was no evidence of the law nor yet of the enemy, probably below still fortifying themselves for the confrontation to come.
I thought it politic to go down to Inverie to meet the trouble half-way on the basis that the best defence was attack and also it was no concern of the Munro family apart from myself. Accordingly, I stationed myself within sight of the jetty but in such a position that I could either make an heroic last stand to defend the honour of my family or run like hell!
When the boat finally tied up, what emerged was the most motley crowd ever assembled in any one place. The retreat from Moscow by Napoleon was orderly by comparison. Firstly they were all soaked and really dripping. Most had been sick. Those who could still stand supported those who were legless and at least one was progressing on his hands and knees!
My sympathy for them was tempered by an immense sense of relief! How had this transformation from a rebellious band been achieved? I later learned from Angus that his master plan consisted of going the "long way home" and far enough out to sea to encounter the real Atlantic rollers. As he described it he gave them "a good rummel up". We are forever in Angus's debt for that intelligent action.
So ended the one and only staff insurrection I had at Knoydart although it was not the only one in a long career dealing with independently-minded people.
Partly as a result of the above and the fact that our relationship with the locals seemed to be improving I judged it safe to take the family out to the village for a sight-seeing trip. The logistics were formidable but finally we got the large pram into the estate wagon, the children wrapped up and we went down to Inverie village. The weather had in no way improved but we pressed on. When we finally arrived at the jetty the process of off-loading the pram was successfully done. As Margaret went to get Kirsty to install her in the pram a gust blew the pram over. Everything was re-loaded into the wagon and so ended our only attempt at socialising !
The steam seemed to be going out of the insurrection and life was beginning to assume a more rational and ordered course when the peace was shattered once again by an urgent call from the office that I was appointed the Resident Factor at Saltoun! The stories which that produced will have to be the subject of a later chapter!
It only remained for us to get off the Estate with what dignity I could muster. I was determined that the exodus would be orderly. Fiona by this time had the symptoms of panic regarding the boat and, in an endeavour to calm her apprehension, I had taught her to sing "Over the sea to Skye". She was often heard trilling "Speed bonny boat .... ". I had quelled Margaret into a state of resignation to her fate by daring her to present a composed mien and a fixed smile no matter what physical conditions or the weather might be like.
For some reason our return had become urgent - understandably as I discovered later - the present Saltoun factor had taken to his bed, to drink or to a home and my presence was needed quickly.
The day chosen for our departure turned out to be really stormy. When Angus the boat was asked his assessment of the position he volunteered the opinion that "he'd get us across but we widna like it".
Because it was not possible to leave from Inverie he elected for the more sheltered anchorage at the Lodge but this meant that everything had to be ferried out in a small dinghy to the slightly larger motor boat. The family was the first to embark and Angus was finding rowing against the stiff breeze quite difficult. With the additional weight it became impossible to make progress and in fact the boat was being steadily driven off course and away from the motor boat.
At this paint the mettle of the family showed itself. Margaret's smile became more fixed if slightly more forced and Fiona's voice was heard piping up "Speed bonnie boat .... "!. It was all too much for Angus who all but dropped his oars but decided it was an entourage worthy of saving and pulled with all his strength to reach the motor boat safely. There followed the pram, roped thwartwise and myself, together with the nannie, now miraculously restored to health who offered to "help" on the journey.
Safely? aboard, Margaret assessed the situation. She, after all, had a nautical background whereas my lot had come from the bogs and she had the advantage of being able to swim. If we got into difficulties she had the option of either saving herself, trying to save the children as well, or trying to save me along with herself as the possible procreators of a further dynasty - neither Angus nor the nannie could swim!.
There was a sort of canopy into which the females all huddled. I was not in a hurry to meet my doom, but I preferred to stay out of this glory hole - at least one could see one's end coming! The sea began to get quite choppy and we started to ship water extensively, the inmates of the cabin were soon soaked and I was not much better and a cold sleety rain only aggravated things. This journey took about 1/2 - 1 hour in reasonable conditions. It took more than two hours this time and I was mindful that we had a train to catch at Mallaig. The orderly withdrawal looked much more like a rout when we were all deposited on the jetty at Mallaig, soaked and shivering. Our squelching progress was noted, not without some satisfaction I sensed, by the ever-present "knot" sheltering from the now very stormy conditions. Our procession to the train, safely accomplished, we found seats and reconciled ourselves to a damp uncomfortable journey.
To our immense relief there was a restaurant car an the train and the attendant took one look at our plight. Unbidden, he produced large whiskies for us and hot drinks for the children. I think he must have belonged to the local life-saving organisation.
So ended the saga of the "Munros at Knoydart". At least it had been an "experience" and, to have more or less featured in Highland legend in song and story, was, I suppose, some recompense for the physical discomfort and anxieties.
But immortality is, in fact, very transient and I'm afraid it's now an "auld sang"!
|Published In The 1993 Bulletin|