Life at the end of the road

September 11, 2016

The last shepherd

Filed under: boats, daily doings — Tags: , , , , — lifeattheendoftheroad @ 7:43 pm

Been a funny old day today on the weather front, was saying 99% to 100% cloud cover for most of the day so I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sun. Happily that proved to be spectacularly wrong, as did the amount of rain predicted. The day, until 14:00 at least was actually very nice, it was only later that it went severely ‘pear shaped’. That bit of XC’s soothsaying was correct, ‘ with bells on’,

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in fact we abandoned the last sailing despite making a bold attempt for Sconser with one car aboard. 

This was Sconser an hour or so earlier as a 60MPH squall hit the Hallaig, luckily we were berthed at the time.

Sunday AM and the last ‘bodach’

Well Friday’s effort came to nothing, truth is I’d just been to a good friend’s funeral in Portree, my ‘back to back’ having come in to let me away for a few hours. Even though I’d managed to get home a little earlier I’d little heart for blogging.

Alastair ‘Iain Handy’ Gillies had passed away on Monday in hospital,

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news having reached me whilst I was visiting my father on Tuesday. Whilst I was greatly saddened by this and for his wife Mary, children John Angus, Donalda and family. It did, once the shock had passed and I started to recall him, bring a smile to my face.

In my early years here at the end of ‘Calum’s Road’ I knew Alistair very well, he was one of the four ‘bodachs’ that kept sheep here on the Arnish, Fladda, Torran and Kyle Rona ‘hill’. Murdo, buidseachd (wizard?) Nicolson, his brother John (the Caley), Alistair and his brother John (Lovat) Gillies. They were all great characters, ‘sons’ of the ‘North End’  and Alistair was the last of that hardy breed that had, for years tended their flocks in this inhospitable landscape.

Whilst Alistair had lived in Portree for as long as I can remember he was from Fladda. That small tidal island to the west of Raasay and I guess, like his three compatriots, that’s where his heart lay. All of the shepherds visited regularly for the gathering, dipping, marking and shearing. Communal affairs that I had the privilege to attend and be part of. Though I must confess to not being anywhere near as enthusiastic at the actual work as the ‘bodachs’. 

Arriving here in the summer of 1989 as a pure ‘greenhorn’ in the matter of sheep, it was the four shepherds that ‘kept me right’ when I bought my first flock. A batch of blackface gimmers (a two year old female sheep ready to go to the tup) from the Portree auction. They must have thought me a bit of a nutcase with my Lancashire accent, book on self sufficiency and hopes of making a new life in the area they had all very sensibly abandoned 25 years earlier. Still, that didn’t stop them helping me out and Alistair kindly sold us our first ram, a fine chap with a straight back and dodgy fleece.

His wool never grew right down one side due to him having suffered a strike by blow fly when younger. Hence I called him Maggot and he went on to produce some fine blackface twins. Over the next few years I’ve many happy memories of Alistair who had taken to visiting the ‘north end’ in a recently purchased boat rather than the conventional method of catching the ferry. Now, it’s a good 7 miles from Arnish to Portree pier and a journey not to be undertaken lightly in a small open boat but he did it quite regularly.

One time, I will never forget, it was when the fish cages were moored at the northern end of Loch Arnish and I was doing some diving work there. It was one of those foggy days when you could barely see the shore around 50m away and through the mist came the noise of an engine. As it is with the fog, direction and distance become fuzzy and blurred but this drone came and went for what seemed like hours. Getting nearer and further, sharper and duller, from one direction one minute and the other the next.

The next thing we saw a white boat passing between the cages and the shore, it was Alistair Gillies heading for Fladda Smile He’d left Portree in the fog, headed due east until virtually hitting Raasay then followed the shore the whole way up to Manish Point then around the southern and eastern shore in and out of every ‘nook and cranny’. Turning an 8 mile passage into one two or three times that, he’d finally ended up on Fladda several hours later Smile   I think he’d come over to collect fleeces from the shed on the shore there but can’t remember if he took them back to Portree by boat or just transferred them to Arnish for removal by road.

As long as I’d known Alistair he’d suffered from back or leg pain, probably as a result of carrying heavy loads up and down the Fladda shore. Eventually he sold his share in the Kyle Rona ‘hill’ and just kept an interest in the smaller and more manageable Fladda one. However even that became too much and he took the sheep off and planted trees, which obviously look after themselves. Consequently we lost touch and the only time I ever saw him was funerals and occasionally in Portree.

His health and mind eventually started to fail and latterly he resided at Home Farm care home in Portree  , it was here I last saw him, just about a year ago and I’m so glad that I did. My dad resided there for a couple of weeks and on a visit there I met Alistair. Apparently he had ‘good days and bad days’ and I’d caught him on the former, he instantly recognized me and we had some great ‘craic’.

Alistair was an elder in the Staffin Free Church but his funeral was held in Portree, the church was crammed, the service moving and he was laid to rest under a sunny sky in Portree cemetery. Fittingly, within sight of his native Fladda and two of the ‘bodachs’ , Lovat his brother and John the Caley Nicolson.

Not even the equinox

The gale passed by on Friday night and Saturday wasn’t such a bad day, though you know it’s unsettled when the clam dredgers appear.

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This one being the Castlebay registered Moyuna, methinks all Barra boats are green as the whole island seems to support Celtic FC Smile


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She, like Acta Marine’s ‘Coastal Hunter’ has been making use of our facilities here recently, Moyuna ‘scratching away’ and Coastal Hunter working at the Moll fish farm.



Today started off ‘nae bad’

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remind you of anywhere?

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Every time I pass it now I’ll think of Alistair Smile

However, by 16:00 the day had ‘gone to the dogs’ and at 16:30 we ‘knocked it on the head’

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just like Moyuna, who had three attempts at getting alongside in the 50 knot winds,

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eventually with a little assistance from the Hallaig’s crew she got safely attached to the Raasay pier behind us and we all called it a day. Having spent much of my life diving for clams I’ve no time for dredgers and the damage they do. However you can’t help but admire or feel sorry for these dudes working in atrocious conditions to ‘earn a crust’. It must be a hard life living aboard such a vessel and there cannot be many other prospects for employment on Barra.



  1. Hi Paul, There is one of the ” Vatersay Boys ” and the head rigger is from Eriskay here on the CS Sovereign laying wind farm power cables offshore Germany, I have met quite a few offshore workers from Barra as well so it seems to be the go to industry for Barra men.

    Comment by v8mbo — September 11, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

    • Hi Robin,
      there’s been a ‘Barra man’ on just about every ship in the Royal and merchant navy since records began 🙂 Great seamen, all of them 🙂

      Comment by lifeattheendoftheroad — September 11, 2016 @ 9:05 pm

  2. Hi Paul

    Sad news about Alistair Gillies. You mention the Fladda Nicolsons – John Nicolson, nephew of Alasdair (ferrymaster) and Isobel Nicolson was born on Fladda. He and his wife kept the Isle of Raasay Hotel in the early 2000s before going of on a barge down French canals. John used to talk fondly of his childhood on Fladda. So few left now who can remember those times.


    Comment by Sue — September 12, 2016 @ 6:32 am

  3. An absolutely beautiful human obituary there Paul.

    Comment by Charlie — September 12, 2016 @ 8:56 am

  4. It comes to us all in the end, and no doubt Allistair is up there looking down on us all. Were you aware that tradition has it that a shepherd is laid to rest with a piece of sheep’s fleece in one of his hands. That means that when they get to heaven, and God sees them clutching the fleece, he immediately knows why they could not attend Church so regularly because of the time it takes to look after the flock; just like God himself. Therefore the times that the shepherd did miss attendance are excused.

    Comment by Richard — September 12, 2016 @ 9:02 am

  5. I noticed Sue’s comment about John Nicolson’s memories of Fladda. I am his uncle, Alastair Nicolson (ex-ferry master), and I think John must have had a senior moment! I can assure you that John was born and brought up in Plymouth and that our ancestors were not from Fladda but the island of Eilean Tigh.

    Comment by Alastair — September 18, 2016 @ 7:35 pm

    • Hi Alistair and welcome, ‘senior moment’ hey 🙂 I get those all the time.

      Cheers, Paul

      Comment by lifeattheendoftheroad — September 22, 2016 @ 11:34 am

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