Fàilte! (Welcome!)

Fàilte! (Welcome!)
This blog is the result of my ongoing research into the people, places and events that have shaped the Western Isles of Scotland and, in particular, the 'Siamese-twins' of Harris and Lewis.
My interest stems from the fact that my Grandfather was a Stornowegian and, until about four years ago, that was the sum total of my knowledge, both of him and of the land of his birth.
I cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything that I have written (not least because parts are, perhaps, pioneering) but I have done my best to check for any errors.
My family mainly lived along the shore of the Sound of Harris, from An-t-Ob and Srannda to Roghadal, but one family 'moved' to Direcleit in the Baighs...

©Copyright 2011 Peter Kerr All rights reserved

Monday, 22 March 2010

Malcolm Miller & Me...

We were met at the rail station by a mini bus and driven to Southampton docks, not the ferry docks,these had towering warships in various shades of gloomy grey looming around and here, at the waters edge, three spindly sticks rose like cobwebbed cricket stumps...

Peering over the edge I saw a familiar silhouette, one that looked larger in photos than it did bobbling on the icy water, one that I suddenly realised was to be my home for the next two weeks, one which was laughing hysterically at the copy of La Nausee that lurked in my bag but which was rapidly reaching for my stomach. Bloody Hell!

It was the last week of April 1976 and I was to spend Cup Final fortnight (Man United v Southampton, yes THAT ONE...) sailing in this three-masted schooner on the freezing North Sea. It had seemed quite a good idea last Summer when I'd applied for sponsorship for this character-building-once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity but I was still wallowing in post O'level relief then and the reality of A' level studies hadn't been nightmared-of...

Actually, the 'Lower-Sixth' was going pretty well...that is to say, the extra-curricular stuff was. In February I'd played the lead male in Christopher Fry's 'A Phoenix Too Frequent' which wasn't difficult in one way as it's a three-hander and two of the trio are female roles...

It was, as our Drama Teacher reminded us, the most ambitious production of his long and distinguished career so there's no pressure then, as they'd say these days. 'Phoenix' is 150 minutes plus of pretty heavy-going 'tragi-comedy' and I was on stage for all but about 12 minutes of it and, up until the first performance, I'd never remembered my lines...

Now, a masterful stroke was employed because a Prompt was chosen and it was deemed necessary for me to rehearse my lines at every opportunity with she, who happened to be, as was also said at every opportunity, the most beautiful girl in the school. She was also brilliant. Well, she saw through my ploy that Prompts had to do the stage-kissing bits too...

The three actual performances were the only times that I was word-perfect (a fact that threw the two ladies totally, resulting in them chalking-up a few penalty-points, as I recall) and the local rags gave us good reviews and the female lead let it be known that we did 'proper' kissing (which we did) and thus it was that I gained the reputation of being a 'rather good kisser'...

Anyway, back to the quayside and Sartre, the ship, and me. The Malcolm Miller was purpose built in Aberdeen as a training vessel for the (then-called) Sail Training Association. She was (and presumably in her latest guise as a luxury cruising yacht, still is) a 150ft long steel ship with three masts, one crows-nest and a host of memories to tell.

Once all 39 'trainees' were accounted for, we were shown below to our bunks (in the case of half-a-dozen unfortunate souls, their hammocks) and then mustered on deck for our initial initiation. The main mast, or middle stump, is actually a rather large lump of wood and somewhere up there, amongst the mysterious myriad of sheets (ropes, not sails) and shrouds (steel ropes, not Turin-type) was a nest. Now a nest, as we all know, is a large, comfy, nurturing bowl where proud parents can keep there young safe and warm and well-fed. This wasn't one of those. This 'nest' was a contorted crush-barrier, torn from a football terrace and taken God knows how many multi-fathoms into the air before being fixed (HOW?) to the mast. This was a torture-nest, a veritable vertigo virago, and, get this, to experience this least comfortable of all ill-conceived perches you had to climb a ladder, a wire rope ladder, a ladder who's width steadily narrowed at every terror-trembling step, a ladder that swayed under the weight and movement of the ascending ant-like 'trainees' that clung to it as if the future of the whole colony depended upon it – which, of course, is the whole point of life at sea.

All 39 of us made it. I counted us all up, and I counted us all down, as it were. But the 39 men who descended were definitely different from the 39 boys who had ascended. It broke the ice. After that, we scurried around 'our' ship safe in the knowledge that the worst was over (Oh, the innocence of youth...).

I should perhaps mention that my next foray into 'serious' Thespian (a couple of Sixth Form Reviews notwithstanding) was to be invited back to school to play a cameo role as Jacques Roux, the 'radical priest' in Peter Brook's Marat/Sade. Actually, it was my Chemistry teacher's production rather than Mr Brooks' and we never got to perform it once the Head was educated into the finer points of the play's contents, but at least I later got to date Charlotte Cordet in a weird art/life-mirroring kind of way. 'Charlotte' was actually a delightful, witty, extremely intelligent Irish colleen and ending our relationship was far crazier a thing than any of my straight-jacketed antics in the play. (Oh, the foolishness of youth...)

In addition to the 39 press-ganged trainees, one of whom was a Borstal Boy who started the swearing which, within a week, had spread throughout us faster than scurvy used to decimate real sailors, there were 3 leaders, a cook, a bosun, several able-seamen and the Captain. One of the perennial topics of conversation, again something that I think the Inmate have had begun, was the precise extent of the legal powers of the Captain once we were at sea. We were pretty sure that keel-hauling wasn't allowed but equally sure that Treason on the High Seas remained a Capital offence that he could execute should the need arise. We were pretty obedient at sea, but 39 sealed bottles of teenaged testosterone were bound explode should we be granted any shore-leave in, say, France, Holland or (cough) Edinburgh.

As it transpired, Cherbourg was saved due to a) most of us were still recovering from sea-sickness and b) the fact that we'd only been penned into our moated can for a day or two. Den Helder is the Dutch Naval Port and not only were we rank amateurs in comparison to the real matelots but the Dutch bars were as welcoming as ever to us 'Brits'.

Edinburgh was different. It was our last night. We'd been together for two weeks bar the nights in France and Holland. And there were a couple of Edinburgh lads in our number. That's about all any of could remember in the morning – apart from the serious bollocking we all got for returning several hours later than we were supposed to...

Talking of hours, time on board took on a new dimension once we were divided into our three 'watches' (Fore, Main & Mizzen, one mast each) and the day similarly divided but into four-hourly chunks (plus the two 2 hour 'dog watches') and we became shift-workers on a shifting-sand of time.

I was fortunate in having read of this nautical peculiarity and thus grasping the theory and, to an extent, the practice in advance of it becoming a reality. Several souls for whom the bells were an alien intrusion on their slumbers could be seen wildly confused at having to go to bed straight after breakfast or waking to the smell of boiling cabbages.

We left Southampton the next day and motored up the Solent for safety reasons. Chugging along at 5 knots on a fairly flat sea was bound to induce a false sense of security that was rudely interrupted when we were summoned to get of our backsides and raise sail, which appeared to coincide with the appearance of a more active sea and certainly was accompanied by the first few bouts of sea-sickness. Sea-sickness can be vaguely amusing as it spreads amongst the crew but takes on an altogether different character when it takes you in its mind-churning, stomach-hurling 'I'd rather die than suffer another second of this' grasp. And it will. There are very, very few people who will never suffer. Amongst sailors, I mean. I consider myself fortunate because I was acclimatised in a little over 24 hours. Some of the lads took three or four days. The good thing was that people did demonstrate a surprising amount of sympathy (empathy?) and no-one was blamed for the longevity of their individual torment.

Under sail and on our way, and about to cross the most congested shipping lanes in the World...

It was when we had left Cherbourg and were making our way along the French coast that I happened to have the helm and was given the order 'Hard a Port', to turn the bow to face across those shipping lanes and steer us back to the English side. On the occasions since then when I have taken a ferry across the channel, I always remember the thrill of actually doing that same journey with that great ship's wheel in my hands, with the wind in the sails that we had set, without GPS, without power, with pride...

There was one other time when I was at the helm having been called on Watch at 2 in the morning. We were pootling along the North Sea in light winds and a clear sky. The watch leader and I were consulting the compass. A look-out scanned to Port and another to Starboard. The rest of our team were allowed to wander the deck or sit in the warmth below. We four were responsible for the safety of all on board. We watched the lights slipping by. A few were other vessels. Others were the identifiable beacons and lighthouses. But the lights we marvelled at were those of the sky above us. We could easily have covered our compass and navigated our path with these dependable, celestial, timeless pin-pricks. The only danger was that of losing the familiar constellations in the unfamiliar background of stars that our light-polluted lands usually keep hidden. It was magical, incredibly cold, but wonderful.

34 years later, it is still with me but now with the added knowledge that three generations before me members of my family were making their living by harnessing the wind to drive them over the sea...

The morning we left Den Helder the Captain decided it would be a good idea to get every scrap of canvas aloft and the hoots we got from the Dutch naval vessels swelled our pride. I was scrubbing the deck at the stern simply because it was something to do. The slight heel was to be expected. The bucket sliding from Port to Starboard wasn't. I retrieved it but it stubbornly repeated its action, with what appeared to me to be slightly more haste. I recall thinking, 'Something's Up' and then it happened. An unforecast Force 8 gale appeared from nowhere and our Starboard gunwale was engulfed. 'All Hands' was called and with our pride between our legs, we scrambled to get as many sails down as quickly as possible. It was one of those occasions where adrenalin allows ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things. People scurried hither and thither in organised but seemingly disorganised ways. I do not know how close we may have been to disaster but I do know that the Captain thanked and praised us and we never again put all our sails on show...

The Cup final took place on a gloriously sunny afternoon off the Northumberland coast. No, it took place at Wembley Stadium but I was listening to it as we crawled along in the lightest of breezes. I know it was pretty calm because I took the opportunity to voluntarily and without very good reason to ascend to that 'nest' and take some photos from the yard-arms. A couple of things you need to know about yard-arms: a) they are less than a yard wide. b) they are more than a yard long. There appears to be a lot of nautical terminology that falls foul of the trades description act, but maybe it's Treason on the High Seas if you articulate that?

There was one guy on board who had brought his SLR and a complete set of lenses and, yes, he spent a lot of time aloft. I suspect he became an award-winning photo-journalist covering war-zones and, if so, I spotted his potential first...


1-0 NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Southampton had kicked-us out into the Solent and now another Southampton had kicked me in the Solar-Plexus. I had only been a 'fan' of United since 1967/8 because I'd only been in Britain since July 67 and had returned here almost totally ignorant of the game of football. I knew, of course, that England had won the 1966 World Cup but for some strange reason my Aberdonian father hadn't made much of a fuss about it whilst we were abroad.

Southampton – yes, the one that the Titanic sailed from, the ship that carried 8 year-old Winifred Quick to America (well, almost) where she grew-up and her grandson married my cousin in Canada.

Enough!

The final three days are a bit of a blur because of those 72 hours I was awake for precisely 71 hours and 59 minutes and 59 seconds. The 'Watch' thing. It bit me. The net result was that I spent my final hour afloat in a chain locker. Why? Why was I manually coiling this heavy, cold, wet and thoroughly filthy in a bottom-of-the North-Sea-kind-of-disgustingness-way mile of chain inside the tin-tight confines of the bow of this vessel? I really do not know the answer but I do know that that was what I was doing.

I blame Southampton.

We were in Edinburgh.

The sea does things like that to you...

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