What a delight it was for my friend, Peter Kerr, to introduce me to the website commemorating the Schools Hebridean Society whom I joined for their 1974 trip to Rhenigidale, on Harris, in the Outer Hebrides. It brought back many memories, I am pleased to say that most were readily recalled, but much useful supporting information was less well remembered, and gratefully read. My recollections are as follows:
I agreed to go without giving it much thought. My father was in the RAF, and one of my friends Mike Thirkettle, whose father was also an RAF officer, was going, and it seemed as good a way as any to spend the summer after having sat my “O” levels. I was not an experienced walker, or camper. The furthest north I had ever been was Leeds. I did no background research. Pre-internet, there would not have been much anyway. So I turned up at London Euston station for the overnight train to Inverness as unprepared, apart from the helpful checklist items supplied by the SHS, as it was possible to be for the 8.30pm departure.
Although I assume that some Society Officers were present, they were not visible, so we boarded our train, said farewell to parents who were probably grateful to be losing their sixteen year olds for a fortnight, and settled down for the ride. They were the old fashioned carriages with an side aisle thoroughfare off which cabins of six were accessed by sliding doors. Mike and I chose one, and soon found friendly company in the other four who joined us in the reserved accommodation. Before long we were introducing ourselves to the other SHS reserved compartments, it was a good crowd.
The first few hours of our journey were spent consuming as many Woodbine and No6 cigarettes as it was humanly possible to smoke, and to drink dry the Tartan Ale (in anticipation of our Scottish destination obviously) and Watney’s that we had brought for the journey. It was to be a long journey, and it soon became apparent that sleep in a full carriage of six was not going to be easy. So, displaying a resourcefulness which had no doubt been a pivotal quality in the selection process, two boys slept on the luggage rack, two on the facing seats, and two on the floor. I am not saying that it was comfortable…
I recall us stopping at Preston, and wondering what on earth was the point on an already full train, but yes overcrowding and sleeping in corridors was a feature of British Rail back then too. You just pay more for the experience now. Glasgow station in the small hours was as desolate, and god forsaken a place, as it is possible to imagine. Imagine a post disaster Chernobyl, then wind your expectations down a little. For the first time , my excitement about the trip began to dip.
Around 3am, the train was approaching the Highlands, and as dawn broke the magnificence of the scenery was brutally apparent, dominating the rest of the journey until we arrived in the Granite City some twelve hours, and 560 miles, later. Inverness by morning was considerably more attractive than Glasgow at night, but we didn’t have time to explore as we caught our connection to Kyle Lochalsh, a much shorter 63 miles along a single line.
There, we caught our coach, and the short ferry to Kyleakin (a ferry journey sadly no more, made redundant by the Skye bridge). By now, the thirty boys, and officers who had joined us along the way had started to become acquainted. About two thirds had been before, but all were up for an adventure, and it was not long before the drama started. I have read two other accounts of the road traffic accident we encountered, mine, if my memory serves me correctly, may add to them.
I noticed the coach in front of us attempting to overtake a slow -moving car towing a caravan, the coach pulled in t0o early, all vehicles lost control, and the car ended up, upside down, under the coach. A Dutch couple, who spoke good English, and a child were in the damaged, and worryingly creaking overturned car. Understandably they were worried about being crushed under the coach, but were trapped. We were worried about rescuers being crushed attempting to extract them. Fortunately in our leader John Hutchinson, and Medical Student Alan Sagar ( his training may not have reached the bit about car crash trauma at that point), we had two men ready to rise to the moment. With no passing traffic, and some twenty five years before mobile phones, we were, in the wilds of Skye, on our own. Thirty boys were lined up, hands under the chassis of the coach sitting on top of the car, and on the count of three we flipped the coach off with an ease which would have surprised Superman. It certainly surprised us.
In truth, it was an agonising call. Do nothing and the weight of the coach could have crushed the injured couple and child. Enter the car to try to extract the injured, and more injury could have been caused by the extraction, and the rescuers could have been crushed along with the occupants. Try to flip the coach and fail, the coach would crash back and the occupants could be crushed. Flip the coach in one, and the danger would be over and a safe rescue executed. They made the right call.
Fortunately, the remainder of the fifty mile trip was uneventful as we stopped off at Portree at the Portree Hotel for the night before heading on to sail from Uig to Tarbert the following morning. I remember well the mental financial calculation the landlord made when weighing up the risks of serving what were clearly thirty under age boys alcohol, versus the financial benefits. Money won. The ferry journey itself was an introduction to what was to come. It was wet, it was windy, the sea was rough, it was August. Fortunately, I had assimilated good advice about rough sea crossings. Go below deck so you cannot see the horizon, and find a seat in the middle of the boat where the roll is minimised. It worked, as many of my companions succumbed to sea sickness on deck, I was quite happy resting up below, for the journey of just under two hours.
Tarbert was small, dour, and non-descript. It was also the last piece of significant habitation we would see for some ten days. The coach stopped abruptly on the Tarbert to Scalpay road for no apparent reason. As we decanted, the reason became clear. A rough track, five and a quarter miles, a zig zag path, and a descent of around 1000 feet. An advanced party had taken our camping equipment by sea, but we were still quite heavily laden carrying all of our personal possessions needed for a fortnight plus some additional group supplies. It was our first test. We were there. Shelter was over five miles away, the rain was coming in again, and the only way that was going to change was for us to crack on, which we did.
We arrived at our campsite at Rhenigidale at teatime, almost two days of travel from when we departed London. The good news was that our sleeping tents, mess tents, and toilet tents were up, the bad news was that there was still plenty to do as our six man tents were rostered for all the tasks that are needed to keep almost forty people going. As soon as we were organised and had prepared our evening meal, we all retired for a very sound sleep.
The following, rainy, morning we took in our surroundings. The most remote hamlet in Great Britain comprised a handful of stone cottages, fourteen people, no running water, no mains electricity, a track in, and egress via boat, with no jetty or pier, just rocks, if conditions allowed. John did an excellent job at fostering good relations with the locals, the boys generally busied themselves elsewhere.
One of the pleasures of the stay was that although there was plenty going on, we were largely free to do what we wanted from the options available. Rules were at a minimum, self-discipline was essential. I went sea canoeing, having never set foot in a canoe before, in retrospect it was dangerous, at the time it was exciting and exhilarating, the brakes were your self- awareness that you had entered into a situation, and you had to be able to exit it.
I fished, I helped John with the road survey, and now lay claim to my place in the building of the road which now makes everything so much more accessible and easier for everyone. We hiked miles and miles, almost always in rain. For some reason I didn’t climb Todun the 1733ft hill which dominates the village. I do recall on a hike traversing streams in spate, in rain, and taking lunch pressed against a rock face, barely sheltered by an overhang, which comprised dried date, and leek soup heated with a portable stove. At the time it was the most welcome meal I have ever had.
But it was the second major incident of the trip which shook me the most. A group of us set off to do some abseiling down a cliff. The leader, mountaineer Gerald Smith, was the first to make the descent, but a piton came loose causing him to fall some dozens of feet to the rocky shore below. A few managed to make their way down to where he had fallen, but he was unconscious, on rocks. The situation was grave. The incoming tide meant that if we did nothing, he would drown. A rescue by inflatable was impossible because of the jagged rocks. His position at the foot of the cliffs, in wind and rain, meant a helicopter rescue could have been impossible. With tremendous resourcefulness, and courage, a party, including Alan the medic, took a wooden boat, with a villager, to rescue Gerald and take him to the headland where the air sea rescue helicopter could rescue him and take him to Glasgow. Fortunately, he made a full recovery.
The third mini drama was my own. I was overcome with overwhelming stomach cramps which lasted all day and night, resulting in my boat journey to Tarbert to see the GP with suspected appendicitis. Fortunately, he banked on waiting to see if a concoction of gastric remedies would do the trick, before my also being flown out, these proved successful resulting in a much more pleasant boat trip back to camp.
The summers evenings are long in the Western isles and most nights we had a Ceilidh, comprising traditional songs led by John Hutchison with his tin whistle, and contemporary, mainly Neil Young songs accompanied by Roger Hancock on acoustic guitar. There was, and is, something magical about a group of people making their own entertainment through song in the evenings. On the final night the villagers joined us, but mostly kept themselves to themselves, I vividly recall one of them coming across on a Sunday when we were playing football, and being told we were not allowed to play games on the Sabbath. It was with some bemusement that we reflected that we were in about the remotest populated place in the country – and there was someone stopping is play football…
I remember nothing about the trip back to London. We were so wet, so tired, and so grateful to be returning to civilisation that everything else seemed to be shut out. As the above suggests, it was one of the most eventful trips of my life, memorable both positively, and negatively. Before the days of reality television, a group of strangers were thrown together for real, forged relationships, endured adversity and challenge, and made it through. The place made a lasting impression upon me, and I was lighted to return to Lewis, some forty years later, to reappraise the islands. It did not rain, the hotel was comfortable, the shops were well stocked ( though not always open when you might expect) and the people exceptionally friendly. The scenery was to die for.
Thank you to the schools Hebridean Society for giving me the chance to visit in the first place, I hope that in the future, its noble aims might be resurrected for new generations.