Ard Neakie

I am travelling the north coast of Scotland from Durness and have reached Reay.  This, I should emphasise, is purely in a virtual sense.  In the real world I remain tied to my keyboard and screen in deepest Northumberland, still waiting for signs of Spring.

Having turned left off the A836 into the car park at Reay Golf Club, I have become distracted by Ard Neakie, a place not far from my starting point.

Ard Neakie is a would-be island on Loch Eriboll’s eastern shore, attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand and shingle.   Viewed from above, on the main road, it appears a bleak and abandoned place, the main evidence of earlier human endeavour being the lime kilns.  It was not always like this.

The kilns processed limestone quarried from the high ground of Ard Neakie and from Eilean Choraidh, an island in the middle of Loch Eriboll.  The quarry workers’ lodgings are on the northern side of the approach to the 19th century Ferry House.  This is how it looked when I last walked down to the strand in the late 1980s:

The quarry workers’ lodgings, taken in the late 1980s.

By the end of 2009, it looked flimsier still and there is a suggestion it may have since collapsed entirely. The nearby Ferry House is a different proposition.  I may have neglected to take pictures back in the 1980s but Canmore, the online catalogue to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage, provides the opportunity for a virtual tour, inside and out.

The Ferry House was not only home to the ferryman and his family but also a shop providing supplies to North Sea trawlers seeking shelter from the storm.  Trawlermen, quarry workers, the shop, the ferryman and his passengers, the boats transferring limestone from Eilean Choraidh and the ships dispatching lime to east coast farmers, on some days Ard Neakie bustled.

The history of this place, and Sutherland in general, is encapsulated in the lives of one family – without these stories, Ard Neakie is just a collection of old stones and rotting timbers.

When Anne and her husband Alexander Mackay were cleared from their croft at Totaig, they were resettled at Achnahuaigh, Melness, just south of Port Vasgo at the head of the Kyle of Tongue.  It was here that they raised their daughter Dolina who would in 1887, marry local cabinet maker, George Mackay. George had been planning to better himself by emigrating to Canada but was persuaded by the Duke of Sutherland to use his woodworking skills as a boatbuilder and to run the Heilam Ferry from Ard Neakie across Loch Eriboll to Portnacon. They raised seven sons at the Ferry House, the eldest being Hugh who would eventually qualify as a teacher, having studied at Aberdeen.  Hugh’s highway to Aberdeen was by sea, regularly catching a lift from trawlers as they stopped by at Ard Neakie.  This connection with the sea is significant and points to a time when these coastal communities were better served by water than by land.

Hugh served with the 1st battalion Seaforth Highlanders during the Great War and survived despite being declared ‘missing, presumed dead’. He returned to teaching, married his first love, Catherine Sutherland and eventually retired to Connel Ferry, near Oban.  Once he left home, he never lived again at the big house on Ard Neakie, unlike younger brother Alec.

Alexander Mackay was born in 1889 and attended Eriboll School before joining his father George, to run the ferry and to learn the trade of boatbuilding.  Like my grandfather Fred, Alec was in the Territorial Reserve and both would see active service at Gallipoli.  Both Fred and Alec were transferred to Alexandria but whereas Alec fought in Macedonia and France, Fred transferred into the Royal Flying Corps and served the rest of the war at the RFC Training School, Aboukir.

Fred is in the middle, back row,

Alec survived the war but suffered disfiguring facial injuries in France and was not finally discharged until March 1920.  The expectation was that Eriboll Farm would be divided to provide land for returning local servicemen and Alec was fully expecting to receive a share.  In another example of shoddy behaviour by the estates and landowners, this never happened so Alec returned to boat building and operating the Heilam Ferry with his father.

There is a photograph of the young Alec standing in front of the workers’ lodgings holding a large salmon by the gills.  A prize catch for an innocent young man dressed in heavy tweed.  The man who returned to Ard Neakie was not the same boy who went to war in 1914.  Like Hugh, the young Alec never returned and we will never know the demons that accompanied him as he walked back down the strand to the front door of the Ferry House in 1920.  He would live out the rest of his days on Ard Neakie where he died a bachelor in 1957.  The last of the family did not leave the Ferry House until 1990 since when the lease has not been renewed and the building remains empty, except for the echoes from the past.

This story is told because I have a soft spot for the small ferries of Scotland – I have written elsewhere on this subject – my first such crossing being at Ballachulish in the late 1950s.   It is an oft repeated ‘fact’ that the Heilam Ferry closed in 1890 when the road around the loch was completed but this makes no sense. Firstly, when Alec returned from the Great War in 1920, he returned to operate the ferry and T Ratcliffe Barnett writing in 1930 (Autumns in Skye, Ross and Sutherland) refers to the operational ferry at Portnacon. Secondly, bearing in mind this was a passenger service (you might be allowed to to take a bike), why would the opening of an eleven mile road around the edge of the loch negate the need for a one mile crossing by water.  I am on a mission to find out when it really closed and what the ferry looked like in operation – we will be there again in late April.

Having driven the road around Eriboll many times, I am always surprised that there was never a car ferry between Portnacon and Ard Neakie – I would pay a premium, even in the 21st Century for the novelty of the loch crossing, for the convenience and to avoid the tedious eleven mile round trip, destination, almost where you started from. While digging around looking for small ferry images, I came across this wonderful photograph of the ferry at Dornie (The Face of Scotland – Batsford and Fry, published 1935) – it seems precisely the sort of device that should have been used at Loch Eriboll:

Loch Duich – Eilean Donan Castle and Dornie Motor Ferry

The stories of the Mackays is taken from A Full Circle – The journey through time of the Mackay Family of Heilam Ferry, Loch Eriboll from 1841 – 2014 – The Clearances to the Present Day, produced by Fiona Mackay while working as a voluntary archivist at Strathnaver Museum.  The story of Alexander Mackay’s war service is taken from Pibrochs and Poppies – A commemoration of WW1 Pipers from North West Sutherland.

Humanity II

The previous post has made me look at the image of the footballers more closely.  For years I just accepted the information on the back of the photo – “Fred is seventh from the left on the back row”.  Enlarged for the first time on screen, I now have my doubts. This image is from the same event and Fred  is sat on the front row holding the ball – significantly with a centre parting, unlike in the earlier image.  This is the grandfather I immediately recognise whereas the other chap doesn’t look quite right.  Perhaps Fred was behind the lens in the earlier image after all.

I am amused by two of his team mates – guess which ones 🙂 – all humanity is here and this being Aboukir, Egypt in 1918, rather than the Western Front, I like to think they all made it safely home:

All Nations football team

Humanity

This post is not really in the spirit of the photo challenge – I certainly wasn’t the photographer and neither was my maternal grandfather, Fred,  who is standing on the back row, seventh from the left.  I suppose it is just possible that it was his camera they used to take the photograph, the one he is holding in this post.

All human life is here, gathered to take part in the ‘All Nations’ football match, Royal Flying Corps Training School, Aboukir, 1918.

All Nations Fotball match

In the years that followed the Great War, Fred immersed himself in work and local good causes. He was responsible for what was claimed to be the first ever floodlit football match and was associated with the Andover Carnival from its inception, becoming overall chairman in 1955.  During World War II he was a full-time officer in the Andover Fire Brigade, having joined as a volunteer in 1925; he was called to help at the blitzes at Portsmouth and Southampton. Not many years after his return from RFC Egypt, he was also responsible for raising the money for his town’s first ambulance.

Humanity:  the quality of being human; kindness or mercy – I think my grandfather had it in spades.

Andover's first Ambulance

Castrol R

As we set off for the French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand in the July of 1972 one of our first lifts was in a Morris Oxford – my diary from the time records that it was from “a gentleman who was passionately reminiscing about the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, the Auto Unions and the Mercedes which smelled of boot polish and made your eyes water”. This olfactory signature came from the exotic fuel concoctions used to propel these fire-breathing pre-war monsters.  For me, as with most racing fans of a certain age, the smell that brings it all back home is inevitably Castrol R.  The name Castrol is derived from castor oil, one of the key additives to be found in Charles Wakefield’s original creation; indeed, it is the burning of castor oil that gives it and the race circuits of my memory their glorious and distinctive odour.  Castor oil has long been associated with performance machines and was a primary additive for aero-engines during the Great War; the silk scarves worn by pilots were not an affectation but were used to wipe excess engine oil from their goggles and also to prevent chafing of the neck caused by constantly looking over the shoulder for ‘enemy aircraft at one o’clock’.  Castor oil is also a very effective laxative which had dire consequences for the bowel movements of early fighter pilots.  I like to think that the smell of burning castor oil would have been as nostalgically familiar to my aero-engineer grandfather as it became to me.  Does this scene, with my grandfather stood third from the left in the foreground, have the unmistakable whiff of burnt castor oil?

AVro 504K

The above text is an extract from Golf in the Wild, due for publication in April 2014.  The aeroplane is an AVRO 504K which entered service in 1913 and was outclassed as a fighter soon after WWI started. Relegated to training duties, at which it excelled, it was in use until the 1930s. Before it ended its service career, the rotary engine was replaced with a radial, and it was re-designated the AVRO 504N.

Royal Flying Corps

This is a collage of my grandfather’s Royal Flying Corps memorabilia. As outlined in previous posts, Fred was stationed at the RFC Training School, Aboukir, Egypt from 1915 to 1918.  In this photograph he is dressed in a desert uniform for a postcard which is inscribed: “Best love to all [at] home”.  This is surrounded by two of his RFC badges, his stripes, his 1919 release papers from Fovant and some basic anti-personnel devices which were simply thrown over the side of the aircraft cockpit:

RFC

There were some requests from an earlier post to see more of the copying stand. The PZO UR 9711 is still resident on the dining room table only this time the mounted camera is connected by wifi to an iPad such that I can see the picture, focus and fire the shutter remotely (rather than climb on the wobbly pew to look through the viewfinder 🙂 ). All a bit over-engineered for the task but the real benefits of the wifi connection will arise when the camera is mounted on a six metre pole – it removes the need for guesswork:

UR 9711

When this bloody war is over….

…No more soldiering for me
When I get my civvy clothes on
Oh how happy I shall be

No more church parades on Sunday
No more putting in for leave
I shall kiss the Sergeant Major
How I’ll miss him, how he’ll grieve.
(traditional)

When I have published this photograph previously I have concentrated on the faces, there is such a wide variation of emotion. This time I have reproduced the entire postcard because there is some interesting detail, including the the old-fashioned guy ropes and the nosey private poking his head out from one of the tents.  Judging by the shoelaces on the front row it was a rush job, so maybe some of those expressions are prompted by irritation.

Fred at army camp

I am guessing this is my maternal grandfather, Fred (seated on the right with a cigarette in hand), when he was still in the Territorial Army, before his dispatch to Gallipoli in January 1915.  I have no record of how long he was posted there  but by late 1915 he was at the RFC Training School, Aboukir in Egypt where he would stay until January 1919, rising to the rank of Chief Mechanic.

Fred's demob account

This demobilization account shows he was granted 50 months of War Gratuity up to 18th February 1919 when he was finally dispersed from Fovant Camp in Wiltshire.  There is some fascinating detail on this aged piece of bureaucracy:

  • The daily wage is seven shillings, almost a third being sent home to the dependant, in this case, Fred’s mum and dad;
  • On dispersal he is granted 28 days leave in arrears at the rate of five shillings per day, a ration allowance and money for a set of ‘plain clothes’ – is this the suit he is proudly wearing in this post?
  • He walked out of Fovant with £2 in his pocket and two postal drafts – his identity paper shows that these were cashed at his home town of Andover on the 1st and 11th March 1919 respectively – his Savings Bank Book was issued on 26th March 1919.

In the midst of the small print and the cumbersome administration is perhaps the most telling of all mean-spirited statements:  The Service Gratuity of £1 per annum is not payable in addition to the War Gratuity.  They had evidently not done enough to deserve it.

Travel theme: Tilted in Egypt

As you might imagine, I am not the man behind the lens for this photograph but my maternal grandfather, Fred, certainly was – an earlier post shows him standing centre stage at the Sphinx his folding camera in hand. During the Great War he was a mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps training school at Aboukir in Egypt; if you click on “Fred” in the tag cloud, previous posts explain his story

The severely tilted aircraft is probably an Airco D.H.9.  A colleague from my IT days who writes on the subject of early flying provides this interesting insight:  This is unlikely to have been a crash from height – the aircraft is too intact for that.  It is more likely that a trainee pilot made a heavy landing, and by a mixture of throttle mismanagement and a lack of control, managed to bounce his way towards the hangar.

RFC Aboukir

Click on the image to enlarge and there is surprising detail and untold stories in the photograph – the canvas is torn back on the lower wing to reveal its delicate construction; why is the character in the hat sat on the ground and what is that upturned canvas covered object next to him; look closely and there are actually two aircraft in the background and what is the man with the pole about to do!

Without doubt, these are young men from another time where risk is a daily part of their lives.