Like its inhabitants a century earlier, the morning’s tide had fled the shore, leaving a wide-arced smile of golden sand polished and glistening. Grey seals lounged lazily on the beach, nonchalantly turning to watch our incoming boat. I was instantly beguiled by the haunting beauty of this barren outpost of Gaeldom.
Two hours earlier, rippled cirrocumulus had promised fine weather as Donald MacLeod, onetime fisherman, now skipper of the ‘Boy James’, welcomed eight of us aboard his small boat. The Perkins engine purred and the clouds dissipated into blue sky as we set out from Barra’s harbour in Castlebay into choppy waters towards the penultimate island of the southern tip of the Western Isles archipelago. Approaching the island, Donald ferried us the last distance in a dinghy and we vaulted over shift and tilt of dark water onto a rocky promontory. I trekked up the broad, tussocky slope towards the western cliff-tops, passing ruined, sand-encroached crofts, huddled together like hump-backed widows in mourning-grey.
Although the people must have lived a precarious life on the margins, looking down on the village, nestled above a bay of azure, the place transformed into a perfect, sunny haven. At over two hundred metres, Mingulay’s sea cliffs are among the highest in Europe and home to a plethora of puffins, razorbills, guillemots and kittiwakes. I stood atop a deep cleft gouged into the cliffs by the boisterous sea and spent the late morning watching the birds fly to and from their nesting ledges.
By early afternoon I headed down to the old schoolhouse, thinking of those young scholars who once walked barefoot along the same path. There, seated on a sun-baked slab of Hebridean gneiss beside the school wall, eating my picnic and soaking in the silence, I caught sight of two great skuas out of the corner of my eye. Like a pair of menacing enemy Stukas, they swooped low, the beat of their white-tipped wings, shallow yet purposeful. Despite my highland fling of whirling arms, they continued to dive-bomb. The feathered equivalent of bargain-hunters on Black Friday, their single-mindedness in targeting me was startlingly impressive. Surrendering my pride (and my half-eaten Scotch egg) I escaped downhill. Back on the ‘Boy James’, Donald reframed my alarming experience: the skuas’ violence was, it transpired, an act of love, protecting fledglings, upon whose nests I had inadvertently encroached.
My ancestors are a proud line of boat-builders, crofters and bards from the Outer Hebrides. Though I had grown up steeped in their stories of tossed seas, safe landfall and Celtic hospitality, my only prior knowledge of Mingulay derived from the popular Scottish folk song. As the island's contours disappeared over the horizon, I thought about the last twenty-one families who left behind their village homes in 1912. Only then did I appreciate the romance and longing felt by those men in the ‘Boat Song’ who, in time to the pull of their oars, sing about ‘sailing homeward’ to their beloved Mingulay.