7 Isle of Coll


9 IX 1773
9 VIII 2013





When the sky is this blue
what is there to write about?


When I say, to a lady from Aberfoyle who’s visited the island every summer since she was a child, that in 1773 the population of Coll was twelve hundred, she asks, with Johnsonian skepticism, where on earth they all lived, as there are few ruined houses.


With bikes from the post office we cycle from Arinagour (Airigh nan Gobhar, Shieling of the Goats) past Càrnan Mora and Achamore to Arnabost (t-junction), then left towards Grishipol and Cliad Bay, where we swim, sunbathe and snooze.


Opening the OS map, the first three folds are sea, as blank blue as the sky yesterday.


Clover and daisies

enamel the central strip of
the B8071


The old village hall, a plain, functional building, is opposite the sheltie field, which also contains a neglected monument to a 19th century crofters’ leader.


In the hotel garden we fall into conversation with the family at the next table. The parents are just back from Cairo, where they’ve lived for 18 months; he has a job there in development, thanks to the revolution which brought Mursi to power. But by the sound of it, he’s glad to see the back of Mursi, ousted in a coup at the start of the month, blaming corruption, and channelling funds to Hamas in Gaza. They both claim most Egyptians have turned against the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing what they do, and that the army will sort things out, but it might take three or four years, and in the meantime some bad things are going to happen. They mitigate the deaths of Mursi supporters by saying the Brotherhood has called for martyrs, and that Egyptian democracy isn’t like here in the UK, with checks and balances; there the president has all the power. My sense is that the coup is a rejection of democracy, and not the way to establish checks and balances… we fall back into our own conversations.


Tim and Jane drove us round the island in a borrowed 4x4. On Ben Hogh we saw Clach na Ban-righ; at Breachacha the old and renovated castle, beside the new castle in disrepair; were invited into the White House at Grissipol by Sheena Maclean-Bristol, their new house in the shell of the old. She expressed some surprise that in the two years they’ve had the White House open as a B&B, no-one has stayed specifically because of Boswell and Johnson. Alec talked to her about turbines, including the old click-mills used here (and on Orkney) before electricity came (in 1981), and now forgotten. I swam at Sorisdale Bay at the NE tip of the island, over to a smaller beach, where clegs set about me, and followed me when I swam again; I tried to splash them away, but one even got into my mouth. We passed the site of the old tulip farm, where the flowers still come up each year, though the flags are starting to take over.


as if someone is approaching —

the wind in the flags


Boswell gives ‘Grissipol’ as ‘the Rough Pool’; MacDougall gives at as ‘Griseabull’, from ‘bull’ i.e. ‘baile’, township, and ‘griss’, boar, or ‘gres’, grassy, or possibly a man’s name.


Below the church, by the road, a strip of alder, sallow and rowan.


Angie – who has a brace on her leg, but walked across the island while I took my dodgy legs on a bike – quotes Yeats to me, ‘When you are old and grey…’.


We sat a while at the café watching the street; at the next table a man was reading The Guardian, which seemed to come from very far away. An older man passed, who’d been at the reading on Saturday. He showed us his hand, swollen from a cleg bite. When Alec asked him about treatment, he said, “it’ll go down again”. The ferry was late, delayed by the (quantity of? state of?) the Tiree festivalers – the Barra ferry had also called in to take revellers back to the mainland.


fine weather, which is the life and soul of seeing places

Garrick, to Boswell


Beveridge, Erskine Coll and Tiree: Their Prehistoric Forts and Ecclesiastical Antiquities (1903)

MacDougall, Betty Guide to Coll (1972)
Osman, Tarek Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to the Muslim Brotherhood (2013)
Yeats, W.B. The Rose (1893)


   in London this shop

   would be nothing

   here it turns

   the balance of existence

   after Johnson

As well as the post office, the shops now on Coll are T.E.S.Co and Morrison’s; the former named for the islands co-operative, the latter for its owners, Mr and Mrs Morrison, a local joke that says much for the islanders’ attitude.

Mairi Hedderwick lived for many years on Coll, and the island of Struay in her Katie Morag books is based on it. Katie Morag’s parents run the Isle of Struay Shop and Post Office, a cosy, chaotic amalgamation of all three.


Hedderwick, Mairi the Katie Morag books (1984–2007)


We passed by a place where there is a very large stone, I may call it a ROCK;—'a vast weight for Ajax'. The tradition is, that a giant threw such another stone at his mistress, up to the top of a hill, at a small distance; and that she in return, threw this mass down to him. It was all in sport. Malo me petit lasciva puella.

(Boswell, 5 October)

Boswell is decribing two glacial erratics, one near the top, the other on the lower slopes of Ben Hogh; the higher one is named Clach na Ban-righ, Stone of the Queen, a huge stone perched on three very much smaller ones. He (slightly mis-) quotes Virgil; the full text reads

Malo me petit Galatea, lasciva puella

Et fugit ad salices, et se cupit ante videri

Virgil, Eclogues, iii, ll.64-5

That wanton girl Galatea

throws apples at me and runs
to hide in the willow bushes,
hoping I’ve seen her first.

translated by Barriss Mills

Clach na Ban-righ, after Virgil

for Tim & Jane


On Coll

the hungry wind

seeks apple and sallow

in vain


Galatea’s apple

ripens in the sun


placed like an apple

on a shelf of rock

stone, you have the bal-

ance of our attention


bless the day

Galatea chucks

her golden delicious

my way


Grandsen, K.W. (ed.) Virgil in English (1996)

Mills, Barriss (trans.) The Eclogues of Virgil (1980)


Johnson says nothing growing on Coll is taller than a table. There were verticals other than windmills to interrupt the horizons, such as Sam, mounted on a sheltie – a wild pony they catch on the moor, with a straw halter.


   a short-legged horse
   in the hazy spring

   Buson, trans. Hass

   there’s Sam riding

   his wee sheltie
   in the hoary fall

   after Buson


   the horse goes
   we lead it

   after Freud

In the evening the yachts in the harbor looked like so many shelties, grazing in the gloaming.

   look all at the shelties

   noses pointed
   towards home

Meanwhile the ease of our cycling in sunshine on these little-used roads with their gentle inclines has us daydreaming Le Tour de Coll: Zen and the Art of Freewheel Bicycling, an annual international open, whose luminaries include

Eddie ‘The Ghost’ Maclean,

Jimmy ‘The Shadow’ Maclean,
Brian ‘Free Church’ Maclean,
Hector ‘The Sliced Cucumber’ Maclean,
Stewie ‘The Noiseless Fury’ Maclean,
Willie ‘Fog’ Maclean,
Sandie ‘Wisp’ Maclean,
Tam ‘Tortoise’ Maclean,
Archie ‘Corncrake’ Maclean,
Alastair ‘Mackerel’ Maclean,
Iain ‘Smirry’ Maclean,
Dugald ‘Scalch’ Maclean,
Donald ‘Slow Puncture’ Maclean,
Allan ‘The Pretender’ Maclean,
Hugh ‘Dragonfly’ Maclean,
Rorie ‘Shimmer’ Maclean,
Malcolm ‘The Trout’ Maclean,
Charlie ‘Wandering’ Maclean
and Fergus ‘Sheltie’ Maclean.


Jones, Ernest The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1974)

Hass, Robert The Essential Haiku (1994)
Jones, Ernest The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1974)