Gometra - A Local and Family History with Digressions (a work in progress)

‘A Scot ...  remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.’  (Robert Louis Stevenson, Weir of Hermiston.)


Palaeogene Period


The great volcanic eruptions associated with the creation of the North Atlantic Ocean, around 60 million years ago, laid down the lava plateaux which constitute Gometra, and which are also found in what was at that time our neighbour, Greenland.  This was the period at which dinosaurs became extinct, and mammals evolved.  The individual lava flows are up to 50’ deep, and mostly consist of a dark, fine-grained basalt, which welled rapidly through mouthing fissures in the bedrock.  There was enough time between eruptions for rivers and lakes to form, and dense forests to grow.  The scorched fossil soil which had been deposited on the surface of each succeeding flow is now visible (for instance on the Gometra track between the Fairy Hill and Bailiochdrach) as a reddish band between the hard central lava cores, which are often columnar.  When you touch these red bands, which are everywhere on Gometra, you are touching the scorched forests of dinosaur-time.  At Ardmeanach on Mull, near Gometra,  the carbonised woody remains of a coniferous tree trunk, 35 feet high and 4’ in diameter, still stand where it was engulfed and torched within a lava flow, and at Ardtun, also on Mull, oak, hazel, plane, magnolia and maidenhair leaves sank into a lake which had formed between volcanic eruptions and are preserved intact.  The differential erosion of these softer weathered bands between successive lava flows gives Gometra its distinctive Trapp or Etch-a-Sketch landscape of angular cliffs and plateaux. Gometra at that time had a Mediterranean climate (Stephenson 2011).


The late pre-Cambrian Moine sedimentary rocks through which the lava welled, which it metamorphosed, and on which it now rests, are smothered in basalt on Gometra, but on nearby Inch Kenneth they outcrop beneath much later Triassic Rocks.  They are up to a billion years old, and were deposited on the shores of the ancient Lapetus Ocean, which once divided Scotland, then part of the ancient continent of Laurentia, from England, then part of the continent of Avalonia.  Since then Gometra has drifted from its original location in the Southern Hemisphere.  We drift still.


Quaternary Period


The oldest raised shorelines of Gometra, comprising sea-cut platforms and sea caves, lie at around 90’ above the present sea level, and were formed before the last glaciation, about 30,000 years ago.   Gometra House and the cottages at Bailiochdrach are built on what once was a beach.  Later sea-cut platforms lie at lower levels.


The last glacial maximum wound down about 10,000 years ago.  Until then Gometra was buried beneath successive ice sheets,  flowing slowly to the South West, which moulded our valleys and sculpted our rocks, carrying in erratics including boulders of pink Strontian granite from Morven on mainland Scotland, just visible over Mull’s shoulder from Gometra’s summit.


Alexander Carmichael writes :


‘I was taking down a story from a man, describing how twin giants detached a huge stone from the parent rock, and how the two carried the enormous block of many tons upon their broad shoulders to lay it over a deep gully in order that their white-maned steeds might cross. Their enemy, however, came upon them in the night-time when thus engaged, and threw a magic mist around them, lessening their strength and causing them to fail beneath their burden. In the midst of the graphic description the grandson of the narrator, himself an aspirant teacher, called out in tones of superior authority, 'Grandfather, the teacher says that you ought to be placed upon the stool for your lying Gaelic stories.' The old man stopped and gasped in pained surprise. It required time and sympathy to soothe his feelings and to obtain the rest of the tale, which was wise, beautiful, and poetic, for the big, strong giants were Frost and Ice, and their subtle enemy was Thaw.’  (Carmichael, 1899, introduction.)


Holocene Epoch


Our ancestors held an ancient veneration for rounded pebbles, especially in groups of nine and, having placed them in bullán or sockets in living rock, a weakness for turning them nine-times deiseil or sunwise to determine the gender of offspring and for other practical and spiritual purposes.  What would happen if they were turned anti-clockwise we do not dare to know.


‘In many places all over Ireland, like Toormoor, remains of a monastic site have been gathered together to make a leacht or altar, beside a multiple bullaun. Bullauns (from a word cognate with 'bowl' and French 'bol') are usually associated with monastic sites, but their origin and function(s) are much earlier. The hemispherical depressions hollowed out of small or large boulders may have anything from one to fifteen bullauns.’  (Weir 2014.)


It is conceivable that bullán are cup and ring marks which have been ground away with over-use.  Interestingly, archaeologists excavating around the cup and ring marked stones at Kilmartin on the mainland, found not only the fragments of rock chipped out of the cups and rings, and not only the broken quartz hammers used to chip them, but a neat pile of unused hammers.  The cup and ring makers preferred not a smooth slab of stone, as we might, to mark, but one wrinkled in natural fissures which, it is suggested, they identified with the earlier mark-making of their own ancestors.  (Jones et al. 2011.)


John Michel, a student of sacred geometry, had asked me to look on Gometra for vestiges of the Thing, as the Norse and Celtic moot, and religious and commercial gathering was called, by a word cognate with the English husting.  The Thingstead, John predicted, would be found at the intersection of the long axis of Gometra with the midpoint of its waist.  At the point of this geometrical abstraction I saw nothing but ling.  But later, when gathering sheep at this spot with Iain Munro, I climbed to what from beneath looked an innocent outcrop near the Northern end of Tórr Mór.


Here I found what may, if not an artefact of erosion, be such a topoglyphic socketed altar, cut from living rock and still adorned with crimped green entrails delivered by raptor, though missing its rounded pebbles now, which were doubtless taken home as souvenirs by the irreverent.


Gometra's pre-Norse name and written history is, if not lost, then mislaid, though there is interesting work in reconstructing lost island names from hagiographical evidence.  (Kilpatrick 2011.)   This means that it is hard to tell whether Gometra is described by pre-Norse authorities.  Pliny and Ptolemy both discuss the Hebouda or Ebouda, but so far as we know, neither mention Gometra by name.  Further, we don’t know whether Ptolemy’s reference to the Hebrides is a later addition to his manuscript.  Original 2nd century copies have not survived, and his Geographia, a working document, was still being amended with contemporary knowledge at the date of the first surviving copies.


Diodorus Siculus described a round temple from which the moon only rose every 19 years, said to be a Classical reference to the stone circle of Callanish, but made no known mention of Gometra.  Demetrius of Tarsus recounted to Plutarch the details of a gloomy journey amidst uninhabited islands he made on the West Coast of Scotland around 83 AD, describing a visit to an island which he did not name but which was the retreat of Holy men.


A careful reading of the text of the Odyssey shows that Hebridean geography is consistent with some of Homer's topographical descriptions of the travels of Odysseus, as some enthusiasts for the Hebrides have claimed.  It is certain that many episodes of our history would not look out of place in the Odyssey.  Nor would many of our characters, and the Odyssey does give some hints as to what contemporary Hebridean life may have been like.


Two iron-age dùns, probably dating from somewhere between the age of Homer and St Augustine, on one of which were found human teeth, together with several as yet formally unsurveyed and undated masonry remains on Eilean Dioghlum and on Gometra, attest early inhabitants of this island.


Saint Columba


Under Tòrr Mòr, south from Baileclaidh, is a small peninsula with masonry remnants, known locally as Eilean Columbkille.  I have suggested that its name may preserve a local memory of a Columban sojourn some time after Columba’s arrival on neighbouring Hy (Iona) where he founded a monastic community in A.D. 563.


Adomnán, a successor of Columba’s as abbot of Iona, writing in the Vitae Columbae, gives a useful account of life on 6th century Iona, which is similar in many respects to life on 21st century Gometra.


The straight which divides Ulva from Gometra, The caol am bru or Kyle of Bru, now known as The Brew (literally : the straight of the womb, perhaps because gravid with seals, dolphins and boats) could be identified with the Muirbolcmar or great sea bag described in an account of the unidentified island of Hinba in the Vitae Columbae, and the identification of the name Hinba with the old Irish inbe meaning incision, would also fit Gometra.  However, Adomnán states that Brendan the navigator was on his way from Ireland to meet Columba but found him unexpectedly at Hinba, which makes Jura a more likely candidate for Hinba.


Nevertheless, there is a place on Gometra, above the fairy hill, where reciting the Lord's Prayer makes your hair stand on end.  And the County Recorder, Lynne Farrell, has identified intriguing evidence of a monastic presence here :


‘Probably introduced originally by monks is Elecampagne, Inula helenium. It grows in a few places in the Mid Ebudes and Argyll, including the Garvellachs and Iona near the monastic cells and buildings.’  (Farrell 2014).


The Amra of Colum Cille, allegedly the earliest vernacular poem in post-classical European history, commissioned by Columba’s cousin, king of the Uí Níell, was written in praise of Columba not long after his death.  Much of it confusing, in the forms in which it has survived, it contains stirring flashes (which may be later commentary) :


‘A tale I have for you.  Ox murmurs,

Winter pours; summer is gone:

Wind high, cold: sun low;

Cry is attacking, sea resounding.


Very red raying has concealed form,

Voice of geese [barnacles] has become usual:

Cold has caught wings of birds;

Ice-frost time: wretched, very wretched.

     A tale I have for you.’   Forgaill, 1871.


It's a long time since I read it, and I may have garbled it, but I remember being gratified by three of the miracles cited in the Vitae Columbae.  Columba’s staff, planted in the ground, sprouted leaves. When he waded across the River Ness, at the foot of Loch Ness, as I remembered it, no monster came, but in reality I think the book gives an account of Columba ordering a water monster to go away, at which the monster was pulled backwards as if with cords.  And when, during a wild storm, Columba wanted to cross from Hy to Mull, he knelt on the beach for three days, praying, until the storm stopped.  For all our theology and scholasticism, we have misunderstood what a miracle is, and Columba’s miracles remind us.


Back on Iona, Columba had buried the oldest member of his community, St Oran, alive to prevent his new chapel being destroyed by evil spirits, obedient to a tradition of human sacrifice whose vestiges survived until recent times in the burying of cats in the walls of new-builds.  When Columba opened Oran's grave under the chapel, wishing to see him again, Oran tried to come out, remarking that there was no heaven nor hell as is commonly supposed, but Columba smothered him in earth for a second time to protect him from this world and its sins.  (See MacLeod Banks 1931).  We make light of it now, probably because it was so long ago, but it can’t have been fun for St Oran unless, like those still loyal comrades who went willingly to the camps under Stalin, he was drunk on the good of the cause.


On the subject of Christian human sacrifice, one of Christ’s innovations was, by submitting himself for sacrifice (in a strangely humane, i.e. carnal and spiritual echo of Socrates’s more abstract and brittle demonstration), to replace human sacrifice with its transfiguration, and this is why the sacrament still includes the drinking of his blood (which stains our canines, so to speak, and runs down from the ends of our lips on both sides) and the eating of his meat (in the form of  biscuits).


If original sin is (as Kafka hints) our clinging to the status of victims (one of whose terrible consequences is that we must also accuse and testify against the innocent, or even our rescuers), then we escape it only by going beyond forgiveness to Nietzschean amor fati, and Christ’s human self-sacrifice can be seen as a lesson on this point.


We should not come down too heavily on Columba simply because the good news relating to the sublimation of human sacrifice into the sacrament of Holy Communion, an innovation which anyway took a while to get here from Palestine, was not enough to over-turn the sanctity of tradition.  This sacrifice by St Columba of St Oran may have been the very last demanded by the spirits which assailed the Columban church.  I hope and trust that further human sacrifice will prove unnecessary, in these islands at least.  Time will tell.


By around 700 A.D. the Scottic Cenél Loairn had occupied the area including Gometra, but in 741 their kingdom of Dalriata was overthrown by the Picts., though in about 843 Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dal Riata, became king of the Picts.  By about 900 the Picts had disappeared from history, their language and culture subsumed by the Scots.




The illumination and learning of the Columban monastic settlements was nearly extinguished by Norse incursions, which started at Lindisfarne in A.D. 793 and on Iona in 795, and are traditionally held to have ended only with the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William of Normandy, of an old Norse dynasty, conquered England.   The Vikings plundered Iona again in 802 A.D., and in 806 A.D. , 68 inhabitants of Iona were slain by Vikings, and the abbot of Iona fled to Kells in Ireland.  In 825 A.D. St Blathmac hid the shrine of St Columba from Vikings and was martyred for refusing to disclose its location.  The Vikings were back in 845, and by about 850 A.D. they had achieved domination of the West Coat.


By tracing the inflections of Gometra’s name back though history by means of ancient charters, one finds it used to be Goðr Maðr Ey, from the Norse for God Man's Island, perhaps reflecting the Viking institution of a priestly war-lord.


‘The Gaelic speakers did not always recognise the Norse meaning and a place would have its name duplicated in the two languages.  A good example is Eas Fors Waterfall which has Gaelic “Eas”, Norse “Fors”, and of course the English, each meaning Waterfall!’  (Maclean, 1997 p9.)


In Gometra’s case, this led to a back-identification with the Gaelic Gu Mòr Traigh, meaning only at low water, which refers to the fact that you could cross to Ulva at low water.


Somerled & Geopolitics


In 1156 the sea-king Somerled wrested power in the Isles South of Ardnamurchan in a great sea battle from Godred, King of Man, and became rí inse Gall (king of the islands of the foreigners).  He united the remaining Norsemen with the Dalriadic, Gaelic-speaking Celts of Irish origin.  Traditionally described as a Celt in the male line, Professor Sykes, the celebrated paleogeneticist, has established that Somerled’s patrilineal DNA is Norse.  This means that in the male line, the MacDougall and MacDonald chiefs are Norsemen, not Celts.  Sykes has estimated ‘there may be as many as a quarter of a million direct descendants of Somerled who carry his Y-chromosome.’  Sykes found that 20% of a sample of MacDonalds shared the same Y-chromosome as the MacDonald chiefs, i.e. they were all patrilineal descendants of the same man, presumably Somerled (Sykes, undated).


MacDougall of Lorne


Forming part of the Suðreyjar during the Norse incursions, Gomedrach passed from Somerled to the MacDougalls of Lorne.


‘In 1164 Somerled died in the Battle of Renfrew fighting the forces of the King of Scots near the banks of the River Clyde. Dugal, his oldest living son, inherited the central portion of his father’s kingdom and became the founder and first Chief of Clan MacDougall. Our seagoing clan was based on the Hebrides isles of Mull, Coll, Tiree, Jura and Kerrera then owned by Norway, and on the Scottish mainland in Lorn and Argyll on the west coast of Scotland. In their twin roles of King of the Hebrides for Norway and ruler of Lorn for Scotland, Dugal and his successor Chiefs protected their islands and mainland territory with a ring of castles and a strong fleet of galleys.


During the summer of 1249 King Alexander II of Scotland sailed to the Hebrides intent on taking these Norwegian owned isles for Scotland but he became sick and was forced to land on the island of Kerrera. He ordered Ewan the 3rd chief of clan MacDougall to surrender his Cairnburgh Castle in the Treshnish Isles (which was Norwegian property) to the Scottish Crown. Ewan refused and declared that he had already sworn feudal loyalty to King Haakon of Norway for his Norwegian lands. Alexander II exclaimed angrily – “No man can serve two masters!” to which Ewan calmly replied: – “One man can easily serve two masters if they are not enemies”.


Alexander died on Kerrera shortly afterwards and Ewan then swore feudal allegiance for his territory on the mainland of Scotland to the new eight-year-old King Alexander III of Scots. When King Haakon of Norway gave Ewan the same choice in 1263, Ewan returned the Hebridean Isles to him and chose Scotland. King Haakon was defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Largs in 1263. When the Treaty of Perth of 1266 gave the Scots possession of the Hebrides, Alexander III then returned their old island possessions back to the MacDougalls. This was an early incident in the many struggles to come. The clan next fought in support of the King of Scots against the English invasions until their enemies tried to take the vacant crown of Scotland for Robert the Bruce.


By 1294 the MacDougall Lordship of Lorn was being challenged by the rising Campbells of Loch Awe encroaching on MacDougall territory in Nether Lorn. Our 4th Chief’s son Iain Bacach or “Lame John” took some of his armed warriors to a meeting at the Stream of the Conference to discuss setting these borders. South of Loch Scammadale they were surprised to see the Campbell Chief Cailean Mor (“Big Colin”) and his followers who had come past their designated meeting place and onto MacDougall lands. The two factions fought so ferociously that the river ran red with blood from the casualties which caused the conflict to be called The Battle of the Red Ford. Cailean Mor led the charge as the outnumbered MacDougalls retreated. Then a MacDougall archer crept up behind a rock and fired an arrow at the distant Cailean Mor. It killed him and ended the battle instantly but the rivalry would continue for a long time.


By 1300 the MacDougalls were a powerful clan in Scotland and were allied by marriage to the even more powerful Clan Comyn. Sir John, the “Red” Comyn of Badenoch, was the nephew of our Chief’s wife. The “Red” Comyn was a prime contender for the vacant crown of Scotland but another contender, the fiery warrior Robert the Bruce, was determined to gain it at any cost. In February 1306 Robert the Bruce stabbed the Red Comyn during a meeting inside the Greyfriars Kirk at Dumfries. This sacrilegious murder led to nearly fifty years of blood feuds, civil war and more English invasions. In the warring which followed the MacDougalls were closely allied with the Macdowalls of Galloway, the Comyns and with other clans against the Bruces, Campbells, MacDonalds and their allies.


A MacDougall ambush nearly captured Bruce at Dalrigh in Strathfillan in June 1306. To narrowly escape he was forced to abandon his torn off cloak brooch in the hand of a dead MacDougall warrior. Thus the famous Brooch of Lorn came into the hands of the MacDougall Chiefs. Less than two years later in the late summer of 1308 Bruce brought his forces against the MacDougalls and defeated them in the Pass of Brander. The clan’s island possessions and most of their lands on the mainland were forfeited and granted to their opponents.


Iain Bacach immediately sailed to England to support King Edward I and his navy against Bruce and his naval allies from the Clan Donald. As Admiral of the Western Seas Iain Bacach’s English fleet attacked Bruce’s ships and garrisons along the coasts and in Ireland for a further ten years until he was finally defeated by the combined fleets of and Clan Donald and Bruce, now Robert 1 King of Scots. Iain Bacach never surrendered but his death ended MacDougall participation in the wars. Some say he died a prisoner of the Scots, but English records settling his estate show that Iain Bacach died in 1318 while he was on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, England.


Most of the MacDougall lands had been forfeited and Iain Bacach’s son Ewan was imprisoned but after his release he married Bruce’s (King Robert 1) granddaughter Joan. This helped to revive the clan’s fortunes until Ewan died in 1375 leaving two daughters married to Stewart brothers. Thus the prestigious title of Lordship of Lorn passed from the MacDougalls to the Stewarts. However the Chief’s family retained lands around Dunollie Castle and more lands were restored to them in 1451 by the Stewart Lord of Lorn as a reward for their loyal support.’  (Clan MacDougall Society, 2012)


MacDonald Lords of the Isles


Land that was forfeited by the MacDougalls at the start of the fourteenth century for opposing Robert the Bruce was granted to the MacDonalds of Islay, descendants of another of Somerled’s sons, who began to style themselves Lords of the Isles.   In the fourteenth century, and again in the fifteenth, the MacDonald Lords of the Isles granted the Gometra to the MacLeans of Duart.   A charter given at Ardtornish on 12th July, 1390, by Donaldum de Ile dominum Insularum, my 18th great grandfather, granted Godmadray to his son-in-law Lachlanno Makgilleone of Duart.  Also granted in this charter are the mysterious offices of fragramannach and armannach (whose significance is now lost) of the neighbouring Isle of Iona.


The Destruction of the Gaelic Culture and the Lordship of the Isles


The MacDonalds in turn were eventually forfeited by the Scottish Crown in 1493 in a  progressive imposition of centralised control over the islands which had continued since the ejection of the Norwegian Crown.  Their English allies were unable to protect them against the power of the Scottish Government.  ‘After 1490, every [Scottish] Government action and every legislation in connection with Gaelic Scotland was to be repressive.’  (Fitzroy MacLean, cited by Campbell p29).


‘In retrospect the forfeiture of the lordship is a major landmark in the history of the Hebrides.  It marked the end of the semi-independence of the Western Isles.  It was also a major step in the integration of the Gaeltachd into mainstream Scotland, and the slow destruction of its distinct language and culture.’  (MacLean-Bristol p. 73).


In July 1495, Hector Odhar MacLean, 9th of Maclean and 5th of Duart, was granted royal charters by James IV for the lands he had held from the Lords of the Isles, which included Gometra.  However, Duart was involved in a last attempt to revive the Lordship :


‘Archibald Campbell, who became second earl in 1493, must have consented to his sister's imprisonment in Innis Chonnell Castle on Loch Awe and young Donald claimed to have been born in captivity. He escaped in 1501, and found shelter first with Torquil MacLeod of Lewis and then with Maclean of Duart, and was welcomed as the rightful heir to the lordship of the Isles. Lochaber was invaded and Badenoch plundered, while as part of the king's response a Scottish fleet was gathered in 1504, with Andrew Wood and Robert Barton taking part. One account says that Donald took refuge in the castle of Cairnburgh in the Treshnish Isles off Mull; recaptured in 1506, he was brought to the lowlands and lodged in Edinburgh Castle. After being held in ward for nearly forty years ‘until his hair got grey’, reports show that he was free by May 1543. That was the year when Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox, returned to Scotland from abroad, and it was not long before Donald, with Lennox as intermediary, was in touch with Henry VIII and other enemies of the Scottish crown.’  (R. W. Munro and Jean Munro, Donald Dubh MacDonald, DNB.)


The Reformation


The Reformation was also a disaster for Scottish culture in general, not just for the Gaelic culture of the isles  :


‘The Reformation in England helped to pave the way for the Elizabethan drama.  In Scotland it was hostile to almost every form of art, and fatal to that which finds its home on the stage.  The old sports and pastimes of the people were suppressed with a heavy hand  ‘Robert Hude’, Lyttil Johne, the Abbot of Unreason, and the Quene of the May, were ostracised both in burgh and to landwart  For well-nigh a hundred and fifty years the desolating influence of a gloomy and intolerant fanaticism brooded over the country; and, while it permanently deprived the people of forms of amusement which might have developed into something really worth developing, it did little to abate the national appetite for drink and fornication.’  (J. H. Millar, Literary History of Scotland, cited by Muir, p51. )


Carmichael gives an anecdote in similar terms :


‘A famous violin-player died in the island of Eigg a few years ago. He was known for his old style playing and his old-world airs which died with him. A preacher denounced him, saying :- ' Tha thu shios an sin cul na comhla, a dhuine thruaigh le do chiabhan liath, a cluich do sheann fhiodhla le laimh fhuair a mach agus le teine an diabhoil a steach ' - Thou art down there behind the door, thou miserable man with thy grey hair, playing thine old fiddle with the cold hand without, and the devil's fire within. His family pressed the man to burn his fiddle and never to play again. A pedlar came round and offered ten shillings for the violin. The instrument had been made by a pupil of Stradivarius, and was famed for its tone. ' Cha b'e idir an rud a fhuaradh na dail a ghoirtich mo chridhe cho cruaidh ach an dealachadh rithe ! an dealachadh rithe ! agus gun tug mi fhein a bho a b'fhearr am buaile m'athar air a son, an uair a bha mi og '--It was not at all the thing that was got for it that grieved my heart so sorely, but the parting with it! the parting with it! and that I myself gave the best cow in my father's fold for it when I was young. The voice of the old man faltered and a tear fell. He was never again seen to smile.’  (Carmichael, 1899, introduction).


16th, 17th and 18th Century Accounts of Gometra and Neighbours


Monro (1549) says :


‘Be ane quarter mile of sea to the west north–west fra this Ulvay lyis ane Ile callit Gomatra two mile lang from the south to the north, with half mile breid, with twa fair Raidis in it; ane of them on the north side, the best in the south side, gude for mayne schippis to ride on anker; gude land and weill plenishit in corn and girsing.


Narrest this Gomatra be four mile of sea to the south lyis ane Ile callit Stafay half mile lang, abundante of girsing of the meklevine, gude heavin for hieland Galayis, utter fyne for storme and symmer and wynter scheling also.


Fra this Ile four miles of sea to the west north-west lyis twa Kerniborgis, the ane callit Kerniborg moir, the uther callit Kerniborg beg; baith strethie craigis be nature biggit in the sea, and fortifeit about be the devise of man, lyand in the middis of it great stark streams of the sea, bruikit be Mcgillane of Doward, very perillous for schippis be reason of the starknes of the stream.  Thir Craigis are easily made unwynable be craftie men, and namelie the greatist is strenthie but douth.’  (Monro, 1549, pp.64-65.)


Monipennie  (c. 1612) says :


‘Two miles from Frosa [Eorsa] lyeth Vilua [Ulva], five miles of length, fruitfull of corne and store, with a commodious haven for gallies or boates.  Upon the south side of it lyeth Toluansa [Little Colonsay], with a wood of nut trees, reasonable fruitfull.  About 300 paces from this island, lyeth Gomatra, two miles long, and one mile broad, extending from the north to the south  From Gomatra, four miles southward, lye the two Staffae, both full of havening places,  From thence, four miles south east, lye the two Kerimurgæ, the more and the lesse, environed with such high shore, and furious tide, that by their own naturall defence, (supported somewhat by the industrie of man,) they are altogether invincible.  One mile from them lyes an island, the whole earth is blacke, whereof the people make peates for their fire.  Next lyeth Longa, two miles of length, and Bacha, halfe as much.’  (Monipennie,  c.1612, pp.180-181.)


Martin (1703) says :


‘To the North of Loch Levin, lies Loch Scafford, it enters South West, and runs North East; within it lies the Isles Eorsa, and Inchkenneth, both which are reputed very Fruitful in Cattle, and Corn.  /  There is a little Chappel in this Isle, in which many of the Inhabitants of all Ranks are buried.  Upon the North side of the Loch Scafford lies the Isle of Vevay, it’s three Miles in Circumference, and encompassed with Rocks and Shelves, bur Fruitful in Corn, Grass, &c.  /  To the West of Ulva, lies the Isle Gometra, a Mile in Circumference, and Fruitful, in proportion to the other Isles.  /  About four Miles further lie the small Isles call’d Kairnburg-More; and Kernbug-Beg, they are naturally very strong, fac’d all round with a Rock, having a narrow entry, and a violent Current of a Tide on each side, so that they are almost impregnable.  A very few Men are able to defend these two Forts against a thousand.  There is a small Garrison of the Standing Forces in them at present.  /  TO the South of these Forts lie the small Isles of Fladday, Lungay, Back, and the Call of the Back; Cod and Ling are to be had plentifully about all these Islands.’  (Martin, 1703, pp.252-3.)


MacLeans of Duart and MacQuarries of Ulva


Lachlan Lubanach MacLean, 1st of Duart, on 12th July 1390 received a charter by his brother in law, my forebear Donald of the Isles, of Gometra, together with the Constabulary of the castles of Carnaburg Mòr and Carnaburg Beg and the offices of fragmannach and ardmannach in the island of Iona (Munro 1986).


His son, Hector Ruadh MacLean of Duart was appointed Constable of Carnaburg on 1st November 1409.  He was said to have been killed at the battle of Harlaw in 1411, where he was second in command to the Lord of the Isles (MacLean-Bristol 1995 p174).  He was brother in law, through his marriage to Catherine Campbell, to my forebear Duncan Campbell of Lochow.   Hector’s son was Lachlan Og MacLean of Duart who married a cousin of my forebear John Sutherland.   In 1495 Lachlan Og’s son Hector Odhar MacLean of Duart received Royal Confirmation in his predecessors’ 1390 and 1409 charters, including Gometra, which in 1496 were erected into the barony of Duart and which he resigned to his natural son Lachlan Cattanach MacLean of Duart (MacLean-Bristol 1995 p175).  The significance of this is that Gometra was no longer held by the MacLeans from Macdonald of the Isles, but directly from the Scottish crown.


Hector Og MacLean of Duart (also my 13 great uncle), ‘filio et heredis apparentis’ of Hector Mòr, and grandson of Lachlan Cattanach, flourished between 1539 and 1575.  On 8th February 1572/3 he granted his wife Janet Campbell, sister of my forebear Archibald Campbell, ‘in her pure virginity’, lands in Gometra.  ‘He is said to have ‘lived after his father’s death but three years, in which time he spent all the money his father left him’ (NLS MS 28.3.12, 6 cited by MacLean-Bristol 1995 p178).


The MacLeans of Duart later granted a half-share of Gometra to the MacLeans of Treshnish, cadets of Ardgour, cadets of Duart, who were also made hereditary captains of Kernburg.


‘The 5th Maclean of Treshnish was Ewen, son of Ewen Mac-Donald-Dubh; he was a man of chivalrous character, of judicious conduct, and of considerable influence among the gentlemen of his day.   …  The ruins of his Gometra residence (and an impregnable stronghold it must have been,)  are still to be seen on a conical rock called Dún-Ban, in the North end of the narrow channel which divides Gometra from Ulva.  He was first married to a daughter of MacQuarrie of Ulva, by whom he had issue’  (MacLean 1838).


Lady’s Rock


The following story is told in several forms inconsistent with the historical record  (it cannot be as follows).  Janet MacLean was laird of Gomatra in the early 15th century.  This lady Gomatra was also the celebrated lady Duart of Lady’s Rock.   Having been marooned on a flooding skerry between Mull and Lismore by her husband, Lachlan Cattanach MacLean of Duart, her rescue by a boat from Tayvalich or Lismore was undetected by Duart, who was later dirked in his bed by my 14th great grandfather, her brother.  A 19th century account claims that Duart had his wife taken to the rock by his milk-brother because he had fallen in love with a lady Gometra, who eagerly (yet implausibly, given Gometra’s delights) left Gometra for the questionable amenities of Duart Castle on Mull (which is interesting if you consider that Duart’s wife was already lady Gometra).


MacQuarries of Ulva and of Ormaig


The MacQuarries of Ulva were also family connections of ancestors on that side of my family.  Alan MacQuarrie of Ulva’s wife, Lady Ulva, was a daughter of Alan MacLean, fourth son of Lachlan Mor of Duart and Lady Margaret Cunninghame.   Alan MacQuarrie’s brother Hector was the first MacQuarrie of Ormaig (Munro 1996 p15).  The MacQuarries of Ormaig went on to rent Gometra from the Campbells of Argyll after the Campbell dispossession of the MacLeans of Duart.


My 11th great grandfather was called James Cunningham and is remembered (together with a party of cousins and friends who were concerned about Scotland’s slide back towards Catholicism) for ill-advisedly kidnapping James VI while he was out hunting.  By flitting frequently, they managed to hold on to the King for about a year.  James Cunningham was uncle of MacLaine of Lochbuie and great-uncle to both MacQuarrie of Ormaig on Ulva, and MacQuarrie of Ulva proper, through his sister Margaret, wife of Lachlan Mór MacLean of Duart, 14th chief (son of Hector Og MacLean of Duart).  Some of Cunningham’s fellow conspirators, lost at sea in the ship carrying them into exile, were reported to have been spotted working as slaves in the castle of Algiers.  In 1601, another cousin, Robert Oliphant, travelled to Algiers to look for his enslaved kinsmen, carrying a letter of introduction to Sultan Mehmed III from Queen Elizabeth of England, but without luck.


Alan MacQuarrie was the grandfather of Lachlan, the last Chief of the MacQuarries, who eventually sold Ulva in July 1777 (Munro 1996 p28).


Campbell of Argyll


In the seventeenth century Janet’s family, the Campbells of Argyll, bought the debt and then foreclosed the holdings of their Duart cousins, including Gomatra, the then Duart took refuge in neighbouring Carnaburg (like Donald of the Isles before him), before leaving for France and advising his clansmen to make their accommodation with the Campbells.


MacLean of Torloisk


Later in the eighteenth century John Campbell, 5th  Duke of Argyll,  who by then had inherited the island, let Gometra at a preferential rate for his life to Lachlan MacLean, 7th of Torloisk, who built Torloisk House on the shores of Mull opposite Gometra.


Lachlan was son of Hector MacLean, 5th of Torloisk, who was out with the Jacobites in the '15, led by a brother-in-law and a cousin of one of my forebears.  Allan MacLean, Lachlan's brother, was out in the '45 where he fought at Culloden in the centre of the line, escaped to the Continent, and later joined the British Army and led the Royal Highland Emigrants at the successful defence of Quebec, so preventing Canada from becoming part of the United States.


Their sister the poet Alicia MacLean married Lachlan MacQuarrie, the last MacQuarrie chief of Ulva who, after fighting the rebels in America with his brother-in-law and many cousins, retired to neighbouring Little Colonsay where he lived to a great age, 'quit destitute for want of shoes and boots' and lacking enough salt to season an egg.  At this time, an offering of porridge still used to be poured into the sea as an inducement to the God of the Ocean to provide sea wrack.


Lachlan Macquarie of Ulva had entertained Boswell and Johnson before they went on to visit Lochbuie, where the telling episode of the dead sheep’s head occurred.  On the way, they stopped to visit Sir Allan MacLean of Duart at his home which, now that Duart proper was in Campbell hands, was on Inch Kenneth, and this inspired Johnson to write a Latin poem later translated by the Professor of Greek in the University of Glasgow, Sir Daniel Sandford, as follows :


‘Scarce spied amid the west-sea foam,

Yet once Religion’s chosen home,

Appears the isle whose savage race

By Kenneth’s voice was won to grace.

O’er glassy tides I thither flew,

The wonders of the spot to view.

In lowly cottage great MacLean

Held there his high ancestral reign,

With daughters fair, whom love might deem

The Naiads of the ocean stream:

Yet not in chilly cavern rude

Were they like Danube’s lawless brood;

But all that charms a polish’d age,

The tuneful lyre, the learned page,

Combined to beautify and bless

That life of ease and loneliness.

Now dawned the day whose holy light

Puts human hopes and cares to flight:

Nor ‘mid the hoarse waves’ circling swell

Did worship here forget to dwell.

What though beneath a woman’s hand

The sacred volume’s leaves expand;

No need of priestly sanction there—

The sinless heard makes holy prayer!

Then wherefore further seek to rove,

While here is all our hearts approve—

Repose, security and love?’


Sight-Seeing begins


Pennant (1776) says :


‘I have somewhere read, that Iona had been the seat of the Druids expelled by Columba, who found them there.  …  The library here must also have been invaluable, if we can depend on Boethius, who asserts, that Fergus the II assisting Alaric the Goth, in the sacking of Rome, brought away as share of the plunder, a chest of books, which he presented to the monastery of Iona.  Æneas Sylvius (afterwards Pope Pius II.) intended, when he was in Scotland, to have visited the library in search of the lost books of Livy, but was prevented by the death of the King, James I.  A small parcel of them were in 1525 brought to Aberdeen, and great pains were taken to unfold them, but through age and the tenderness of the parchment, little could be read; but from what the learned were able to make out, the work appeared to have rather been a fragment of Sallust than of Livy.  …  /  At eight of the clock in the morning, with the first fair wind we yet had, set sail for the sound: the view of Iona, its clustered town, the great ruins, and the fertility of the ground, were fine contrasts, in our passage to the red granite rocks of the barren Mull.  /  Loch-Screban, in Mull, soon opens to our view.  After passing a cape, placed in our maps far too projectingly, see Loch-in-a-Gall, a deep bay, with the isles of Ulva and Gometra in its mouth.  /  On the West appears the beautiful group of the Treashunish isles.  Nearest lies STAFFA, a new giant’s causeway, rising amidst the waves glossy and resplendent, from the beams of the Eastern sun.’  (Pennant, 1776, p.296.)


Pennant cites the notebooks of Sir Joseph Banks, who wrote about Staffa :


‘Compared to this what are the cathedrals of the palaces built by men! Mere models of playthings, imitations as diminutive as his works will always be when compared to those of nature.  Where now is the boast of the architect! Regularity the only part in which he fancied himself to exceed his mistress, Nature, is here found in her possession, and here it has been for ages undescribed.  Is not his the school where the art was originally studied, and what has been added to this by the whole Grecian school! a capital to ornament the column of nature, of which they could execute only a model; and for that very capital they were obliged to a bush of Acanthus.’  (Banks, cited by Pennant, 1776, p.300.)


Staffa became an important tourist destination, visited by for example, Keats, Turner and of course Mendelssohn, amongst many others, after the ‘discovery’ of ‘Fingal’s’ Cave by Sir Joseph Banks.


‘It is commonly believed the cave was named after the hero Finn or Fingal but this is quite erroneous.  According to Faujus de Saint Fond, who visited the island in 1799, the true name of the cave is “an Uamh Bhin”, the Musical Cave.  This a very appropriate name for the cave descriptive of the resonant booming noise which echoes in its vault whenever the sea surges in.  There is no doubt that this “musical” resonance inspired Mendelssohn, in 1830, to write his overture “Fingal’s Cave”  …  Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist and explorer, visited Staffa in 1772 and he wrote “We asked the name of it.  Said our guide The Cave of Fiuhn.  What is Fiuhn? said we.  Fiuhn MacCoul, who the translator of Ossian’s works has called Fingal”.  …  Now, the pronunciation of “Uamh Bhin” sounds like “Uamh Finn” …  so, unfortunately, the guide, without conferring with his informant, assumed the wrong meaning which was, perhaps, more romantic and therefore more obvious to his ears.  So Sir Joseph assumed that the name of the cave was Fingal’s Cave.’  (Maclean, 1997, p.8).


Nietzsche says :


‘Fin (for example in the name Fin-Gal), the distinguishing word for nobility, finally for the good, noble, pure, originally meant the blond-headed, in contradistinction to the dark, black-haired aboriginal inhabitants.’ (Nietzsche, 1887, p.466.)


A Journey through the Sound of Gometra


In the year 1794 and in order to express the depth of his esteem, Alexander Wedderburn, the friend of David Hume and Adam Smith, and brother of my 5th great grandmother Janet Erskine, built a house for his protégé, the Brunonian physician and expert on mineral waters, Thomas Garnett  (Garnett, 1804, p.x)) .


Garnett had proposed a theory of intelligence in plants and perhaps minerals which eerily anticipates Schopenhauer’s theory of the Wille as Ding-an-sich  (Garnett, 1811, p.89).  He gives examples of encounters with intelligent plants including ivy, mint, and lime, and of the latter’s behaviour he remarks :


‘Does not this appear an instance of design in vegetables, consequent on some degree of perceptivity?  Whether it may be called an instance of design, or instinct, the author conceives is immaterial; but he thinks it is analogous to many actions performed by animals.’  (Garnett 1811).


Garnett describes at length those plants which feed on animals :


‘The dissolution of the substance of the fly, is supposed by naturalists to constitute part of the nourishment of this plant; and as the instances are innumerable where animals feed upon plants, this seems to afford an example of retaliation.  A British plant, the Drosera, very much resembles the Dionœa muscipula, not only in the form of its leaves, but in its killing flies and other insects, as I have before mentioned in the description of Benlomond.   In short, the principle of life seems very universally diffused, but is bestowed on different beings in different degrees.  To animals is given the largest share, but throughout the whole animal kingdom one species descends below another, in the perfection of its mental powers, as in its organic sensations.  This progression is so very gradual, that the most perfect of an inferior species, approaches indefinitely near to the most imperfect of that which is above it.  The chain is continued, by imperceptible links, [between] animals and vegetables, and perhaps even to the mineral kingdom.’  (Garnett 1811, p.90.)


Four years later, anno 1798, Garnett visited the MacLeans of Torloisk, whence he was conveyed to Staffa and Icolmkill (Iona) by the Gometra boatmen.


‘July 17th The distance from Aros to Torloisk is about fifteen miles, and the road, if the indistinct path over which we travelled deserves the name, is the most rugged, stony, and mountainous I ever saw.  We were, however, amply recompensed for our labour, by a very hospitable reception we met with from Mr Maclean of Torloisk, and his good lady.  (Torloisk in Gaëlic, signifies “the burnt hill.”)


‘Mr. Maclean’s house is large and elegant, and unquestionably the best in the island.  It is situated on a rising ground above the sea, having in front the islands of Gometra and Ulva, with a view of Icolmkill, Staffa, Dutchman’s Cap, and several other islands rising up like black spots out of the ocean.  The situation is delightful in summer, but must be very bleak in winter, as it has nothing to shelter it from the storms of the west, which are by much the most frequent.


‘As we wished to visit Staffa the next morning, our worthy host Torloisk procured us a boat belonging to some of his tenants in the island of Gometra, which was engaged to come over for us at an early hour.


‘July 18th.  The boat came at the time appointed; but the morning being very stormy, we could not venture to visit Staffa.  …


‘July 19th.  The weather still continuing stormy, there was no possibility of visiting Staffa; but in the society of Torloisk and the ladies, we were not disposed to complain.  …


‘July 2oth.  The morning being fine, and the sea tolerably calm, the boat came over from Gometra to convey us to Staffa.  On going onboard, we witnessed another proof of Mrs MacLean’s goodness, for we found wine for ourselves, and spirits for the boatmen, with a plentiful supply of provisions for us all.  We left Mull at about 11 o’clock, and it being perfectly calm, our rowers were obliged to exercise their oars, and soon brought us through the sound of Gometra, or the narrow passage between Gometra and Ulva, two islands lying in the mouth of Loch-na-gall, the latter of which is of considerable size.  This channel is so shallow, that a boat can only get through it at high water.  As soon as we had passed this sound, we saw Staffa about ten miles distant, presenting nothing particularly striking in its appearance, seeming only at this distance an abrupt rock, flat at the top, but whose sides descend perpendicularly into the ocean.  The day continued very fine, but as a light breeze had sprung up, the sail was hoisted, and we steered for the island.  When we were at the distance of about three miles, we heard what we supposed to be the report of guns, which were repeated at regular intervals, perhaps every half minute; the sound appeared to come from no great distance, and as we supposed it to proceed from some vessels either firing guns of distress, or engaged with each other, we were anxious to reach the island, that we might have a view of them: but when we turned the northern point, we perceived the cause of these sounds.  In the rock on the north side of Staffa, was a cavity resembling an immense mortar, and though there was not much wind, yet the waves, which had been raised into mountains by the violence of the preceding tempest, were still very high, and broke with violence against the islands.  Whenever a wave came against this part of the rock, by its irresistible force it condensed the air in the cavity, and more than half filled it with water; but when the force of the wave was exhausted, and its immense pressure removed, the spring of the condensed air forced out the water in a fine white froth, like smoke, accompanied by a report similar to the firing of canons.’  (Garnett, 1811, p.218.)


Garnett describes the inhabitants of Staffa, whose cooking pot would shudder with the explosions of the waves in the submarine caverns.  That night the Gometra boatmen landed them on Icolmkill :


‘We went to bed in a most wretched apartment, with a floor of liquid mire, and open to the roof, except where two or three boards had been put over to prevent the rain from falling on the beds; but this was found to be a very inadequate preventative, for the night being very wet, the drops fell heavily on us.  We had, however, plenty of companions in the room; for, besides the light infantry, &c. in the beds, we had several chickens, a tame lamb, two or three pigs, a dog, and some cats, which last went and came at pleasure through a hole in the roof, so that we could not expect a very comfortable night’s rest.  Notwithstanding these obstacles to our repose, the fatigue of the day contributed, with a little whisky toddy, to “steep our senses in forgetfulness,” and we enjoyed some hours of sleep, from which we were awoke by the attempts of a young cock to crow; it had mounted on my bed, and flapping its wings began to ape its seniors in a manner so ludicrous, that Mr. Watts was seized with such a fit of laughter, as effectually to put an end to our repose.  As this island is much visited by the curious, it is surprising that there should be no better place for the accommodation of stranger; it would not be unworthy of the munificence of the noble proprietor, to render the resort of pilgrims to these precious relics of antiquity more commodious.’  (Garnett, 1811, p.245.)


On Christmas day that same year, Garnett’s wife died in childbirth.   His depression was such that Garnett was unable to fulfil his duties as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, and he removed to practice as physician at the Marylebone Dispensary where, in 1802, less than four years after his trip with the Gometra boatmen, he died from typhus fever contracted from one of his patients, leaving his two infant daughters orphaned.


MacDonald of Staffa


On November 19th 1807,  George McClean, brother of my forebear Susan McClean, was drowned together with 400 others in the wreck of the Prince of Wales and the Rochdale off Kingstown Harbour.  At the subsequent trial of the Master, Captain Jones (who was acquitted) it was alleged that the companionways had been lifted from the hold, trapping the passengers, when the ship began to founder, while the Master embarked in the only boat.


The same year, when in turn parts of the estates of the Campbells of Argyll were foreclosed (by Messrs. Coutts), Gometra (which had reverted to the Campbells at the death of Torloisk) together with Burg was bought by the 'improving' landlord Ranald MacDonald of Staffa (1777-1838).  This was the first of only two occasions in historical times (despite claims to the contrary) that Gometra and Ulva have been held simultaneously by the same family.  (Further, despite claims to the contrary, Gometra has not been held in historical times by the MacQuarries of Ulva (except when Donald MacQuarrie of Ormaig rented it from the Campbells of Argyll), nor was it held, despite claims to the contrary, by the Clarks of Ulva.)


Staffa was the oldest son from his second family of Colin MacDonald of Boisdale.  Boisdale, a cadet of the MacDonalds of Clanranald, had in 1785 bought Ulva in his son's name (succeeding both Dugald Campbell of Achnaba, who had bought from the last MacQuarrie in 1777 and whose own son had sold on to Colonel Charles Campbell of Barbreck).


The island of Inch Kenneth and Gribun on Mull, which had been held by MacLean of Duart at the time of Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s visit, went to Robert McDonald, Staffa's brother.  (Inch Kenneth’s grandson Robert MacDonald, 3rd of Inch Kenneth, died in Natal in 1872 ending the Inch Kenneth line.)


Staffa married Elizabeth Steuart, who had inherited the post of hereditable armour bearer to the Queen, and squire of the Royal Body.  His friend, the antiquary and author of Waverley, Sir Walter Scott, on a bad verse day, wrote of him:


Staffa, sprung from high Macdonald,

Worthy branch of old Clan-Ranald,

Staffa, king of all kind fellows,

Well befall thy hills and valleys,

Lakes and inlets, deeps and shallows,

Cliffs of darkness, caves of wonder,

Echoing the Atlantic thunder;

Mountains which the grey mist covers,

Where the Chieftain spirit hovers,

Pausing while his pinions quiver,

Stretched to quit our land for ever!

Each kind influence reign above thee!

Warmer heart, 'twixt this and Jaffa

Beats not, than in heart of Staffa!  (Munro, 1996.)


Staffa, in turning the shielings in the centre of Ulva into a sheep walk by 1813, initiated the clearance of that island, but even this action did not save him from ruin.  The people of Ulva and Gometra, together with Staffa MacDonald himself, were compromised by the collapse in the value of their kelp shores at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1817 Staffa’s affairs were put into the hands of trustees and he was saved from bankruptcy only by the intervention of his father-in-law.


Ulva was sold in 1821 by Staffa’s trustees to a nephew of  MacLaine of Lochbuie, Lt-General Charles MacQuarrie (brother of General Lachlan MacQuarrie) who bought it with prize money from his service in the British Army.


Clark of Ulva


Ulva was sold again on Charles MacQuarrie’s death in 1835 to a Morayshire lawyer who was practicing at Stirling, Francis Clark, W.S..  When he came to live on Ulva, Clark conscientiously learned Gaelic and recorded local customs.  When disaster struck with successive years of famine after repeated partial failures of the potato crop, Clark with his own money bought and imported food to feed the steadily increasing population of Ulva.  When their situation still did not improve and he began to run low on money, facing ruin he found himself incapable of  rising to the occasion.  Together with his factor, Dugald McColl, a native of Appin (who has been accused by those evicted of unnecessary brutality) Clark completed the clearance of Ulva, sunwise from Ormaig, which the MacDonalds had started.


Duncan McKinnon told me :


— I met old Clark, the old man, I was only eight or nine, he was fourteen or fifteen when his father evicted the crofters, and the cattle were lost in the bracken

—Was it the story you told me, about him not wanting to hear Starvation Point called that?

—That’s the one.  He was only a child at the time.

—But he still felt guilty about it.

—He still did.  He turned his mouth down, the strangest face, and he walked away.

—Did your parents or grandparents have any memories of the starvation, the evictions?

—A terrible time, that was.

—I know they were in Skye at that time, but did they talk about it?

—When we came to Gometra, the McFarlanes and the McDonalds were there.  Is Jane Ann still alive?

—She’s died I’m afraid.

—She has a brother, Andrew, in Paisley.


Gometra’s New School


Gometra was retained by Staffa, who died in 1838, but ownership was shared with his mother Isabella née Campbell and his sister Isabella McDonald (1816-1893, and married to the Rev Lockhart Rose).


There is an account of Gometra’s new school from this time in the Annual Report of the Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools.


‘The Rev. Neil Maclean, Missionary for Ulva and Gometra, in a letter dated 23rd October [1820], thus writes respecting your school in the latter island ; “On the 18th inst. I examined your school at Gometra.  A few of the more advanced scholars were necessarily absent on the day of examination, being employed at this busy season, assisting their parents in their farming operations.  Of those who were present, I have the satisfaction to say that, though they were all very young, they acquitted themselves in a most creditable manner, and shewed a proficiency which the utmost assiduity on the part of the teacher, and unremitting perseverance and application on their own part, could alone enable them to attain.  The Bible class read fluently and distinctly; and spelled with much ease and accuracy.  They could all repeat portions of the Scriptures, and the questions of the Shorter Catechism in Gaelic from beginning to end, or in whatever order they were asked.  They not only repeated them by rote, but proved in a most gratifying manner that they understood most of their import.  In their explanation, especially of the answer to, What is effectual calling? they verified the words of our blessed Lord, that ‘those things, which were hid from the wise and prudent, were revealed unto babes.’  Those who read in the New Testament and Elementary Classes, manifested a corresponding degree of diligence and proficiency, an earnest of their future attainments.  This school has been stationed at Gometra for two years, and during that time has been most useful, and esteemed a great blessing by the people.  The teacher has been in the practice of convening the scholars on the Sabbath, when their parents and the neighbouring inhabitants attended to hear the word of God read; thus supplying the place of public worship on the intervening Sabbaths of my preaching at Ulva; and enabling many aged and infirm people who could not travel to the ordinary place of worship, to hear the glad tidings of salvation.  I found the happy result of this practice, on going to catechise in that quarter, in the superior degree of religious knowledge diffused among the people.  It was likewise exemplified last summer, at the time of administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in this parish, by the number of young persons from that place, who came forward for the first time, to participate in the sacred ordinance, and who exhibited an extensive acquaintance with the Scriptures, with sound views of the doctrines of the Gospel.’’ (Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools, 1827.)

Gometra during the Great Hunger


The McDonalds of Staffa, mother and daughter, held Gometra during the terrible period of the Great Hunger, when on Gometra, too, the principal source of food, potatoes, failed.  Thankfully nobody starved to death (Devine 1998).  I have not been able to find any direct references to this period of Gometra's history in the Napier Commission's Proceedings or elsewhere, and I do not know whether the MacDonald ladies evicted anyone.  (It is interesting that some lairds were attacked for discouraging emigration, fearing the depopulation of their estates.)  Nevertheless the island's population shrank by emigration from 77 people in 1841 (amongst them John MacDonald, Gometra's weaver, and Alexander MacQuarrie, Gometra's  tailor) to 23 by 1861.  One of the causeways between Gometra and Ulva was built to provide work to relieve destitution.


Diaspora and the Fate of the Emigrants


Seen from the Scottish end, it seems as if the emigrants went out into nothingness, and it is important to follow them into the New World.  Midge Gough (2014) writes :


‘My wife and I have retired to a small section of our original farm. This section is named Gometra by my Aunt who we purchased it from. It is about 2km. south of the original property settled by our ancestors in 1861. They were Catherine Macquarie, widow of Donald McDonald, and her 2 sons and 8 daughters who had left Gometra for Australia via the HIES scheme on the New Zealander. They arrived in Portland, Victoria in 1853. The New Zealander never left Portland as it caught fire in the bay as it was receiving cargo for the return journey. It can still be seen as a shadow at very low tide from the cliffs above. The land they selected was immediately called Gometra.’  (Jim and Midge Gough, 2014, personal communication.  The firechain, used for suspending cooking pots above the fire in their Gometra black house, which Catherine Macquarie carried with her on the New Zealander, is still in her family).


With many thousands of others from Ireland and Scotland, my own ancestors also left on the emigrant ships to the New World, in our case largely bound for Nova Scotia where, according to tradition, we interbred with the indigenous Mi'kmaq First Nation peoples, with Quebecois Seigneurs (the Seigneuries were an attempt by the French crown to plant feudalism in the New World) and with French Canadians from the later wave of protestant refugees who had fled Montbeliard, on the sailing ship Speedwell, escaping the terrifying holocaust of the Massacres of St Bartholomew.


Once there they felled trees to build themselves log-cabins and cut farms out of the wilderness.  My great great grandfather Robert Dunn drowned whilst piloting a raft of logs down a freezing Canadian river, leaving his infant son James (subsequently to become hero of lady Beaverbrook's narrative poem The barefoot boy from Bathurst) $100 which his uncle embezzled.  Robert's  widow worked as a housekeeper to educate James who later earned enough to set her up in her own fine house (locally remarkable for being made of bricks rather than clapboard) where, shortly after it was finished, she died of Spanish ‘flu.


Continuing to prosper James Dunn, returned to the Old World in a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, fitted with a bedroom and bathroom, which would hop behind him from airfield to airfield so that, should he need it, he would always have somewhere to sleep.  His then collection included works by Bronzino (Lodovico Capponi, which had belonged to Napoleon's brother Lucien), Gainsborough, Goya and part of Manet's Bullfight, cut out by the artist; which, when the bank Dunn had founded foundered, he sold to Henry Clay Frick whose own collection can be viewed on a populous island to the West of Gometra and about ten times its size, Manhattan.


Like Sir Walter Scott, after the collapse of his bank, rather than declare bankruptcy James Dunn worked for many years to pay off his creditors and, once he had done so, formed a second, chastened and modest collection including works by then less well known artists including Freud, Orpen, Sutherland, Dali and Sickert, which now embellish the Beaverbrook Foundation in Frederickton, New Brunswick.


MacLean of Gometra


The preceptor of William of Orange at the Hague was the Rev Archibald MacLaine who, according to Scott’s Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ, belonged to the Lochbuie branch of the family.  He translated Mosheim’s History into English, just as his own great-grandfather, the Rev. Alexander MacLaine, had translated a number of the Psalms into Gaelic verse.   ‘He was a man of deep piety and extensive learning’ (MacLean Sinclair 1899).  He was tutor to a shared first cousin of several of my ancestors.  His eldest son, Charles Anthony MacLaine married Catherine, tenant of Burg on the Torloisk estate, and had out of her either two or three future lairds of Gometra, the first being Donald MacLaine, who was born in 1814, and purchased Gometra in 1857, dying in 1871.  ‘He was a very popular man.’  His brother Peter succeeded him in Gometra.  He died in May, 1893.  Their brother John was tenant of Kinnegharar and Burg and by some accounts also some-time laird of Gometra.  ‘He was a successful cattle-dealer.’ (MacLean-Sinclair 1899 p.480.)


In 1864 Donald McLaine had rebuilt Gometra House (allegedly using, as Jane Anne and several others told me, the staircase from a wrecked ship) and after his death the island was held by his brothers John and Peter McLaine.


Contradictory accounts place these three brothers as sons not of Charles Anthony MacLaine but of Hector McLean in Drumgigha near Dervaig (Currie 2002).  Both accounts agree that their mother was a daughter of Donald McArthur in Burg, but called either Flora or Catherine.  Three of the four cottages at Bailiochdrach were built by this family.


Ten years later, on 14th October 1874, Duncan MacInnes aged 50, Lachlan MacInnes aged 21, and Andrew MacFarlane also aged 21 drowned when their skiff capsized in a gale of wind off Gometra's Rudha Bhrisdeadh-ramh (oar-break point).


Mr Roderick MacLaine, grandson of John MacLean, the successful cattle-dealer, purchased Gometra from his great-uncle Peter’s estate in 1893, after it had been advertised in the Scotsman, the Oban Times and the Glasgow Herald from July to September.   Roderick, a native of Dervaig, and his wife Flora Alexandra, a daughter of Rev Roderick McDonald in Lagganulva, had made money as merchants in Glasgow.  They were relatives of Cally Fleming’s.


Roderick MacLean employed six men.  He grew corn and ran a threshing-machine, a corn-bruiser, and also a saw-mill using water-power from the small reservoir above Gometra House.  His wife's sisters served at table, but did not sit down to eat with visitors.  He kept a new-fangled motorboat, the first in the area, which would sometimes make the journey to Oban for supplies.


At this time the S.S. Brenda, built 1904, 115 tons, out of Glasgow serving the Argyll Piers, called here monthly bringing feeding, fuel and messages, and a fishing smack would come weekly from Bunessan carrying messages.


The Great War


When the Great War came, Jane Ann MacFarlane’s uncle, Duncan MacFarlane, was appointed a Coast Watcher at a fee of 1 shilling per day watch, and 2 shillings per night.


‘The Admiralty did not comprehend how the Germans intended using the U-boat.  Winston Churchill actually rejected any thought of using submarines against merchant shipping stating: ‘I do not think this would ever be done by a civilised power.’  …  The Admiralty saw the need for surveillance around the coast.  Some senior naval officers regarded the submarine as a vessel well adapted to monitoring shore installations and ports while submerged.  A preoccupation with spies led others to believe that it was also well suited to dropping them off in remote areas.  …  On September 1st and 17th [1914] there were reports of U-boats off Scapa Flow.  The fleet was ordered to Loch-nan-Cille [near Gometra], Mull.  It did not return to Scapa until early 1915, by which time defences had been strengthened.  …  Duncan MacFarlane of Gometra, who was on constant day watch, wrote on the 17th [December 2014]:


Sir, I hope you will excuse i dated the last report wrong i was in a hurry the post was waiting on me we are not sure when the post comes or will he come at all.  Yrs truly.


A little later he sent a report:


Sir a very suspicious block of wood shaped like a fender i had it secured this morning its not mine [a mine] But it seems to be chamber inside and a small connection wire runs inside its in Lochtua ulva side near Gometra when you are round you must see it whether its explosive or not I Don’t know its rather suspicious I am your humble servant, D. MacFarlane.’  (Eagle, 1990.)


The Twenties and the Thirties


In about 1922, Margaret Low wrote :


‘Aunt Amy knew the MacLeans who owned the island of Gometra and she took J.J. and me to visit them.  My mother and Alec drove us to Torloisk in Lottie’s tub; we ran up the Bealach-a S’gan with Lottie galloping in the trap.  Roderick MacLean, a retired grocer from Glasgow and brother of Dr Peter MacLean and his sisters, Betsy and Flora who lived at Glenview, a big house across the Dervaig road from Ardbeg, met us with his motorboat, the first I’d ever seen, and took us across to the beautiful sheltered harbour below the house in Gometra.


We stayed two nights there.  Mrs Roderick MacLean’s two sisters, MacDonalds from Lagganulva, acted as the servants, which rather surprised me; they didn’t sit down with us at meals.  Roderick MacLean had built houses for the six men he employed and their families.  Gometra was a good farming island and it was then a thriving community.  I remember seeing a boy riding by with three horses, going to cut the corn.


There was a shian, a fairy hill, on Gometra with a “door”, a sort of shallow cave.  I was invited to try to go in but I refused in horror, saying if I did I would never come back, and I believed it too.


We walked the eight miles to Ulva House, crossing the short bridge between the two islands; the channel dries out at low tide.  I felt it was a long way and that we would never arrive.  However, we did and had a great welcome from Frank and Caroline Clark and their son Francis.  (Margaret Low.)


Talking of this period to Am Muileach, Mina Robertson said :


I remember the first wireless being installed in the ‘Big House’.  The teacher and all the children were invited to see and hear this wonderful ‘contraption’.  I remember it as a huge cabinet with numerous knobs and dials to which was attached two sets of head phones (no speakers).  After much twiddling, screeching etc. we eventually heard a voice, or music, which to us seemed to come from ‘outer space’.


For weeks we went about talking in whispers and being very well behaved, as we were sure that this ‘thing’ that was in the ‘Big House’ could see and hear all we were doing and saying.


‘Lachie the Post’ delivered and collected the outgoing mail on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Ulva Ferry Post Office which was then attached to the school, the Head Mistress doing Post Mistress as well.  I don’t remember any daily papers being delivered though no doubt they went to the ‘Big House’, but the postman also carried books of stamps, postal orders etc which he sold to any household requiring them.


During the summer months the estate launch, the Catriona went to Ulva Ferry on Saturday to meet Messrs A & F MacDonald’s grocery van from Dervaig, and during the winter this run was done by pony and trap.  Sometimes a member from each household would go on this trip and collect their own groceries, weekly papers, of which the ‘Oban Times’, the ‘People’s Journal’ and the ‘People’s Friend’ seemed to have been the most popular.  They would also collect any mail left at the Post office from the previous night.


If, as in the winter time, only the driver of the trap could travel to the ferry, depending on what amount of goods he had for the return journey, he would collect all the groceries for the various households and would be met by the recipients on his return.  The bulk of the groceries etc came from Glasgow on the SS Brenda.  Oatmeal, flour, grain for feeding poultry and cattle feeding was bought by the hundredweight (or boll measure).


Merchants in Glasgow and Greenock would send boxes of various items of foodstuffs, tobacco, matches, candles etc.  This boat left Glasgow once a month and called at various ports on the west Coast including Calgary, Ulva, Gometra, Tiroran.


Every house on the island was occupied.  The MacFarlanes and the MacDonalds at Ballacloich, Lachie MacPherson (ploughman and family, Allan John Cowan (manager) and family, Donald MacKinnon (shepherd) and family, Ruary MacNeill (general worker) and family, were in the houses nearest the steadings, and of course the ‘Big House’ was occupied by the McLeans.


The school was operational, the teacher being Miss M McLeod, ‘Madge[ to everyone except the scholars to whom she was always referred to as Miss McLeod.  I cannot remember how many pupils there were on the roll at that time, but I think there were four MacNeills, three MacDonalds, two McPhersons, three MacKinnons, and two MacFarlanes, making a total of 14.  I know that a photograph existed but I have been unable to trace a copy.


When the MacNeills moved from Ulva to Gometra, the flitting was carried out by Donald MacVicar’s smack, the Anna Bhan, which ended her days beached on the island of Calve at Tobermory.  I believe she was set fire to a few years ago.  What a sad end for a boat that was so well known plying between the islands on the West coast with her cargo of slates from Easdale, lime from Lismore, sand and gravel from various beaches and furniture.


That reminds me of another smack that regularly spent some months every summer in the Acairseid Mhor (large harbour).  The Smiling Morn was owned by the Robertsons, lobster fishermen from Tobermory.  The crew consisted of the father, ‘Old Jake’ as we called him, and his two sons Donald and Johnnie.  Another son, Callum, who I got to know in later years, was chief officer on the MV Lochinvar on the Sound of Mull run.


The Smiling Morn usually left Tobermory in the spring, spent some weeks or months at the Treshnish Islands, the father stayed on the smack which was used as a base and did the cooking, repaired lobster creels etc while the two sons worked the lobster creels from the launch.   Johnnie and Donald had their bicycles aboard and would cycle to Tobermory on the Saturday after their day’s fishing was finished and, then return on Sunday night ready to start work on Monday.


We used to love to go for a ceilidh on the Smiling Morn where Old Jake would keep us spellbound with his tales, while he dished out large mugs of steaming hot tea from the brown enamelled teapot which always seemed to sit on the stove, at the same time spreading ship’s biscuits with a generous layer of butter.  These biscuits were made by Yule the Bakers in Tobermory and must have been all of 6 inches in diameter and about half an inch thick and were supplied in sacks to the ships, and I’m sure if they were kept dry they would have lasted for years.  I don’t think anyone could have taken more than one at a time, and to us children it was a real struggle, which seemed to amuse our host.


Gometra at that time was owned by Mr Roderick McLean, a native of Dervaig who had become a successful businessman in Glasgow.  He hated waste, and anything that could be re-used would be saved, including for instance bent nails which would be straightened and used again.


One story which he often repeated to us children concerned himself when he first started up as an apprentice in a grocer’s shop in Glasgow.  He was weighing peas (probably into 1lb or half pound bags – no pre-pack in those days) in the back shop when his boss walked in and discovered some peas had dropped to the floor.  He was told to pick them up, with the remark that it would not weigh a pound without those ones.


All the boys were expected to work during the school holidays and Saturdays, for which they received no payment in cash.  There were no shops in which to spend it anyway so we were really quite happy, but in early December every year, every boy received a new suit, shirt, tie, shoes and stockings.’   (Mina Robertson, 1985).


Mina Robertson, was the youngest of William and Isobel Robertson’s seven children.  William worked as a sail-maker and lobster fisherman off Gometra.  Mina had 11 children with her husband, Jackie Taque from the Ross of Mull.  She  died in 1987 aged 82, leaving at least 50 children and grand-children, many of whom live in Tobermory.  (Am Muileach, p.4.)


Duncan MacKinnon said :


‘Every Saturday I walked to Ulva Ferry, to Oskamull where the postman came, to get groceries.  I used to walk back at night and used to see every ghost at every ruin, all in my bare feet.  We didn't have any luxuries then.’  (Duncan MacKinnon, in conversation with Roc Sandford).


Duncan MacKinnon also said :


—When we came to Gometra, the McFarlanes and the McDonalds were there.  Is Jane Ann still alive?

—She’s died I’m afraid.

—She has a brother, Andrew, in Paisley.  He was much younger than her.  ...  There were two Anguses in her family, red Angus and wee Angus, we used to call them, and red Angus was her mother’s brother,  Jessie was her mother’s name, I don’t remember the grandmother's, she was always old Mrs MacFarlane to me.  Do you remember the old boat — I saw it when I was there — in the First World war it left Canada with a load of apples —

—The Labrador?

—The Labrador — now she was torpedoed, and all the bays of Loch Tuath and Gometra were red with apples — and now this lifeboat came drifting in to Loch Tuath, and three boats went out for it — Gometra, and Torloisk, and one other — and Gometra got there first, and it was a lifeboat off the Labrador.  When I was there they used to use it for going out to the boats.  And did you hear about that other yacht wrecked – on Maesgeir – we were making hay at the time – it was about 1933 – don’t take that for certain – this yacht came round the edge of Mull, it was a sailing boat, because Angus MacFarlane …  said he better keep out of there – you know the reef behind Maesgeir, and it sailed in behind Maesgeir and it disappeared, next we saw a man standing on top of Maesgeir, he disappeared, then there were two standing there –  they went out with a boat to Maesgeir, and they were two brothers from Northern Ireland , and a friend – when the boat hit the reef one was thrown onto Maesgeir and he climbed back onto the yacht — and an old woman on Skye exactly  3 weeks later to the day, she was going down to the shore for her cows …

—For her cows?

—That’s right, to milk her cows, and she found your man in the seaweed.  The other two were saved, they were thrown up onto Maesgeir next, because I had to go all the way to the ferry to call the policeman, Sgt Craig he was called.  The name of the yacht was the Ribble.

—The Ribble?

—The Ribble.  The engine of the yacht is still at the reef, behind Maesgeir, you can see it through the water, unless someone has got it up.

—When did you leave Gometra?

—1938 — we were there for 10 and a half years – then we went to Killin up Glen Lochy.  My brother was called up, and I was in the Farm Reserves.  When I was on Mull I went to see Lachy the post – wee Lachy we called him.  And he still remembered me.

—And do you know Jane Ann’s story of a mermaid being washed up.

—Oh no, I don’t believe in mermaids.  The only thing I saw washed up was seals.  That’ll be a made up story of Jane Ann’s.


—Baileclaidh was really called Bailecloudh — I don't know the spelling, but it means cemetery place.  My brother Peter [McKinnon] was buried there.


Duncan stated that the Labrador had been torpedoed, so he may have conflated two wrecks, one from the time of the Great War :


‘The sixty-two passengers of the Dominion Line Steamship Labrador out of St John’s, New Brunswick bound for Liverpool, were disturbed by a slight shudder around 7am on 1st March 1899.   News spread around the ship that she had run aground on MacKenzie’s Rock, near Skerryvore, and passengers were disembarked into the ship’s boats while her cargo of grain, swelling from seawater, was already bursting out of the holds.’   (Moir 1994)


At this time there were 30 people living here, and twelve in the school.   Jane Anne MacFarlane lived at Baileclaidh with her mother Jess, her grandmother, and her uncles Duncan (now released from coast watch duties) and Angus who fished and had, until it sank in 1927, carried people from the Paddle Steamer Grenadier (Capt. MacArthur, Master) to Fingal's Cave.


MacBrayne’s paddle steamer Grenadier, launched 1885, returned from her normal Oban to Staffa run to her usual berth at the North Pier, Oban, on 5th September 1927 on what turned out to be her last trip.  Just after midnight Oban was disturbed by a series of long blasts from the Grenadier’s siren, while huge flames began to leap from the moored steamer.  The fire brigade was unable to quench the flames, so her stern was pulled out into Oban harbor and she was allowed to sink.  This alone extinguished  fires.  The bodies of three of the crew, trapped when the main companionway began to blaze, were later recovered by divers.  (Moir, 1994).


Ivor Ingram tells how the MacFarlanes used to row from Gometra to chapel at Fanmore on Mull on Sundays.


Angus MacFarlane said :


‘People did not know then what prawns were – if they caught one they’d likely just toss it back.’  Angus remembers walking to Salen to see the doctor – there was no other way to get there.  …  Children were born and people died in their own homes, and coffins would be made at home – his uncle made coffins.


‘At that time there were still three people living on Little Colonsay, two men and a woman.  One of the men died, so a joiner made a coffin to send over to them.  At the last minute he put in a screw driver in case they hadn’t got one.   He never knew what happened to his screw driver.’  (Angus MacFarlane as told to Susan Walker, Am Muileach.)


Jane Anne MacFarlane told me :


‘I never had a father.  I had my mother.  And I had two uncles who kept a boat at Sailen Bec.  And two uncles who were drowned.  ...  My uncles caught a dead mermaid once in their nets, and had to bury her.  Once a year I put seaweed on her grave. ...   I was given a pipe from the spring by the road, but something broke and it flooded my little room, so they took it out again.  There is a pipe from Tor Mor, it never dries up; I would fetch a pail from there when I needed water.  ...  Once I heard the fairies singing, just by fairy hill.  What did they sound like?  Just like fairies.’


Charlie and Morag MacDonald also lived at Baileclaidh at this time.  Charles’s grandfather was James MacDonald.  His father was John, married to Flora MacNeill from the Ross of Mull.   James, John, Flora and Charles’s brother James who died young are all buried on Gometra.  Charlie and Morag left Gometra for Kilninver in 1952 just after their daughter was born.  Morag was from Tiree, and lived in the first of the row of cottages, where she stayed after her marriage.


Charlie MacDonald in his day was clearly the linchpin of Gometra, and his daughter Catriona MacDonald writes :


He was in the Home Guard during the war and they met every week for information films in Salen and to practise their drill.  He writes in his diary about going up to the ferry on the bus for rations. I presume this was some sort of car. Possibly a Bedford which they did have. He was always taking people to the ferry or collecting them. Otherwise it was by bike.  /  They went out fishing a lot and caught mainly saithe and cuddies and mackerel.


Catriona also writes : ‘


Charles MacDonald 1907-1984 had a brother and 3 sisters, all born in Gometra.  /  Their parents were John MacDonald 1861-1938 [born & died in Gometra] a ferryman and boatman and Flora MacNeill 1873-1940 from the Ross of Mull  /  John's parents were James MacDonald 1815-1906 [born & died in Gometra] a weaver & ferryman and Mary Maclnnes 1820-1906 from Ardmore whose grandfather was Torquil McQuarrie from Ulva. They had 3 children.  /  James's parents were John MacDonald 1779-1859 [born & died in Gometra] son of John & Flora, and Marion Lamont 1782-1870. They had 7 children.  /  As you can see my family line goes back a long way in Gometra. When I was born my parents lived there but my mother went to a nursing home on the mainland to have me.  I lived in Gometra till 1 was 3 or 4.  /  My father always spoke about meeting the steamers and taking passengers into Staffa.  They also sometimes took the launch to Oban for supplies.  /  The first radio was brought by a cousin of his from Broughty Ferry possibly in 1931.’


The doctor, if needed, would come via Torloisk and row across Loch Tuath.  Addie MacQuarrie told me that the doctor was called in this way to his mother's childbed in the cottage that stood in the walled garden of Gometra House, and after rowing across Loch Tuath arrived to find a beautiful baby already suckling, at which he turned round and rowed back.


Hugh Ruttledge of Everest


After Roderick MacLean’s death, his widow, Flora Alexandrina née MacDonald lived at Druimard, near Dervaig on neighbouring Mull, and Gometra was sold for £1750 to the mountaineer Hugh Ruttledge, a retired Indian Civil Servant, who was chosen to his own surprise (notwithstanding the limp, and the fact that he had not been on one of the three earlier expeditions) to lead the 1933 attempt on the summit of Everest.


Ruttledge became interested in mountaineering after a chance meeting with Edward Whymper at Zermatt in 1906.  Whymper had made the first ascent of the Matterhorn nearby in 1865, but at the cost of the lives of four of the party.  "Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances—Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them…"  (see Whymper, 1871).


Permission to try Everest had been obtained by Sir Charles Bell who took a map of the Himalayas to His Holiness the Autocrat of Tibet requesting access to the peak.  The Dalai Lama after several meetings and some thought gave his permission in the form of a parchment on which was written in the cursive Tibetan script ‘To the west of the Five Treasuries of Great Snow, in the jurisdiction of White Glass Fort, near Rocky Valley Inner Monastery, is the Bird Country of the South (Lho Cha-mo Lung).’


The shop at which Ruttledge bought rope for the expedition, Messrs Beale of Shaftesbury Avenue, occupies the same premises today.


‘Inventors were much stimulated by the preparations.  One gentleman offered to lay a system of gas piping up the mountain for the delivery of oxygen at the high camps.  Another had strong views on windlasses.  A third produced a magnificent man-raising kite, inscribed with the legend “Buy New Zealand Butter,” which nothing but sheer mountaineering conservatism prevented us from taking.’ (Ruttledge 1934 p46).


Before the ascent the members of the expedition were ceremonially blessed by the Lamas of the Ghoom monastery.  After the five weeks allotted for a 350 mile walk-in from Darjeeling, one of Ruttledge’s innovations was to allow proper time for acclimatisation, as the climbers ascended slowly through a system of six diminishing camps, ever higher on the North Face of Everest, with the result that whereas previous Everest expeditions had found that they lost their appetite as they approached the summit, this effect was less marked in his team.  The daily high altitude ration of Brand’s meat essence, Heinz’ beans, sardines, biscuits, Nestlé’s milk, Ovaltine, café au lait, barley sugar, Horlick’s malt tablets, fruit drops, Kendal mint, jam or honey, ginger and butter, supplemented with a small ration of tea and rum, proved insufficient to satisfy properly acclimatised climbers.


‘Shipston’s repeated plaint was ‘Oh for a few dozen eggs.’ (Ruttledge 1934 p171).


Approaching the summit, two of Ruttledge’s climbers found an ice-axe which, they believed, marked the site of a fatal accident, probably that which , on the 8th of June 1924 befell George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine who were part of General Bruce’s earlier Everest Expedition (Ruttledge 1934 p158).


‘It was lying free on smooth, brown “boiler-plate” slabs, inclined at an easy angle, but steepening considerably just below.  It was in perfect condition, looking quite new.  On the polished steel head was stamped the name of the maker —  Willisch, of Täsch, in the Zermatt valley’ (Ruttledge, 1934, p151).


On the day Mallory and Irvine were lost, Noel Odell had spotted them one last time climbing near the second step at the base of the summit pyramid of Everest.  However, one of Ruttledge’s climbers put forward an alternative explanation of this sighting.


‘It was near camp VI [in 1933] that Shipton suddenly stopped and pointed.  “There go Wyn and Waggers on the second step,” he exclaimed.  Sure enough, there were two little dots on a steep snow-slope at the foot of the cliff.  We stared hard at them and could have sworn they moved.  Then, simultaneously, we realised that they were rocks.  And, strangely enough, there are two more rocks perched on a snow-slope immediately above the step;  these again looked like men and appeared to move when stared at.  It was somewhere in the neighbourhood of Camp VI that Odell thought he saw Mallory and Irvine.  …  Is it possible that he was similarly tricked by his eyes  His view of the north-east ridge was between shifting mists and lasted only a minute or two’  (Smyth, in Ruttledge, p167.)


‘Suddenly, below a little cliff, they came upon a spot of green.  Norton’s camp VI of 1924, where Mallory and Irvine spent their last night of life and where Odell came in his great effort to find them.  The tent was no longer usable after nine years of exposure, yet it looked surprisingly new.  The men, much cheered by this discovery, rummaged about and found a folding candle-lantern and a lever torch.  The later worked at the first touch.  Then they hurried on downwards, for to remain still in these conditions meant death’  (Ruttledge 1934 p145).


Smyth, of his solitary second attempt on the peak, wrote :


‘All the time that I was climbing alone I had a strong feeling that I was accompanied by a second person.  This feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt.  …  Once, after reaching my highest point, I stopped to try and eat some mint cake, I carefully divided it and turned round with one half in my hand‘ (Smyth, in Ruttledge, p179).


Having brought back his entire expedition without a single death (some achievement in the context of the diffiuclties they had faced) and until he moved to Gometra with his wife Dorothy and daughter Alice, Ruttledge resided at the Victoria Hotel in London.


Once on Gometra, Ruttledge dispersed the Gometra flock because he was looking for somewhere quiet to write his book about the expedition, Everest 1933.  Alice Ruttledge remembers walking barefooted every day to the Gometra school, like the other children.   A batch of dead rabbits Ruttledge had sent to the mainland decomposed on the way, and the game dealers wrote that they were having trouble placing them.


After his adventures on Everest, and the media storm they provoked, Gometra may have proved for the Ruttledge family, as for so many, too quiet, since they moved on to Dartmoor after two years, after which Gometra was to return to the Torloisks.


Roslins & Torloisks


Both my grandmothers loved Gometra.  My maternal grandmother, Mary St Clair Erskine's father was called Harry Rosslyn.   As a child he had lived in the Palace of Holyrood, when it was his father’s official residence as Convenor of the Church of Scotland.  His father had been Queen Victoria’s favourite poet, who she had destined for the laureateship, only to have him die unexpectedly 2 years before Tennyson’s death vacated it.


Harry Rosslyn had written a book called Twice Captured about his experiences in the Boer War.  Coming from a family widely credited with hereditary access to supernatural aspects of numerology, he also devised the celebrated Rosslyn System for breaking the bank at roulette.  Consequently a family friend who had been captured by the Boers only once, Winston Churchill, remarked that his book should have been called Twice Bankrupt.  Rosslyn’s riposte on the circumstances of Churchill’s one escape from the Boers, and in particular the words sauve qui peut, nettled Churchill enough for him to set Messrs. Lewis & Lewis, solicitors, on my great grandfather.   This was in the year 1900, which gives an idea of the extraordinary length of Winston’s active life.


The Roslins had become island magnates through a marriage with Isabel, daughter and heiress of Malise II, 40th jarl of Orkney, who brought both the god of Thursday, Thor, and St Magnus into the family, and whose own family descended from the mythical coupling of the Snow with the Frost.  The Roslins, like the Orkneys, were of Norse origin, and the two families had intermarried regularly.


Sir Walter Scott, in The Lay of the Last Minstrel, says that the Roslin family were always buried in armour.  My great grandfather, who could be insensitive, lifted four of the grave slabs in the family burial place, Roslin Chapel, but of what he saw, he only remarked that they were not.   The Chapel may be the single most symbolically overloaded building in the world.  For instance, Dr Ralls writes of the Apprentice Pillar in Roslin Chapel :


‘Its symbolism as a whole represents the Nordic 'world tree', the Yggdrasil, the fountain of immortality, illustrating the perpetual conflict of the forces of light and darkness. At its base is the "Dread Biter" serpent of Norse legend, said to lie at the root of Yggdrasil, who continuously gnaws away at the forces of darkness.’  (Ralls 2002.)


That side of my family forfeited their estates at Dysart, which included islands in the Firth of Forth, when the then possessor of Gometra, Campbell of Argyll, was defeated at Dunblane by his kinsman, my 7th great uncle, John St Clair who, when the Jacobites were overpowered, was set under attainder and wisely retired to the court of James VIII.  In 1726, after a suitable interval, St Clair was pardoned and Dysart returned to him, only to be definitively lost again by my great grandfather in a less heroic manner, by means of the Rosslyn System.


After the repeated failure of the System, which left him without enough dough even to send a telegram cancelling an invitation to lunch, he became an actor, and was Lillie Langtry's leading man until, he felt, dismayed by his popularity, which made her feel upstaged, she let him go.


In his day, Gometra was held by his friend and sister-in-law, Mary Evelyn Compton-Vyner, Lady Torloisk, wife of Alwyne Compton, the then MacLean of Torloisk.  On that side of my family, Gometra had been held by a mare's nest of my ancestors, their siblings or siblings-in-law, or first or second cousins, in the Clans MacDougall, MacDonald, MacLean, Campbell and MacQuarrie on and off, rolling down the centuries, for much of the time since Somerled, though their connection with the wider Staffa Archipelago dates from the time of Columba.  On the Scottish mainland, forebears similarly shared with countless Scots had watched the arrival of the Scots from Ireland, and had gone on to sign the declaration of Arbroath and lead the Scottish forces at Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, Bannockburn, and Flodden.  The Jacobites of the '15 had been led by a brother-in-law and a first, of the '45 by a second cousin.  The ghost in Macbeth was also said to be a relative.


Mary Torloisk


Mary Torloisk, my great grandfather’s sister-in-law, was married to Torloisk in 1886, and she died in 1957, the year of my birth.  She brought Newby Hall into the Compton family.  According to local lore, she kept what has been variously described as a Daimler and a Rolls Royce (but was probably a Bedford) in a shed behind Gometra House, and was allegedly driven down each morning to bathe naked from the beach. Captain Alwyne Farquarson of Torloisk, her grandson, showed me a photograph of her which may still be at Torloisk - a strikingly alluring woman.  Jane Anne remembered her as a likeable sort.  Mrs Jarrett was remembered too (Mary Torloisk’s sister) who had been my great grandfather’s first wife but who had divorced him to marry Charles Jarrett, variously described as a racing driver and as her chauffer, an alliance which caused anguish and consternation in the rigid circles to which they belonged.  Mary Torloisk’s son, who became the next Torloisk, was engaged to Marigold Forbes, another of my grandmother's cousins, though in the event she married Archie Sinclair, a member of Churchill’s war cabinet.


Russian Gossip


My grandmother's mother Vera Rosslyn, who as a child I remember arraigning the nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent where she lived, for poisoning her beloved cats, was the lover of Robert Bruce Lockhart, who allegedly failed in an attempt to rescue Tsar Nicholas II, and who was imprisoned in the Kremlin (where he was given a suite of rooms) for plotting to assassinate Vladimir Lenin and overthrow the Bolsheviks, episodes the British government still chooses to be hazy about, despite conceding that it had given him a bag of diamonds at about that time.  He was later exchanged for Litvinov (who became Stalin's Foreign Minister until displaced by Molotov) and who on his return went to the US Ambassador’s Spaso House ball in Moscow, which Bulgakov also attended and which became the inspiration for Satan’s Spring Ball of the Full Moon in Bulgakov’s masterpiece :


‘The Spring Festival [was] hosted by Ambassador Bullitt on April 24, 1935. Bullitt instructed his staff to create an event that would surpass every other Embassy party in Moscow's history. The decorations included a forest of ten young birch trees in the chandelier room, a dining room table covered with Finnish tulips, a lawn made of chicory grown on wet felt; an aviary made from fishnet filled with pheasants, parakeets, and one hundred zebra finches, on loan from the Moscow Zoo; and a menagerie of several mountain goats, a dozen white roosters, and a baby bear.’  (Spaso House, Wikipedia.)


During the Great War Vera nursed in a field hospital set up by her sister-in-law Millie.  When they were over-run by Germans and found themselves behind enemy lines, Millie succeeded in procuring their release, and that of their patients, into neutral territory by assuring the German General that she was a personal friend of the Prussian Crown Prince.


Golf Gossip


My grandmother’s brother Loughie, wounded in the Dardanelles, married his Australian nurse from the field hospital, Sheila Chisolm.  He smelt no rat when, Great War over, his friend Eddie entangled him in interminable rounds of golf.  It turned out to be a triple betrayal: Eddie’s brother George was having an affair with Sheila, and Eddie was using golf as a means of getting Loughy out of the house.  When George V got wind of it, he married George off to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and, unexpectedly, when George V died and Eddie abdicated, George and Elizabeth became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.  Loughie fell from a window in Holland Park, leaving two infant sons, the younger of whom died as a pilot in the RAF.  Sheila remarried Dmitri Alexandrovich Romanov, a nephew of the Tsar, who, having been liberated by the Germans from the custody of the Bolsheviks in the Crimea, had escaped with his mother (the Tsar’s sister) and his grandmother, the dowager Tsarina, on board the HMS Marlborough.


Their elder son, Tony, grown up by 1939, spent that summer racing around London with his best friend Jack (son of the U.S. ambassador to London) picking up fast blondes at parties in the great London town houses as they were shutting up shop, in many cases for ever, to prepare for the Blitz.  Both would die tragically, Jack near a grassy knoll.


The Gometra and Inch Kenneth Axis


In the early 1930s, my grandmother's brother, Hamish Erksine, was engaged to Nancy, one of the Mitfords of the neighbouring island of Inch Kenneth.  According to files still pored over by MI5, Hamish had been expelled from the garden of Eton for having indulged in ‘indecent and unnatural acts’ on the banks of the Thames at Bray with the actress Tallulah Bankhead, a native of Alabama who liked to describe herself as ambisextrous.


The marriage to Nancy never went through because Hamish was, despite or because of the Tallulah episode, 'gay as gay', and Nancy attempted suicide by switching on a gas fire without lighting it.  'It is a lovely sensation,' as she wrote, 'just like taking anaesthetic.'


Hamish was the only guest at Madresfield on the infamous occasion in 1931 when three knights of the Garter appeared in his garden unannounced to tell William Beauchamp, a fellow Garter knight and the King’s Sword Bearer, who was busy with his embroidery, that he must leave Britain for ever by midnight or face arrest for homosexuality, then illegal.  George V remarked on the fall of one of his oldest and best friends that 'I thought men like that shot themselves,' and this was indeed expected of him.  He went to Venice for that purpose but found he rather liked it there.  Hamish was later captured by the Axis armies during the Italian Campaign, but allegedly escaped disguised as an Italian principessa – the imposture allegedly almost undetectable.  He loved it here and came regularly.  I remember him only dimly since he died when I was a child, but Mrs Anderson remembered him well and was fond of him.


Hamish’s brother-in-law, my maternal grandfather, Philip Dunn, became distracted by my grandmother's friend Pamela Digby.  She became his lover, and therefore had to be despatched, and so my grandmother set up a blind date for Pam with Winston and Clementine’s son Randolph Churchill.   Randolph cold-called Pamela saying : ‘Lady Dunn says I may ring you.’  They were soon married.  Pam went on to be, in Bill Paley's words, 'the greatest courtesan of the century'.  She eventually became Bill Clinton's ambassador to France.  Her sister Jacquetta married David Guthrie-James of Torosay on neighbouring Mull.


Nancy's sisters Unity and Diana introduced my grandmother to their nationalist socialist friends, including the Führer, as they called him, who, she told me, took her to the opera.   At that time he was a charismatic nationalist leader with a utopian programme of state investment, public works and public good.  Despite clear evidence, including Mein Kampf, many (including David Lloyd George and George Bernard Shaw) thought him a good fellow.  (Even in the spring of 1945, Eamon de Valera, president of the Irish Republic, infamously sent a telegram of condolence to the German Republic on the death of their Führer.)


My grandmother told me (in a phrase which resonates with Lear) that the Führer was a bore with hypnotic eyes.  According to Eva Braun's biography my grandmother used to chaperone Unity on visits to the Führer’s flat, because he was keen to avoid gossip.  I have just opened, for the first time, her diary for September 2nd, 1939 :


‘Diana was very miserable.  She told me the Führer had told her he saw no other outcome now except war.  He thought it would be a Terrible war.  He kept shaking his head and saying "Poor England poor England.”’


As is well known, Unity shot herself in the Englischer Garten in Munich with the pearl-handled revolver the Führer had given her, and was shipped to Switzerland where her family found her with a bullet in her brain and her blonde hair still matted with dried blood.  She lingered until, in 1948 on Inch Kenneth, the bullet-hole became infected and she died in the Cottage Hospital in Oban.  Diana was interned after being denounced to the authorities by Nancy as 'a very dangerous person', and she and her husband Oswald Mosley lived in a cottage in the grounds of Holloway prison with, as a Sadean touch, female sex-offenders as their domestic servants.


We have been over-exposed to the Mitfords.  The cadaverous scents of snobbery and entitlement which cling to their clothing can turn delicate stomachs (as it turned Decca's).  But in a local sense they are interesting in situating these small islands where, strangely, they are often situated  (and I mean Gometra and Inch Kenneth, not Britain and Ireland) : beside the rapids of the rivers of history.  They are interesting in a literary sense as a personification of the classical and biblical gambit (though it has been masked by later editing in the Bible) of personification itself; history as a roman-à-clef.




In Munich my grandmother had lived with her friends the Harach family.  Graf Franz von Harach had been the Archduke Ferdinand's bodyguard at Sarajevo, charged with his personal safety.  John Howard de Walden, who married one of the Harach sisters, had accidentally run Hitler over in 1931, before he was Führer.  Another of the sisters, Cuca, who was the companion after my aunt Rob's death, of my uncle Etienne Amyot, liked  at lunch or dinner to state very forcefully in German, whilst waving a fist, that War is Good.  After their Munich house was flattened in a bombing raid, Cuca cut a deal with the local See of the Catholic Church whereby she allowed them to build a skyscraper on the site, provided that hollowed out of its interior was an exact replica of the massive former drawing room with its monumental chimney-piece, and here she holed up with my uncle Etienne, a concert pianist, who liked to have two interlocked Steinway grand pianos to hand for playing duets with friends.


Etienne had a striking portrait in his apartments, I thought by Oskar Kokoschka (who also painted my grandmother and Derek Jackson, mentioned below) though I may be wrong.  When he told me it was of his dear friend Wittgenstein, I asked if this was the philosopher.  No, he said, Paul was a pianist who, having lost an arm fighting the Russians, commissioned (c/o the Russian prisoner of war camp, Omsk) Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Strauss and Ravel to write pieces he could play with his one remaining hand.  Ravel wrote for him the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  But, said Etienne, Paul did have a younger brother who was interested in philosophy.  Etienne also told me he had been invited by Malraux to represent the family at the opening of a garden, I think at Illiers, in memory of Etienne’s cousin, Marcel Proust.  Etienne had countless fascinating and some terrible stories.  He entered Belsen with the allied army, after the S.S. had left.  'The horror.  Walking skeletons.  God.'


The war was terrible, as the Führer foretold, and it did for Nancy and Unity's brother Tom, amongst so many others, in more or less horrific ways.  In the graveyard at the euphemised Baileclaidh, whose true name, according to Duncan MacKinnon, is Bailecladh, Cemetery Town, are (together with Jane Ann's mermaid, the uncles who caught her in their nets, Duncan's brother Peter MacKinnon, and so many of Catriona MacDonald’s kin) the bodies of three Merchant Marine sailors from the war in the Atlantic, known unto God, and washed up on Gometra.  Their graves are charged with their violent deaths, their stolen lives, and the families who lost them and don't guess they are here.


Derek and Pam


Another Inch Kenneth sister, Pam, was an expert on poultry-keeping, having developed an improved poultry ark.  She married Wing Commander Derek Jackson, FRS, who held physics professorships at both Oxford and Cambridge, and was, aged 22, the first person to make a spectroscopic determination of nuclear magnetic spin (which forms a foundation of MRI scanning).  He used to ride as an amateur in the Grand National, remarking to me that his best finish was fifth but only because he could never get hold of a good enough horse.


Derek would talk very fast. His French was as metaphysically precise and deliciously inflected as my French could detect, but he spoke it, with zero attempt to ape the French accent, in rapid patrician British tones (his family was Welsh).  His father was and remains the prime authority on old silver of which he had an immense collection — so that I have always thought of Derek, exposed from his earliest days to an element, and the most alluring (Ag more mysterious, serene, and less gaudy and blood-stained than Au) rather than, as is the case of the rest of us, to compounds, colloids, solutions, precipitates, could not help but become a physicist (as did his equally brilliant brother Vivian, who, having taken the reigns while tipsy, was killed in a sleighing accident in the Tyrol).


When he was younger, Derek told me, you would never go out without a new pair of kid gloves, and spats.  During the Second World War, after serving at the Admiralty's laboratory at the Clarendon, and flying 60 sorties with 604 squadron shooting down the German bombers blitzing Britain, when he would scramble and engage the enemy before returning to an unfinished game of chess, he was put in charge by Winston Churchill at Professor Lindeman's instigation of trials of 'windows', the deployment of radar-decoying tin foil.  (Ted Jones, who had been a medical Professor in the United States, and who lived with his fascinating wife, the author Ann Jones on Ulva, having sailed away from the USA on their ketch in disgust at the Vietnam War, and who earlier had been seconded to the RAF to fly combat missions in the Battle of Britain and so (should he survive) export aerial combat experience back to the USAF in advance of a potential US entry into the war, showed me some that he had saved - a sheet of tinfoil resembling Bacofoil.)  At this time some of the people building the Spitfires and other aircraft Ted and Derek flew in went on strike; they had their reasons, and doubtless good ones, but it is fortunate that Ted and Derek didn't strike too.


Derek told me that the RAF had captured two Luftwaffe aircraft unharmed, and without changing the wing markings, he and three colleagues took them up to see how well enemy cockpit radar worked in detecting RAF planes.  Someone forgot to warn the RAF who shot both aircraft down.  Identification was not helped by Derek's habit of singing Lieder and other Romantic songs (his favourite was the lovely Der Erlkönig which, when I was a child, he used to sing to me) over the RAF airwaves.  Derek who was in the rear gunner seat had the wires of his intercom severed by RAF cannon fire, and when he reconnected them he heard the pilot shouting over the radio - and they've killed my ******* rear gunner!  Tragically, the crew of the second captured Luftwaffe plane was killed.


Derek also devised a way of fooling the German radar as to the destination of the D-day landing fleet (Operation Taxable) which helped by confusing the enemy as to Allied intentions, in delivering the successful outcome of that operation.  Imagine the trepidation of the Wehrmacht at the ghostly green images on the cathode ray tubes of a mighty onrushing armada composed entirely of cooking foil.


Derek also discovered in a captured Junkers 88 that the Luftwaffe fighters had been equipped with a device (code-named Flensburg) which enabled them to lock onto the tail warning radar (known as Monica) in British bombers.  He flew along behind a bomber squadron in the Junkers, gaily locking onto aircraft after aircraft, and having proved his point, Monica was switched off throughout Bomber Command.


My aunt remembered Derek, who used to say that he rode under both rules, steeplechase and flat, inviting her and the telephone operator of the Bath Club, furniture designer, and wannabe painter, Francis Bacon, back to Claridges Hotel for a night of excitements, and in the morning writing them each a check for £100 which, as she said, was a lot of money in those days.


Derek was also good friend to my grandfather, Philip Dunn, who when he was demobbed and out of work Derek perhaps a little recklessly put in charge of his newspaper, the Devil and the Flesh, a.k.a. News of the World.  My grandfather, who was not a newspaperman, raised the tone, circulation fell, and when as a result the paper became subject to a hostile bid from Robert Maxwell, whom they didn't trust, they cast around for a white knight.  My uncle remembered having met a promising provincial newspaperman in Australia.  They tracked him down and invited him to make a counter-bid.  Be careful what you wish for is the moral : he was called Rupert Murdoch, and he took control.


Ferdinand Mount, in his review of Simon Courtauld's biography of Derek, cites this anecdote : 'Derek at a nuclear physics conference in Rome in the 1970s strolling with a young English delegate who tells him that there’s an extraordinary man at the conference, a brilliant physicist who had an outstanding war in the RAF and rode three times in the Grand National, and was fabulously wealthy and had been married six times. Jackson: ‘I think I ought to tell you, before you go any further, that I’m the man in question.’ ‘Oh, really?’ the young man says. ‘I’m sorry, but we haven’t been introduced.’ ‘I’m Derek Jackson.’ Young man (after a pause): ‘No, that wasn’t the name.’'


Derek was fascinating and kind to me when I was a child, and (with the Mad Boy, Robert Heber Percy) was the first person to treat me as if I were grown up.   Together with Dan Oestreicher, my mother's companion, he was responsible for a family involvement in mathematics and physics which, with Cato, continues.  By the time I knew him, he lived in exile in Lausanne, Gstaad and Paris with his beautiful sixth wife Marie-Christine Reille-Reille, making  spectroscopic determinations with his antique kit, dressed in a silk-dressing gown of which he'd severed the lower half with scissors, before going off to dine with his in-laws the Mosleys at the Temple de la Gloire, or with the Windsors or the Comte de Paris.  The last time I spoke to him he told me 'They've cut off my leg!' and he died not long after.  With his nephews and my cousins, I carried this brave and brilliant man to his grave, which overlooks Lac Leman and its trembling reflections of cloud and alp.


A younger Inch Kenneth sister, Decca, told me she had wanted to give her share of the island to the Communist Party of Great Britain.  She remarked that it would make a good Soviet submarine base, but in the event she sold it to the Barlow family of scientists and artists, descendants of the naturalist Charles Darwin, who tend it now.




Gamel de Sandford, from whom the Sandfords claim distaff and (with moderate plausibility) spear descent, emerged at Sandford on the edges of the fraying kingdom of Alt Clud, or Ystrad  Clut, which later became Gaelicised as Strath Cluaidh and then Lallanised to Strathclyde.  Their emblem, a boar’s head, is also that of the late kings of Strathclyde.  My paternal grandfather's mother, Mary Sandford, a speaker of Gaelic, was a member of the Celtic Twilight Gaelic revival movement.  Her books on Gaelic folklore and local history are still in print.  During the Great War, some of which she spent criss-crossing Europe in her caravan, the Creeping Jenny, drawn by white oxen, she wrote the prescient work of fiction The Germans in Cork in which, after the Kaiser’s invasion, the inmates of the Cork Asylum were gassed and Irish Jews were disappeared.  She was celebrated as the first person to install a fixed bath in a caravan, following a family tradition of transport innovation which led her great-grand father Dr Toulmin to devise the dickey seat, and my great grandfather James Dunn to fit tank-tracks to the two rear axles and skis to the front axle of a specially modified Buick, so as to be able to journey at speed and in comfort across snowy landscapes.


Her daughter-in-law, my grandmother Lettice Mackintosh Sandford, whose nickname was Watercress Waterproof, remembered going to Iona after the Great War with her sister Robin Amyot, to collect Gaelic working songs for Cecil Sharp, and their picnic being eaten by a cow on the Dutchman's Cap.  Aunt Rob was the god-daughter of Henry Layard, who stumbled on the site of Nineveh and found the library of Assurbanipal (on legible if jumbled clay tablets) which had inspired Alexander and then Ptolemy to create the Great Library of Alexandria.  Layard's work On The Devil Worshipers of Mesopotamia was cited by Schopenhauer in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung if I remember rightly.  After Aunt Rob's death, her husband Etienne gave me a polished stone, excavated at Nineveh, which has the strange quality of making your hand buzz and throb.  On Gometra is a corn-dolly baby's rattle Lettice made for her great-grandson Cato from Gometra reeds and a Gometra pebble, and her wood-engraving, The Isles of the Blest.


Her husband, my grandfather Christopher Sandford was a master-printer and bookbinder, proprietor of the Boar’s Head and Golden Cockerel presses, and cofounder of the Folio Society – Books that are Flowers was his tagline.  He had grown up in his half-brother’s house, Castle Freke, in West Cork, and used to watch the great liners passing from his nursery windows – he would mention the R.M.S. Lusitania, known as the Scottish Ship because she was built on the Clyde, many of whose passengers were washed up on the beaches on which he played after she was sunk by a U-boat in 1915.  The monumental gate piers, built by Iain Munro on Gometra, are copied from those at Castle Freke, now a ruin.


Churchill had been struck by the effectiveness of the guerrilla tactics of the Boers and the IRA.  During the Second World War, Churchill's plan B or secret weapon was to form a series of British guerrillas to take on the Nazis should they knock out the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the British Army.  This numbered 45 officers who were each assigned a sector of Britain to protect, acting in independent cells, and who, having themselves recruited a handful of farm-hands, keepers and others who were at home in the woods to assist them, were to go underground into bunkers whose entrances were disguised as mangers, troughs and stumps.


One of their duties was to draw up a hit-list of potential collaborators whom they would personally assassinate with a government issue stiletto on news of a Wehrmacht landing, received as a code word via a powerful wireless set.  I seem to remember reading that on one occasion the code word was issued by mistake, mercifully corrected before too much damage had been done.  Technically spies, while they wore army uniforms and had army ranks, they were never formally made part of the British Army since it was feared the army's paperwork would fall into the hands of the Gestapo, and consequently they were not protected by the Geneva convention and would almost inevitably have been tortured and then shot, together with their families, on capture.  My father remembered going into the apple store at Eye where he grew up, and finding the apples had been replaced with hand grenades, since his father, Christopher, had been given the sole responsibility of defending Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Monmouthshire against the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and the Gestapo.  My grandfather would never talk about the Resistance, citing the official secrets act which he had signed, and also perhaps fearing that the mouldering bunkers he had constructed during the war, would still be needed one day, but I have always felt that the list he drew up of local worthies as candidates for assassination, which has not yet been found amongst his papers, would make interesting reading.


Second World War on Gometra


Lachy McNeil told me :


‘I used to have to take the telegrams back and forth to Gomesdrach, because the telegraph boy had gone away to war.  I used to run there, and had to wait ten minutes for answer, and if there was no answer I could dawdle all the way back, for all that was waiting for me was my school.  There was a gentleman there, in a tweed suit, with glasses, and he lay in the grass all day with binoculars to his eyes: they say he was bird watching.  But why should a birdwatcher send so many telegrams?  He wasn’t a birdwatcher; nae, not at all.  He was watching for submarines.’


Jean Whittaker has written :


‘In the autumn of 1940 Miss Macdonald, manageress of the Salen Laundry, started a Spitfire Fund, the first in the Hebrides. In October of that year an Argyllshire Spitfire fund was also in action but the Salen Fund was most popular and Miss MacDonald seems to have been very energetic. Collectors throughout the island ran whist drives, dances and concerts and were planning door-to-door collections. A contribution was even prised out of Lord Redesdale. He gave £1— a measure, no doubt of his political sympathies. In contrast, Lady Scott of Glen Aros contributed £100 and Gometra topped the Scottish Daily Express Spitfire League in November and got banner headlines: “Lonely Island gives 14/- a head.” The 14/- per head was augmented by £100 from Lady Compton Vyner [Mary Torloisk], the proprietor.  Spitfires could be named after the fund used to buy them, and businesses saw an opportunity for publicity.  Wimpey, the building contractors, proposed to run their own national Spitfire fund. The Salen fund (renamed the Mull Fund since it now included contributors from all over Mull) was to call its Spitfire Mull Spitfire. One rather hopes, for the sake of the dashing pilot, that no Wimpey Spitfire took to the skies.’  (Whittaker, 2014)


Rosemary Nicholson became in recent times the housekeeper at Ulva House and farm-hand on Ulva, cheerful, intelligent and always ready with tea, a piccalilli sandwich or a Cup-a-Soup for bedraggled wayfarers going to or from Gometra,  She remembered :


‘My father was ploughing at the time, it was a sunny day, when these two Lancasters came over very low, and the horses went haywire, jumping and bucking all over the place, so he had to unhitch them from the plough, and by the time we got them in the stable you could cream the foam off their backs in great scoops, they were so scared.  Anyway, we heard a double thudding, and very quickly, the Lancasters came back.  You see, they had found a submarine on the surface off Staffa.  The fleet was in Loch Na Keal.  It’s deep all the way up.  And someone told me this, I don’t know if it's true: that at Fingal’s cave shortly after, there, carved at the very back, were the initials of submariners, dated that very day.  You see they had surfaced to see Fingal’s cave, and carved their names, and been drowned.  Where’s the wreck?  No one knows.  They may have got a little way before they sunk.  And do you know what?  Our sailors, they used to help us get in the stooks: they’d just be walking by, and they’d come and touch their bonnets and say: want a hand?  And suddenly the field would be bare, and all the sheaves inside.  Anyway, that night one of the officers came, very panicky, and asked if we’d seen his spaniel, because they’d been shooting that day and his spaniel hadn’t come down.  And we had it, and he was so pleased, and it leapt all over him, licking his face.  And do you know what?  Well, in the morning, there wasn’t a ship on Loch Na Keal.  Not a ship.  Destroyers, Frigates, Warships: all gone.  You see, the officer, he knew he was sailing that night, and that’s why he was so afraid the dog had not come back. ‘ (Rosemary Nicholson, in conversation.)


Modern Times


After the Second World War Mary Torloisk passed Gometra on to her great-niece, my mother's cousin, Patience Henderson, née Brand, and her husband Captain Ian Henderson, who farmed and kept bees, and whose daughter Veronica used to wow her parents by climbing out of her bedroom window onto the roof of the porch, and was sent overseas to Ulva Ferry school from here, and whose brother Shamus was born about the time Gometra was sold to the Howard family of Ulva, which was also about the time of my birth.


Colonel & Mrs Henry (Jean) Howard farmed Gometra, keeping cattle and sheep, with the assistance of Fred & Jean Durie and their children Andy and Katriona.  They brought up their own children Jamie, Rose, and Johnny here, before moving to Ulva House on Lady Congleton of Ulva's death.  During the school term the Durie children boarded at the Ferry House on Ulva, and the Howard children stayed at Ulva Ferry during the week at what became Colonel and Mrs Anderson’s house, and is now Don Lambert’s, so as to be able to go to the primary school there.  One of Fred's many responsibilities was to refuel and check the oil of the twin Lister Generating Sets each morning before 8 a.m. to be ready for the  Startomatic self-starter to fire one up at the flick of a switch from the Big House.


The Colonel had fought in North Africa from Alamein to Tunis and then in North West Europe where he led his regiment from Normandy to Hamburg, considering the German resistance in the Ardennes the hardest he had encountered.   Presented with an elephant by the Sultan of Johore, he invited it to mess parties where it would trumpet when offered sandwiches.  He kept a boat in each of Gometra's harbours, and was a member of the Royal Highland Yacht Club.  Once installed on Ulva he would ride about on his motorised trike, his coat belted with baler twine, feeding his cows and smiling and waving in a courtly fashion at whoever he passed.  So many soldiers, disgusted with destruction, retire and take to the land that it seems a purpose of war is to swell the next generation of farmers.


‘Col Howard advertised in Oban Times for a person to exterminate the rabbits. I visited my Father and he lived in the first of the cottages from the Ulva direction that were near the big house.    I would say the years my Father was there would be 1968/9. His details are b 1902 d 1991 Det. Insp. Alexander MacRae Glasgow City Police. He was not paid but had the right to sell the rabbits in the Oban Market.  He used his dogs (Hungarian Vizlas) and ferrets.   /  As for my Mother's sister her name was Mary MacLean b 1907 Tobermory and d 1989 Stonehaven.    She told me that she taught at Gometra. Dates I do not know. It was before 1948 when she taught at Connel.’   (MacRae 2014.)


Jean Howard's family (like many other emigrant families including ours) had Irish nationalist members (in our case Edward Fitzgerald, friend and room-mate of the English revolutionary Thomas Paine; son in law of Philippe Égalité (and brother in law of Louis Phillipe, who was witness at his wedding); and a chief of the Bear tribe of Hurons; who on his return from the wildernesses of New Brunswick and the American wars became Military Commander of the United Irishmen.  He died a prisoner in Dublin from wounds sustained whilst resisting arrest for high treason and was posthumously attaindered).  Mrs Howard’s family, like ours, had also been on the emigrant ships to Canada; had like ours interbred with indigenous First Nations people there; had like ours prospered enough to secure their independence (in their case by helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway); and had then come home.  Mrs Howard was of the family of Parnell, whom Gladstone regarded as the greatest man he had ever met, and who was undone by his love for Kitty O'Shea in what was a tragedy both for them and for Ireland.


Rose Howard found a Roman coin in the walled garden of Gometra House.  Robin Cowe lived on his fishing boat in Gometra's Acairseid Mhor, travelling to Ulva Ferry to land his catch, and he also set the nets for the wild salmon, which before the advent of salmon farming were plentiful on Gometra’s North and South coasts.


At the end of the Howards’ time, Jane Anne MacFarlane decided to leave her native Baileclaidh on Gometra for the less isolated Bracadale on Ulva, an irreparable loss for the island.  This is where she was living when I moved here, and still keeping Christmas and New Year according to the O.S. Julian calendar, as opposed to the N.S. Gregorian which had been introduced in the 18th century.  When she crossed the causeway to Ulva the continuity of Gometra's history as part of the Gaeltacht was interrupted.


From the Howards, Gometra went to John Chilvers & Linda Saunders, who ran an innovative red deer and Angora goat farm with a succession of helpers whose turnover attests the difficulty of farming here: Ewen Shairp and family (1984-1986), Michael Jones and family, Donna & Jeremy, Robin & Sarah, and then Marion and Brice Duncan and their children Heather and Catriona.  They were all ultimately discouraged by the serious logistical problems, as Sophie Baker's short film Getting Sheep off Gometra demonstrates, in carrying livestock to mainland Mull, and John Chilvers put the island on the market where it languished without either a private or a community buyer.


The Present


When I came, from farming sheep on Exmoor, and knowing little of its teeming history, Gometra was a desert island with many ruins, ghosts and dilapidated cottages but only one habitable house.  So similar to Exmoor in landscape, wildlife, coastal beauty and climate (though the Exmoor climate is a little harsher), it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.


In those days, before mobile signal, the land-line was often down for months, and even when it worked human voices were fainter than the musical noises made by the loose copper telegraph wires being clashed together by the wind, and earthed over the insulators by the rain and spray.  Iain Munro would make the journey, once or twice a week, on a quad bike across the causeway from Ulva, weather and tides permitting, bringing messages and offshore news.  My father Jeremy moved back part time into the long-abandoned Gometra House, in parts of which even the building surveyor would not venture since the wooden lintels had rotted and been charred in chimney fires, and in which when it rained there was not a single room on any floor without water coming through the ceilings, so that everywhere there was the sound of pans and buckets catching streams and drips.


Once we were having dinner in the morning room during a storm, and the sash window with frame and sash weights and shutters and curtains toppled slowly onto the dining table, followed by a blast of rain-laden air which extinguished the candles and the lamps.  At his encouragement I moved in too, and would sometimes come home to find the ceiling had collapsed onto my bed, the kitchen table, or the sofa.   Some of his ashes are buried above Gometra House, overlooking a heroic panorama of Hebridean Islands from Islay to South Uist, which when alive he would lie in the heather and watch, out in the rain.


In those early years, Marion Duncan and Catriona returned, and Catriona taught my son Cato to ride his pony Albert, while Marion would regularly warn me that 'the crows will have ye' if I should persist in spending so much time alone on the island, without a way of summoning help if anything should go wrong.  They were joined in due course by Sandy Munro with Margaret and their children Donald, Sandy and Fay.  Margaret drove the rough mountain track across Ulva in a Land Rover for five hours (two return journeys) most school days to get Fay to Ulva Ferry school and back — the last person in Gometra's history to manage this endurance feat for any length of time.  Only around half Gometra's children go to school at all, but those who do so go overseas.  No family has lasted more than two years at the school run in the last sixty five years at least, and probably since we lost our own teacher around 1929.


Like most people, when I first came I underestimated the difficulty of bringing up children without reasonable access to public services like schooling and health care.  I tried the Ulva Ferry school run by sea but this also proved problematic, with three infants clinging to my legs as, drenched by freezing spray, we plunged and pancaked through a total of thirty miles of Atlantic chop and swell on the morning and evening school runs.  It was one of my happiest times, since everything was as it should be, but it was not realistic or safe, even in summer. The Gometra children, by order of the High Court, now have to be educated overseas, but though I would have loved to do so, it would in any event have been hard and lonely to home educate them as a working single parent on Gometra.


Murdo Munro helped Iain Munro with dyking, and Donald Munro with building.  David and Donald Hugh Munro set salmon nets.  Archie Simpson crossed from his croft on neighbouring Mull to restore the fantastical plumbing.  Andy Gordon, of Croftamie, spent some months on Gometra restoring our  electric lighting.  He found that his tools, if he laid them down, would never be where he left them, and Iain Munro tells the story of coming to the Big House and having Andy pop up, white-faced and sweating, through a trap door from the cellars, fearing Iain’s footsteps were those of whatever spectre had been meddling with his tools.   If any spectre would borrow your tools while you were using them, it would it is true be a Gometra spectre. There is still a notice in the workshop above the tool wall put up by Sandy Munro when he lived here, which reads : No borrowing. That means you, Iain and Roc.


The electric lighting was powered by the twin, elderly Listers, carefully overhauled by Nick Mawhinney, and worked relatively briefly until a rat gnawed through a cable and, plunged back into candlelight, we realised it was better like that.


The Sansom family and their children Bazil, Hazel, Oscar, Louis, Saskia and Ruby pursued their interests in home education and botany.  The writer and mystic Robin Tudor Wilmer came to work on building conservation and his own complex literary projects.  Of his assistant Ray Brown, Jane Anne remarked that she had never seen a dark man before, but had always known that when she did so she would take a notion for him.  Robin’s assistant Graham brought the first Apple computer here, which seemed a weird, strange and seductive object.  Kevin Rawson also worked on the Big House, re-flooring several rooms and replacing some of the rotten wooden lintels with reinforced concrete ones without disturbing the mouldings, before retiring to France.


Sandy and others replaced other lintels, relined the chimney flues, and with Ewen Slovik and Donald Munro re-roofed Gometra House with Easdale slates salvaged from the wreck of the Shona in Loch Linnhe by the diver Phil Horey, which had barnacles and limpets and seaweed still growing on them, so that the house looked like something left on the seabed by an outgoing tide.  Phil also salvaged Aberdeen granite setts from a wreck on Bono Rock, Easdale for us, and Welsh slates from a wreck at Inch Island, Easdale.


Vicky Leahy set up the Sibìn nan Sithean at Baileclaidh, which flourished until a bad batch of Special Brew felled all its regulars.   Chris Ellis moved into Jane Ann's Cottage and brought life to Baileclaidh again, ultimately starring in film-maker Mathew Huston's My Island, set on Gometra.  A succession of artists, writers, musicians, jewellers and film-makers have visited, worked or lived here - Lettice & Jeremy Sandford, Nell Dunn, Michael Wishart, Francis & Catherine Wishart, Francis Fry, David, Tarka and Augusta Ogilvy, Robin Tudor Wilmer, Sophie Partridge, Pierre Hodgson, Rhoda Munro, Melanie von Pftetten, Sebastian Schloessingk, Bridget Hugo, Amber Trentham, Jago Eliot, Phillipa Horan, Sophie Baker, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, Hardy Blechman, Mathew Huston, Gandt, Polly Huggett, Liam Rian and many others.  Gaspard Lindon, Miriam Murray and Alex Mitchell come regularly for sheep work, and Pierre Hodgson connects us with dissident ruralist circles in France and arranges exports of breeding stock for the improvement of French flocks.


Cato, Savannah, Lachlan and Isla Sandford would spend their days studying, swimming, playing music, riding, drawing, reading, baking, foraging, redecorating, gathering sheep or conducting interested visitors to the Dragon's Cave or to Gometra's summit, Scotland's lowest Marilyn both relatively and absolutely.  As a family we were for many years forbidden to live in Britain, being deemed illegal immigrants by a fanciful British State, so we lived invisibly on Gometra as much as possible, figuring it would be hard to detect or deport us from here.


Dr Bill Pollock, the inspiring scholar of intrinsic versus extrinsic faith, and Ulva's late minster, would come regularly to help us seek lost sheep or, at his home in Salen, the 'Gometra Embassy to Mull', provide toasties from a special device and succour for Gometra people stranded there.  He took unusual delight in recovering our lost musical instruments from Bowman's coach line.


Above all, Iain and Rhoda Munro, with their children young Rhoda, David, Eilidh and Christine, helped rebuild the Gometra flock from their home at Bracadale on neighbouring Ulva, where they bred Scottish Blackface sheep and horses, later moving to Gometra themselves and helping develop a Gometra fold.  Young Rhoda also took charge of the Gometra lambing for many years.


Many others besides have lived or worked here over the last twenty one years, and contributed to the renaissance of this fragile community, whose magical remoteness one cannot understand without spending at least a week here — in winter.  But if there is one couple who have kept this waterlogged island afloat, it is Iain and Rhoda Munro.


I remember a visitor from neighbouring Mull saying in surprise 'I never realised Gometra was inhabited.'  At which I pointed to Mull, which can look bleak and dramatic from Gometra, just as Gometra can from Mull, and said 'I never realised Mull was.'  It was funny at the time.


The Future


But : it is touch and go.   And, until the Byzantine system of Brownie points by which public resources are allocated between islands is reformed, it always will be.


We are denied reasonable access to teachers, doctors, public transport, or reliable telecommunications, and this is often justified to us on ideological grounds.


We are helpless against insensitive decisions by politicians and regulatory bodies captured by the lucrative salmon industry, and perhaps well-meaning but ignorant of how marginal and fragile a community Gometra is.  Four successive battles against the encroaching salmon factory farms, fought consistently by everyone on Gometra over the last 20 years, have knocked the stuffing out of us.


We have lost 5 full time residents since Easter 2013.


And increasing regulation, well motivated, but ill-adapted for Gometra’s unique remoteness, makes it ever harder to deliver housing and employment legally.


Further, we have lost most of the older generation of Gometra and Ulva people - Jane Ann, the Colonel, Ted and Ann, Rosemary, Jeremy, the younger Philly and Robin, and now Mrs Howard, the last of her generation.  Without them, it will never be the same again.




Thank you to the following for their beautiful stories and images :


Gordon Andrews

Heather Andrews

Veronica Baring

Micky Brand

Annie Champness

Alwyne Farquarson

Cally Fleming

Midge Gough

Jean Howard

Jamie Howard

Ivor Ingram

Ann Jones

Ted Jones

Kelly Kilpatrick

Ann MacDonald

Catriona MacDonald

Chrissie MacDonald

Morag MacDonald

Jane Ann MacFarlane

Ann MacKenzie

Duncan MacKinnon

Chrissie MacLellan

Lachy MacNeil

Addie MacQuarrie

Iain Munro

Rhoda Munro

Rosemary Nicholson

Ian Philips

Jennifer Shairp

Jean Whittaker


And many others.  Roc Sandford, Gometra, 2013-2015.


Bibliography & Further Reading


Campbell, John Lorne, Canna. Birlinn, 2014

Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Edinburgh, 1899.

Clan MacDougall Society of North America, 2014, The Clan MacDougall, retrieved from http://macdougall.org/wp/category/heritage/macdougall/

Courthauld, Simon, As I was going to St Ives, A life of Derek Jackson, Michael Russel, 2007.

Cowan, EJ, Norwegian Sunset, Scottish Dawn, in Scotland in the reign of Alexander III, 1249-1286, ed. Reid, Norman H. 1990, John Donald, Edinburgh

Cregeen ER (ed) Argyll Estate Instructions 1771-1805, Scottish History Society, Edinburgh 1964

Cregeen ER (ed) Inhabitants of the Argyll Estate, 1779

Currie Jo, MacLeans: A Biographical Dictionary of Mull People Mainly in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Brown & Whittaker, 2002

Currie Jo, Mull - the Island and its People, Birlinn 2001

Devine, T.M., The Great Highland Famine, John Donald, 1988

Dobson, D, Directory of Scottish Settlers in North America, 1625-1825, 7 vols. Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1984-1993

Dobson, D, The Original Scots Colonists of Early America, 1612-1783, Genealogical Publishing Company, 1989

Eagle, Raymond, Seton Gordon, The Life and Times of a Highland Gentleman, 1990.

Farrell, Lynne, Personal Communication, 2014.

Forgaill, Dallan, The Amra of Colum Cille, tr by J O’Beirne Crow, Glashan and Gill, Dublin, 1871.

Garnett, Thomas, Observations on a Tour through the Highlands and part of the Western Isles of Scotland; particularly Staffa and Icolmkill: to which are added a description of the Falls of the Clyde, of the country round Moffat, and an analysis of its Mineral Waters.  John Stockdale, London, 1811.

Garnett, Thomas, Popular Lectures on Zoonomia, or the Laws of Animal Life in Health and Disease, London, 1804, p.x.

Gouldesborough Peter, 'A Formulary of Old Scots Legal Documents' (Stair Society, Edinburgh, 1985) pp. 108-111

Grant IF, Highland Folk Ways, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1961

Hansard, 22 February, 1927.  http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1927/feb/22/transport-services-western-highlands

Harris, Eleanor, Ranald MacDonald in The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel, Website (online, archive.stjohns- edinburgh.org.uk, 2011).

Jones,  Andrew Meirion, Davina Freedman, Blaze O'Connor & Hugo Lamdin-Whymark, 2011, An Animate Landscape: Rock Art and the Prehistory of Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland, Windgather Press, Oxford

Kilpatrick K, The Historical Interpretation of Early Medieval Insular Place Names, Oxford DPhil Deposited in Bodleian

Lenman Fit for Heroes?: Land Settlement in Scotland After World War I, Aberdeen U.P., 1989)

Low Margaret, Highland Memories, personal communication from Cally Fleming.

Mackenzie DW, As it was, Sin Mar a Bha, An Ulva Boyhood, Birlinn, 2000

Maclean-Bristol N, ‘The office of Fragramannach et Armannach’, (WHN&Q, Series 2 No. 14 (July 1995), 16-17.

Maclean-Bristol N, Inhabitants of the Inner Isles Morvern & Ardnamurchan 1716, 1998

Maclean-Bristol N, Warriors & Priests, The History of the Clan Maclean 1300-1570, Tuckwell Press, 1995

MacLean-Sinclair, Alexander, The Clan Gillean, Charlottetown, 1899,  (p480)

Maclean, Charles, The Isle of Mull, 1997

MacLean, Lachlan, An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Clan Maclean, Smith Elder, 1838

MacLeod Banks, M. (1931). "A Hebridean Version of Colum Cille and St. Oran". Folklore 42 (1): 55–60. JSTOR 1256410.

MacRae, John, of Kergord, personal communication, 20140326.)

Marsden J, Somerled and the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland, Tuckwell Press, 2000

Martin, Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland: Containing a Full Account of their Situation, Extent, Soils, Products, Harbours, Bays, Anchoring Places, Tides, and Fisheries.  Andrew Bell, London, 1703.

McDonald, R. Andrew, The Kingdom of the Isles, Scottish Historical Review Monograph no 4, 1997

McLean JR, History of the Isle of Mull, Vol 1, 1926, Frank H Hobbs & Son; Vol 2, Eugene McLean, Calif.

Millar, JH, A Literary History of Scotland

Moir P &  Crawford I, Argyll Shipwrecks, Moir and Crawford, 1994

Monipennie, John, Monipennie’s Summary, or Abridgement of the Scots Chronicle; With a Description of the Western Ilses, in Miscellanea Scotica, John Wylie, Glasgow, 1818, first published c.1612.

Monro, Donald, Description of theWestern Isles of Scotland and Genealogies of the Clans: 1549, partially published 1582 in George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia

Muir, Edwin, Scott and Scotland

Mull Genealogy, http://www.mullgenealogy.co.uk

Munro J & RW Munro (eds) Acts of the Lords of the Isles 1336-1493, Scottish History Society, Edinburgh, 1986

Munro RW & Alan MacQuarrie, Clan MacQuarrie, Bruce MacQuarrie, 1996, http://albanach.org/macquarrie/book.html

Nicolaisen, WFH,  Scottish Place-Names. London: B.T. Batsford, 1976.

Nietzsche., Genealogy of Morals, 1887, tr. Walter Kaufmann & RJ Holingdale, Princeton, p466.

Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772, Volume 1, Benmamin White, London, 1776.

Ralls, Karen, Mysteries of Rosslyn, the Templars and the Grail, DUAT magazine, Issue 1 (Sept 2002)

Richards, E, The Highland Clearances, Birlinn, 2008

Robertson, Mina, Gometra Remembered Happy Days, Am Muileach, Oct 1985.

Ruttledge, Hugh, Everest 1933, Hodder & Stoughton, 1934 (1938 ed.)

Sellar, WDH, The origins and ancestry of Somerled, SHR, xlv, 1966, p137

Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools, Annual Report 10, Volumes 10-16, August 1827,

Stephenson, David, Mull and Iona, A landscape formed by Geology, SNH, 2011

Sykes, Brian and Jayne Nicholson, The Genetic Structure of a Highland Clan, University of Oxford Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine

Telegraph, obituary of Colonel Henry Howard, 24 July 2000

Timperley, Loretta, A Directory of Scottish Landownership in 1770, Scottish Record Society, Edinburgh, 1976

Wainwright, Robert, Sheila, Allen & Unwin, 2014

Weir, Anthony, 2014, Spared Stones of Ireland, in Irish Megaliths, http://www.irishmegaliths.org.uk, retrieved 14 June 2014.

Whittaker, Jean, The Bulletin of the Mull Museum in Tobermory, 29 Spring 2014

Whymper, Edward, Scrambles amongst the Alps, 1871

Note : There will be mistakes here (especially since much of this has been written on Gometra without access to working broadband or a library).  Please email any corrections.  And please email or post photos, memoirs, place names, suggestions, objections, and oral or documentary sources relating to Gometra's history which you would like included.  I have written about what I know (and much of this will be of only limited interest to many) but what I don't know is more important.  Biographical details for anyone who has lived on Gometra is not only welcome, it is needed.  I have forgotten who told me some things - if this is you please remind me if you can so I can acknowledge you properly.  And if there is anything here you would rather wasn't, please do let me know that too.  Thank you!  Gometra.


Useful Links


Mull Museum

Mull Genealogy


Graveyard Inscriptions at Baileclaidh

Census from 1841 to 1861

Place Names of Gometra

Baileclaidh (sent by Gordon Andrews)

S S Brenda built 1904 by Scott & Sons, Bowling. Engines came from a yacht made in 1888 by J Fisher & Co Paisley. G.T. 115. Broken up 1929.  Copyright © 2008-2013 Jim Murray Executors & Scottish Tramway & Transport Society.

Charter by Donaldum de Ile dominum Insularum, my 18th great-grandfather, granting Godmadray to his son-in-law Lachlanno Makgilleone of Duart, given at Ardtornish, 12th July 1390.  Also granted are the offices of fragramannach and armannach of the neighbouring Isle of Iona.

Isles of the Blest, an engraving on boxwood by Lettice Mackintosh Sandford, 1928.

Gometra School with pupils Jane Anne MacFarlane and Flora MacDonald 1929 (sent by Chrissie McLellan).

Charlie MacDonald and a mechanic work on the first car on Gometra, a Bedford.  This may be Lady Torloisk's 'Rolls Royce' (sent by Morag MacDonald).

The Gometra boatmen, including Duncan MacFarlane, rowed visitors from the Paddle Steamer Grenadier to Staffa (sent by Morag MacDonald).

Harry Rosslyn by Bassano, 1890s, (c) NPG

Miss Jessie Black, born at Erray in 1902, daugther of Archie Black the manager of Erray, who was born at Oskamull.  She was Gometra school teacher from January 1928 until August 1929, and died in 1999 (sent by Chrissie McLellan).

Old Mrs MacFarlane, Jane Anne's grandmother, at Baileclaidh.  She was  a native of Skye, and her husband a native of Iona.  They came to Gometra after their marriage, when her husband became Gometra cattleman, helped at lambing, fished for lobsters, and also rowed people to Staffa from visiting boats standing offshore.  She was the mother of Jess MacFarlane, Jane Anne's mother, as well as of Jane Anne's uncles Duncan and Angus, and two other boys who drowned (sent by Duncan MacKinnon).

Mary Dunn, née St Clair Erskine, by Bassano Ltd in 1930 (c) NPG

Charlie MacDonald ploughing Acha Mor on the Fordson Major (sent by Morag MacDonald).

Duncan MacKinnon, who grew up with Jane Anne and went to Gometra school, but left for Australia though he stayed in touch with us.  (A photo given us by Duncan.)


Unity Valkyrie Mitford in the 1930s

Derek Jackson in 1935, by Bassano Ltd, (c) National Portrait Gallery

My mother's cousin Patience ('Boo') Henderson (née Brand) and her husband Captain Iain Henderson outside Gometra House, December 1950.  They took over Gometra from Patience's great-aunt Mary Torloisk.  (Mickey Brand).

Requiem (Sophie Baker)

My cousin Veronica Baring née Henderson in her parents' bedroom in Gometra House, 1950s, (sent to me by Morag MacDonald).

Gometra's islanders (Jenny Moore)

Ewe lambs travelling from Gometra to join a flock in Angus (Roc Sandford)

Jane Anne MacFarlane (left) and Flora MacDonald (right)

(Sent by Gordon Andrews, Flora's son)

The Gometra children go to overseas schools (Roc Sandford)

A Gometra get-together for Iain's birthday (Hardy Blechman)

All text and Images © Roc Sandford, Gometra, 2015 unless otherwise stated.  Please let us know of any corrections or suggestions.  To contact us click here.