Angus MacPhail on seafaring men of the world

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We live on a shrinking planet and are increasingly connected constantly to the ways of life, politics, opinions, customs, crimes and what is being eaten for breakfast in any corner of the globe that can access the internet.

This sudden disappearance of geographical barriers is one of the biggest cultural changes the world has ever seen.

However, for far longer than Facebook has been dominating our days, the west coast of Scotland – and particularly the Islands of the Hebrides – have been in close and continual contact with countries across the world.

This was, of course, not via mass media communications but through the thousands of seamen who left their island homes to travel the oceans aboard the ships of the Merchant Navy.

This meant that, while the Scottish islands were geographically isolated, they were in many ways better connected to the wider world than most urban centres. The sheer numbers of men travelling the globe relative to the total populations of their islands was huge.

A friend of mine from Barra told me that when his father left school in the late 1950s, of 43 boys in his class, 40 went to sea. This was typical throughout the Hebrides at the time and the outward-looking and non-parochial attitude of the people in these parts is largely down to this.

My father spent 15 years at sea, and the stories he used to tell relating to this time and his worldly-wise attitude that resulted from it had a lasting effect on me.

The below lyrics are from a MacPhail/Robertson song that was inspired by these stories and these seafaring men of the world.

Ocean of the Free

The sailors of the Hebrides, they rule the ocean breeze

Their anchor weighed, they work their trade upon the seven seas.

Captains, boatswains, engineers, their skill and craft they ply –

The merchant navy island men are seamen till they die.


From the harbours of Vancouver to San Francisco Bay,

Down the western coast of Chile, round Cape Horn they sail away;

Across the South Atlantic, through violent wave and squall

Up the coast of Madagascar to the dark Bay of Bengal.


Heave away, heave away, on the ocean of the free

The island men set sail again, the heroes of the sea.


Three times round the world before turning twenty-one,

Loneliness and hardship lived, but comradeship and fun,

Tales of pilfered cargo and wild times when ashore

From the moonshine of Alaska to the lights of Singapore.


I recall the great excitement as the stories would unfurl

Other places, other races and a wide view of the world.

These men who tramp the waves bring education to us all,

A richness of perspective and an outlook never small.


From Rio de Janeiro to the Gulf of Mexico,

Past the warm coast of Cuba to the frozen north they’ll go;

By the Faroe Islands, the Northern Lights will dance

Through the icy Arctic waters to the shelter of Murmansk.


On the reefers and the tankers and the great container ships –

You’ll always find a sailor with Gaelic on his lips.

The coasters and the ferries, the supply boats and the tugs

The finest seamen of them all – the sea is in their blood.