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The uninhabited tidal island of Soay lies to the south of the township of Ruaig on Tiree. This double-pronged, fork-shaped islet marks the border of Skipinnish Bay and the much larger sweeping expanse of Gott Bay, where the CalMac ferry berths.
Last Sunday, I took my 15-year-old nephew for a walk over the tidal narrows of Caolas Shòdhaigh to show him the sights of this childhood haunt of mine.
Apart from being famed for the existence of fairies among its many hillocks, knolls and gullies, Soay has a rich human history. I am glad that no fairies were around to interrupt our walk and, although the weather was showery and cold, we had a very enjoyable look back into the mists of time. As well as the encompassing nostalgia from my own past, there were two strands of history that were highlights of our walk.
The first was visiting the site of an Iron Age fort near the point of the island’s southern fork. Dùn Odrum, as it is called, is one of around 20 such fortresses that are scattered round the coastal edges of Tiree. Unlike many of the others, there is no visible evidence of this fort’s existence, but the high rock on which it once stood can be easily identified.
Standing atop this ancient station of surveillance and security gives one an idea of the extent to which violent invasion must have been a constant source of worry in these early centuries AD. Looking to the north-east, the positions of Dùn Sgibinnis and Dùn Mòr a’ Chaolais can be clearly seen and, to the south-west, Dùn Ghott and Dùn Heanais.
I am very glad that the only sudden invasions experienced on Tiree nowadays are when a few thousand happy Tiree Music Festival revellers arrive every July.
From Odrum round to the opposite side of Loch Shòdhaidh, we then walked to view the remains of a more recent man-made structure of historical significance.
The Port Falach (the hidden cove) on the northern side of the sea loch has an interesting background that is tied very closely to the changing policy of taxation on alcohol.
In the 18th century, the government began taxing whisky and what had been a strong cottage industry on Tiree became illegal. As the authorities began to clamp down on illegal whisky production and shipping, innovative means were developed to evade the Customs and Excise.
The Port Falach became an important asset for smugglers as a ship harboured there with its masts down could not be seen from Tiree or from Customs cutters out at sea. Whisky would be loaded there and shipped mainly to the Clyde for illegal sale.
The remains of a substantial pier can still be seen clearly at low tide and the size of the structure reflects the importance it must have had to this outlawed industry.
As the holds of boats were filled in the dead of night with illicit cargo, this now derelict cove must have been the location for some intense excitement, suspense and relief, all of which could be felt strongly as we stood in this hidden harbour.