Monday, August 28, 2006

"Oh, the waves. The cruel, cruel waves."

"A small settlement of the Sutherland district of Highland Council Area,
Portskerra lies 1 mile (1½ km) northeast of Melvich,
overlooking Melvich Bay to the east."

The piper began a slow lament in the small hall in the tiny village of Melvich and toes began tapping to the rhythm of the pipes as if acknowledging the collective heartbeat of the community. We are crammed into the hall, hastily added chairs and rearranged tables, the faint aroma of wet wool combining with the fragrance from the lilies at the front of the hall. We have come together for a rededication of a memorial to those who did not come back from the sea on the 200th anniversary of the first of three notable tragedies in Portskerra.

The rain has forced us indoors rather than on the harbour of Portskerra where the memorial joins what Alistair Frazier descibed as "the fusion of rock, sea and sand so pleasing to the eye." Everyone in the room has seen it, both the memorial and the fusion pleasing to the eye. Alistair reminded us all that we were there to remember three dark days when 26 men perished "within sight of their homes." He grew up hearing the stories. His grandfather had been one of those men, in 1918, who did not come home. His grandmother, on hearing the news that she had lost a husband, a son, and a brother in law, cried out in Gaelic, "Oh the waves. The cruel, cruel waves."

"Memory is practice", according to Milan Kundera, and so the names of the men lost in 1918 are slowly and clearly read out by the resident minister of the Thurso fishermen's mission. The men from 1806 and 1893 are mentioned by their ships. There is no one left to recall their names or their stories, so we spread our mantle of caring over their nameless tragedies by singing, "Will your anchor hold in the storms of life," whose imagery had seemed too contrived to me when I lived in landlocked Indiana. In my short time here I have watched a small ship pitch and toss in the gale and large ferries stay in harbor when the Pentland Firth raged.

And every week the news reports fishermen or boats lost. Sometimes they come back again; sometimes they don't. The lifeboat is manned by volunteers who put themselves at risk to rescue ships in distress. Sometimes they come back; sometimes they don't. In 1918, the entire village put their ships out into the harbor because the day was clear and the water was calm. Seven ships went out, and only three eventually came back.

The women of the Melvich Gaelic choir sang a lullaby, a song about waiting for the return of the fishermen. The whole choir sang a lament for Hugh Mckay, the heir of Bighouse Lodge. In a small community, losing a boat can mean the loss of an entire generation, which makes it all the more important to remember them.

As we climb into the car to leave, we consider driving down to the memorial, but my brother in law suggests a better time to come would be either when the sea is quiet or when it is seething. We all wordlessly agree and head for home.

Here's the link for the Scottish gazette whose description I used at the top of this post:


At 1:48 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

evocative, haunting descriptions. I'm glad to find you.

At 6:05 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

you started me off on a tangent that led to my next post, so I linked back to you.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Thanks for stopping by. It is a pleasure to welcome you to this virtual world. I'll need to see your new post now.
I live in a world that is by its very nature evocative. I just try my best to capture some of the images around me.


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