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Our first 'Travellers Tale' is byJohn McMillan.
John taught mathematics in Gloucester School Hohne from 1967 to 1972. He was awarded the OBE for services to education in 1999 and retired last year as head of Invergordon Academy in Scotland. A keen yachtsman, he now spends his time cruising among the islands off the West coast of Scotland in his 28 foot yacht, Mistral, and travelling the world.


Where Time Stands Still

What is that attracts you to travel to a particular place? Prior to retirement most of my travelling was work-related, but now I enjoy indulging myself in going to places and doing the kind of things I never managed to do while I was tied down by professional and domestic responsibilities. It is great to have the time to do things now.

Time. That strange concept which so often constrains our actions - but it need not always be so. My favourite form of travel is sailing. I have sailed among the myriad of islands along Canada's entire Pacific Coast, among the islands of the Great Barrier Reef, along the coasts of both halves of New Zealand but the island which best conjures up images of timelessness is the island of Barra lying at the bottom of that long chain of islands off Scotland's west coast known as the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides.

I finally visited Barra a couple of years ago fulfilling a desire born 50 years ago when I first watched the film Whisky Galore, a classic of British comedy cinema which was made on the island in 1948. No film has enchanted me quite like it and I resolved then to visit the island one day. I also read the book by Compton MacKenzie upon the film was based. It was inspired by the grounding of a freighter, the SS Politician, one foggy night in 1941 on a rock in the Sound of Eriskay, just a few miles north of Barra.

Mackenzie, who lived on the island at the time, was inspired by the antics of the islanders who were inspired by the fact that, aboard the vessel bound for the USA, there were 264,000 bottles of whisky! Naturally, they were concerned about the safety of the cargo. The crew too of course, but once they were despatched back to Liverpool there was the serious work of removing as much of the whisky that Providence had brought to their door before the Atlantic storms swallowed it all up - and what a waste that would have been.

As always, there had to be some busybody who was ready to play the killjoy and the local HM Customs Officer stirred up all sorts of trouble and even had people put in jail for helping prevent the pollution of the sea with all that alcohol. However, he underestimated the ingenuity of the islanders who devised all sorts of ploys to remove the bottles and hide them from official eyes for many years afterwards.

It all made a good story and a fabulously funny film and at last I moored my yacht in Castlebay harbour and looked ashore at almost exactly the same scene I had viewed on screen half a century previously. The same church tower chimed out six o'clock in the same sonorous tone as it had done in
the film and I was transported back in time... Things only change slowly in the islands.

I had as my crew a young New Zealander, a backpacker who had jumped at the chance to see places few UK citizens have even seen and, after a long day's sailing, I had decided that we should go ashore and dine out to celebrate our arrival. For starters we had locally harvested cockles. Being a sea-food addict, the Kiwi asked if I knew where they were to be found and she would cook some next day. No problem. The following day, having hired a car to explore the island, we found ourselves in bare feet walking over the huge expanse of cockle strand which also happens to serve as Barra's airport.

This is something else about the island which is unique. It has the only airfield in the world which is submerged under the sea twice every day. Flight times are determined by the moon and have to be scheduled according to the times of the tide. There is no concrete runway or apron. Just
millions of tiny fragments of cockle shells, broken up by the sea, which form a surface as hard as concrete but at no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer. Isn't that wonderful? It is also the only airfield in the world
that has fed its neighbouring population for thousands of years as just under the surface of the rough sand lie millions of plump white cockles just waiting for someone to come along and eat them. Just scrape away an inch or two of the surface and there they are, mouthwatering delicacies which, after a
few minutes in boiling water, obligingly open themselves for you to feast upon. And that doesn't cost a penny either. That's the kind of place I like.

Having no tools we found scraping with our bare hands rather uncomfortable as the sand was sharp. Further out, I noticed four elderly gents working away with some sort of tool and decided to head out to see if they would lend it to us for a few minutes. The tool was simply a garden rake and Jamie, a native of the island, was very happy to have a break from his work to let us find our dinner. His companions were two Americans and an Englishman, none of whom was particularly keen to do the work though they
were particularly keen to enjoy the fruits of Jamie's labours. They were on holiday, staying with Jamie, so that let them off the hook. They had all worked for an academic publishing company in America and had recently retired. Having heard so many stories about the island from Jamie over the 37 years he had worked for the company, they were now there to find out the truth for themselves: "We reckoned that 50% of what he told us was the truth and 50% was bullshit, but we could never work out which was which." That
sums up the islanders pretty well. They are noted story tellers and would never allow themselves to be enslaved to the truth if it were likely to spoil a good yarn.

The three visitors were immediately charmed by my antipodean crew while Jamie and I yarned as I scratched for food. We got on so well that we were invited to join them for drinks that evening, an event which became one of the most memorable of my life. I laughed so much I burst open the stitches
from my recent hernia operation and we didn't get back aboard and into our bunks until 4am.

In the course of the evening I had asked Jamie about the SS Politician and the making of the film Whisky Galore. The Gaels have a way of telling stories, rarely maliciously but with some highly eloquent euphemisms. Yes, there were still some of the islanders alive who had been extras in the film. He showed me a white cottage by the shore a couple of hundred yards away. The old lady who lived there was one of the stars in the film. You never see her face but in a wedding scene when the traditional dancing was
done she was the stand-in for the female lead who could never master the intricate dance steeps. But you do see her legs, and what beautiful legs she had. He then went on to describe those legs in such detail I was gasping at the eroticism of his description. He knew them too well! And he was not alone. She was such a hospitable girl after all. She was blessed with such a warm caring personality that even the angel of the Lord must have appeared for comfort for it was reported that she had no fewer than four immaculate conceptions!

The director of the film had employed a local worthy, nicknamed The Coddy, to act as his chauffeur as he was the owner of the only car on the island. He was told to report to the hotel at 8am to take the director to the location for the day's shooting. But the Coddy had his cows to milk and his lobster pots to check, as he did every morning, and when he arrived over two hours late he was met with a tirade from a fuming director about punctuality and time wasting. The Coddy listened patiently and then murmured slowly,
"Time was here before you arrived, Mr McKendrick, and time will be here long after you have gone!" And that was how it stayed for the duration of the filming.

That's island life.

John McMillan.

August 2002