From Lough Neagh to the Outer Hebrides
By Mick’s John’s Mickey Quinn of New Jersey and Clunto-quin (1927-2012)
In 1957 I left the loughshore and spent nearly a year working in the Outer Hebrides. I worked on North Uist. North Uist is off the north-western coast of Scotland and it is even more westerly than the Isle of Skye which everyone has heard of.
I worked on the construction of a rocket range and guided missile base, which was being built at a cost of £25 million. The base was actually on South Uist, but the work I was doing was not on the base itself. I returned home when most of the work was suspended, after the first Russian satellite was launched.
I had the grand title of foreman of trades and my wages each week varied between £25 and £38. I was a single man and there were weeks when as much as £13 was deducted from my wages for income tax.
I enjoyed my time in the Outer Hebrides. It was very windy there, though. The islands are sitting out in the Atlantic and they were often swept by gale-force winds, rising up to 60 and 70 miles per hour.
The people of the Hebrides spoke Scottish Gaelic most of the time. It’s similar to the Irish language and I was able to follow a lot of what they were talking about. I got on well with the people of the islands.
There were around 2,000 people on the island I worked on, North Uist. But there were no towns or even villages as such. Shops were scattered here and there through the countryside, which was very barren and windswept compared to the countryside here, around Lough Neagh. Because of the bleak climate you would hardly have seen a flower and there were practically no trees.
The industry on the island at which most of the families worked, was making woollen garments from the wool of the sheep. There were a lot of sheep on the island. There were no mills and all the work was carried on in the houses. Most of it was done by the women, just as the spinning and weaving of linen was carried on by our grandmothers in their own houses in the last century here in Tyrone.
Another industry that they worked at was seaweed or kelp as they called it. They collected it from the seashores and they had a small factory for processing it. I don’t know the exact details of how the seaweed was processed for I was never inside the factory, but I know that it helped in the manufacture of items like cosmetics, jellies, nylon, and plastic.
Plenty of men work at seal fishing. The seals are used for their skins and their meat. The meat is used for making meal for cattle.
When I landed on North Uist at the start I discovered that I was the only Catholic on the island. There were four churches on the island, and I went round them all but I found out that they were all Protestant. The nearest Catholic church was on Benbecula Island, which lies between North Uist and South Uist. It was four miles from where I lived to the church, and I had to make the crossing in a boat. What I done was to leave on a Saturday evening and come back on Sunday evening. My employers, the Air Ministry, paid my fare. When I was on Benbecula I took the opportunity of going to the pictures for there was no picture house on North Uist. So I went every weekend to Benbecula for Mass and I also went to the pictures as well. The only time I saw a picture was when I went to church!
There were four pubs on North Uist and there were also frequent house parties. And sometimes they organised dances – Scottish dances – but not too often because there was no band on the island and it would have cost more than £40 to bring a band over from the mainland. The islanders were great believers in their own native traditions and they did not take any part in English dancing.
The people knew that the rocket range would provide more employment, but they were afraid too that if people came from other countries and settled on the islands, it would perhaps be the cause of their Gaelic culture dying out. They had a far stronger attachment to their culture than we have, here in Ireland. The building of the rocket range was going to change their culture from something which it had been for hundreds of years, and it was going to perhaps result in their island being away out in front of other places in terms of the changes that would happen. But the islanders didn’t appear to be ready for such a drastic change and a lot of them were very discontented.
There was only the one doctor on the island and all emergency cases had to be flown to the mainland. There was no airfield but there was a sandy beach – five miles long – and it was used for an airstrip. The only drawback was that the planes had to wait until the tide was out before they could land.
There was no dentist on the island and anybody with the toothache had to be flown to the mainland as well. It was a costly business getting a tooth out, for the trip cost £7.
Religion was never discussed on the islands. Not to my knowledge anyway. No church could exist without the support of other congregations. For example, the church on Benbecula which I went to, if it held a bazaar then the Protestants supported that bazaar, and when the Protestant churches held functions they in turn were supported by Catholics from Benbecula and South Uist.
It was much the same thing with farming, indeed there was much more combination than we are used to in Ireland. As well as helping one another they would also have formed syndicates to buy farm machinery.
And just the way it was at home, around the loughshore at that time, they had no electricity and most of the homes were lit by oil lamps.
The time I was there the Ministry of Works was engaged in unearthing ancient earthenware vessels and ornaments made of bone – things like that. They were excavating ancient wheel houses which are supposed to have been the homes of Vikings, who were raiding, and who had used those houses for shelter. These houses were buried three or four feet below ground level. This shows how much change there has been on the islands in little over a thousand years. The houses were called wheel houses simply because they were circular.
As I said, I quit the Hebrides when the work was suspended and I came back to Moortown. But I couldn’t settle. I got an offer of work in Cork with an American firm which was building a big oil refinery. But it wasn’t long till I was on my way to the United States and I’ve been there now for more than fifty years.