The plans were all in place and I was on my way to Barra. A friend was coming from Kendal to join me. We had rented a house for a week. Rather than come with me on the ferry, she wanted to fly so that she could land on the cockle beach. In theory, it was a good plan, but neither of us knew then that this was the season of equinoctial storms. Her plane took off, circled the beach, again and again, and went back to Glasgow. She never did arrive and I had a week alone on Barra.
The first day I dropped in to the local hotel to get a feel of the island. Two friendly local men at the bar struck up a conversation. They spoke about Barra, about island life, about their sheep and their wives, 'an angel' said one, and told me how, if you want to fit in here, you 'have to have something to offer, some skill, some talent.'
Throughout the rest of the week, perhaps because of the wet windy weather and being on my own, I was glad of the company of whoever I chanced to meet. I heard stories about ancestors, about where people were born, and if they had been to the mainland, what they had done there. 'Oban is the capital of Barra,' I was told. My holiday home had a small library of Barra books, including 'Tales from Barra: told by the Coddy,' so some of these names I heard were already familiar. Perfect reading for the week of wet, windy and changeable weather.
I was looking forward to 29 September, my last night. There was to be a community event in the early evening: Allan Murray was reading from his new book 'The Wreck of the Annie Jane.' Presenting with him was Calum Watt, SSPCA officer from the Outer Hebrides. The tourist season was now over in Barra and alongside the 20 or so locals I settled in for a good evening.
The Annie Jane had set sail from Liverpool to Quebec in 1853 with Scottish and Irish emigrants, and missionary workers from the French-Canadian Missionary Society. She got caught up in one of the seasonal equinoctial storms and top-heavy from her cargo of railway steel, rolled sickeningly in the heavy seas. Unable to round the top of the small island of Vatersay, she was forced ashore, breaking in three on the beautiful white shell beach on the west side of the saddle of Vatersay.
On the morning of 29 September, 165 years ago, the living and the dead were discovered along the shore. Some passengers and crew did survive, we were told, but about 350 did not. These were identified from the ship's manifest, however, since babies and young children were not listed, there may have been many more. What a journey. What a night.
With the morning light the locals came out to 'help'. Or rather, came out to 'help themselves.' 'The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,' and so did they fall upon this bounty from the sea, carrying away what possessions and cargo they could from the ship and her passengers. I had grown up with stories of help extended to 'those in peril on the sea,' and stories of the Stevensons, the famous family of lighthouse engineers. I now had to reevaluate my sentimental illusions about Scottish hospitality.
The local tacksman very grudgingly offered a roof and meagre food to some crew and some cabin-class passengers. It was a grim story from beginning to end that we were told about the ship, her crew and passengers. Although many of us have heard of The Politician, wrecked nearby with her cargo of whisky, who amongst us has heard of the Annie Jane, despite it being 'even today, one of the worst maritime disasters in British peacetime history'?
Eventually six men came over from Barra to bury the bodies. They dug two pits and the bodies were tipped in, '…buried in two holes packed like herrings in a barrel,' recorded the official report. It is not known if there were religious observances but certain formalities were observed: the captain's wife was tipped in first followed by cabin-class bodies.
Mr Watt told us that the sand dunes of Vatersay are now shifting and the two pits may soon be exposed. This natural occurrence is accelerated by an explosion in the rabbit population, whose burrowing is undermining the dunes. As a result, locals enjoying the beach (or even tourists) may soon be greeted by their dogs bounding back bearing femurs between their teeth. Or worse. No one knows the state of decomposition.
Following these powerful presentations, our questions quickly turned to practicalities. Rabbits and 'geophys'. What to do about the rabbits? Mr Watt is in an especial bind. When asked about gassing, he said the SSPCA cannot condone killing, not even rabbits, and not 'unless humanely.' When pressed, he said he was not sure if gassing rabbits would fall into the category of humane killing. 'Gassing has been done before,' someone helpfully volunteered 'but it was not completely successful.' Mr Watt wants to protect people from the distress of coming across human bones, especially on such a beautiful beach – a beach which is a favourite of the Queen.
What to do with the bodies? Who pays for the geophys to identify the exact location of the pits? Is geophys very expensive or not? Where are the pits anyway? Does anyone know? On the dunes by the monument or on the hill by the cairn? Is this a project that could attract lottery funding, or is it too grim? All these practicalities and more were discussed in the room.
When we uncover the past, or when the happenstance sands of time blow away, we have no way of knowing what will be revealed, how it will impact us, nor what responsibilities we may now have. Knowing what we do now, what if anything is to be done with this knowledge? We cannot go back to not knowing, even if we wanted to.
Is it now beholden on the islanders to dig up the bodies and rebury them? Bones, the bodies that people have discarded, can be many things: an object of veneration, an environmental or health issue, a problem, a responsibility, a solace, a focus, an expense, a profession, a community project, a lottery funding application... Whatever we do with the bodies will say something about us. But what?
That same morning I had gone to post my cards at the subpostoffice on Vatersay. Mrs C asked me in for a cup of tea. Her husband had been subpostmaster and she told me with a twinkle that now she has to carry on being subpostmistress since, 'they just won't let me retire.' She had been born on the fertile but now uninhabited island of Mingulay. She once had a great holiday on St Kilda with her husband. I asked her, 'Were any of Annie Jane's passengers local?' She quickly put me right, 'Local or not, they were all just people, just like the poor ones now being washed ashore on the Mediterranean.'
That afternoon I planned to explore a cleared blackhouse village – Buaile nam Bodach. I had a leaflet about it. I pulled over and stopped a woman walking on the road. 'Are you local,' I began, 'I am looking for the gate in the fence down to this village,' and I showed her my leaflet. 'Oh yes, that's my husband in the photo.' she said, 'He used to be a great friend of the archaeologist.' She pointed out the way. 'Be careful, it's wet and very slippy. Mind how you go.' I thanked her and set off, determined not to slip, knowing she was keeping a protective eye on me. The ruins were either side of a lovely green sward by a sheltered inlet. I thought of a place we called 'the uaine' on Kererra.
After filling me in on the people who had lived in the blackhouses before they went off to America never to be heard of again, Mrs M pointed out her house, Aros. She explained how it had been given to a forefather of her husband's when he was persuaded to came from Aros in Mull and be gardener at Eoligarry House, which had a walled garden. 'Now, that would be Robert MacLaughlan,' I was able to say, having read about this man the night before in 'Coddy's Tales from Barra.' Mrs M apologised for not asking me in for a cup of tea. I asked her if she would like to come with me to the book reading that evening. She would have come, I am sure, but she had 'the dancing to go to.' The Scottish country-dance was resuming that evening, now the tourists had left. Life was going back to normal.
In the evening I drove out to the cockle beach airport to piggyback their wifi. Walking towards me in the rain and carrying a rucksack was a man I recognised from the Annie Jane talk. He had joined in the discussions and from his accent I thought he might have been French, maybe connected with the missionaries. But no. I offered him a lift. He told me that he was self-employed, gathering cockles on the airport beach. Before that he had been a fisherman but that meant staying away from home sometimes for as long as a month and his wife didn't like that. She asked him to stop. He had been gathering cockles for two years now.
Until his bicycle was repaired, he was walking about 10 miles a day, to and from work, as tides dictated. He was from Romania and had eight children ages six to 17. They have a house on the island and the young ones go to the local school. His youngest was born in Barra, the one before that in Stornoway. I imagine the local schools were delighted with him and his family. He asked me in for a cup of tea and to meet his family but by now I had other things to do. Life continues and life continues to change, on Barra as elsewhere.
Early summer I had gone to Ardnamurchan – to Swordle Bay. Since 2006, archaeologists from Manchester and Leicester have been excavating neolithic and bronze age sites there. It chanced that they discovered an intact Viking boat burial site, so they excavated that too, although, as Professor Harris explained to me, being a Neolithic man himself, the Viking period was not really his main area of interest. Different lives, different deaths. This Viking was laid out in a boat with plenteous worldly goods around.
The body had decayed, leaving only two molars. They say that the cells in the soft bits of our body are replaced within seven years, a nicely mythical number, and our bones in 10. We can quibble over the rates and the numbers, but basically, the body we have now is not the body we had 10 years ago – apart from the central core of the lens of the eye and our teeth. Our teeth do not regenerate.
Do what we will, our teeth will still carry the imprint of what we ate and drank as they were forming. From these Viking molars, using isotope analysis, strontium, oxygen and lead isotopes, and strontium and lead concentrations were obtained from the enamel, and from the dentine, carbon and nitrogen isotope profiles were obtained.
By these marvellous means it was established what the man's diet (marine or terrestrial) had been between the ages of two and 15 years old, and the mineral qualities of the water he had drunk between the ages of two and six years old. In this way, they began to establish the geology of the area where he must have grown up. Mineral analysis eliminated some locations and identified others. He had grown up in an area with ancient Pre-Cambrian geology, and from the age of three began to have a marine diet.
A similar combination to the strontium and oxygen isotope had also been identified in a woman's tooth found on a nearby island. This means that she may well have grown up in the same area as the Swordle Bay Viking, possibly at the same time. They may even have come over together.
Independent of our knowledge or volition, the materiality of the past intrudes into the present, and on into the future. Nature's building blocks, the materiality of the body, have their own insistence. The combination of minerals in the water we drink as children imprint their unique identity in our teeth and start a new story, told by others, long after we are gone.
Archaeologists of the future may marvel at how many people in future have come from Highland Spring, Evian or, my personal favourite, San Pellegrino.