William and Rose
For my dear Dad (Hula-Lula to me) 1921 – 2010 who loved, laughed and lost on Colonsay.
Also in memory of nine of the crew of a Sunderland Flying Boat, who on January 24, 1943, were killed in an explosion after returning to their crashed plane on the neighbouring island of Islay to save their trapped comrade. It was an event that deeply affected my Dad when it happened during his time on Colonsay. (more information towards the back of this book)
Colonsay is so remote and ruggedly beautiful and had such a profound effect on me that I felt as if I had left a little part of myself there. It is a place where I felt so close to my Dad, at times it was almost physically painful. It made me both happy and achingly sad.
I imagine this too was how my Dad felt as he enjoyed the good times with his RAF mates and fell in and out of love.
William and Rose
There it was again, the unmistakable grey outline of land emerging from the wispy cover of cloud. My sister, Charlie, and I watched silently as Colonsay slid into view. My tummy churned with excitement and emotion and I turned away to compose myself as my vision blurred with tears.
This trip was the result of a year’s hard planning and cajoling our 83-year-old father William to accompany us on the 600 mile trip back to where he spent much of his time in the RAF during World War II.
He had been based on the tiny island of Colonsay for two years working as a wireless operator, guiding the flying boats back to Scottish soil. He had often talked fondly of his time there but had never wanted to return, which my sister and I found puzzling and, as time passed, fed our curiosity further.
Over time we cultivated a growing interest both in the island and his time there, like a seed that which had taken root. We vowed one day to make the long journey there like friends who promise to meet up but never follow-through and make it happen.
But after the sudden death of our Mum, Wyn, whom Dad had divorced from many years previously, we decided to use some our inheritance to treat Dad to a return trip. It would be fun and we’d finally get to see the place that he had talked about so fondly, but had never returned to. He blamed the inaccessibility of the island for not making it back until now.
So, after child and adulthoods spent dreaming and wondering, here it finally was.
Quaint whitewashed houses dotted along the shoreline like a toy town, were coming closer by the minute. As the ferry approached the jetty and our families struggled with not only luggage but all the food my sister had insisted we buy, a lone piper played at the pier, creating a heart-achingly moving welcome.
I offered Dad an arm as we stepped off the metal ramp but he silently declined and I could see the emotion in his face as he strained to look into the distance at a large white building on a hill. I looked away as I realised the last time he’d been here he was a young man; it was nearly 60 years ago.
Landing on Colonsay and swelling the population of 100 was like stepping back in time. Sheep wandered freely across the single ribbon of tarmac that encircled the island. Cars sped or juddered around it depending on whether the owner was a middle-class holidaying Londoner or an islander eeking out a living on this beautiful, yet unforgiving slice of remoteness.
There were no street lights, a solitary shop stood near the jetty like a sentry standing guard – looking after the well-being of the island’s inhabitants and ensuring that they did not go hungry or mad through lack of food, alcohol or chocolate.
A single out-of-order petrol pump winked at the island’s shop teasingly from across the road, as the intermittent sun pushed through the grey skies, catching its rays on the glass dials.
Even though the sky darkened threateningly above us as we marched up the hill towards our cottage like a raggedy trail of ants, nothing could diminish the magic of that moment. Even Dad upped his game and quickened his pace.
We snaked up the road towards our refuge as the sun lost the fight and the rain triumphed and came down in earnest. As we rounded a bend, suitcase wheels droning and rattling on the stony tarmac we saw our home for the next week.
The Shepherd’s House was a large, white solid farmhouse, which looked as if it had risen out of the hill like some miraculous freak of nature – it’s whiteness contrasting sharply with the vivid green of the rich mossy mound it sat on.
After kicking the rain-swollen door open, we took in the faded décor and huge fireplaces. The smell of damp, holiday home filled our nostrils and Charlie wrinkled her nose in distain as we gathered our coats round us against the cold air.
“You think they would have heated it” she moaned, “After all not as if they didn’t know we were coming – what a nerve.”
I nodded in agreement but didn’t want to talk practicalities and break the spell that had come over me the moment I stepped off the ferry.
We all shuffled in, dumping bags and cases on the old, worn carpet and wet coats on the back of mismatched dining chairs.
Fortunately, her disappointment at the lack of hospitality was muted by the sheer, staggering beauty of the surroundings, visible through each of the room’s aging sash windows – each giving you the impression that they had been precisely placed there as perfect picture windows until you realised it was harder to get a bad view than a good one.
Over the coming week, we all had our own private moments at the windows, you could immerse yourself in the jaw-dropping beauty of the neighbouring island of Jura, which most of the week was tinged with a romantic lilac haze as if it was a top-class piece of theatre backdrop.
There were also moments when we thought we could see wild seals and when one of us would announce the next lot of wild weather as it emerged on the horizon.
Each time I stepped outside the large cottage, I could picture Dad speeding around on a borrowed bike or just imagine his RAF cap bobbing up and down. All 5ft 4in of him drawn up to his full height – propelled by his distinctive jaunty gait which had slowed to a shuffle after a mini-stroke.
I was walking the same road as my younger Dad to the one shop with its tiny post office counter and further round the bend, past the ferry and up the hill to the large, whitewashed hotel.
I breathed in the sweet, clean air wishing I could inhale the heady beauty of the views all around deeply inside me, so that I could store and get a fix of their dramatic beauty back home when the monotony of everyday life got too much.
As coal was expensive, we quickly started gathering wood for the two open fires – something that became a daily ritual and which added a comforting rhythm to daily life on Colonsay.
It was also essential as the house was cold and damp, despite its appealing external appearance. With storage and electric heaters turned up high and fires on the go constantly, the musty house began to crack, creak and limber up, releasing its chilly grip and even the cold beds soon felt warm and beckoning.
One of the highlights of the day was the five minute walk to the tiny village shop – run by a man in his thirties and his young, pregnant wife. You couldn’t help but wonder about giving birth on an island this tiny. Although it had a doctor, if the birth turned out to be complicated, it would result in a flight to Oban or further afield, not a welcome thought while in the throes of labour.
The shop was a strange mish-mash of offerings from expensive cheddar from Mull and Colonsay-brewed beer to chocolate and fish fingers. To cater for the influx of well-to-do holidaymakers from the mainland and further afield, it was well stocked with luxury goods and wines, which sat awkwardly in the same small establishment as mops and matches, fishing lines and economy bleach.
The next day the grey skies hung threateningly, so we decided to try Colonsay’s limited choice of eateries to set us up for the day. We opted for a snack at the café. It was sat next to the old post office – pretty with a traditional whitewash and amazing backdrop of both a large hill on one side and the quiet harbour on the other.
Inside it was basic but comfortable. Local honey vied for space with home- knitted hot water bottle covers, local Highland soap and dog-eared postcards.
There us more to come…