Lazy Beaver and I leave Mallaig and two hours later we round the Point of Sleat and there before us, difficult to see against its back drop, Soay, lying low in the water. It's backdrop is something to behold. Rising shear out of the water are the Cuillin Hills. Straight up for 3037 feet to Spurr nan Eag, then 3257 feet to Sgurr Alisdair, the morning sun glinting on their damp rocks. With my glasses I scan the ridge. No sign of life. It's a little early for climbers I feel.
But we are out and about, Lazy Beaver and I, sailing across the great bite that is the entrance to Lochs Eishort and Slapin, past Prince Charlie's Cave, below the village of Elgol in Strathaird and across Loch Scavaig and into Soay Sound. The Sound, a mile wide strip of water, where on its north shore, the Cuillins drop a shear 3000 feet to meet the sea, and on its south shore, little Soay rising 464 feet. It's almost as if Soay is a small boulder, fallen into the water from the great peaks above.
I check my watch, drop the sails and start to motor slowly towards the entrance to the north harbour. I pick up the leading marks painted on the rocks and in we go. I anchor in the middle of the little harbour and cut the engine - there's not a sound, not even a gull's cry.
How can I begin to explain this place.....It is so small that I can lob a stone from the deck to the seaweed covered rocks of the shore. On three sides I'm surrounded by oak, alder and birch woods, and on the fourth, is the most remarkable sight you'll see on any Scottish Island. The rusting remains of a steam railway locomotive stand alongside a derelict building. What is this place I hear you ask - well, I will do my best to tell you.
The rusting remains of the steam railway locomotive.
London 1942 - Gavin Maxwell, then a Major in the army, was looking at a map of the Hebrides and drew a ring around a little island called Soay. On leave in 1943, he paid a visit to this little island and was ensnared by her beauty. Her parent, Lady Flora MacLeod of MacLeod was contacted and a deal was struck. Gavin and Soay were partners for life, or so he hoped. In 1944 Gavin bought a lobster boat to visit his new mistress, and with a local friend called 'Foxy' found himself among a shoal of Basking Sharks. Gavin immediately had an idea. Fishing, catching Basking Sharks. On leaving the army in 1945, he returned to his mistress and a Harpoon at a Venture began.
He bought boats, the 'Gannet', 'Dove' and 'Sea Leopard', all with tales to tell. To catch his sharks, a great gun called 'Sugan'. Researching his markets he found that all parts of the great fish would sell. Its enormous liver for oil, its cartilage for making glue, and its flesh, minced, for fertilizer. He then built his factory on the east shore of the north anchorage at Soay......It's remains are before me now.
To render down the livers he needed steam, and so a steam railway engine was brought by rail, from the south of England to Mallaig, and shipped across to Soay by boat and mounted on a concrete plinth, just back from the waters edge. To grind the flesh, a steam-operated mincer was brought ashore, and underground concrete tanks were constructed to contain its wheezy labours.
At first all went well, the price of liver oil being fifty pounds a ton, and each liver weighed anything up to eighteen and a half hundredweights. In 1946 the price rose to eighty pounds a ton and in 1947 to one hundred and ten pounds a ton.
In 1947 at the peak of the boom, Gavin decided to raise more capital and formed his enterprise into a Limited Company with shareholders, calling it, The Island of Soay Shark Fisheries Ltd. More boats and equipment were bought, but as is so often the case when success is just around the corner, things did no go as planned and by the end of 1948, the writing was on the wall. In 1949 the Harpoon at a Venture was ended.
Gavin eventually had to let his mistress Soay go, but today his endeavors still stand before me, as a monument to love and enterprise.
This is the story in a very little nutshell, but the whole story is told in Gavin Maxwell's excellent book, 'Harpoon at a Venture' - you must read it, go on.....
Well after all that I think I will go ashore, but first I must blow up the dingy. I begin my walk between birch and alder, along the little stoney path which crosses to the Island's south side. Here a few houses look out across Camus na Gall, Soay's east anchorage, and onto the Islands of Rhum and Canna. Peat smoke is curling from their chimneys and lying neatly all about are coloured floats, corks and rope. Between low fence posts, nets are strung to dry. It appears that this is still a place of industry and, as if to prove it, there on the hill top behind me is the little solar-powered telephone box, a connection with civilization - whatever that may be!
Houses at CAMUS na GALL. Gavin Maxwell's old house is in the foreground, right.
I walk down to the waters edge, over smooth clean pebbles and gaze out over the blue, and further out, dark green sea. Gulls wheel overhead and Gannets put on a private showing of their latest diving skills. No wonder Gavin Maxwell called this place 'My Island Valley of Avalon'
I return by the little rocky path between the trees, beating away the midges as I go. Down a steep and slippery slope, stained dark brown with peaty water; past an old boat, its rusty engine silent, but its rotting timbers determined to stand erect. Soon I'm back where I began, looking at the glassy calm waters of the north anchorage, and two Lazy Beavers, one upright and one inverted.
I take the dingy, and row a few yards to an old concrete slip, scrambling ashore where once the slimy black carcasses of Sharks were laid. Beside me is the railway engine, this generator of steam, its funnel and whistle still shining in the sun, its boiler now a home for birds, and rusting in the grass, the giant mincer, as though designed by Emmit.
Above me a heather covered slope, which in 1948 was covered with shark cartilage's picked clean by gulls, and above the heather, on the hill top, a little reed edged Lochan full of amber nectar.
On leaving Soay Maxwell wrote:
'I remember it on those glorious summer days when a smooth blue sea lapped the red rock of the island shore and the cuckoos called continuously from the birch-woods; or on bright winter mornings when the Cuillins were snow-covered, hard, intricate and brittle as carved ivory; I remember it with nostalgia for something beautiful and lost, the Island Valley of Avalon'.
I return to Lazy Beaver, determined to tear myself away from this magic place.......
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